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.”
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.
Simply Charly: What first drew you to Faulkner?
Thomas McHaney: 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 Rick Brant 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.
SC: Early in his career, Faulkner wrote poetry. When assessing Faulkner’s career, it seems that these works are hardly ever discussed by scholars. Why?
TM: From the time he was about 16, Faulkner was trained in modern poetry by a young Oxford, Mississippi lawyer named Phil Stone. Stone had two degrees from both the University of Mississippi and Yale University. He subscribed to the revolutionary literary magazines of the early 20th century, and he maintained an account with the Brick Row Bookstore in New Haven from which he ordered books for his young protégé to read. Stone paid for the production of Faulkner’s first book, a collection of poems titled The Marble Faun, released in 1924. It meant a lot to Stone and Faulkner but attracted very little notice, and the next year Faulkner turned his attention to the novel, with encouragement from the writer Sherwood Anderson. Faulkner’s second collection of poetry, The Green Bough, was published in 1933 when he was a well-established writer of fiction with seven novels in print. Several essays and a few books about Faulkner’s poetry career do exist, but the main interest for his readers is what the early poems show about his reading of the English romantics or such modernists as T. S. Eliot, E. E. Cummings, and others (A. E. Housman, Robinson Jeffers, Edgar Lee Masters). Faulkner’s fearless play with language in his fiction, and his evocative portrayals of deep feeling through his characters’ voices and lives, appear to owe much to his having been, as he would himself later say, “a failed poet.”
SC: Perhaps more than any other Faulkner work, the novel that is widely acknowledged to be his masterpiece is The Sound and The Fury. It’s also the one that Faulkner loved best. What is it about this work that has resonated with so many?
TM: The Sound and the Fury was, indeed, Faulkner’s favorite novel and is rightly regarded internationally by the most discerning critics and writers of fiction as a triumph in the genre of the novel. Much under the spell of James Joyce in its application of a rich mythical method that includes hunks of the New Testament—but also Dante, John Milton, Henri Bergson, Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust, and even Albert Einstein and Helen Keller—The Sound and the Fury, in the hands of a patient reader, is a lyrical and heartbreaking drama about a family that in four generations has descended from a kind of Southern grandeur into frustration, meanness, poverty, and death. Each of the four chapters cruelly parodies one of the four days of the sacred Christian weekend that moves from Maundy Thursday, through Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday, but not in that order. Whole lives are revealed in the radically different streams of memory expressed by the three Compson brothers, all of them fixated more on their absent sister Caddy than on any Christian matters. Omniscience rules the fourth section and, perhaps reflecting the whole idea of where omniscience might truly lie in a Christian mind, exposes some compensating glimpses of belief in something eternal, in charity, in hope, though that is not how the novel ends.
Faulkner drew heavily on his own childhood memories as one of three brothers in a household with his female cousin Sally Murry Wilkins, her widowed mother, and also with one of his grandmothers, both of whom died within six months of one another—one near Easter, the other around Christmas; the two holidays are the initial poles of the opening section of the novel. The anecdote given in fragments in the first section (from the mind of the afflicted child Benjy Compson), refers to a day when three little boys and a little girl, their fearless sister, are sent away from the house and not told why (their grandmother has died and a wake is being held).
One can find many ways to see why this book meant so much to Faulkner, but it also taught him to write fearlessly out of his incredibly rich memory and his equally incredible repertoire of poetical language filtered through the consciousness of flawed but fascinating characters.
SC: In a 1956 Paris Review interview, Faulkner was asked: “Some people say they can’t understand your writing, even after they read it two or three times. What approach would you suggest for them?” Faulkner’s response was: “Read it four times.” Although some may find his answer a little glib, might there not be a truth concealed behind it that suggests that his work generously rewards rereading?
TM: Faulkner suggested that The Sound and the Fury (and, by extension, many of his other works) had to be re-read. The author of the much-misunderstood Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov, would, in effect, second this idea when he said that great books could not be read, they can only be re-read. This is something most music lovers and artists would understand as well. You must experience certain art forms more than once to begin to fully absorb the feeling, the detail, the nature of the representation, the craft, the genius, and so on. Nabokov, if I remember right, also said that the ideal reader was an insomniac with perfect recall.
Faulkner, who had early ambitions in art (and bases more than one scene in The Sound and the Fury on a painting he had seen in the Louvre in 1925—Nicolas Poussin’s “The Shepherds of Arcadia,” clearly meant that his first “great” novel was a masterwork that required, and deserved, re-reading.
SC: Much has been made of Faulkner’s complex writing style and taboo subject matter. How did he arrive at his style and subject matter?
TM: As I mentioned above, both style and content in, say, The Sound and the Fury, were inspired by events in his own life and projected through different kinds of the so-called “stream-of-consciousness” style already used, successfully, by writers such as James Joyce and Virginia Wolfe. How he continued to revise modernist frankness about human existence and the infinite variety of what we might call simply “voice” in his writing is a reflection of his gift of genius, his ambition to be as good as the best, and his refusal to ever re-read or in any sense copy anything he had already achieved. This made him, in the words of one of the great Latin American writers, “the Picasso of Literature.” And art historians have noted that in the Picasso museum in Paris, for example, there are multiple works in each room that reflect, in effect, a different Picasso.
SC: Though Faulkner had published a remarkable and very different novel almost every year between 1926 and 1942, by the mid-1940s, his hard-cover novels were, with one exception, out of print, and his personal life, shifting back and forth between Oxford, Mississippi, and Hollywood, was at a very low ebb. Why do you think Faulkner lost his footing during this period?
TM: During those 17 years of increasingly different circumstances under which he still wrote remarkable novels and some of the most distinguished short stories in the world, Faulkner faced, and in some ways overcame, a series of family and financial crises. As the Depression worsened during the year, he published Sartoris and The Sound and the Fury; his publishers sometimes failed to pay the small royalties he was due because his art was no better received financially than a great deal of avant-garde art. Magazine articles and screenwriting for Hollywood were more profitable, and that might have been okay if Faulkner had lived a truly bohemian life. But in 1929, he married Estelle Oldham, the woman he had been deeply in love with when he was 18 or so; she now was a 30-year-old divorcee with two children and little or no financial resources, living with her parents in Oxford. Faulkner was a year younger and had held only a couple of jobs: briefly as a booking clerk in his grandfather’s bank and as a “second class postmaster” on the Ole Miss Campus, where over three years he became notorious for his indifference to his customers. (This story was created by Faulkner and his mentor Phil Stone in order to get him fired. This way, he could take his little book of poems to New Orleans, and Europe in search of the kind of success writers such as Robert Frost or Ernest Hemingway had found abroad).
No longer truly in love, Faulkner and Estelle had a hard time finding a minister who would marry a divorced woman. On their honeymoon in a beachfront cottage owned by Phil Stone’s brother, Faulkner read a proof of The Sound and the Fury, and according to one story, Estelle began walking into the Gulf of Mexico and had to be pulled back. When the newlyweds returned to Oxford, they rented rooms in a beautiful old house on one of the main thoroughfares leading into the University of Mississippi, and Faulkner, whose father was the university’s business manager, took a job as the night supervisor of the power plant that provided electricity to the campus. In a little office in that building, he wrote As I Lay Dying with the ambition that it would not “shame” The Sound and the Fury—and it didn’t. The couple lost their first child, born prematurely. In 1932, Faulkner’s father died, leaving him the major responsibility for his mother’s financial well-being. In 1935, with some movie money and the hope of greater success, Faulkner bought an airplane in which his youngest and favorite brother would die while selling joy rides to local farmers. Faulkner took on the care of his sister-in-law and her yet-unborn daughter, whom he would support in different ways for the rest of her life. After publishing The Hamlet in 1940 and another misunderstood masterpiece, Go Down, Moses, in 1942, Faulkner was spending more time on screenwriting, maintaining two households, one in Oxford and one in California, and became deeply affected by the ongoing war overseas. His father-in-law died in 1945; later he gave financial support to his old mentor, Phil Stone, and, variously, to the family of his young brother John. And then there were Faulkner’s deep feelings about the war, an effort he tried to join but didn’t. He found a release for his feelings in A Fable, a novel set in World War I in France, an idea like the “Grand Inquisitor” section of The Brothers Karamazov that he would labor on for nearly 15 years.
SC: In the late 50s, Faulkner was writer-in-residence at the University of Virginia, giving lectures and question-and-answer sessions. The record of these encounters suggests a disconnect between what the students read into Faulkner’s novels and his own views of them. From your experience as a teacher, do you find that students read too much into the novels?
TM: Early on, Faulkner developed an artificial persona of a farmer who accidentally wrote novels; it wasn’t his only persona, but it was good for the newspapers, as well as for people in New York who assumed that all Southerners were like characters in an Erskine Caldwell novel, and that the only smart writers were raising hell in the city and talking philosophical trash to one another. To teach Faulkner, you have to persuade people to read him confidently, more than once, and play along with his little joke but understand the deception. So, if the second chapter of his first novel is a pretty literal paraphrase of Freud’s chapter on the psychological revelation in a significant misquotation, and his second novel is a Freudian sexual comedy, and The Sound and the Fury is as allusive as Joyce’s Ulysses—a copy of which was once spotted next to his typewriter by a reporter whom he had just told he had never read Joyce—then Faulkner is to be regarded as a modernist genius equal to Joyce and Eliot.
SC: What surprising new findings have you uncovered about Faulkner’s life and work as an editor of the 24 volumes of facsimiles of Faulkner manuscripts housed primarily at the University of Virginia and in the New York Public Library?
TM: Looking at Faulkner’s hand-written drafts, as well as the typescripts this two-finger typist made in revising them, one is repeatedly struck by the literal and patient craft of writing: his holographs are on unlined white paper, and each handwritten page generates a couple or more typescript pages—so small and hieroglyphic is his longhand. The lines of writing, in ink and probably with an accountant’s fine-nibbed pen, are ruler-straight across the page. The typescripts, done on two different portable typewriters, are equally careful, and sometimes Faulkner had used scissors to cut out a passage he was satisfied with, pasted it on a blank sheet that he put into the typewriter, and wrote up to or away from this “saved” passage.
In other words, he was as much a craftsman as brilliant painters who draft sketches and then apply paint to canvas.
Also, though we don’t know whether Faulkner saved every sheet of paper on which he worked, these neat manuscript drafts confirm that in each work he knew what he was doing and where he was going. Faulkner once told Albert Einstein, during a meeting at Princeton, that he heard voices, and we can only suppose that those voices owed much to his voluminous reading as a boy, a young man, and an established writer. His advice to young writers, which in a sense gave the necessary lie to his pose as a country farmer who didn’t know what his agent did with his literary production, was to read everything, each book, the way a goat eats paper.
The manuscripts actually take up 44 volumes—that is, almost each of the 24 sections is comprised of several volumes to accommodate small drafts of material, full holograph manuscripts, full typescripts, miscellaneous sheets of draft material, and, rarely, notes. There are many other manuscripts and typescripts now in collections at the University of Mississippi—papers Faulkner had forgotten that he had stored in a closet beneath the stairs of his home in Oxford—University of Texas, and a few other places. These are monuments to the mind of a literary genius who didn’t care to talk about how he wrote or even what he wrote. As D. H. Lawrence said, don’t trust the teller, trust the tale.
SC: Was there a particular entry-point that you found more helpful or beneficial to your students when introducing them to his work?
TM: I gave students projects to explore Faulkner’s sources, so they had the excitement of discovering themselves how allusive he was, and then I helped add to their perception of the complexities of his novels, their sources, language, literary models, and structures. Faulkner wrote long sentences, but they are, by and large, not digressive like those of Henry James; rather, they are cumulative, completing thoughts within the five to nine words that the short-term memory can grasp, hold, and convert to understanding. Each of his characters has an idiolect, a unique way of speaking or thinking that becomes more intelligible if you read it out loud. It may be a bit like learning a foreign language—for Faulkner’s vocabulary is formidable, even eccentric, but incredibly apt, even when, like Eliot or Joyce, he invented or repurposed a word—but for the most part, his words are simple, direct English words, as friendly to a good student as is Shakespeare when well taught.
As in teaching my courses in Southern literature, in teaching Faulkner I aim big—the largest possible cultural context in history and language, and the complex culture of the economy, social life, prejudices, and politics of the American South, which add up to about 150 pockets of history and culture scattered in the former Confederacy. I will never be able to read everything I would like to read, but I keep trying, even in retirement.
SC: What is your favorite Faulkner novel and why?
TM: Right now, it’s Go Down, Moses (1942), in part because it has had a negatively prejudiced reception based on misunderstandings of what Faulkner accomplished in writing it during one of the worst periods of his existence. It is Faulkner’s Moby Dick, an American tragedy in terms of folk humor, folk mysterium, family chronicle, the tragic history of slavery and racism—a biblical epic recounting modernist takes on the stories of Isaac, Abraham, patriarchs, and slaves: the title is from the old song, which the slaves in Gone With the Wind were singing as they marched into town to build, in the words of Big Sam, trenches for the white gentlemen to hide in. It is as rich a tragedy as any written by Faulkner’s idol, William Shakespeare.