American author William 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.”
Carl Rollyson, Professor Emeritus at Baruch College of The City University of New York, has published numerous biographies of literary figures such as Sylvia Plath, Susan Sontag, Lillian Hellman, Amy Lowell, Rebecca West, and Norman Mailer. His writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New Criterion, and the Washington Post. His latest effort is a two-volume biography of Faulkner, The Life of William Faulkner: The Past Is Never Dead, 1897-1934, and The Life of William Faulkner: This Alarming Paradox, 1935-1962.
Simply Charly: Your recent two-volume set on the life and work of American novelist William Faulkner may be your most ambitious work to date. Can you tell us about the genesis of this project and why you felt it was important to add your own contribution to an already resplendent supply of Faulkner biographies?
Carl Rollyson: I certainly did not intend to write a two-volume biography or, in fact, a biography of Faulkner. I began reading him in the late 1960s as an undergraduate at Michigan State University under the supervision of the great Southern literature scholar, M. Thomas Inge. Then at the University of Toronto, I did a dissertation, Uses of the Past in the Novels of William Faulkner (1975), directed by the distinguished scholar and biographer, Michael Millgate. I went on to write several biographies, not thinking I would return to Faulkner. But in 2005, I wrote a review of Jay Parini’s Faulkner biography and read all the other Faulkner biographies. By then, I had done much work in Hollywood and it struck me that none of the biographers dealt with Faulkner’s screenwork seriously or even imagined any of it might have had an impact on his fiction. Nearing retirement and my last sabbatical, I decided there was room for another Faulkner biography, pulling together all of his work as a writer, while also bringing out elements of his family life and marriage that I felt other biographers had discounted. Fairly late in my conception of the biography, I realized I could not do justice to my comprehensive approach without dividing it into two volumes.
SC: You were fortunate to inherit the work of seminal Faulkner biographer Joseph Blotner, who spent 10 years assembling a portrait, albeit authorized, of the Southern writer. What material did you cull from his work to mold your own narrative?
CR: No Faulkner biographer can proceed without consulting Blotner. Because of his interviews and proximity to the family, he established an indispensable record, although it is one that can be corrected and amplified. Rather than rely on just Blotner’s polished narrative, I went to his archive at the Center for Faulkner Studies, where I could read the raw data, so to speak—the notes from his interviews, and certain speculations that he sometimes presented in more anodyne form in his published biography.
SC: While Blotner’s biography treated his subject with a reverence that sometimes bordered on hagiography, does your own treatment offer a more critical view by including “warts and all” as Oliver Cromwell famously put it?
CR: Yes, mine is a “warts and all” biography. As the novelist’s daughter, Jill Faulkner, said in an interview, Blotner told all sorts of “white lies” to protect her family. I deal much more palpably with Faulkner’s sex life and his drinking, describing his pornographic drawings and his lover Meta Carpenter’s account of their affair. I thought my approach was necessary not only to capture the whole man, but also to connect the erotic nature of his writing in novels such as The Wild Palms and certain passages in the Snopes trilogy. A biography these days also has to be honest about his views on race. In his fiction, he was a groundbreaker in treating the humanity of African Americans. But in interviews and other statements, he presented contradictory and sometimes even racist attitudes.
SC: Do you feel that a biographer should have some distance from their subject in order to evaluate the life as objectively as possible?
CR: The biographer has to think of his biographical subject as a subject—not a friend, a hero, or a villain who requires debunking. Distance with empathy is perhaps the formulation a biographer can accept. I think in some respect Blotner was handicapped because he felt he owed a certain deference to the family and to some interviewees.
SC: Another treasure trove of sources came from Carvel Collins, an English professor who since 1948 until his death in 1990 assiduously collected every detail about Faulkner that he could get his hands on—a truly obsessive quest. What did you find of interest in his collection?
CR: I went through all 105 boxes of the Carvel Collins collection at the Humanities Research Center in Austin, Texas. Over decades he accumulated a series of interviews with Faulkner and his family members, with other Faulkner friends and co-workers in Hollywood. He also established a close relationship with Meta Carpenter, who was unusually candid and told Collins many things she did not include in her own memoir, A Loving Gentleman. The indefatigable Collins seemed to interview everyone from noteworthy literary figures to the staff of the Algonquin Hotel, Faulkner’s favorite place to stay in New York City. As I say in my biography, the Carvel Collins papers add considerable texture to the story I have to tell.
SC: Faulkner was, by all accounts, a fabulist. He invented stories about his past and manufactured his carefully constructed sartorial image. How were you able to separate fact from fiction, to arrive at a more accurate picture of your subject?
CR: Of course other biographers have exposed Faulkner’s fabulations, so they gave me a head start, so to speak. Scholars like Michael Millgate combed records and showed Faulkner had not even gotten off the ground in flight school in Toronto, although he came home limping and with a cane, talking about his war wounds. In looking at the archives of his friends and associates, checking dates, following certain patterns in Faulkner’s behavior, I could often tell when he was giving an unreliable interview or exaggerating a story.
SC: It is said that behind every great man, there’s a great woman, and Estelle Faulkner, you argue, played a larger role in her husband’s life than previous biographers have supposed. What evidence swayed you to bring her into bolder relief?
CR: Estelle wrote fiction, and my biography shows that her exploration of racial themes actually antedated Faulkner’s interest in them. They even collaborated on a few stories. Blotner and others acknowledged these facts, but not until scholar Judith Sensibar began to look closely at Estelle Faulkner’s fiction and experience in the Far East, did I realize how much Estelle contributed to Faulkner’s global understanding of human relationships. By looking at some unpublished remarks of other Faulkner family members I could also see what an accomplished homemaker and mother Estelle, for all her lapses into alcohol, proved to be. Unlike Faulkner, she eventually sobered up. She was a gifted artist, too, painting stunning landscapes.
SC: Faulkner produced some of the most innovative and enduring works of the 20th century, winning the Nobel Prize in 1949 “for his powerful and artistically unique contribution to the modern American novel.” But unlike his contemporaries such as Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, his prose style remains a barrier of entry for many. His use of modern modes of narration, namely through his use of the interior monologue, multiple narrators, stream-of-consciousness narrative, and displacement of time can be particularly jarring for first-time readers. Can you recommend a path that would make one’s entry into Faulkner’s fictional world a little easier?
CR: I would say the entryway into Faulkner is through Light in August. It is one of his greatest novels, but most readers find it easier to read than, say, The Sound and the Fury or Absalom, Absalom! Also, don’t neglect his short stories, which are quite accessible. After all, remember this is a writer published in The Saturday Evening Post and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Another way into Faulkner would be to read Philip Weinstein’s Simply Faulkner volume. It is incisive and for readers just coming to Faulkner, he provides an authoritative and lucid introduction.
SC: The Sound and the Fury, first published in 1929, was one of Faulkner’s favorite books, and the one he said was “the greatest I’ll ever write.” It was immediately praised for its innovative narrative technique, twice adapted for film—in 1959 and 2014—and in 1998, the Modern Library ranked it the sixth greatest English-language novel of the 20th century. Why do you think this book, in particular, has resonated with so many?
CR: It is a dazzling novel. The first section, told from the point of view of an idiot, confounds readers, to begin with, but it is so full of brilliant imagery and a sense of wonder about the world, so that some readers persevere and begin to understand this is the world that Benjy Compson—who has been three years old for thirty years—sees. Then you switch to the neurasthenic Quentin, a Hamlet-like figure, situated not only in the South, but also at Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is the family scion who cannot cope with being the family standard-bearer. Switch then to Jason’s section. He is crass, materialistic, grasping, and wickedly funny. And finally, there is the last section with Dilsey, the family servant who endures and tries to protect Benjy and the women of the family, taking the place of the hapless mother. I think many readers identify with the novel about a dysfunctional family and know relatives just like the Compsons.
SC: Another aspect of Faulkner’s life you emphasize but that previous biographers have played down as “a mere hiccup in his biography,” as one writer put it, is his foray in Hollywood as a scriptwriter. What did Hollywood see in a modernist like Faulkner? And how did this dalliance with Tinseltown influence his writing?
CR: Hollywood, in the first place, wanted Faulkner the way it wanted any writer of his caliber: for prestige. Soon, however, it turned out that while he could be aloof and recalcitrant, he was a spectacular collaborator. He did not put on airs. He was brought in to fix up scripts and he did so quickly and without complaint. He regarded all writing as a job to be well done, although he did sometimes worry that he might turn into a hack. Instead, he brought themes of films like Drums Along the Mohawk, which he turned into a story about how men and women cope with the frontier, into his fiction—notably The Wild Palms. And sometimes he did the opposite, he invented new characters in his Yoknapatawpha County for Hollywood screenplays. Rather than separating what he did as a writer, he amalgamated, although he never revealed as much in his interviews, where he usually disparaged his Hollywood scripts.
SC: Many rank Absalom, Absalom! as Faulkner’s greatest achievement. It’s also his most challenging, not the least of which because it contains one of the longest run-on sentences in literary history at just under 1,300 words. What is your take on this book, and how do you compare it to the rest of Faulkner’s oeuvre?
CR: I think Absalom, Absalom! is Faulkner’s greatest novel. In it, he creates a great character, Charles Bon, who is apparently of mixed blood but acts with such panache that whites find him irresistible. He bears more than a passing resemblance to Barack Obama. In effect, so it is ultimately shown in the novel, Bon’s father rejects himself because of his mixed blood, even though Bon is clearly the most intelligent character in the book, a worldly man of great sophistication who shatters the idea of the tragic mulatto. Again he reminds me of Obama, who called himself a “mongrel.” Absalom, Absalom! is a novel about how we interpret our history, how each generation tells a new story about the past, which becomes, or can become a liberating force, as the Canadian Shreve tried to tell the dour Quentin, mired into his obsession with Southern defeat. I can’t think of a novel that is more relevant to today.
SC: Race and class were dominant themes in Faulkner’s work. With the recent rise in racial tensions around the globe, what can we learn from reading Faulkner?
CR: Read The Sound and the Fury, Light in August, Absalom, Absalom!, and Go Down, Moses, four novels that squarely look at the toll racism has taken on this nation. Faulkner, the man, is not a good guide to the present moment. His public statements are contradictory and sometimes retrograde, although he did understand the future in this sense: America would have to reckon with a world of color if it was to fulfill the promises of democracy. Just recently I have realized that A Fable is actually an important guide to crowd power, public demonstrations, which have at least the potential to save the nation when our institutions and leaders seem to fail us.