Carvel Collins: Homage to a Role Model : Tribute: How the late Faulkner scholar and university professor influenced a writer's life.


After 42 years, the paper I typed the short story on has gone brown at the edges. It's the kind of paper--favored by time-short college students who have to turn in first drafts--that erases easily and smears just as easily.

The penciled notes Carvel Collins made on my story are hard to make out. But they come back to me, partly by deciphering, partly out of memory because I've read them so often. In the story, did she poison her husband or didn't she? It wasn't really a lady-or-the-tiger situation, as Prof. Collins pointed out, merely unclear.

"But I'll take once more the risk of asking you to write a novel," he wrote in his easy scrawl. Then, at the bottom of the page, almost as an afterthought, he added, "One of the editors of Life has asked me to recommend a writer to him. I'd be glad to recommend you if you were interested. If you are, let me know."

Collins, who died last week in Vista, Calif., at the age of 77, was in 1948 also teaching the first seminar devoted fully to the work of William Faulkner. He knew Faulkner and told stories about their meetings that made the author and his Mississippi come alive. At his death, he was one of the best-known Faulkner experts in world.

I was an ex-GI, a senior that year, eager to take Collins' one-term writing course, whose only assignment was to write 1,000 words a week in any form. The mention of the Life job was not quite the honor it sounded. It was an undergraduate course and I was one of the few seniors, allowed in on a dispensation as a veteran. Few in the class were graduating.

Still, the note was a blessing as from heaven. I wanted to get married; I didn't have a clue as to a job or even what to do with my life, except that it somehow had to involve putting words together.

As Mignon McLaughlin once wrote, "Everybody can write; the trouble with writers is they can't do anything else." Do anything else and be happy, she meant, and she was right.

I went to Prof. Collins' office and together we drafted an outrageously flattering letter to the magazine. I cut commencement to go to New York for a bafflingly inconclusive set of interviews, in which various editors looked at me and grunted, as if there were clues to my worth in my haircut or the way I tied my tie.

But in August, Life offered a job as a trainee, and my association with the Luce empire lasted 17 years, until I joined this newspaper. I didn't see or have any contact with Carvel Collins for more than 20 years, though I heard he had gone from Harvard to MIT and then to Notre Dame, all the while continuing his researches into Faulkner's life and work, preparing for what was to have been the absolutely definitive two-volume critical biography.

Then a mutual friend, Meta Wilde, who had been the love of Faulkner's life when they were both working for Howard Hawks at Warners, learned of our mutual acquaintance with Carvel Collins, who by then had retired from Notre Dame and was living in Vista.

One night Meta and her husband Arthur invited me to dinner, and when I walked in to the living room, Prof. Collins was there, looking as tall, slim, elegantly casual and unacademic as he had in class a couple of decades earlier. For the first time, I had a chance to say in person, thanks for my professional life.

Over the years, I had come to see what an incredibly good teacher he had been (quite apart from the note about the Life job). When he talked about Faulkner, he was partly the passionate reader, finding the real meanings in the texts and partly the private eye, seeking out the life for clues to both the man and the work.

Collins led the upwardly revisionist view of Faulkner as a world-class talent rather than a colorful regional writer (a view confirmed by the Nobel Prize Faulkner received a decade after Collins was giving his pioneering seminar at Harvard).

His pursuit of Faulkner was a magnificent obsession. If we are lucky, we find the right role models and mentors in life, and Collins' pursuit of a particular truth was an inspiration as long as I knew him. Not least, he ravaged his modest professorial earnings acquiring Faulkner materials. At last he had something like three dozen fireproof file cabinets of material. When he retired, trusting no one, he rented a U-Haul truck and drove the files from South Bend to Vista himself.

He edited and published some early Faulkner work and wrote many articles about him, which another of his students hopes to gather in a single volume. But Collins' health and his time ran out before he could move from the note-taking to the writing of the definitive biography. The rich material he had gathered will have to be refined by a later generation of scholars.

Leaving the biography undone was surely deeply distressing to Carvel Collins as it was to the Faulkner faithful who anticipated a portrait that would have been the fairest, most sensitive and informed yet.

But the materials he had unearthed and the insights he voiced are now part of the literature. And there are those hundreds of us, at least, from the several places he taught, who can say that we may have done a little better that we might have with our lives and our gifts, thanks to him.

I've never tried the novel he encouraged me to write, but if I should it will be dedicated to Carvel Collins, who accepted me as a writer before I was really sure I was.

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