One Matchless Time: A Life of William Faulkner - Jay Parini (2005)

Chapter 7. The Writer as Patriarch

Making Ends Meet

I can use money right now to beat hell.

—Faulkner to Morton Goldman, 1935

The need for money continued to drive Faulkner as 1935 arrived. There seemed to be an endless pile of unpaid bills on the desk in his study. Even more troubling, he and Estelle had the opportunity to buy more land around Rowan Oak, and nothing was dearer to Faulkner’s heart than his own land. “It was not just land,” said his brother, Johncy. “It was a sense of himself, extended into the land.” The tract was Bailey’s Woods, which he had known intimately as a boy; he wanted it for sentimental reasons and to protect himself from the recent trend in Oxford toward development. The more land there was around him, the safer he would feel, the more ample would be his sense of self. But he needed hard cash for this purchase, at least five hundred dollars for the land, and more for the pile of unpaid bills that formed a small but threatening tower on his desk.

The usual (but difficult, unpredictable) way for him to rustle up cash was to write stories for slick magazines, and Faulkner dug deep for those, writing several in quick succession with an eye on the Saturday Evening Post and such outlets. A couple of them found a home, but the money was never as good as he thought it should be, and whatever came in went out almost the same day, evaporating like mist in the hot sun of his financial needs. “Damn disappointing,” he told Goldman, his agent, knowing he would soon have to return to Hollywood for another round of scriptwriting. “The trouble about the movies,” he explained to Goldman, “is not so much the time I waste there but the time it takes me to recover and settle down again; I’m 37 now and of course not as supple and impervious as I once was.”1

He had, beginning in October and throughout the following year, taken stabs at Absalom, Absalom! The basic idea for the book remained constant: traumatic events from the last century would be recovered, retold, and confronted in the early part of the twentieth century by Quentin Compson. This character continued to fascinate Faulkner and would largely be the narrator used to recover the tale, to retell (and revise) it. The main story would focus on the dynasty-building figure of Thomas Sutpen, a further refraction of the Old Colonel. Faulkner made several false starts, trying to find the right angle of vision, exploring different narrative lines and frames. By the end of the summer, he had accumulated four substantial chapters. During this period, he also spent a good deal of time not writing: hunting and fishing, flying and drinking. In late April, he cosponsored another air show in Oxford with Dean and Vernon Omlie, taking local acquaintances for flights himself. He was still hoping to avoid another trip to Hollywood, but he could see the writing on the wall. It was only a question of when he would go, not if.

Sadly, the publication of Pylon in March did nothing for Faulkner’s finances or his reputation. The reviews were occasionally respectful—Laurence Stallings, Faulkner’s friend in Hollywood, wrote one such piece in the American Mercury. More objective reviews, such as one by the fine Irish short story writer, Sean O’Faolain, in the Spectator, summarized the general opinion of this book: “Faulkner is one of the finest American writers of today, but he has not yet learned, and may never learn, that brutality is not strength, nor facetiousness wit, and that, if America holds nothing sacred, art still does.”2 T. S. Matthews, an editor at Time, went so far as to write a very shrewd parody of the novel that opened like this:

“Baby wants a new pair of shoes.”

     “Shoes?” the clerk said. “The pair in the window?”

     “Yair,” Maggie said. “How much?” But the clerk did not move. He leaned back on the counter, looking down at the infant figure, the hard, tough, button-nosed, dish-face, wall-eyed, cauliflower-eared and in which the hot green eyes seemed to whirl and sputter like a snake’s do approaching for the first time the molting season; at the dirty swaggering diaper, held precariously in place by one huge rusty horseblanket pin, the short, thick, musclebound body streaked with dirt, oil and sweat.

     “Oh, yair?” he said, staring.


Any hopes Faulkner had for ending his financial worries faded as summer approached, as Pylon had already sunk from view in most bookshops. The crisis deepened in mid-August, when unpaid insurance and tax bills gathered on his desk. The possibility of bankruptcy loomed, and this could mean losing Rowan Oak—the author’s only tangible asset, which he loved dearly. He had recently sold his airplane to Dean at well below market value, but that cash had barely dented his mountain of debt. In October, in desperation, he made a dash for New York City, hoping to sell the manuscripts of his earlier novels to a library or collector. He also hoped to interest an editor in serializing what he had in hand of Absalom, even though the prospects for finishing the book at this point seemed rather dim; this novel simply had not unfolded with the ease of many earlier projects, even though he continued to believe firmly in its ultimate value.

Nothing came of the New York trip except that Hal Smith agreed to loan Faulkner enough money to get over his immediate financial hump. He could now pay off the worst of his creditors and buy winter clothing for Estelle and the children. In return for this loan, he agreed to spend two months in Hollywood, where he could easily make enough to pay back the loan. He wrote to his wife from New York warning her that they could not afford the slightest extravagance, that their goal was simply to avoid bankruptcy and return to financial stability. By mid-October, he was back in Oxford, at his desk, trying to add to his novel before the next round of scriptwriting. Absalomhad captured his soul, and he could not let it be. For several weeks he wrote with the kind of intensity that had made it possible to write Pylon in a short space, and it seemed briefly that he might push through to the end.

There was a strange turn of events when, unexpectedly, his old friend Phil Stone—who had seemed unstable to all around him—ran off to New Orleans to marry Emily Whitehurst, a much younger woman. Stone was forty-two at the time, supposedly a confirmed bachelor. The news stunned and amused Faulkner, who wished Stone no ill, even though it annoyed him that Stone “kept wanting credit for Pappy’s success,” as Faulkner’s daughter recalls. “It was peculiar, the way he needed this kind of attention. He was mentally unwell. Anyone could see this.”4

A life-changing, horrific event occurred on November 10, 1935, when his brother Dean crashed the plane he had bought from his brother, leaving behind his young wife, Louise, whom he had married only a year before. He died at a local air show, his plane coming down in a field near Thaxton, ten miles or so from Pontotoc.

Faulkner heard about the crash soon after it occurred and sped off in his car, with Miss Maud and Louise, to the scene of the accident. The plane was still smoking in the field, but Dean and his three passengers—young farmers he’d taken up so they could see their farms from the air—had been pulled from the wreck, their mangled bodies taken to a funeral home. Faulkner sent his mother and sister-in-law home, then went to the funeral home, where he himself supervised the reconstruction of his brother’s body, hoping to make him presentable enough for his mother to take a last look at her son before the burial.

In a sense, Faulkner entered adulthood fully at this moment, facing death for the first time in a visceral way, recognizing his own role with the family. He seems to have begun to see himself differently now, as someone who reluctantly must assume control over the lives of many people. His own childish fantasies of flight, irresponsibility, and the romance of barnstorming had led, almost perversely, to the death of a beloved younger sibling. He believed that the crash was, somehow, his responsibility; he stepped forward and accepted a new role. Even as a writer, he seems to have leaped forward now, letting his imagination plunge more deeply than ever before into the family drama of Absalom, Absalom!, another masterpiece, and one in which the Faulknerian language reaches its baroque apogee, a kind of strange magniloquence, almost a metalanguage or counterspirit, running parallel to the known world of signifying but also beyond it, a distant harmonic. Dean’s crash pulled Faulkner inexorably into this whorling vortex, where he was able to spell it out, his grief and anxiety, his deep sense of family as doomed history, of time as something brooding and impossible but beautiful as well, as in Wallace Stevens’s line: “Death is the mother of beauty.”

Assuming control of the situation, Faulkner moved into his mother’s house to be with her and Louise for a short period after the funeral. (Louise was pregnant with a daughter, Dean, who would not be born until March. Faulkner quickly became a surrogate father for her, assuming financial responsibility for her education and eventually hosting her wedding at Rowan Oak.) Jack Falkner had rushed home from Asheville, North Carolina, to attend the funeral. It was, in all, a horrendous affair, with everyone taking the death hard. Faulkner was badly shaken, as noted, having encouraged Dean in his flying career and even sold him the old plane that had failed so miserably. He got through this dark period, barely, by keeping his eye on the details: arranging for the funeral and gravestone, taking care of financial matters for Louise. He would normally have drowned himself in alcohol, but his mother hated drinking and out of respect for her he refrained. There was also a voice calling in his head. With a singleminded ferocity, almost a vengeance of application, he reentered the world of Absalom, working late at night by candlelight at the dining room table while Maud and Louise slept, or failed to sleep, in their rooms.

He focused on his story as if his life depended on it, pushing his grief to one side. By December 4, he was able to claim in a note to Morty Goldman that the novel was “pretty good” and, more surprisingly, “another month will see it done.” He felt it somehow essential that he get this book off his back before heading west again in search of funds.

The leisure to finish the book, however, did not exist, Hal Smith had arranged with Howard Hawks for Faulkner to begin work in Hollywood as soon as he cleared up Dean’s affairs. He would work with Joel Sayre on a script called Wooden Crosses (the film would ultimately be released as The Road to Glory). In mid-December, Faulkner flew to Los Angeles from Memphis and checked into a small hotel in Beverly Hills, not far from the bars along Hollywood Boulevard. He established a routine of rising very early—five o’clock—in order to work on Absalom for three or four hours before heading off to work with the burly and affable Sayre on their script.

Faulkner had, of course, amazing stamina, and Sayre was quite astonished by the speed and consistency with which he worked. A rough draft of the script, which included dialogue and continuity as well as stage directions, was actually ready for review by Hawks at the end of December. The manuscript of Absalom, Absalom! was brought to near completion not long afterward, in early January. Faulkner had only some loose ends to tie and the major task of typing the handwritten draft—which always led to many revisions. As usual after finishing a massive load of work, the exhausted author submerged himself in alcohol, going on a binge that left him desperately ill. (He was also, of course, still grieving for his brother, and finally able to release some of the tension that had built in the seven weeks since Dean’s death.) Hawks, as usual his protector, rushed in to save him, arranging for Faulkner to remain on the payroll while the script was being reviewed by Nunnally Johnson, a well-respected scriptwriter who would eventually write much of the final version of the script that was ultimately shot by Twentieth Century-Fox, which now employed Hawks.

When Faulkner got back to Oxford at the end of January, he set to work to finish the manuscript, but his drinking got in the way again. He could not get this habit under control, and Estelle was forced to drive him to a small, private sanitarium in Byhalia, about an hour and a half to the north: a destination that would become all too familiar, as Faulkner periodically required a drying-out period. In that restful setting, he spent a week under a doctor’s watchful attendance, eating little and drinking mostly water; he returned to Rowan Oak in a much better state than when he had left. The regimen of diet and rest established by the doctor in Byhalia served him well, giving him the mental and physical health he needed to put some of the last touches on Absalom, Absalom! before returning to Hollywood.

This time, Hawks wasn’t sure where he would put Faulkner, who was signed to an open-ended contract for one thousand dollars per week. That was an immense amount of money in 1936, of course, and Faulkner decided to buckle down. He checked into the Beverly Hills Hotel, then a quiet hotel with an older clientele, many of whom stayed for long periods. A Spanish-style building shaded by palms, it had a cluster of bungalows in the back that was popular with scriptwriters and actors. Faulkner had one to himself and felt very contented there, willing to take whatever work Hawks sent his way. Nunnally Johnson, it so happened, was working on a script set in Memphis, and he asked for Faulkner on the project. They had barely begun to rough out the structure of the script, called Banjo on My Knee, when Johnson had to leave for another project, and David Hempstead took over, much to Faulkner’s delight.

Hempstead and Faulkner had become friends on the novelist’s previous trip to Los Angeles, and they relished the idea of working together on this script. The contract was written so that either Faulkner or Twentieth Century—Fox could terminate his employment when either saw fit to do so. This ingenious twist gave both an acceptable out if it were needed. (From the studio’s viewpoint, Faulkner must have seemed like a highly unreliable employee.)

On March 2, 1936, Faulkner wrote to Estelle saying all was well but that he felt homesick for Rowan Oak. “I wish I was at home, still in the kitchen with my family around me and my hand full of Old Maid cards.”5Thinking of Jill, he added: “Bless the fat pink pretty.” He was not, however, languishing in his bungalow. A fair number of acquaintances and friends had moved to Los Angeles from New York, including Marc Connelly, Nathanael West, and Dorothy Parker. Ben Wasson was there, too. Faulkner attended an apparently endless round of cocktail parties, where he met such actors as Claudette Colbert and ZaSu Pitts. Pitts, a character actress of some fame, even played tennis with Faulkner, knocking him around the back court with her flamboyant shots. (Faulkner had no aptitude for tennis.) But the most life-changing contact he made at this time was with Meta Carpenter, an assistant to Hawks.

She was a petite, shy, compliant, and beautiful brunette, with lovely teeth and dark eyes. She parted her rich, dark hair in the middle, though it curled at the sides. With a low, engaging laugh, she behaved in deferential ways with men. She and Faulkner soon became lovers: a situation that led to immense difficulties for him, inflaming an already troubled marriage. Decades later, Meta recalled the first time Faulkner walked into her office. He was, she said, “a small, quick man in a tweed suit that had never fitted him, [who] looked at me for a long, surprised moment, as if he had forgotten a carefully rehearsed speech or had expected to see someone else behind the desk, before he said that he was William Faulkner and that Mr. Hawks was ‘kind of expecting me.’” Her characteristic reply, designed to win his approval at once, was: “The William Faulkner?”6

They soon began a relationship that included having lunch at the famous Hollywood restaurant the Musso and Frank’s Grill, where they could huddle together in one of the deep red-leather booths and hold hands over cocktails without attracting notice. They played miniature golf and went for long walks in the pine-scented Hollywood Hills. After work, they would go back to his hotel and make love. On a particularly fine weekend, they went to the Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica, where they spent time on the beach together. Back in the bedroom, Faulkner recited little poems to her over bottles of champagne. He explained that his marriage to Estelle was barren, claiming that all sexual relations between him and his wife had stopped with the birth of Jill, three years earlier. (This may indeed have been the case.)

For her part, Meta was young and impressionable. Born in Memphis, she felt a deep kinship with Faulkner because of his attachment to his region. Ten years his junior, she was highly romantic, although an early marriage and divorce had left her shaken and hesitant. Faulkner, as a confident older man, though with obvious vulnerabilities himself, was in some ways a good match for her. He acted more like a father than a lover at times, exulting in the caretaker role. “He made me feel strong,” Meta said.

The reasons for the breakdown in Faulkner’s marriage are not obscure. Estelle was terribly shaky herself, after her botched marriage to Cornell Franklin. To a degree, her return to the family fold, to Oxford, to Faulkner—her old beau—must have felt like a huge failure after the glamour of her years in Hawaii and the Far East, which she had visited with Franklin. That she had attempted suicide on her honeymoon is some indication of how she regarded the future of the marriage to Faulkner. There was the additional factor that she drank heavily; this drinking only destabilized her further, adding to her troubles. If indeed the sexual side of marriage had ceased with the birth of Jill, one can understand her husband’s need for romantic affairs; one can also understand Estelle’s increasing instability.

“The knowledge that Bill was without physical love, that he had been without normal sexual outlet for some time, pervaded my sensibilities,” Meta recalled.7 “He had not had a woman for a long, long time and the sudden reality of female flesh and form, not fantasized, made him tremble and fight for his breath.” He wrote her passionate little poems of love, sometimes in broken French, and once spread petals of jasmine and gardenia on their bed. He gave her a copy of A Green Bough, his book of verse, writing an inscription to Meta, “who soft keeps for him his love’s long girl’s body sweet to fuck.”8 That his syntax broke free of the normal conventions seems to mirror the affair itself, which proved a liberating yet disorienting force in his life.

The affair with Meta also increased his anxiety about the marriage, and he began to contemplate separation or divorce. But his affection for Jill was such that he could not bear to lose her, and he resolved rather quickly to remain within the boundaries of the marriage, at least superficially. This was not going to be easy, however; Estelle’s spending had gone out of control, as she charged clothing and household items to merchants in Memphis and Oxford. Large mortgage payments were also becoming overdue. Making matters worse, Darryl Zanuck, the producer of Banjo on My Knee, disliked the script presented to him, and Faulkner’s hopes for an extension on his contract were foiled. He was going to have to return (temporarily) to Oxford with much less money in hand than he had initially hoped for.

“I am going to try to make some money without having to borrow it,” he wrote to Goldman, thinking he would produce some short stories—the usual default. But Goldman suddenly found work for his client at RKO pictures, so Faulkner agreed to spend a further five weeks in Hollywood at one thousand dollars per week—enough to get him over the current hump. He would be assigned to Gunga Din, as one of several writers on the film. The money, not the project, excited him, as well as the prospect of spending more time with Meta. But this new job didn’t start until April 9, so he had time to work on some revisions of Absalom, Absalom! He also took a little time off to go hunting for wild boar on Catalina Island, where you could rent a guide and a horse for ten dollars per day. Another time, he went to Santa Cruz Island, on a similar expedition, with Nathanael West, whom he found an entertaining companion. (On his return to the Beverly Hills Hotel, which had recently been robbed, he strode into the lobby with a rifle over his shoulder and a brace of pistols in his belt; this panicked two older women, who thought the hotel was being robbed again and passed out cold on the floor.)

The work situation at RKO proved unpleasant. Faulkner was assigned to a small cubicle in a long, unattractive building that reminded him of a cheap hotel. His window faced a tiny courtyard filled with parched grass and concrete walks, rather prisonlike. One fellow writer, a friend of Faulkner’s, was Corey Ford, a highly successful figure in Hollywood, who recalled whimsically: “RKO gave us considerable freedom. We were allowed to speak to each other as we passed in the corridor, take our daily exercise in the yard without supervision by guards, and eat at noon in the same commissary with the producers and directors and actors, although at an isolated table in the rear.”9Ford remembered Faulkner as a “birdlike creature in his cubicle,” reluctant to speak to his colleagues, shy and defensive. The amount of actual writing RKO got out of Faulkner was minimal.

He returned to Oxford well in advance of his daughter’s birthday in June. But his return was exceedingly unpleasant, his desk piled high with more bills and increasingly threatening notes from shops in Memphis and Oxford where Estelle had been charging goods with prodigal abandon. In a fury, Faulkner wrote a letter to papers in Memphis and to the Oxford Eagle, declaring that he would in “no way be responsible” for “any debt incurred or bills made, or notes or checks signed by Mrs. Estelle Faulkner or Mrs. Estelle Oldham Faulkner.” This was a bizarre and threatening move on his part, one that brought on a massive reproach by Estelle’s father, Lem Oldham, who summoned his son-in-law to his office. They had what, by every account, was an extremely unpleasant meeting.

Estelle refused to fight with her husband, but drank herself to the point of numbness, staying alone in her room for days. Worse yet, Time called to question Faulkner about his letter to the press. “It’s just a matter of protecting my credit until I can pay up my back debts,” he explained, trying to remain patient with the man on the line from New York. The author seemed to have forgotten, temporarily, that he was now a figure in the public eye, and that his behavior—especially anything scandalous—would attract the attention of reporters. The townsfolk of Oxford, as usual, merely turned up their noses and scoffed.

Faulkner, in the meanwhile, still hoped to purchase Bailey’s Woods from its owner, W. C. Bryant, and they remained in touch about it. The problem was that Faulkner didn’t have any cash right now, and wondered if he ever would. In all, this was a dreadful summer for him and his family, and it was difficult to think about the upcoming publication of Absalom, Absalom! in the fall. The affair with Meta had stirred him deeply and unsettled him, and he was feeling guilty about his behavior (according to Meta); he also felt determined to keep the illicit relationship going. The guilt, however, seems to have won out; when mid-July arrived, and he had to make his way to Hollywood again, he asked Estelle to come with him. They would drive to California together, and Jill, now three, would ride in the back of their recently purchased shiny blue Ford. So that daily chores wouldn’t be too burdensome, they would also bring along a black couple to look after Jill. (Cho-Cho, a teenager, and Malcolm, would stay behind in Oxford with their grandparents.)

Estelle agreed to these arrangements, and they soon settled into life in Hollywood. Unfortunately, Faulkner hated the project at hand, a film called The Last Slaver, about the ruins of slavery in the South. He was also miserable with Estelle looking over his shoulder and therefore not being able to spend any time with Meta. As often happened in difficult situations, he took earnestly to the bottle, as did Estelle. On one rare occasion when he and Estelle went to a cocktail party at Joel Sayre’s house, she got so tipsy that the host quietly suggested that Faulkner take her home and return to the party by himself. Faulkner did, but he came back with horrible scratches on his cheek and neck, explaining that Estelle had resisted his attempt to return to the party. Another time he came into the studio with a huge purple lump on his forehead. “What happened?” David Hempstead asked. “I was just reading a magazine, and she came at me with a croquet mallet,” Faulkner explained.10

Faulkner’s life at the studio provided no relief from the stress of his marriage. He moved from project to project, yet nobody was satisfied with his contributions. After finishing work on The Last Slaver (which eventually came out as Slave Ship), he was assigned to Four Men and a Prayer, then a picture called Splinter Fleet (produced by Gene Markey, who had been a writer himself at one point, so had sympathy for those who struggled with a script). The chief writer on Markey’s film was Kathryn Scola, a highly regarded script writer; her job was to keep the narrative moving in the right direction. Faulkner would add dialogue and make suggestions about scene transitions. Markey himself found Faulkner “peculiar,” coming in “with the grave air of a High Court justice” in his fine tweed jackets and gray flannel trousers. He wore leather shoes that he kept polished to a high gloss. This was simply not the Hollywood style.

To escape from the drudgery of studio work and his unbearable life at home, Faulkner would go to parties by himself now and then. He saw a bit of Clark Gable, whom he now considered a friend, and they would sometimes hunt together. He also sneaked out with Meta—briefly, painfully. Once in late September he rented a Fairchild 22, a canvas-covered plane with a single engine and two seats. This was the first time he’d flown since Dean’s death, and it offered temporary relief from the tedium of his life. He thought that if he didn’t get back into a pilot’s seat now, he might never again summon the courage to do so. (Estelle, of course, objected violently to his wish to fly again.)

At last, near the end of October, Absalom, Absalom! arrived in bookstores, and the reviews began to appear in leading periodicals, some of them contemptuous of his experimental style—though a few important critics, such as Malcolm Cowley, got strongly behind the novel. The dust jacket description was assertive, calling this “William Faulkner’s most important and ambitious book.” It was certainly as daring as The Sound and the Fury and has been widely seen over the decades as one of his major accomplishments. “I think it’s simply the best book he ever wrote,” said Cleanth Brooks, a view echoed by many.11

Absalom, Absalom!

Absalom, Absalom! is comparable to The Sound and the Fury. I know of no higher praise.

review of Absalom, Absalom!

While not as readable or entertaining as either Light in August or As I Lay Dying, Absalom, Absalom! remains at the center of Faulkner’s achievement, a strangely magnificent and unforgettable work that helps to explain the others. “It’s not just ‘about’ history,” Robert Penn Warren said. “This is history, as process, as the intervention of time in human character.”12 History, in Quentin Compson’s conceptualization, is “what hurts.” It is the impact of other people’s choices on one’s own view of things, a cycle from which one cannot escape.

The Hindu concept of karma is relevant here. In karmic cycles, evil acts engender evil acts. Violence, in particular, begets violence. This is also true of the Old Testament, in which the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons. Thus Absalom unfolds as a story about rejection and the violent reactions to this rejection to follow inexorably. The initial rejection of the teenage Thomas Sutpen, born in the hill country of what became West Virginia, is central to the narrative: the fifteen-year-old boy, moving from the backwoods to the more “civilized” world of plantation life in the Tidewater region, observes with distaste the leisurely ways of the upper class. The head of the plantation, the man “who owned all the land,” spends most of his afternoons “in a barrel stave hammock between two trees, with his shoes off and a nigger…who did nothing else but fan him and bring him drinks.”13

In a crucial scene, young Sutpen is coldly turned away from the plantation door by a black servant because he is a poor white boy, classless, and therefore without a place in Tidewater society. Suddenly, with a sense of horror, Sutpen regards himself through the eyes of the servant and, by implication, through the eyes of the plantation owner, who is God—a lazy God who swings in the hammock and relinquishes his responsibilities. Sutpen experiences himself as someone without value, one of a herd of “cattle, creatures heavy and without grace, brutally evacuated into a world without hope or purpose for them, who would in turn spawn with brutish and vicious prolixity, populate, double treble and compound, fill space and earth with a race whose future would be a succession of cut-down and patched and made-over garments bought on exorbitant credit.”14 Sutpen’s early rejection colors his behavior throughout the novel.

He determines that he will do the rejecting himself from this point forward. Indeed, Sutpen will dominate the world completely, becoming one of the giants of the earth, a man of power and vision, courage, and inflexible determination. Faulkner had written about such a man in “The Big Shot,” where a rejection similar to that experienced by Sutpen occurs when a boy goes up to the door of the big shot’s house, where he expects “idleness, a horse to ride all day long, shoes all the year round.” The boss, however, turns him away: “Dont you ever come to my front door again. When you come here, you go around to the kitchen door and tell one of the niggers what you want.”15This scene had some primal meaning for Faulkner, it seems; it certainly is the stone tossed into the deep waters of Absalom, with ripples spreading and touching virtually every shore of the narrative.

The novel was meant to be “the story of a man who wanted a son through pride, and got too many of them and they destroyed him,” as Faulkner had written to his agent.16 That was part of the conception of “Dark House,” in its 1934 version, which remained unfinished, superseded by Absalom. As Faulkner approached the narrative again and again, working on the chapters in nonchronological order, the story grew by itself, without narrative lines so much as glassy filaments that tangle and disentangle in different strands. The multiple narrators of the story—Miss Rosa Coldfield, Mr. Compson, Quentin Compson, and Shreve McCannon—present differing versions of the Sutpen story, with each version revealing as much about the teller as the tale. The novel becomes, in effect, a grammar of narrative, one of those rare novels that opens up the hood of fiction to show what’s inside. Absalom is, for me, a study in radical subjectivity, as each version of the Sutpen story changes the story itself, much as the physicist Werner Heisenberg suggested that an observer will have a physical effect on the thing observed in a physics experiment. No absolute truth exists in here. The author (who in nineteenth-century fiction often stood in for God) is not so much dead as self-inventing, appearing and disappearing in the guise of various narrators.

The novel is also, especially in the exchanges between Quentin Compson and his roommate at Harvard, Shreve McCannon, when they attempt to reconstruct a past that neither of them experienced, a novel about language itself. Trying to understand the fateful love that Charles Bon had for Judith Supten, the narrator of the novel notes that these interlocutors must allow for certain mistakes, “faultings both in the creating of this shade whom they discussed (rather, existed in) and in the hearing and sifting and discarding the false and conserving what seemed true, or fit the preconceived—in order to overpass to love, where there might be paradox and incosistency but nothing fault nor false.”17 This is a crucial passage, as critics have often observed.

John T. Matthews, for example, points to the “stunt of this passage,” in which “fault” becomes an adjective when it usually occupies the role of verb or noun. “Faulkner arrests us,” he says, “at the site of a misusage or neologism—kindly violences performed by the writer on the common tongue—in order to accent the exercise of invention that the passage endorses.”18 The play of language in Faulkner, then, serves to put the reader on notice: fiction is not fact, not history; it represents something else, a medium with a foot in reality, in history, but a metahistorical substance, a parallel world that may inform the real world but should not be mistaken for it.

As usual, Faulkner’s narrators face backward. Thomas Sutpen has been dead since 1869 as the novel opens with Quentin Compson calling on Miss Rosa in September 1909, just a year before his suicide in Cambridge (in The Sound and the Fury). Miss Rosa lives in Jefferson, the only person in the novel who knew Sutpen personally and thus had acquaintance with the primary materials of the narrative. Her sister, Ellen, had been married to Sutpen, while she herself was engaged to him, briefly, before he offended her mightily by suggesting that she prove herself capable of bearing a male child before they actually marry. This shocking proposition by the overreaching Sutpen brought about their permanent breakup. Miss Rosa withdrew from the plantation to her father’s house in town, where she has lived in relative poverty ever since. Nearly everyone connected with Sutpen in any intimate way suffers a slide downhill into desolation or poverty or violence: this is part of the karmic cycle.

Miss Rosa begins the narrative with stories of Sutpen, his marriage to Ellen, her death, his violence against his slaves. These stories, told with seething anger and necessarily distorted, are soon complicated by Quentin’s father, a cooler narrator who has his own notions of what happened between Rosa and Sutpen, and why Sutpen’s son, Henry, killed his best friend, Charles Bon of New Orleans, shortly after they returned from the Civil War. Bon had wished to marry Henry’s sister, Judith, but his proposal was mysteriously rejected by Sutpen himself. The real meaning of Bon’s murder is not revealed until the end, but even then it seems less than conclusive. (We eventually learn other disruptive facts about Bon: that he has, perhaps, a fraction of black blood in him, that he has a common-law octoroon wife and child in New Orleans, and that he is actually a son of Sutpen as well, so that his wish to marry Judith leaves him open to the charge of incest.)

Faulkner loves to work the religious parallels whenever possible, beginning with the title, which alludes to the biblical King David and his son, Absalom. But the more important connections are to the New Testament, as in Light in August, where Joe Christmas becomes an ironic Christ figure, sacrificed by a society driven wild by its dark Calvinism and racism. So, in Absalom, Charles Bon (the name is symbolic: Charles the Good) is murdered at the age of thirty-three, sacrificed because of sins inherited from a previous generation. His rejection by his father is, in part, an extension of his father’s rejection at the door of the wealthy plantation owner in Virginia. It is also the result of his father’s past, in Haiti and elsewhere, where he apparently performed the many cruel acts that would finally destroy him and his progeny. In their imagined version of these events, the college boys at Harvard—Shreve and Quentin—try to find more heroic versions of the story, but fail. There is already too much knowledge in the stifling air of this many-layered narrative, wherein fictive space fills with truths almost inadvertently, as speakers reveal what happened or—more typically—what they imagine happened.

Sutpen’s arrival in Mississippi in 1833, when he buys the land for his plantation with the slaves he has brought from Haiti, acquires the resonance of myth. An outsider, he belongs to the new class of white men ascending into positions of power in the region. This class believed, to an extent, in Jacksonian democracy and “family values.” They were liberal capitalists, bent on acquiring prestige and land. Their ruthlessness was masked by their cavalier pose, marked by old-fashioned courtesy in their treatment of women, their pretense of being heads of family dynasties. They were, in reality, outlaws of a sort, invaders from the East, not unlike the Old Colonel, Faulkner’s great ancestor, who took Mississippi by storm.

The Old South at first resisted these incursions from outside, and even Sutpen was rejected by Jefferson’s social elite, as General Compson (the father of Mr. Compson and grandfather of Quentin) recalls. Sutpen was actually arrested when he brought four wagonloads of presumably stolen furnishings into the county. It wasn’t just the questionable origin or quality of the goods that upset them, “it was a little more involved than the sheer value of his chandeliers and mahogany and rugs.” Compson thinks “the affront was born of the town’s realization that he was getting it involved with himself; that whatever the felony which produced the mahogany and crystal, he was forcing the town to compound it.”19 Whereas the older Old South acted as a community, bound together by group needs and mores, Sutpen acted on his own, symbolizing a new breed of self-interested men who would take whatever they wished, consuming resources at will, refusing to give anything back to the society that provided them with a home, with goods and services, with the cohesion that makes a civilized life possible.

Only Miss Rosa’s father, the icy and well-named Goodhue Coldfield, appears to understand that slavery is a curse and that everyone in the South will pay a price for this outrage against humanity. He decries the “shifting sands of opportunism and moral brigandage”20 that characterize the new South in the years leading up to the Civil War. He himself makes a grand gesture by freeing his slaves himself once they have worked off what it cost Coldfield to purchase their services in the first place. Like most people who exist within an amoral capitalist culture, he marries expediency (the need to get the work done, at whatever cost) with morality (some nod in the direction of communal values and ethics). Mr. Coldfield, like other paternalistic figures in this narrative, comes to a dire—though self-inflicted—end.

General Compson and Mr. Coldfield stand in contrast to Sutpen, although they allow themselves to be used by him in his quest for respectability. Mr. Coldfield actually gives his daughter, Ellen, to Sutpen. General Compson offers the cotton seeds Sutpen needs to plant his first crop and attends his wedding to Ellen, thus welcoming him into the fold of the local elite. But there are differences between Coldfield and Compson worth noting. Mr. Coldfield is a puritan who cannot reconcile his deeds with morality, and he pays heavily for having a conscience. General Compson, especially in his son’s version, is more heroic and community-minded, a man of Jefferson. His generosity and wisdom shine through the account of his dealings with Sutpen. For instance, when Sutpen reveals that he has discarded his first wife, the General cannot believe his ears. “Good God, man,” he exclaims, “what conscience to trade with which would have warranted you in the belief that you could have bought immunity from her.”21

Mr. Compson’s narrative—laden with allusions to Greek tragedy and the Bible—plays against that of Miss Rosa, who has yet to forgive Sutpen for his immorality and ruthlessness. Similarly, the voices of the young men, Quentin and Shreve, play against those voices that come before, being more romantic in Quentin’s case and more objective in Shreve’s case, although at one point Faulkner yokes their viewpoints as he does the fates of Bon and Henry. Here is what follows a long monologue by Shreve, for example, toward the end of the novel:

Shreve ceased. That is, for all the two of them, Shreve and Quentin, knew he had stopped, since for all the two of them knew he had never begun, since it did not matter (and possibly neither of them conscious of the distinction) which one had been doing the talking. So that now over the frozen December ruts of that Christmas eve: four of them and then just two—Charles-Shreve and Quentin-Henry, the two of them both believing that Henry was thinking He (meaning Bon) has destroyed us all, not for one moment thinking He (meaning Bon) must have known or at least suspected this all the time; that’s why he has acted as he has, why he did not answer my letters last summer nor write to Judith, why he has never asked her to marry him.22

It was a brilliant stroke on Faulkner’s part to employ Quentin Compson as listener to Miss Rosa in the early part of the novel. Of course he listens to this story with a deep unease. As we know from The Sound and the Fury, he is someone profoundly alert to incestuous feelings, given his love for Caddy; his feelings have disturbed him greatly and contributed to his derangement and suicide at Harvard.23 Faulkner explained his intentions here to Hal Smith: “I use Quentin because it is just before he is to commit suicide because of his sister, and I use his bitterness which he has projected on the South in the form of hatred of it and its people to get more out of the story itself than a historical novel would be.”24 When, later in the novel, Quentin ruminates on the Sutpen triangle, he does so with a quivering in his voice, a sense of urgency and outrage that seems to move beyond the mere facts of the situation.

The racial question occurs, in different guises, throughout the novel, and has riveted the attention of most critics. It is Bon’s black blood that derails his marriage to Judith, among other things. It is Sutpen’s racist behavior that finally draws the demise of his family, sending Henry, his son, wandering in the wilderness for forty years. “Absalom is premised upon the same racial violence that suffuses Light in August,” Weinstein suggests.25 In this, it moves beyond the attempted pastoral of The Sound and the Fury. The system of slavery corrupts all relations in the novel, even those among whites; of course it underlies the Civil War itself, which blazes in the margins of Absalom, but it also undermines relationships within the white families who benefit from and supervise the operations of the slave system.

Even with his sympathies toward the black characters in his novel, Faulkner does not go terribly far in examining racial injustice. As with The Sound and the Fury, he hesitates to explore black subjectivity, preferring to think about the white men in the novel, from the planters and middle classes to poor whites, such as the trapper Wash Jones, originally seen in “Wash,” a story published in Harper’s in November 1933. There he tells in highly concentrated form the very bleak story of Sutpen’s return to the plantation after the Civil War to find his wife and son dead and his estate crumbling. In his compulsive quest for a male heir, he seduces Milly Jones, the fifteen-year-old granddaughter of the trapper, who in turn murders Sutpen with a rusty scythe, killing Milly and the baby into the bargain. This plot material made its way, somewhat altered, into Absalom.

Faulkner’s instinctive understanding of psychological materials shines through the novel. Wash Jones, as Singal has pointed out, represents the “return of the repressed.”26 Jones stands for a part of Sutpen—the young man who is rejected at the plantation door in Virginia, the man without possessions or status. Jones understood himself as somebody who aspired to be another Sutpen, the gallant plantation lord on his black stallion: “Maybe I am not as big as he is,” Jones says to himself, “and maybe I did not do any of the galloping. But at least I was drug along where he went.” In the end, when Sutpen treats Jones and his granddaughter like animals, Jones flares up, mowing down his ideal, bringing him down to size.

This incident has broad allegorical value, too, referring to the South as a whole. The tale of Sutpen’s rise and fall presents an alternative version of the Cavalier myth, the story of how southern aristocrats came into being. They had not simply inherited the plantation house and then proceeded to get on with the job of ruling their slaves. Their origins were more troubled, wedded to their original rejection by those above them; their past was, indeed, covered in shame, as Helen Merrell Lynd has suggested in her groundbreaking work, On Shame and the Search for Identity, where she writes: “Because of these shame-covered, problematic origins, their sense of the universe is troubled, unstable. The seeds of their fall were planted in the dark and bloody ground from which they arose.”27

Sutpen enthralls Faulkner and his narrators in Absalom, but Charles Bon, Sutpen’s son by his Haitian wife, stands at the center of this novel. Bon should by rights have inherited the plantation and the family name, but he has been consistently rejected. Everyone is drawn to Bon, without regard for his origins, racial or otherwise. He looks completely white, without even the “parchment colored” skin of his mother. He has attended the University of Mississippi—where blacks were forbidden until midway through the twentieth century—and seems the epitome of a white gentleman. He is the real thing, as opposed to his father, who is a parvenu. Everywhere he displays a gentle bearing, lovely manners, and a countenance that attracts the gaze of all who come within his view. As Kevin Railey suggests, he “receives admission and respect from his peers, in both New Orleans and the university, because of character and behavior.”28 He rises in the ranks by his own efforts to become an officer in Lee’s army. He attracts the love of Judith Sutpen because he behaves like a gentleman, showing her respect. He tells her brother, Henry Sutpen, that “if you haven’t got honor and pride, then nothing matters.”29

In some ways, Bon and Thomas Sutpen are both products of intense self-invention, but it tells us something important about Faulkner that he favors Bon and condemns Sutpen. Of course, miscegenation was an obsession of his, perhaps attributable to his own family history. (One ancestor, Lena Falkner, was certainly a mulatto, and she may have been the Old Colonel’s daughter.) Yet Faulkner remains firmly on the side of Bon, who seems intent on marrying Judith. Needless to say, Faulkner understands that Bon and Sutpen have experienced deep rejection, though Sutpen’s response has been despicable. Instead of working against the traditions of inequality and prejudice that formed the basis for his initial rejection by the owner of the Big House in Virginia in his youth, Sutpen embraces these prejudices, becoming himself the man in the hammock, the owner of the Big House, the person who will perpetuate inequalities. What Charles Bon wants from Sutpen, of course, is recognition: exactly what Sutpen himself was denied at the door of the Big House. Hyatt Waggoner regards this refusal in the larger context of the King David/Absalom myth: “Sutpen would not say ‘My son’ to Bon as David said it to Absalom even after Absalom’s rebellion.” Waggoner also brings into play the rejection of Bon by his best friend (and half-brother), Henry: “And different as he was from his father, Henry acted in the end on the same racist principle, killing Bon finally to prevent not incest but miscegenation.” He looks at the larger significance of all this: “One meaning of Absalom, then, is that when the Old South was faced with a choice it could not avoid, it chose to destroy itself rather than admit brotherhood across racial lines.”30

It should also be noted that Absalom is centrally a book about friendships between men. While the women here, such as Miss Rosa and Judith, are solitary figures who do not share their feelings much with other women or men, the men seem to talk easily and meaningfully with each other. Henry and Bon are half-brothers, of course, though their brotherhood is more symbolic than literal, since the truth about their blood ties is delayed; yet they seem almost homoerotically involved, and there is more than a hint of erotic play in the incestuous triangle of Henry-Charles-Judith. When, in the latter part of the novel, Shreve and Quentin replay the Henry-Charles relationship, reimagining it, one senses in them a slight homoerotic tinge as well. These are young college boys in their dorm at Harvard, talking intimately as they get ready for bed. Nothing is explicitly sexual here, but there is a peculiar undertow of fellow-feeling that verges on the homoerotic without touching it. Faulkner understood how men talk to each other; relationships between brothers and male friends compelled his imagination, even obsessed him. This axis in the novel must be considered central to its overall effect.

Noel Polk actually sees the homoerotic tensions in the novel as central to its dynamics. “Perhaps Bon and Henry confess to or in some way display a homosexual relationship; that would certainly be enough for Sutpen to reject Bon and for Henry to reject Sutpen and ride away with Bon.”31 As he notes, other narrators in the novel seem to suggest that homoerotic feelings have played a role in the action. Bon is seen, by Henry’s father and by Quentin himself, as foppish and effeminate. The homoerotic tension between Bon and Henry, while not explicit, is hardly invisible. In a way, the triangular relationship of Bon, Henry, and Judith replicates, in a slightly more obvious manner, as Polk suggests, the fatal dynamics among Quentin, Caddy, and Dalton Ames in The Sound and the Fury. The comparison with the earlier novel leads naturally to the idea that Henry has murdered Bon because he wishes to protect his sister’s virginity and family virtue, not just because he wished to prevent incest or forestall miscegenation.

Taken as a whole, Absalom represents a complex meditation on sexuality and power, racial injustice, family bonds, male friendship, and history itself. The various speakers all compete for plausibility and “truth,” which seems in the end a relative proposition, something more invented than found. That each speaker confronts the material at hand, the various Sutpen-related tales, from a subjective experience, shading the facts with his or her own private demands, wishes, and projections, seems as much as anything the point of the novel. This is a book about fiction, one that makes the act of revision part of the story itself, which proceeds by indirection, with countless interruptions and withholdings of information. (It’s perhaps worth noting here that Faulkner is not a postmodernist but a modernist writer, as Christopher Butler has pointed out: “Postmodern work…contrasts strongly with modernist fiction…which nearly always ‘played fair’ in the relationship of the text to a [historically] possible world; so that an answer to the puzzle, an intelligible use of cause and effect and a consistent chronology can nearly always be reconstructed by the informed reader. It is just such features that postmodern fiction deconstructs.”)32

While Light in August or As I Lay Dying are more accessible, attaining levels of lyric intensity and a complexity of dramatization that warrant their inclusion on any list of great American novels, Absalom, Absalom! remains a favorite of many—if not most—critics. “It’s the ingenuity of the narrative,” says Robert Penn Warren, “the intense presentation of the material, with its brilliant structuring to insure a maximum effect. The rhetoric of the novel is what lifts it high in his work, and in American literature as a whole.”33

Overall, the suspensions and withholdings so characteristic of this novel clearly enhance the narrative texture, giving it a special power, a luminosity quite different from anything else in Faulkner’s work (excepting, perhaps, The Sound and the Fury). As one of the novel’s most eloquent advocates, John T. Matthews, says: “Absalom, Absalom! is Faulkner’s most accomplished, moving, and sustained meditation on the act of fabricating meaning. His ninth novel, it revists the site of the crisis of articulation surveyed in The Sound and the Fury, but it returns with a sure sense of the possibilities and limitations of language, a sense ecstatically disovered in that novel.”34 Yet there is a heavy price to be paid for this ecstasy. Absalom can be annoying and frustrating on first reading, its satisfactions only available on subsequent readings. The opulent diction and mannered delivery—“Faulknerese”—can get in the way of readerly pleasure, giving Absalom the quality of a prose poem at times. On the other hand, these difficulties go hand in glove with the novel’s effectiveness. This is not to say that the language doesn’t, rather frequently, buckle under the weight of the author’s inflamed imagination, but these failures are part of the novel’s success as well, as Faulkner reaches past language into a zone of consciousness where articulateness necessarily crumbles, reaching “into the heart of light, the silence.”35

Last Days in Hollywood

My general impression of Hollywood is that of a very wealthy, overgrown country town. In fact, it reminds me very much of a town that has sprung up as the result of an oil boom. I know very few actors, but the ones with whom I did come in contact were normal, hard-working people, leading much saner lives than we are led to believe.

—FAULKNER, Lion in the Garden

Though a number of reviewers understood the nature of Faulkner’s achievement in Absalom, Absalom!, a wary note could be heard as well, a reluctance to condone experimentation on such a scale. Even Malcolm Cowley, later one of Faulkner’s greatest supporters, complained in the New Republic of the “strained, involved, ecstatic style in which colloquialisms and deliberate grammatical errors are mingled with words too pretentious even for Henry James.”36As with previous work, a fairly consistent note was also heard from critics who decried “Faulkner’s old preoccupation with the psychopathology of sex.”37 In The New Yorker, the influential Clifton Fadiman called this book “the most consistently boring novel by a reputable writer to come my way during the last decade,” although Wallace Stegner, then a young novelist, condemned Fadiman’s review as “not only impercipient and lazy, but silly as well.” Stegner himself objected to aspects of the novel, including the “bad syntax” that (in his view) permeated the text, but he put his finger on Faulkner’s method rather well, saying that the novel “reconstructs historical materials as any individual in reality has to reconstruct them—piecemeal, eked out with surmise and guess, the characters ghostly shades except in brief isolated passages. As in life, we are confronted by a story whose answers even the narrator does not know, whose characters he (and we with him) guesses at and speculates upon, but does not attempt to explain fully.”38 Perhaps the anonymous reviewer in Time sums up the general reaction of the public to Absalom, calling this book “the strangest, longest, least readable, most infuriating and yet in some respects the most impressive novel that William Faulkner has written.”39

While furthering the author’s reputation in certain respects, these reviews didn’t encourage readers to flock to bookstores in pursuit of Absalom, Absalom!40 In fact, sales proceeded modestly, with two small reprintings by Thanksgiving. It was a good thing for Faulkner that he had his work in Hollywood, since no real money would be coming from his publisher.

As might be expected, life in Hollywood with Estelle and Jill wasn’t placid, in part because of Meta Carpenter, who thought that Estelle “cast an angry, jagged shadow” over Faulkner’s life. She also surmised that he “wanted his freedom desperately.”41 He had written to Meta from Oxford before he came out, saying as much. But with Estelle in Hollywood—they had moved into a fairly pleasant house north of Santa Monica with a view of Catalina Island—it seemed unlikely that he would force a break in the marriage. “Now I had to face the likelihood that, having torn Estelle from her place in his household, installed her in a house that was not her own and in a city as foreign to her as Shanghai had been,” she recalled, “he could not ask for a divorce for the length of their exile—his voluntary exile, to earn money in Hollywood and be close to me.”

To Meta, Estelle appeared “weak and enervated,” rather ugly. She recalled: “In spite of the years she had spent in the Orient, the stamp of a small Mississippi town was upon her—dress lacking in distinction, hair stringy and uncontrollable, the splotch of rouge and layering of powder on her face giving her a pasty look.”42 When, in due course, Estelle discovered the nature of her husband’s relationship with Meta, her real strength and energy bodied forth, and she became tenacious in defense of her territory. There was no way she would ever let go of Faulkner, having lost so much—emotionally and financially—in her earlier divorce from Cornell Franklin. She had a pleasant home now, a daughter, and a name that she treasured: Mrs. William Faulkner. “I met her once or twice,” remembered Elaine Steinbeck, “and she was very proud of that name, very determined to be recognized as the wife of Faulkner, a great man. That was her identity.”43

For her part, Meta was not going to wait forever, and she soon became involved with Wolfgang Rebner, a pianist, who proposed marriage—even though they’d had only a brief relationship, conducted mostly at a distance. She told Faulkner about her engagement over lunch at a restaurant called Lucey’s, upsetting him profoundly. “I should have known it was coming,” he said, “but I just wouldn’t let myself admit that it could happen.”44 He told Meta that she would always belong to him, and she countered by saying that Jill was more important to him than she was. She was, of course, right about this. Faulkner was devoted to his daughter and could not bear the thought of living apart from her. Seeing the end of their affair rather clearly, Meta told Faulkner that she would never sleep with him again. “Not even one last time?” he wondered plaintively. “No,” she told him. And she meant it.

Throughout the rest of 1936, into the summer of 1937, Faulkner remained at the job as scriptwriter, making good money; indeed, as of March 18, Twentieth Century—Fox raised his salary to one thousand dollars per week. He was able to pay his bills, at last; he even took a formal option on Bailey’s Woods, having asked Johncy to survey the property. To an outside observer, he was living a fairly calm life, although his turmoil was obvious to those close at hand. David Hempstead noted his “lack of focus” and frequent binges, though he was not aware of the extent of his friend’s marital stress or the nature of his problems with Meta. The pain caused by Meta would not be apparent until the publication of The Wild Palms in 1939, a book that centers on the tortured relationship of Harry Wilbourne and Charlotte Rittenmeyer, who in some ways resemble Faulkner and Meta Carpenter.

Faulkner held on to his job at Twentieth Century—Fox until late summer, largely because many at the studio wished to protect him. He had shown himself capable of churning out large quantities of dialogue and providing countless script ideas, yet little of his work ever found its way into shooting scripts. He moved from project to project, sometimes abruptly, with a hand in films as various as Gunga Din, Splinter Fleet, The Giant Swing, and Drums Along the Mohawk, the last directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert. This activity occupied him through the spring. While on this last project, he moved his family to a pleasant house in Beverly Hills, making it easier to get to the studio on time. Estelle, however, had by now had enough of Hollywood, and she returned to Oxford with Jill in May. She may have felt it was safe to leave because of Meta’s marriage in April.

After Meta’s wedding, Faulkner became temporarily unhinged and went on “a nonstop drinking binge” that ended with his committal to a Los Angeles hospital in “an acute alcoholic state.”45 He spent six weeks in recovery, during which time he lost a lot of weight and came out looking like a ghost, his hands trembling. More and more, he relied on alcohol to numb himself from the pain of his relationship with Estelle, his anxiety about Meta, the difficulties of writing, and his inability to confront crises that inevitably came his way, such as the deaths of friends and family. Certainly the death of Dean continued to flood him with guilt over his part in encouraging his brother in his career as an aviator and, indeed, selling him the plane that had brought him down.

One bright spot in June, however, was a visit from the French academic, Maurice Coindreau, who had translated As I Lay Dying quite successfully. Now he was finishing work on The Sound and the Fury, and he came to spend a week with the author, asking specific questions. The importance of these translations may not have been obvious to Faulkner, but he was pleased. It would have been impossible for him to know at the time that these translations would form the basis for his huge presence in France and, later, South America. “I don’t think Faulkner’s influence on French and Latin American writing can be overestimated,” says Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian novelist. “He showed novelists how to reimagine time itself within the boundaries of a text.”46 Writers as diverse as Camus, Sartre, and Malraux (as well as Gabriel García Márquez, the Colombian writer, who pays homage to Faulkner in such novels as Autumn of the Patriarch) would find in Faulkner a spur, a way of rethinking the nature of fiction. To European writers, Faulkner’s approach to time seemed to hark back to Proust, to writers who took time in their hands and “decapitated it,” as Jean-Paul Sartre put it, noting that Faulkner’s characters “have deprived [time] of its future—that is, its dimension of deeds and freedom.” As to Faulkner’s heroes, “they never look ahead. They face backward as the car carries them along.”47 It was the prominence of Faulkner’s reputation in Europe that would finally make his Nobel Prize possible, and this can be traced back directly to Coindreau’s translations.

Coindreau, like Bill Spratling and others, recalled that Faulkner drank while writing, a point of contention among those close to him. “He did not drink while writing,” says his daughter emphatically. “That was never the case. He always wrote when sober, and would drink afterwards.”48 In any case, he showed Coindreau a story, “Le Vendée,” and mentioned that he had been reading Balzac’s Les Chouans; he argued that the Vendée peasants of France, so movingly evoked by Balzac, had much in common with the poor white farmers of the South and that their attitudes toward life were similar, grounded in agricultural rhythms, with intense familial connections overriding social norms that might pertain to society at large. Faulkner’s interest in this stratum of society, represented by the Snopes clan, would soon preoccupy him in The Hamlet and its sequels, The Town and The Mansion. The first volume of the trilogy would, in fact, grow from “Barn Burning,” a short story written in 1938.

Throughout the summer of 1937, without his family to worry about, and with many responsibilities at the studio reduced, Faulkner at last had time to write again, and he returned to short fiction. An idea had come to him in December, which he conveyed to Bennett Cerf at Random House:

I have a series of six stories about a white boy and a negro boy during the civil war. Three of them were published in the SATURDAY EVENING POST about two years ago, in three successive numbers. They were titled ‘Ambuscade,’ ‘Retreat,’ and ‘Raid.’ I do not remember the exact dates. The fourth one was published by SCRIBNERS about the same time, titled ‘Skirmish at Sartoris.’ The fifth and sixth were published in the POST in November of this year, titled ‘The Unvanquished,’ and ‘Vendee.’ They should average between five thousand and seventy-five hundred words apiece. What do you think about getting them out as a book?49

Cerf liked the idea, and Faulkner turned eagerly to this project. The world of Yoknapatawpha County must have felt more vividly present to him than the reality of everyday life in Hollywood, which he detested and from which, increasingly, he withdrew. The fact that these stories already existed was a boon: Faulkner was too unhappy and distracted to create anything from scratch that summer. This project fit his needs perfectly: the need only revise, thicken characters, deepen landscapes, forge links among stories, sharpen dialogue. He relished being able to return to characters like John Sartoris, a favorite among his fictional children, a version of the Old Colonel more benign and heroic than Sutpen. Riding his great horse, Jupiter, Sartoris continued to inspire Faulkner. The main work involved writing “Odor of Verbena,” a tale that brings together many strands from the previous stories and gives the book a feeling of unity. This sequence, which he called The Unvanquished, was finally sent to Cerf toward the end of summer, just as he was packing to leave Hollywood—as he thought—for good.

He had made twenty-one thousand dollars in the previous eight months alone, which was an ample sum in the late thirties, when the Great Depression hung on despite efforts by the federal government to spur the economy. Faulkner, perhaps because of the inwardness of his vision, remained more or less oblivious to national and world events, including the growing threat to peace in Europe. For the most part, he barely read the newspapers or thought about major events of the day. He successfully averted his eyes from contemporary issues, even in Hollywood, where he could hardly not have noticed the influx of refugees from Europe, including Thomas Mann, Heinrich Mann, Bertolt Brecht, and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, just to name a few of the prominent writers who made their way to Los Angeles in the thirties. Not until the early fifties, when the racial question in the South took center stage in the national discourse, did he become politicized in any substantial public way, although politics itself entered the work much earlier.50

Ben Wasson accompanied Faulkner, by car, from Los Angeles to Oxford, driving through intense heat and swatches of heavy rain. Faulkner had missed home and knew that Jill, in particular, would be eager to see him. It was, in fact, a pleasant homecoming, uniting father and daughter in happy ways. They would soon be riding and walking together in Bailey’s Woods, the thirty-acre tract that Faulkner managed to purchase in September, at last, with money earned in Hollywood. This coveted tract of land was a present that he gave himself on September 25, 1937—his fortieth birthday, which he celebrated with Estelle and Jill at Rowan Oak. “Bill liked to come home,” Johncy recalled. “He never felt quite himself away from Oxford or Rowan Oak.”

It Just Keeps Coming

You just keep the words coming. No trick to it at all if the writing is in you. Nothing will come if you haven’t got the stuff. It comes natural or it doesn’t come at all. Everything comes: the people, the place, the story, and you just act like the fella feeding the corn shucker. Keep moving about and filling.

—Faulkner to Stephen Longstreet,
October 1937

On the holograph manuscript of If I forget Thee, Jerusalem, Faulkner wrote the date: September 15, 1937. The heroine of this novel, Charlotte Rittenmeyer, rose up in his mind, based partly on Helen Baird, his own unrequited love from Pascagoula, and partly on Meta, who continued to obsess him. Both Helen and Meta were fiercely independent women, beautiful in different ways, elusive. What galled him so many years before was how Helen had rushed into the arms of another man, Guy Lyman, unexpectedly; Meta had similarly managed to find a lover and new husband, Wolfgang Rebner, right under Faulkner’s nose. In both cases, he had loved and lost, and he was hurting now. Many years later, he would write to another of his lovers, Joan Williams, that in the midst of writing a new novel “suddenly I remembered how I wrote THE WILD PALMS in order to try to stave off what I thought was heart-break too and it didn’t break then and so maybe wont now.”51 As usual, he turned to fiction as a way of absorbing and absolving pain. He would project his anguish onto the screen, conflating figures, working out his deepest psychological needs in this time-honored way.

Having lost Hal Smith as an editor when Smith left Random House for a job at the Saturday Review, Faulkner had to establish contact with Saxe Commins, a new editor who would assume responsibility for him at the new publishing house. (Bennett Cerf was the editor-in-chief, but he knew that Faulkner required someone with whom he could have regular contact about projects in development.) A few telephone calls established that Faulkner would come to work on the final version of The Unvanquished with his new editor: “Commins welcomed the connection to Faulkner,” says one colleague, who describes Commins as “a quiet, steady man who understood his author, and was willing to put up with his drinking and craziness. He was a smart, patient editor—low-keyed—ideal for someone like Faulkner.”52

Random House became, in effect, Faulkner’s banker, holding his money in escrow, releasing it to the author at regular intervals in limited chunks. This method served a dual purpose: it prevented the author from blowing his wad, and it kept the money out of the hands of Estelle. From this point on, Faulkner kept a severe rein on his wife’s spending, making sure that the wild buying sprees that had caused so much trouble the year before did not continue. He would also discipline himself, so that his finances would remain in control. (Estelle would never have much say about their finances, but she had never expected any influence in this sphere.)

Arriving in New York, Faulkner checked into the Algonquin, spending most days at the publishing house on East Fifty-seventh Street. In the evenings, he often went out with friends, attending dinners and parties. At one large party he saw Sherwood Anderson in the corner, surrounded by admirers. Anderson caught his eye and stared back, refusing to budge. He didn’t come to Faulkner, thinking it better if Faulkner came to him, given their past disagreements. Eventually, Anderson felt a tug at his coat sleeve and saw his younger friend, the short hair now graying, his face lined. Anderson wrote in his Memoirs: “He grinned. ‘Sherwood, what the hell is the matter with you? Do you think that I am also a Hemy?’” Faulkner meant that he had not intended to affront Anderson with his little pamphlet about Anderson in New Orleans—not as Hemingway had attacked Anderson frontally in The Torrents of Spring, a naked parody of his mentor. By this remark, Anderson understood Faulkner’s tone as one of reconciliation.53 For his part, Faulkner thought Anderson seemed “taller, bigger than anything he ever wrote” and referred to his old mentor as “a giant in an earth populated to a great—too great—extent by pigmies, even if he did make but the two or perhaps three gestures commensurate with gianthood,”54 alluding to what he considered Anderson’s most accomplished books: Winesburg, Ohio, The Triumph of the Egg; and Horses and Men.

The visit to New York extended into November, when Estelle wrote to his agent, Morton Goldman, asking about his whereabouts. Her husband had not answered his phone at the Algonquin for three days and his editor at Random House had not seen him in a while. She suspected that, once again, he had tumbled into the dark well of alcholism. Given the presence of Meta Rebner in New York, it was not surprising that Faulkner should seek refuge in alcohol. As it happened, he had come back to the hotel in a state of considerable inebriation one night and lost consciousness in his bathroom, falling against a steam pipe. He was eventually discovered in his underpants, facedown on the tiles of the bathroom floor, insensible. Even worse, he had sustained a horrible burn on his back near his left kidney. It would take years to recover fully from this injury, which required skin grafting and constant attention.

The intense ministrations of a variety of well wishers (including Anderson, who came for a bedside visit) helped Faulkner back onto his feet. One New York acquaintance, Jim Devine, escorted him by train to Memphis on November 16, helping him change the sterile bandages over the wound in the railway toilet; the frazzled travelers were met at the station in Memphis by Estelle, who had by now settled uncomfortably into the role of long-suffering wife. Her husband returned to his routine in Oxford as though nothing had happened, resuming work on the novel that would become The Wild Palms, although his working title was taken from the 137th Psalm: If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem.

There were, as always, family problems that needed attention. Cho-Cho had married a man named Claude Selby, but her marriage had rapidly gone sour, and her husband left her with a young child to look after by herself. She moved back into Rowan Oak in a state of distress, where Faulkner was very gentle with her, reading to the child in the evenings. “He kept me alive,” Cho-Cho later said, remarking on his warm and sympathetic nature, his eagerness to help anyone in trouble. Faulkner also spent a good deal of time with Jill and Malcolm.

The new manuscript, meanwhile, progressed rapidly. “The novel is coming pretty well,” he wrote to Robert Haas just before Christmas. “I found less trouble than I anticipated in getting back into the habit of writing, though I find that at forty I dont write quite as fast as I used to.”55 By December 28 he could write to Jim Devine: “I have about a third of [the novel] done, should come in under the wire May first with my tail up and my eyes flashing; under blankets even.” He also noted that the weather in Oxford was springlike at Christmas, beautiful and balmy. He spent time now in the woods nearby: “My pointer works well and I shoot quail almost every day.”56

Faulkner’s finances became ever more solid when MGM suddenly bought the rights to The Unvanquished, the sale—completed on February 16, 1938—amounted to twenty-five thousand dollars. This was an immense sum for Faulkner, as for anyone at the end of the Great Depression. Distrusting the stock market as a place for investing this money, Faulkner decided he must purchase a farm. After all, the Old Colonel had once had a farm and so had Murry Falkner. Taking a trip to Memphis to visit his brother Johncy, he proposed that he should buy a farm and that Johncy—who was struggling to make a living with a one-plane airline—should manage it. “Bill and I would have to learn how to run the thing together,” recalled Johncy, who began to search in Lafayette County for a suitable farm.

The Unvanquished arrived in bookstores in February and March, with some good notices, with the Christian Science Monitor saying that “once in a while, Mr. Faulkner concedes to the popular taste, and writes in a cheerful vein.”57 The Canadian poet, Earle Birney, writing in Canadian Forum, suggested that “two writers have been struggling with each other for a long time inside the skin of William Faulkner. One of them is a stylized and morbid mystic attempting a sequence of novels on the scale of an epic. The other, the less publicized but more authentic author, is a sharp and brilliant narrator of short stories.”58 Birney found the two Faulkners united in intriguing ways in this sequence of connected stories. Kay Boyle—the brilliant writer of stories, novels, and poems—also discerned “two Faulkners.” She talks about “the one who stayed down South and the one who went to war in France and mixed with foreigners and aviators.”59 Of course the Faulkner who went to war in France was not William.

Faulkner, as always, had numerous critics who couldn’t tolerate his writing. Clifton Fadiman attacked again, and so did the young Alfred Kazin, who wrote in the New York Herald Tribune that Faulkner wrote like “a willful, sullen child in some gaseous world of his own, pouting in polysyllabics, stringing truncated paragraphs together like dirty wash, howling, stumbling, losing himself in verbal murk.” In later years, Kazin recanted: “I didn’t, at first, understand what Faulkner was doing, the nature and scope of his project. It took a while to get used to the rhythms, the diction, the angle of vision. Later, I saw there was genius here, that here was something very special and not easily consumed.”60

In the meantime, Johncy found what he and his brother were looking for: a farm on 320 acres, just seventeen miles from Oxford. It was perfect, in part because this very farm had once belonged to their grandfather, the Young Colonel. Faulkner was quite literally restoring the family name here, adding to his own stature as one who could by virtue of his writing ability translate his success into capital and land. There was a psychological gain here, too—a feeling of himself as a patriarch who, unlike his father, could actually restore the family name, reclaiming lost territory in a literal and figurative sense. There were other good things about this farm. “Bill found more than just a farm out there,” his brother noted. “He found the kind of people he wrote about, hill people. They made their own whiskey from their own corn and didn’t see why that could be anybody else’s business.”61 It was also rather thrilling that Faulkner could think of himself as a farmer. “It was a role he loved,” said his brother. “He had been a lot of different things in his life, and had written about them. But he always liked farming and farmers.” Faulkner christened the place Greenfield Farm and would soon go hunting in the blue-green pines of the hills. He would plant corn and hay in the bottomland, now thick with pine scrub and willow. He wanted, of course, to raise brood mares. “Pappy loved horses, and he loved farming,” his daughter, Jill, noted, “and this was a way of bringing these two loves together.”

Johncy would do most of the work connected to the farm, although he rarely acted without instructions from his brother. Faulkner had other things, more pressing, to absorb his attention. The burn in his back had become infected, and it required skin grafts and constant care. The pain from this injury made it difficult to write, though he kept on with the new manuscript. And he sat back to relish the good reviews of The Unvanquished—something he’d never quite encountered before. It seemed that the resistance to his work was finally giving way; for the first time, the majority of reviewers agreed that Faulkner had written a worthy book, even if it had none of the complexity or originality of The Sound and the Fury, Light in August, As I Lay Dying, or Absalom, Absalom! On the other hand, he remained wary of success, whether commercial or critical. A writer should not think about success at all, he told one interviewer. “Success is feminine. It’s like a woman. You treat her with contempt and she’ll come after you, all fawning and eager, but chase after her and she’ll scorn you.”62

Uncivil Wars

Rivers of brown water, rundown mansions, black slaves, equestrian wars—lazy and cruel: the peculiar world of The Unvanquished is consanguineous with this America and its history.

review of The Unvanquished

“It’s the most accessible of Faulkner’s work, one of his most attractive and accomplished,” said Cleanth Brooks of The Unvanquished, which has not received anything like the attention of Faulkner’s more modernist works.63 Set in northern Mississippi during the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, it provides a good foundation for anyone interested in reading Faulkner. The linked stories fill in the history of the Sartoris clan and lay the groundwork for Yoknapatawpha County. Faulkner yoked seven stories here, six of them already published between 1934 and 1936; the sixth—“Odor of Verbena”—was written purposefully to bind the volume together. Each tale is told by young Bayard Sartoris, which gives the unity of voice and vision that warrant calling the book a novel.

“Ambuscade” opens the volume, introducing Bayard and his black friend, Ringo; they are young adolescents in midsummer of 1863, shortly after the defeats at Vicksburg and Corinth, which opened Mississippi to invasion by the Union army. Creating “a living map” of the Civil War from “a handful of chips from the woodpile, they play at war in the shadows of the real thing.” The tale is set at the Sartoris plantation, managed by their grandmother, Rosa Millard, the mother-in-law of John Sartoris. The story concerns what happens when the boys take potshots at a Yankee officer; he comes to the plantation house to investigate, and the boys hide under Granny Millard’s skirts. The officer is a gentleman, and so he cannot peer under a lady’s skirts, but the fact that the boys hide there is profoundly ironic; they go where in normal circumstances they would never be allowed, breaching her privacy. (There is, of course, a strong note in southern fiction from Thomas Nelson Page onward in which women allow the breakdown of decorum in order to ensure further stability, to preserve order.)

“Retreat” follows, and as the title suggests, it concerns the overwhelming of the Confederacy by Northern troops. Granny Rosa frets about the family silver, which has symbolic value for her and the Sartoris clan. Once again the boys get involved in exploits beyond their years, helping to catch some Yankee soldiers. This leads to backlash and the burning of the Sartoris mansion. A wily slave named Loosh collaborates with the Union army, leading them to the family treasure, and finds himself a free man. In the revision of this chapter, Faulkner added two characters, the brothers Buck and Buddy McCaslin, who would figure crucially in his later fiction.

In “Raid,” the most vividly realized chapter of this book of linked tales, Granny and the boys chase after the Yankees, demanding compensation for her lost treasure, which she describes to a Yankee officer: “The chest of silver tied with hemp rope. The rope was new. Two darkies, Loosh and Philadelphy. The mules, Old hundred and Tinney.”64 It’s a peculiar trove, to say the least, but highly charged with meaning. In the course of their journey, they visit Drusilla Hawk at the Hawkhurst plantation. Drusilla is one of Faulkner’s great female characters, a Confederate Joan of Arc. Her fiancé has been killed at Shiloh, and she brims with revenge fantasies. Vaguely masculine in affect, she has rough hands and rides a horse well and shoots a gun with accuracy and relish. Her dream is to enlist in the cavalry, presided over by her cousin, Colonel Sartoris, who has been built up by Faulkner into a vision of elegance, power, and daring. Miss Rosa, a persistent woman, soon persuades a Union officer, Col. Nathaniel Dick, to pay for her family’s losses. Some comic negotiations lead to massive overpayment by the Yankees—a ruse that leaves Granny with a chit for a large number of mules and horses (as well as silver). Faulkner obviously relished this turn, where he writes with a poker face in a fine comic mode. But the story has a serious underside, with its vivid portrait of the mass hysteria that followed in the immediate wake of this war, focusing on the newly freed but disoriented slaves who trooped along dust clogged roads in the fantastic belief that General Sherman was leading them to the Jordan River.

The comedy of errors over Granny’s treasure continues in the next story, “Riposte in Tertio,” where Ab Snopes (father of Flem, a memorable character who features importantly in the Snopes trilogy to come) manages to sell the horses and mules given to Granny in compensation back to the Union army for almost seven thousand dollars. Granny delights in this coup, and though she uses some of the money wisely, helping the destitute, she seems abnormally inflated by her own daring. Hubris takes over, and Granny conspires with Snopes to pull off a further ruse, in which she uses a forged chit to take possession of four horses from a gang of southern war scavengers known as Grumby’s Independents. The boys try to stop her, aware that she has gotten into the muck over her head. She refuses to listen and winds up murdered by Grumby at their rendezvous near a deserted cotton press. Bayard’s description is unforgettable: “I couldn’t seem to breathe for the smell of the powder, looking at Granny. She had looked little alive, but now she looked like she had collapsed, like she had been made out of a lot of little thin dry light sticks notched together and braced with cord, and now the cord had broken and all the little sticks had collapsed in a quiet heap on the floor, and somebody had spread a clean and faded calico dress over them.”65 This totalizing image draws many strands together in a single gesture.

“Vendée” comes next, a revenge story in which Bayard and Ringo hunt down and murder Grumby for killing Granny. With a lovely touch of Faulknerian macabre, the boys slice off his right hand, the one he used to murder Granny; they nail this hand to her grave marker, which is made of wood. “Now she can lay good and quiet,” says Ringo. Their grisly task accomplished, they dissolve in tears, collapsing into the children they really are. A similar act of revenge follows in “Skirmish at Sartoris” as Sartoris shoots Calvin Burden and his grandson—Burden is an abolitionist who migrated to Missouri and then came to Mississippi to promote the idea of black voting. (This murder story is also found in Light in August.) Despite the violence, this tale is comparatively lighthearted; it features Drusilla once again. Having had her extraordinary experience of war, she has come to live with Sartoris, assisting him as he resurrects the plantation after the war has ended. The yammering ladies of Jefferson believe that Drusilla must actually marry John Sartoris to make her an honest woman (even though Drusilla has not compromised herself with the Colonel, as the ladies assume). She gives in to their pressure, and the story ends in marriage.

Any happiness accrued in “Skirmish at Sartoris” is discharged in the final story, “Odor at Verbena,” in the pages of which John Sartoris is killed, and his son Bayard, a young man of twenty-four, seeks revenge. Just as the Old Colonel was shot by a business partner turned rival in 1889, Sartoris is brought down by Ben Redmond in the public square in Jefferson. This death forces Bayard to contemplate the strange, disruptive, often violent career of his father. Bayard’s stepmother, Drusilla, insists that he must get his revenge, much as years before he had hunted down the murderer of Granny Millard. Even Aunt Jenny du Pre, a sensible and more modest woman than Drusilla, understands that Bayard’s manhood is at stake here. He must confront Ben Redmond.

The climactic scene is stunningly realized as Bayard, unarmed, faces down Redmond in his office. Redmond takes a couple of shots, missing his target intentionally. Then he closes the office, walks to the train depot, and leaves on the southbound train, never to return. Poor Drusilla leaves Jefferson as well, bound for Alabama, although she gives her stepson a gift in parting: a sprig of verbena, a symbol of regeneration. As Cleanth Brooks observes, this final story brings the education of Bayard Sartoris to conclusion as he passes a rite of initiation, accepting “the moral responsibility that goes with manhood.”

What stands out in The Unvanquished is Faulkner’s even hand throughout the telling. He does not privilege white or black, Union or Confederate soldier. If anything, the black boy Ringo seems more intelligent and forceful than his white friend. In “Riposte at Tertio” it is Ringo, in fact, who discerns Ab Snopes’s true nature and who understands that Granny has been sold out. Going against the conventions of the time, Ringo refuses to call Ab “Mister,” upsetting Granny, who tells him to use the right form of address to his superior. With one or two exceptions, Faulkner—or his narrator, Bayard—treats slaves and ex-slaves respectfully. While the boys, especially at the outset of the book, romanticize the Old South and the Civil War, the realities of the war and its devastating effect on the old order become apparent, and a crucial aspect of this book concerns the maturing vision of Bayard as he comes to understand the true nature of the war and what it unmasks. Faulkner also explores the damaging effects of Reconstruction in the later stories here, showing how the effort to put up black candidates for public office in the immediate wake of the Civil War was destined to lay the groundwork for prejudice and violence in the New South. The symbolic ballot box is carried off by Sartoris and his men, thus forestalling the rule of law.

From a biographer’s point of view, this collection of linked tales offers numerous interesting angles. For a start, Faulkner struggles once again with the dominant figure in his imagination, the Old Colonel, whom he has revisited in several novels thus far. This version of Sartoris is severely diminished, from the John Sartoris of Flags in the Dust. Even so, Sartoris stands in for Faulkner, a projection onto the screen of fiction of his “grandiose self,” as psychologists say. Sartoris is “a little man” like Faulkner, though he appears huge on his horse, Jupiter, with a cocked hat “beneath the arcy and myriad glitter” of his sabre, appearing to all who view him as “bigger than most folks could hope to look.” Young Bayard studies him with obsessive attention to detail, relishing even “the odor in his clothes and beard and flesh too.” He finds in his father’s body odors “the smell of powder and glory.”66

Faulkner’s divided views about the Old and New Souths also emerge in these tales, as he attempts to reconcile competing visions within himself. As a child, he had the same romantic notion of warriors on horseback that captivates young Bayard Sartoris and his friend, Ringo. He liked the paternalism fostered by the system of slavery, and sentimentalized relations between blacks and whites. But the mature Faulkner understood the destructive nature of slavery and saw that the southern cavaliers were deluded, putting too much emphasis on heroics and paternalism. He realized that by taking the law into their own hands during the era of Reconstruction, white men like John Sartoris (or Thomas Sutpen) had undermined their own world, reinforcing divisions within the system that would continue to plague this region for an indefinite period.