William Faulkner: Voices In The Mud
by Manuel Vincent, January 18, 2017
(from Poker of Aces, translated by Louis S. Bedrock)
When William Faulkner was already a grand figure and John Kennedy was collecting such objects to adorn some of his private dinners, the writer received an invitation from the President for one of these events in the White House. At this table had already sat many of the Great: Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, Arthur Miller, and the Sinatras, to name a few. Pablo Casals and his cello had aggrandized some of the exquisite desserts.
Faulkner responded immediately:
I am just a farmer and do not have the proper clothes for such an occasion. However, if you are interested in dining with me, with great pleasure I invite you to my house of Rowan Oak, in Oxford Mississippi.”
The pride and courtesy implicit in such a response define the southern gentleman who, to round off his life, only needed to die while inebriated from a fall from his horse--and he almost achieved this. He was an unusual man. Of himself, at times he said he was the heir of a large landowner in the county; other times, that he was the son of a Negress and a crocodile. Both stories were dreams of grandeur.
As a young man, he had gotten off to a bad start in life. Neighbors called him, “That poor boy of the Faulkners who got fired from the Post Office for reading the letters,” when they noticed that he had begun to sauté in alcohol his tenuous jobs as mailman, house painter, bookstore clerk, and even as doorman at a whorehouse. Small, quiet, educated, short tempered, bird-faced, fine-lipped with a good nose that he highlighted with his famous moustache--this is the image of this genius.
From his early childhood, there are two photographs: in one he is dressed as a pilot of the Royal flying Corps, and in the other he sports a bohemian beard in Paris; in both pictures, he’s smoking a pipe.
He was not able to fulfill either of these desires. He wanted to be a pilot, but was initially rejected because of his short stature and when he finally was admitted to the RAF in Canada, the Great War had ended. He was not able to participate in the literary coterie of Gertrude Stein nor enter the circle of Sylvia Beach. Perhaps he crossed paths with James Joyce on The Boulevard Saint Michele without being recognized. Although his was not among the list of names of the “Lost Generation” but rather in the list of lost individuals, nevertheless he was the only one to discover the avant guard of Paris and to bring it back to Mississippi. Faulkner applied to literature the Cubist style of shattering the subject into various planes by transforming reality into several layers of simultaneous voices.
He had better luck in New Orleans where he made another attempt at the Bohemian life style. There he met the wife of the writer Sherwood Anderson, who exclaimed when he learned of Faulkner’s literary pretensions, “I’ll recommend you to an editor if you don’t oblige me to read any of your manuscripts.”
Following a vulgar book of poems, Faulkner published his first novel, Soldier’s Pay, and thus his ego began to follow the trajectory it had planned.
In 1930 he bought a large run down old house, Rowan Oak, which lacked running water and electricity, for $6,000, paid in installments. This was a manifestation of his desire to be a gentleman with the scent of the stable since one of his obsessions was to accumulate land surrounded with the whinny of horses, a luxury he couldn’t afford. The reconstruction of this mansion acclimated Faulkner to the development of his literature as if a metaphor for creating a great work.
The first thing he did was to hang a portrait of his grandfather over the fireplace, the Colonel William Clark Faulkner--banker, railroad owner, author of a successful romantic novel. To live like him, in style, disdaining money and at the same time doing everything possible to obtain it, was his design and his condemnation. This ancestor served as a model for Colonel John Sartoris, protagonist of Flags in the Dust, the first novel to take place in the imaginary county of Yoknapatawpha, a territory as large as a postage stamp. With all of this, his wife Estelle Oldham, from an aristocratic southern family also in ruins, was already getting things moving in the dilapidated living room of this mansion of old time cotton growers: the black housekeeper ruled the kitchen, the rich whites lived on the hill, the negroes in the cabins, the caimans in the swamps, while the Mississippi River, the cesspool of North America, flowed by, full of putrid whirlpools in the estuary which disseminated a whiff of slime in the air.
Although Faulkner was a poet of unsuccessful verse, one cannot understand his prose without understanding the profound penetration of poetry in his images. All his important stories evolve from a hallucinatory vision. It may be that of some children who have climbed a tree to observe the burial of their grandmother, the little girl who exhibits her mud soiled panties, that of the young girl who has been raped with a corncob by an impotent man, or the image of a barefooted woman who is pregnant and is walking along some forsaken highway.
From this initial image emerges a tree whose trunk has no branches, but whose roots submerge beneath the marsh where human passions share the same mud as the caimans. In The Sound and the Fury, the monologue ruminated by the idiot Benjy cross-pollinates with other stories that are glimpsed among the currents in the winding waters of the Mississippi--multiple voices submerged and superimposed in the putrid slime, images released in the asphyxiating atmosphere of the South: a literature difficult to digest, defended by Faulkner from the bastion of his own self esteem against editors.
Paying for his mansion was the source of much drama as he continued to add rooms, sheds, new wings, when he earned more money from his mercenary work in Hollywood where he went when he was desperate, as one would go to a salt mine. There he would remain stabled for a time with other salaried writers like Scott-Fitzgerald whose battery was already almost dead, and who had the floor of his small apartment covered with empty Coca-Cola bottles as he tried to kick alcohol. Faulkner participated in the adaptation to film of Hemingway’s novel, To Have and Have Not, and when he was presented to its director, Howard Hawks, before even shaking hands, he said, “I know perfectly well who you are. I’ve read your name on a check.” Faulkner was thanking him. Thanks to that check, Rowan Oaks had running water coming out of its faucets.
Faulkner didn’t get to be a military pilot, but he bought a small plane for his brother Dean who killed himself in it as soon as he learned to fly. His daughter Alabama also died shortly after she was born and that day was the only one in which Faulkner did not get drunk. This southern gentleman’s soul was divided between Puritanism and the delirium tremors: he saw rats along the walls as well as the brutal, poetic, mysterious passions of a dying world. It’s possible that he didn’t have the proper clothes to attend a dinner at The White House, but the truth is that no gentleman shares an intimate dinner with someone he doesn’t know. He died of a heart attack July 6, 1962. He was quite drunk--and two days earlier he had fallen off a horse.