Mississippi's Man of Letters
By James Busbee
SEPTEMBER 29, 1997: One hundred years ago William Faulkner was born, and since then, nothing about Southern literature and culture has ever been the same. Like no writer since Shakespeare, William Faulkner created in his writing a legacy that will forever define his native land. In the 34 years since his death, Faulkner's critical reputation has only grown, and the country farmer from rural north Mississippi has become an ambassador for and avatar of the American South for the entire world. This weekend, celebrations across the globe will commemorate the man and his work.
Born in New Albany, Mississippi, on September 25, 1897, Faulkner lived most of his life in Oxford. He was something of an eccentric in his early days -- Oxforders nicknamed him "Count No 'Count," and laughed when he returned from service in World War I (which ended before he saw combat) with a faked injury and a brand-new British accent. After early attempts at poetry, Faulkner looked to his home territory and found inspiration for fiction. "I discovered that my little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it," he once said.
Faulkner created Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, loosely based on Lafayette County, and found enough inspiration there for dozens of novels and hundreds of short stories. Yoknapatawpha is filled with dauntingly tangled family relations, decaying antebellum mansions, miscegenation, violence, fear, and hatred. But in Faulkner's work, the hope of salvation is always present. In his famous Nobel Prize speech, Faulkner said that "man will not merely endure; he will prevail. He is immortal...because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance."
Faulkner's novels and short stories are graceful, tragic works. Light In August (1932) is the story of Joe Christmas, a racially mixed man seeking identity in an intolerant society. The Sound and the Fury (1928) uses multiple narrators to tell the story of doomed, helpless old established Southern families adrift in the new South. "A Rose For Emily" (1929), perhaps Faulkner's best-known work, remains the quintessential Southern gothic horror story, an eerie tale of an old Southern spinster who can't quite let go of the past.
Like many writers challenging the status quo, Faulkner's proper appreciation was slow in coming. He toiled for years in obscurity; only three years before he won the Nobel Prize, virtually all of his books were out of print. To make money, he spent several soul-draining years in Hollywood churning out screenplays. But his critical acclaim remained strong in Europe. Literary notables such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus championed Faulkner's work, and after he won the Nobel Prize in 1950, Faulkner found his home country had at last warmed to him. He spent his later years in Charlottesville, Virginia, and died in Blytheville, Mississippi, in July 1963.
Faulkner came along at a critical time in the South's history. As a child, he listened to the stories of elders who could recall the days before the Civil War. But during his lifetime, Faulkner witnessed the rebirth of the South, economically, politically, and socially. Though he died before the civil-rights movement fully blossomed, he saw, long before his contemporaries, its seeds developing all around him.
"Faulkner was a Southerner who looked with an unflinching gaze at the white Southern community, and simply wrote about that community, with all its inconsistencies, problems, and racism, in an honest fashion," says John Duvall, a professor of English at the University of Memphis specializing in Faulkner studies.
"Today, we're willing to acknowledge that he was very critical of his South," Duvall says. Many of Faulkner's contemporaries "wanted to make Faulkner safe for the South, a champion of Southern values. But now we can see that he's not simply celebrating the cohesive agrarian community, but in fact is putting it under a microscope."
Though Faulkner set most of his fiction in northern Mississippi, the city of Memphis held a special place in his heart. He visited its seamier districts as a young man, and the impressions remained with him for the rest of his life. In Faulkner's fiction, "Memphis is a crucial site, almost a mythic site," Duvall says. "Memphis is the Big City, the promised land of sin and delight."
In Sanctuary, Faulkner's most violent novel, a bootlegger kidnaps a young Ole Miss coed and brings her to Memphis to work in a riverfront whorehouse. Sanctuary's Memphis is a city of "smoke- grimed frame houses with tiers of wooden galleries, set a little back in grassless plots, with now and then a forlorn and hardy tree of some shabby species -- gaunt, lopbranched magnolias, a stunted elm or a locust in grayish, cadaverous bloom," with an overall appearance of "a sinister and meaningless photograph poorly made."
But Memphis had its softer side for Faulkner as well. He spent afternoons at The Peabody, and in the 1950s, it was here that he would meet a young writer named Joan Williams. Williams, who still lives and writes in Memphis, became Faulkner's protege, and remained his friend and confidant for the rest of his days.
Since his death, Faulkner has achieved literary sainthood. Light In August and The Sound and the Fury remain required reading in most universities. Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison has embraced Faulkner for his empathy for the plight of the Southern lower classes. No Southern writer today can escape Faulkner's shadow. Faulkner criticism, conferences, and even Web sites continue to proliferate each year. Rowan Oak, Faulkner's Oxford home, is a popular tourist stop preserved exactly as Faulkner left it, down to the outline of the novel "A Fable" Faulkner scrawled on his office walls.
Centennial celebrations are taking place literally all over the globe, including Russia, Japan and France. In Mississippi, New Albany and Oxford will host a full slate of events this weekend, including symposiums and recollections of Faulkner's life and work. In New Albany, actor John Maxwell will perform his one-man play "Oh, Mr. Faulkner, Do You Write?" and musicians will perform a song cycle based on Faulkner's As I Lay Dying.
"When I first met him, he was
discouraged, believing that he wouldn't leave an impact on the
world," Williams recalls. "I think he'd be proud [of
all the centennial celebrations]. He would act like it didn't
matter, but secretly, I think he really would have been
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