Missing Rowan Oak

I just knew that I would enjoy reading Every Day By the Sun: A Memoir of the Faulkners of Mississippi by Dean Faulkner Wells.  And I did.  The book was fun, but it left me with a slight feeling of sadness.  It is like reading about a party or a gathering that you missed.  It has the sense of something real that was experienced, but is gone and never to be found.

For Dean Faulkner Wells, the Nobel Prize winning Mississippi author was “Pappy.”  He was actually her uncle.  Her own father, Dean, died in an airplane crash.  Faulkner, who loved airplanes, felt somewhat guilty that his pilot-brother had died before his daughter was born.  Being the gentleman he was, he played a major role in raising his brother Dean’s namesake and daughter, Dean.

There is lots of Faulkner and Butler family background in this story.  The Butler family was “Nannie’s” folks, and Nannie was Maud Faulkner, William’s mother.  Dean spent much of her life near her uncle and with her uncle and his wife, Estelle.  Faulkner watched over his niece, provided for her and her mother, sent her to college, and stood in for his late brother in every way he could.

Faulkner was a gentleman, a man of honor, a man who, to use his phrase, honored the “old verities,” the old truths.  He was a gracious host, a teller of ghost stories, an indulgent father and uncle, and a protector of those he loved.  He also battled his own demons.  One was alcohol.  His drinking bouts were spaced out.  Contrary to myth, he didn’t drink while writing.  Hard liquor was prone to best him.  As Dean said, he would reach the point where he would have to go to a clinic and get dried out.  Soon she would see him back home, working in his yard.  Estelle, Mrs. William Faulkner, had her own battles with alcohol.  Although the marriage of William and Estelle lasted until death parted them, the marriage was fraught with sins and errors.  Faulkner was an unfaithful husband.  Estelle knew, but tolerated his infidelities.

This book brought out the human, everyday, ordinary, humorous, sometimes cantankerous sides of Faulkner.  He never allowed a television in his house, but he would go visit a professor friend and watch the inanely goofy sitcom “Car Fifty-four, Where Are You?”  He didn’t answer the phone, and some of his callers were quite prominent.  For much of his life, he seemed quite content to live an isolated life away from the fame that his writings earned him.  I could not get over how real and common Faulkner came across in this story.  The chapter near the end that told of his death and funeral shocked me as though it had just happened.

The writings did earn fame, but for a long time, they did not earn him much money.  Faulkner sensed his own writing accomplishments even when the public didn’t.  On one occasion, his banker demanded his signature on a check.  Faulkner wrote him a letter and told him that his signature on that letter would be worth more in the long run than a check that would be cashed and spent.  The banker wisely kept and framed the letter.

I have been to Faulkner’s house three times.  I went two times during the past several years.  Once was on a Monday where we discovered that the house was closed.  We did get to walk around it and peek in the windows.  About 3 years ago, we did get to take the house tour.  My whole family enjoyed it, but I am not sure they had the same type of experience I did.  I could have stayed and stayed and stayed.

The first time I went to Rowan Oak was in the mid-1970s.  My parents and I went to Oxford, Mississippi on a summer trip.  I was thinking about going to the University of Mississippi for my last two years of college.  It was Faulkner that drew me there, however.  Rowan Oak was not open to the public at the time.  We drove up to where the gate and fence was, got out, crawled through the fence, and happened upon someone from the University who was giving a tour of the house.  It was amazing that we were not kicked out, but we weren’t.

Reading Every Day by the Sun has me wanting to make a fourth pilgrimage to the place where America’s greatest writer lived.

Faith Amidst Sound and Fury

One of the best things about many twentieth century novels is that they portray life without God.  As expected, these novels are filled with great amounts of despair, angst, frustration, failure, and defeat.  Death is almost always certain in a Hemingway story.  That death might have some existential self-fulling purpose for the moment, but it is not meaningful in a greater sense.  One is still hopeful for Ishmael when he is awaiting rescue at the end of Moby Dick, but there is little to hope for Frederick Henry when he walks out into the rain after the death of Catherine.  Scott Fitzgerald saw so vividly that money, prestige, glitz, and glamor are false gods, but he had no God to put in their place.  Jay Gatsby was not very great after all, but his narrator, Nick Carraway, like Fitzgerald, doesn’t seem to have much going for him either.  Albert Camus’ The Stranger is either incredibly depressing or incredibly honest concerning the human plight.

It is no surprise that William Faulkner is often viewed as being just as dark, just as despairing, just as depressing, and just as hopeless as his twentieth century contemporaries.  His characters are twisted, violent, obsessively warped in one direction or another.  Granted, a Southern community has lots of variety of weirdness and lots of depth of evil, but Faulkner presses the dark side of human nature to an extreme.

He was not a news reporter, but a creator of fiction, a teller of stories.  Homer uses lots of accurate details to tell a highly inaccurate story.  But stories, fictional stories, convey truth through exaggeration.  Certain foibles and faults must be highlighted, extended, and pushed to an extreme for the story to work.  If Ahab had suddenly decided he missed his family and turned his ship around, if Montagues and Capulets had merely let bygones be bygones, if  N-word Jim had gotten his freedom before he and Huck headed down river, each story would have ended abruptly and forgettably.

Faulkner, by his own testimony, believed that man would not only endure, but would prevail.  He believed in what he called “the old verities,” that is, the old truths.  Faulkner’s writing epiphany occurred when he discovered that his own backyard, his own homeplace, the town, community, surroundings of his upbringing was his world.  Yoknapatawpha County became a world as vivid and real as Narnia or Middle Earth, but yet earthier, more real, more physical, and more visible.

Faulkner took the world in its tangled history and fallenness and envisioned and inscripted it into a small portion of the South.  For Faulkner, the South, rooted in defeated, the Lost Cause, slavery, soil, and faith, became a grand panorama of characters, plots, and soul anguish.  Faulkner was (and is) long misunderstood.  He was not writing Southern sociology.  He was not unduly twisted or warped by a violent outlook.  He was not providing a scale for Northerners to weigh and judge the South by. (As if Northerners ever needed more ammunition.)  By “virtue” of defeat in the war, by the connectedness of Southern families, by the presence of a failed aristocracy, by the inescapable twists and turns of race, the South was a rich and layered world in which to craft stories.

If you are going to be a writer, look the part.

Faulkner referred to the novel The Sound and the Fury as his greatest failure.  It was the defining book for me in entering the world of Faulkner. It is actually better to begin with The Unvanquished, but I got a copy of The Sound and the Fury when I was in high school.  It had belonged to an incredibly good college student who made clear and helpful notes all through the text.  (Most classics should be read in groups of readers with discussion and a mentor/guide.  In this case, the nameless scholar and note-taker was my mentor and classmate.)  After my high school reading, I read the book again in my freshman year of college and did a research paper on it.  (Sad to relate, after my junior year in college, I drifted away from Faulkner readings for many years, hence many other failures in life.)

The Sound and the Fury is set in the time of Easter in 1926.  The book concerns the decline and fall of the Compson family.  The Compson family’s name, fame, and fortune are in a free fall throughout the book.  In the midst of the overwhelming message of Easter, this family goes the way of death and destruction, rather than forgiveness, resurrection, and life.  For some time, the Compson family had been selling off portions of the old estate, the plantation.  The surviving male Compson heir capable of maintaining the property is a twisted, hard-hearted evil man named Jason.  The family’s poverty has forced him to work as a clerk for a local merchant.  He is virtually unsurpassed in literature for being hard-hearted, bitter, and selfish.  The other surviving male heir is a severely retarded man named Benjamin.  Benjamin’s life is a series of memories, associations, and sensory connections.  He is, by far, morally superior to Jason, his mother, and other Compsons, because of his capacity for love.

The character who stands out more than any other, the character of whom I wrote my college research paper so many years ago, is Dilsey.  She is the matriarch of the blacks who have long worked for and served the Compsons.  Far from being degraded by her lowly estate, far from being a victim of the slave-holding South of the past, Dilsey is the strongest character in the book.  Her love is overpowering.  Sadly, the evil in Jason and the never-ending complaints of Mrs. Compson blind them to this love.

The last section of the book is told from a third-person point of view.  Prior to this section, Faulkner brilliantly, and for many readers, confusedly, engaged in first-person stream-of-consciousness to tell the story of the family.  The first section, told from the viewpoint of Benjamin, is the source of the title.  This section, not an easy read, is a brilliant look at life through the mind of someone whose mind is not normal.

The title of the book is a reference to Shakespeare’s Macbeth that relates to Benjamin.  Macbeth, the usurper king, upon hearing of his wife’s death says

Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.
 — Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 17-28)

Again, in contrast, Faulkner tells the story of Dilsey from a third person objective view.  It is as though Faulkner, who can plunge into the mind and thoughts of so many characters, has to step back to deal with this character, this strong woman of faith.

Dilsey works to prepare breakfast and take care of other needs of the Compson family on Easter morning.  But her mission is to get the chores done so that she can go to church.  Of course, the Compson’s complain about their servants leaving for church.  Although Mrs. Compson says that she had tried to raise her children to be good Christians, the passage drips with irony.

On the way to church, Dilsey’s daughter complains that people are talking about Dilsey because she bring Benjamin, the retarded white man to church.  Dilsey lashes out with a fitting rebuke for these “trash white folks” who talk like that.  She tells her daughter, concerning the gossipers, “Den you send um to to me.  Tell um de good Lawd dont keer whether he smart er not. Dont nobody but white trash keer dat.”

Burdened by the continuing breakdown of the Compson family and her own labors and family, Dilsey trudges on to church where she will hear a visiting preacher named Rev’en Shegog.  As one of the other church members says, in anticipation of the Easter sermon, the preacher will give Dilsey “de comfort and de unburdenin.”  This small, unimpressive looking preacher delivers a powerful sermon.

Sitting in church and hearing of the preacher say, repeatedly, that he has got “de ricklickshun and de blood of de Lamb,” Dilsey begins to weep.  Even after church, her crying continues.

Faulkner writes, “Dilsey made no sound, her face did not quiver as the tears took their sunken and devious courses, walking with her head up, making no effort to dry them away even.”  Dilsey is weeping for the Compson family.  She sees where their sins and hardened-hearts have taken them.  She begins repeating a phrase, “I seed the fust and de last.”  Apart from salvation, all families of the earth will go the way of the Compson family, and for this cause, Dilsey weeps.

The Sound and the Fury is not a happy story.  It is a twentieth century look into the abyss.  But while Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Camus could not find meaning or hope or prevailing in the abysses of which they spoke, Faulkner always had a glimpse in a fallen world of redemption.  Even when the “de ricklickshun and de blood of de Lamb” was obscured or held to by the lowliest of characters, there is hope in Yonapatawpha County.  There is hope in a fallen world.

Callie Barr, the woman who was the Faulkner family maid and the likely model for Dilsey. Faulkner dedicated GO DOWN, MOSES to her.

 

 

 

The Great American Novel and the Late Unpleasantness

Walker Percy once told his friend, Shelby Foote, that he was writing the American Iliad.  He was referring to Foote’s monumental three volume history of the Civil War, titled simply The Civil War.  Foote’s incredible narrative style wove its way through hundreds of battles, across miles and miles of the country, and across four years of war, twenty years of writing, and a couple of pages of text.  But Foote’s Civil War was not the American Iliad, nor are any of the many, many powerful histories of that war.

Some of the greatest books on the War Between the States, a name I prefer over Civil War, have been fiction.  Of course, we have to begin by understanding that fiction at its best is not fictional.  Rather, it is true.  Or at least, fiction has a way of getting to the truth that is quite revealing of the human situation.  Fiction can probe in areas and make pronouncements that non-fiction can only envy.  When the historian or biographer probes the subconscious, the underlying motive, the subjective, it often reveals more about the author than the subject.

Much could be said about Civil War fiction.  I know because tonight I picked up a book out of the study that I have not read from in years.  There was a time when my obsession with the War itself morphed into an obsession with Southern literature.  I am not a person with hobbies, only obsessions.  I see them altered through the years, but never completely overcome, thankfully.

The book is Classics of Civil War Fictionedited by David Madden and Peggy Bach.  It was published by University Press of Mississippi, one of my favorite university presses.  This book consists of more than a dozen selections and essays.  Without listing the books in this book, I will just say that I have only read a few of the selections they highlight and several of them are totally unfamiliar to me.  But, the book has a great nearly 20 page introduction to the subject and a interesting list of bibliography containing novels, stories, poems, and plays from 1852 to 1949.  As the editors point out, a surprisingly small amount of literary criticism and attention has been devoted to Civil War fiction.

My current interest in the topic stems from recent reading assignments inflicted upon my poor captives in junior high American history and high school Humanities:  The American Story.  I will, in my usual fashion, list books that I have read and liked and comment with what I hope is lucid brevity.

1.  The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara.

Take care that you don’t read The Killer Angels as a historical narrative.  It does a great job of capturing the history of the battle of Gettysburg and many of the key historical figures, but this novel only incidentally covers the visible, outward war.  It is the internal conflicts that propels this book along.  The Killer Angels very closely follows many of the patterns of Homer’s Iliad.  And, whereas the chief battle in The Iliad centers around when “first there stood in division of conflict” Achilles and Agamemnon, in this novel, the conflict is between Generals Longstreet and Lee.  I love this novel and have taught through it several times, and I also argue with it at many points.  I also think the movie, titled Gettyburg, although lacking the internal depth of the book, was well done.

Michael Shaara’s son, Jeff, wrote both a prequel and sequel to The Killer Angels.  The prequel was titled Gods and Generals and it covers the earlier years of the war prior to Gettysburg in 1863.  The sequel, The Last Full Measure, covers the closing years of the war.  I enjoyed reading both of these books, but did not find the fictional element as strongly convincing as the elder Shaara’s book.  Jeff Shaara has gone on to write an incredible number of fictionalized histories of American wars.

2.  Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt.

  

I read this book last December for the first time.  I also used it in class for the first time.  It is written for young readers and is a marvelous story.  This is really a fun read.  Set in southern Illinois and focused on a young boy named Jethro who witnesses the coming of the war.  His brothers and teacher and mentor all go off to war.  One brother joins the Confederate Army, while the others side with the north.  As the war progresses, Jethro learns of the battles and rising and falling of military leaders.  This book is a good teaching tool about the war, but also a really good story.

3.  Nashville 1864  by Madison Jones

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I read Nashville 1864 by Madison Jones at least 10 years ago.  This is another novel featuring a young boy, who in this case witnesses the disastrous Battle of Nashville, Tennessee.  The novel is a short one, but I remember really liking it.  Madison Jones is a Southern author I really need to read more of.

4.  Shiloh by Shelby Foote

If I have trouble remembering the previous book, I have even more remembering this book.  Shelby Foote was an accomplished Southern writer with the voice and manners and style of a true Southern gentleman.  He was also a friend to William Faulkner.  This is another short novel and it is set in the disastrous battle of Shiloh in 1862.  One should generally expect a dire and dreary tone to books by Southerners about the War.

5.  Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier

Reading Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier in December of 1997 was my first and only experience of reading a best seller while it was on the charts.  This is a beautiful and lyrical book.  In so many ways, it is a recasting of Homer’s Odyssey.  A Confederate soldier, who is disillusioned with the war, begins his long journey home across Virginia.  Meanwhile, his fiance undergoes a transformation as she learns how to farm, grow and store food, and survive.  Both main characters are learning the world around them through their experiences.  I have never recovered from the heartbreak this book gave me.

6.  The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

Of course, Crane’s novel is a classic.  Although some have identified the battle in the book as the northern defeat at Chancellorsville, the book leaves the exact details vague.  The ever amazing fact is that Crane had never witnessed war.  This book blows the whole theory that writers should stick to what they actually know.  The story is powerful, but the novel can easily be read too lightly.  This is not a story of courage, honor, and valiant young men in battle.  It is a study of the emotional and psychological impact of war and life experiences.  It could have been set in any time, any war, but it does reflect some of the story of the Civil War.

7.  The Fathers by Alan Tate

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Alan Tate was a master poet, a brilliant literary critic and essayist, an Agrarian, a Fugitive Poet, a pivotal figure among the New Critics, a literary professor, and in this one case, a novelist.  This book is rarely noticed, but was highly acclaimed.  For a true sense of the Southerness of Alan Tate, one would do well to read his biographies of Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis.

8.  Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove

Somewhere around 1997, I read a used paperback copy of Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove.  This kind of alternative history, fantasy-type reading, is not my forte.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book.  It involves a time machine that enables some South Africans to go back in time and aid the Confederacy with modern weaponry.  This is fun and one could wish for such changes in history on occasion.

9.  The Widow of the South by Robert Hicks

I cannot say much about this book because I just started reading it.  Last summer, we had a wonderful short trip to Franklin, Tennessee (one of the greatest places in the world).  We visited the historic Carnton Plantation which was converted into a hospital during the awful battle of Franklin.  Dark stains are still on the floor where surgeries were performed.  Near the house is a cemetary containing quite a few remains of Southern soldiers.  This story, the first novel of Franklin author Robert Hicks, is centered around that story.

10.  None Shall Look Back by Caroline Gordon

Caroline Gordon was an outstanding Southern author and she was the wife of Alan Tate (for a time).  This book, None Shall Look Back, is absolutely one of the best novels I ever read.  It is deeply Southern.  Ms. Gordon writes about war with the skill of a Homer or Douglas Southall Freeman, and she writes of love and romance like Jane Austen.  This book contains both war and love.  I never knew of Gordon until some years after I finished college.  What a loss.

11.  The Unvanquished by William Faulkner

This is, without question, my favorite novel on the War Between the States and my favorite Faulkner work.  I have read the book around 10 times and cannot wait to get started on it soon with the Humanities Class.  I think it gives a powerful view of the struggles on the homefront, the terrors of the war in a local region, and the Reconstruction period.  In my late blog of yesteryear, I discussed the novel and Faulkner HERE and I have the text of a paper I once wrote and read at a literary gathering in Dallas which is about The Unvanquished, which can be found HERE.  Various other Faulkner works deal directly or indirectly with the War Between the States and its aftermath.  There is no understanding of Faulkner’s world apart from the War.  Two major works that deal with that war are Absalom, Absalom, a novel, and “Mountain Victory,” a short story.

The book pictured below, Reading Faulkner: The Unvanquished, is part of an incredibly helpful series of books published by the University Press of Mississippi, which explain and comment on Faulkner’s Southern language and literary twists and turns.

There are lots more fictional works on the war.  I know that I have left off the defining piece of both Southern fiction and cinematography, Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell.  Alas, although I have watched the movie several times and liked it (all except for the first watching back when I was in 8th grade), I have not read the book.  But I will try soon to remedy that moral failing.

Faulkner and Hemingway…again

Faulkner and Hemingway: Biography of a Literary Rivalry by Joseph Fruscione.

Every now and then, I read another portion of this fascinating study of two vastly different 20th century American authors.  Both were gifted; both hit the bottle too much; both needed some moral reclaimation, but both penned some great books.  Had they literally had a fight, assuming they used fists and not shotguns, Hemingway would have easily won.  But when it comes to telling an essential story, writing in an epic fashion, creating a fictional world, Faulkner leaves Hemingway looking like the great fish at the end of The Old Man and the Sea.

William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway

William Faulkner, speaking of Ernest Hemingway, said, ‘He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.’ And Hemingway said of Faulkner,  ‘Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?’

Poor Faulkner, indeed.  He wrote circles around Hemingway. 

Richard Marius was a southerner, from Tennessee, who was teaching writing at Harvard when he was drafted into teaching a course on Faulkner.  This book grew out of his introductory lectures on Faulkner’s first thirteen novels.  I lament never having had a course on Faulkner.  In fact, I am not sure I ever had a class where any Faulkner story or novel was assigned.  I am thankful for the encouragement of my college freshman English teacher, Sharon Drake, who did encourage me to do my research paper on The Sound and the Fury.