Southern Charm: Thomas McHaney on William Faulkner’s “Incredibly Apt” Vocabulary

Thomas McHaney
Thomas McHaney

WiIliam Faulkner (1897-1962) became famous for his novels set in the American South, often in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County. In 1949 he won the Nobel Prize in Literature for “his powerful and artistically unique contribution to the modern American novel."

Professor Emeritus of American Literature and Literature of the South at Georgia State University, Thomas McHaney is the author of several publications about William Faulkner.

Q: What first drew you to Faulkner?

A: I grew up and attended school in a small cotton town on the banks of the Mississippi River in Mississippi County, Arkansas, 50 miles north of Memphis, Tennessee. My parents divorced before I remember living with them both, and I spent my summers in Tupelo, Mississippi, with my father and stepmother. Like many young Southerners, I was taught—or repeatedly urged—to behave politely. I applied this virtue to everyone: white sharecropper families, the people who worked for my grandparents, people suppressed by white politics, white religion, and other misguided ideas about race. By the time I was 12, as I recall, I referred to all the people discriminated against because of so-called race by using their full names—i.e., John Anderson, not John or his nickname, Watermelon. This was my first act of protest and respect since I couldn’t “mister” or “misses” these people whose friendship and care had meant so much to me. They were supposed to call me, a young boy, Mister Tommy.

This life in the South would lead me eventually to the deep study and teaching of a very broadly considered Southern literature and especially to a career-long immersion in the writing life of William Faulkner, two connected worlds that I came to understand early, though I did not discover either the importance or the value of Southern Studies for quite a while.

My Arkansas hometown had no library, and my summer home’s library in Tupelo was dark and foreboding, so I acquired my first books thanks to holiday presents and exchanges with a few friends. I became a reader of boy adventure novels—Tom Swift, The Hardy Boys, and Rich Brandt Electronic Adventures. When I exhausted that vein, I bought science fiction paperbacks at the local drugstores.

Often utopian or dystopian, ironic, liberal, and sometimes philosophic, science fiction fed my sense of justice and injustice, but it also misguided me into the study of electrical engineering, a choice that faded after three years in college when I discovered the university’s “Browsing Room” library and began to read world literature. My new literary interests, which took three more years of college, prompted me to change majors to philosophy and foreign languages. This turned out well, but not right away, as regards my now deep involvement with the career of William Faulkner. I read the French, German, Irish, and American writers—including Gustave Flaubert, Thomas Mann, James Joyce, and Thomas Wolfe—long before I discovered Faulkner.

One might say this was preparation, and more or less unknown to me at the time were those Southern affinities already in place. My father, who died when I was ten years old, had attended the University of Mississippi when Faulkner was writing his first great novels in Oxford (and on the Ole Miss campus, in fact). My stepmother’s family had produced a Mississippi Congressman who ran after the Civil War as “Private John Allen,” since he was a 15-year-old scout in the war, and his opponents were high-ranking officers. During an extended illness leading up to his early death, my father had operated a lending library in the family home in Tupelo; he rented out Faulkner’s novels as well as many other Southern works, but I inherited none of that. Much later, my stepmother married into a family in Ripley, Mississippi, where Col. W. C. Falkner, the great-grandfather who is the model for Faulkner’s Col. Sartoris, lived and died. She owned the bed Col. Falkner had died in when he was shot by a former railroad business partner. I slept in that bed during the Christmas I decided to write a Master’s thesis on William Faulkner and his appropriation of Col. Falkner’s story.

The director of my M.A. thesis on William Faulkner’s use of the railroad persuaded me to apply for a job teaching at Ole Miss, where for two years I researched Faulkner some more. I then entered a Ph.D. program at the University of South Carolina, where my Faulkner mentor had moved. I studied comparative literature and wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on Faulkner’s novel The Wild Palms; which became my first book.

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