Intruders in the dust
People all over the world seem to know about the Center for Faulkner Studies, from Japanese and Chinese scholars who have studied here to Oprah Winfrey, who chose center director Robert Hamblin to help with her book club’s “Summer of Faulkner.”
The center contains a world-class collection of Faulkner letters, manuscripts and artifacts, and it is the only one of four American university Faulkner collections amassed by a single individual.
Treasures in the center’s Brodsky Collection include the author’s unpublished manuscripts and Hollywood screenplays; personally inscribed books to friends and family; letters to his wife and daughter, signed “Pappy,” as well as to one of his lovers; and private diary entries about his alcoholism.
Faulkner, recipient of the 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature, chronicles a troubled, tortured South and escaping the burden of its past.
“Writing was a demon. It was the only therapy he had,” said Hamblin, who led an online discussion of Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” for Winfrey’s readers in June.
The collection includes Faulkner’s recipe for curing hams, cartoons he drew for a high school yearbook, a series of his last will and testament, and a pen-and-ink map he drew of his novels’ mythical county and town.
The center and its holdings are not housed in Faulkner’s native Mississippi but rather at the state university in Missouri’s southern tip, just north -- the transplanted Mississippian Hamblin says -- of where the American South begins.
The center came to be at Southeast Missouri State University after a serendipitous meeting in 1978 of Hamblin, an English professor and Louis Daniel Brodsky, a Farmington, Mo., writer and businessman who’d been collecting Faulkner materials since he was a Yale freshman in 1959.
Through a mutual acquaintance, they arranged to meet at a Farmington bank where Brodsky had stored his collection in large safe-deposit boxes.
Hamblin couldn’t believe what he saw.
“I still recall vividly my initial amazement,” Hamblin later wrote, " ... as one, by one, L.D. laid before me the literary treasures he had been collecting for 20 years.... I had never before seen such a remarkable trove of Faulkner books and documents.”
Hamblin eventually asked, “What are you going to do with all this?”
Brodsky had been too busy to give it much thought, though he’d always intended to put the collection in the public domain.
They organized an exhibit of the works in 1979 at SEMO that drew national attention. More exhibits, lectures, eight books and various journal articles followed.
In the process, Hamblin, the scholar, and Brodsky, the collector/bibliographer, became best friends and “brothers” in their shared passion.
In 1988, after doubling its size, Brodsky sold and gave the collection -- then valued at $3.5 million -- to the university but remained its curator. The Faulkner center opened a year later.
“We were like two kids working in a single stamp book,” said Brodsky, who now lives in his native St. Louis. “We were truly like kids. We were exuberant. It was a total labor of love.”
He said Hamblin brought “vast scholarly, critical knowledge of Faulkner’s work,” while he “knew bibliography and biography and grew to know more and more.”
The men, each in his 60s now, had little else in common.
“He went to Yale; I come from a community college background,” Hamblin said. “At Yale, he rowed on the varsity crew on the Thames River. I went to Memphis once to play baseball.
“I’d never been in a synagogue. I grew up in the Southern Bible Belt. But we’ve become brothers, special friends.”
Hamblin grew up in rural Mississippi, the son of a sharecropper, later moving to town, where his family ran a general store and greasy spoon. He started graduate studies at Ole Miss weeks after Faulkner’s death in July 1962, just before violence engulfed Oxford when the university integrated.
“Faulkner helped me,” Hamblin recalled. “His books were all about racial justice, equality and brotherhood and atoning for the sins of the past. Here I was in the middle of it. At that time I was ashamed of my fellow Mississippians. He’d have been ashamed too.”
He got hooked on Faulkner in graduate school, then tried to go about his life, he said, before Brodsky “sucked me back.”
If Faulkner helped Hamblin navigate their South, reading and collecting Faulkner stimulated Brodsky’s writing.
“In freshman year, I read “The Sound and the Fury” and was totally stupefied by it,” Brodsky recalled.
He bought a first edition from a bookshop in New Haven, Conn., then acquired 200 first and second editions and later printings with textbook money.
“No one collected Faulkner when I started,” said Brodsky, who did it by seeking out the people who knew him. “It was such a joy.”
A big break came in 1974, when New York bookseller Margie Cohn offered to sell Brodsky 14 early inscribed titles she’d acquired from the widow of a Faulkner friend in Hollywood, Hubert Starr.
“I realized that if Hubert Starr had those artifacts, his other friends would have artifacts,” Brodsky said. “Faulkner never had anything to give except his work, his books, his manuscripts.”
The same year, Brodsky devoured the just-published “Faulkner: A Biography” by Joseph Blotner, using it as a road map to find Faulkner’s circle of friends, family and associates.
He figured he had a 15-year window and had “better mine it.”
In 1989, he acquired Blotner’s research and interview notes, correspondence and copies of manuscripts he had compiled for his book.
Another big coup was meeting Dorothy Commins, widow of Saxe Commins, Faulkner’s confidant and editor at Random House in New York, in 1977.
She relinquished 100 personal letters from Faulkner, her late husband’s diary excerpts about Faulkner’s alcoholic bouts, and manuscripts of essays, speeches, portions of three novels and more than a dozen books Faulkner inscribed to the couple.
“They are precious, a trove that was incomparable,” Brodsky said.
Part of the collection but still in Brodsky’s possession are a Royal typewriter Faulkner used at Commins’ home office to type a version of his Nobel Prize acceptance speech and a pocket watch he kept on his sailboat, the Ring Dove. “W. Faulkner” and “Ring Dove” are hand-etched on the back.
“It’s been a wonderful journey,” Brodsky said, “an odyssey.”