WilliamFaulkner: A Pilgrimage

Love, a native Southerner and Faulkner fan, covers politics for The Times

It is 25 years since William Faulkner, one of America's greatest novelists, was laid to rest under an oak tree in this tiny hamlet in northern Mississippi.

The U. S. Postal Service recently issued a commemorative stamp--75,000 were sold and canceled in Oxford the first day as requests poured in from all over--and an excellent new biography, "William Faulkner: The Man and the Artist" by Stephen B. Oates (Harper & Row), is now in bookstores.

I found that these events recalled many pleasurable hours spent in the world Faulkner created, and that led to a pilgrimage to the place where the South's master storyteller did his work.

I wanted clues to the craft of the 1949 Nobel Prize winner--this dapper, brooding man with the piercing eyes who worked in an isolation that critic Malcolm Cowley said distinguished him from every other major American novelist up to his time.

In the Oates biography, we see Faulkner confounding his family and friends by dropping out of high school and spending long hours by himself writing poetry, or sometimes walking about the town square unshaven and dressed in scruffy clothes.

After short service in the Canadian Air Force in 1918, Faulkner came back to Oxford. He had added a u to the family name. He affected a British accent and pretended to have a limp--acquired in a plane crash that never took place.

In Faulkner's day, this kind of behavior would have been barely tolerated in any town, but it was especially irritating to the plain folks of Oxford, Miss.

But this odd-acting loner was in fact a genius, and once he found his calling in novel writing in 1925, he produced a body of fiction before his death in 1962 that is unlike anything turned out by any other American writer.

Faulkner created a mythical kingdom, Yoknapatawpha County, in northeastern Mississippi. Starting with "Satoris," published in 1929, and ending with his last book, "The Reivers" (1962), Faulkner wrote 16 novels and numerous short stories about the inhabitants of this kingdom.

These people are: planters devastated by the Civil War; poor whites who rise to power as stooges of northern merchants; rough but dignified backwoods farmers, and blacks whose endurance in this milieu is the very definition of dignity. And there are the descendants of these people, most of them acting out tragic bloodline blueprints.

It is the pattern created by this writing, Cowley writes in his introduction to "The Portable Faulkner," that is "Faulkner's real achievement," because it "stands as a parable or legend of all the Deep South." And Oates writes that Faulkner's tapestry of suffering, greed, violence and humor captured "the tragedy of pride and curse of race in Dixie."

How did this man in this tiny speck of a place create such a powerful body of work?

Faulkner's literary influences included Balzac, Conrad, Swinburne, Flaubert and Joyce. But he was largely self-educated and he once described his reading as "undirected and uncorrelated."

And then there was Faulkner's isolation.

Although he spent more than a decade, off and on, writing screenplays for quick money in Hollywood (Oates notes that Faulkner romanced his mistress, Meta Carpenter, at Musso and Frank's), he did almost all of his novel writing in Oxford, a country town whose denizens could be wise but could not offer a struggling novelist any feedback or advice.

Faulkner rarely traveled and had little contact with other writers, according to Cowley, who adds: "There is no feeling that Faulkner's novels come from a background of taste refined by argument and of opinions held in common."

Here are some clues to Faulkner's craft, gathered during a recent pilgrimage to Oxford, which is less than two hours drive south of Memphis, Tenn.

First, the novelist's workplace: For Faulkner this was a pre-Civil War house that he purchased in his early 30s and could barely afford to keep up for years. Named "Rowan Oak" by the author, it is a large, two-story wooden structure surrounded by oaks, red cedars and patches of grass.

This is not a grand antebellum mansion. No, this house--which was not even wired for electricity until several years after the Faulkners moved in--is a plain abode with a rambling layout, which allowed Faulkner to shut himself off from his family for long stretches. Oates reports that Faulkner removed the door knob when he disappeared into his study. The isolation was complete--and it was crucial to his craft.

Another clue to that craft: His tiny handwriting, which can be seen in original manuscripts on display at the University of Mississippi. (The University of Virginia, where Faulkner was a writer in residence near the end of his life, got the bulk of his papers but the Mississippi collection is well worth seeing.)

The pages and pages of meticulous writing in these manuscripts speak of discipline, of the scratching of Faulkner's fountain pen for countless hours and innumerable days. And they speak of something else--the pressure of penury.

Faulkner, who made very little money from his novels until after he won the Nobel Prize, wrote small in order to squeeze as much as possible onto each precious page. But it should be noted that his best work including "The Sound and The Fury," "Light in August" and and "Absalom! Absalom!," all published in 1940, was done under this enormous financial strain.

You can perhaps find the best clue to Faulkner's craft by leaving the front yard of his house on Old Taylor Road and, as he himself did each day, walking east to South Lamar Street and then the few blocks to the town square.

It was in this square, dominated by its massive stone courthouse, that Faulkner often soaked up the history and tales and country wisdom that suffuse his books.

According to Richard Howorth, who runs Square Books in Oxford, Faulkner would sometimes be so absorbed in his observing and listening that this most courtly man would walk right past friends without speaking.

The author would go back to his writing table and recast some of the tales he had heard. He said he often "heard" the voices of his characters as he wrote. There were times when the work went very slowly, but there were others, Oates says, "when the work seemed to explode on paper" and Faulkner would write furiously day after day.

An excellent documentary on Faulkner's life done some years ago by Washington film maker Robert Squier concluded that Faulkner was about "written out" when he finished "The Reivers" in late 1961.

I had always assumed that he was about "lived out" as well and that his death in 1962 was no great surprise. My pilgrimage to Oxford showed how wrong my assumption was.

I visited Jack Cofield in his small photo studio off the town square. It was Cofield who shot Faulkner's last formal portrait on March 20, 1962, the photo that was used for the commemorative stamp.

The vitality in that last portrait, which hangs on Cofield's wall, is startling. Faulkner, who was 64 at the time, looks like a man with 20 years of living left in him. Yet, only four months after it was taken he was dead.

As Cofield tells it--and Oates and other biographers confirm--Faulkner was thrown from a horse in June. To ease his back pain, he began drinking heavily, a lifelong problem. When, on July 5, his family took him to a sanitarium north of Oxford to dry out, it was a routine trip; they had done it for years when Faulkner was in the middle of one of his binges with bourbon or gin.

But this time they had barely returned home when the phone call came: "Mr. Bill," as many of the townsfolk called Faulkner, had died of a coronary occlusion in the early morning hours of July 6.

After listening to Cofield tell this story, I needed some cheering up, and I got lucky. I walked over to the University of Mississippi's Faulkner collection.

There I found an exhibit containing a cover from a 1931 issue of Scribner's magazine. The story on the cover is Faulkner's "Spotted Horses." An editors' note urges readers to give the story a chance because, they write, although Faulkner is known for his dark, sometimes violent books, "this story is hilarious."

The short story describes the calamities caused when Flem Snopes, one of Faulkner's enduring characters, brings a bunch of wild, good-for-nothing horses into Yoknapatawpha County.

Although the story is funny, a reader in New York wrote Faulkner that he was furious at the Scribner's editors for feeling they had to take the curse off Faulkner's image as a brooding novelist.

Faulkner's response to the letter writer appears in his minuscule handwriting in the letter's margin:

"Don't worry about these folks at Scribner's. They would have bought one of the horses."

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