“Now I realise for the first time,” wrote William Faulkner to a woman friend, looking back from the vantage point of his mid-fifties, “what an amazing gift I had: uneducated in every formal sense, without even very literate, let alone literary, companions, yet to have made the things I made. I don’t know where it came from. I don’t know why God or gods or whoever it was, selected me to be the vessel.”
The disbelief Faulkner lays claim to is a little disingenuous. For the kind of writer he wanted to be, he had all the education, even all the book-learning, he needed. As for company, he stood to gain more from garrulous oldsters with gnarled hands and long memories than from effete littérateurs. Nevertheless, a measure of astonishment is in order. Who would have guessed that a boy of no great intellectual distinction from small-town Mississippi would become not only a famous writer, celebrated at home and abroad, but the kind of writer he in fact became: the most radical innovator in the annals of American fiction, a writer to whom the avant-garde of Europe and Latin America would go to school?
Of formal education Faulkner certainly had a minimum. He dropped out of high school in his junior year (his parents seem not to have made a fuss), and though he briefly attended the University of Mississippi, that was only by grace of a dispensation for returned servicemen (of Faulkner’s war service, more below). His college record was undistinguished: a semester of English (grade: D), two semesters of French and Spanish. For this explorer of the mind of the post-bellum South, no courses in history; for the novelist who would weave Bergsonian time into the syntax of memory, no studies in philosophy or psychology.
What the rather dreamy Billy Faulkner gave himself in place of schooling was a narrow but intense reading of fin-de-siècle English poetry, notably Swinburne and Housman, and of three novelists who had given birth to fictional worlds lively and coherent enough to supplant the real one: Balzac, Dickens, and Conrad. Add to this a familiarity with the cadences of the Old Testament, Shakespeare, and Moby-Dick, and, a few years later, a quick study of what his older contemporaries T.S. Eliot and James Joyce were up to, and he was ready armed. As for materials, what he heard around him in Oxford, Mississippi, turned out to be more than enough: the epic, told and retold endlessly, of the South, a story of cruelty and injustice and hope and disappointment and victimization and resistance.
Billy Faulkner had barely quit school when the First World War broke out. Captivated by the idea of becoming a pilot and flying sorties against the Hun, he applied in 1918 to be taken into the Royal Air Force. Desperate for fresh manpower, the RAF sent him to Canada on a training course. Before he could make his first solo flight, however, the war ended.
He returned to Oxford wearing an RAF officer’s uniform and affecting a British accent and a limp, the consequence, he said, of a flying accident. To friends he also confided that he had a steel plate in his skull.
He sustained the aviator legend for years; he began to play it down only when he became a national figure and the risk of exposure loomed too large. His dreams of flying were not abandoned, however. As soon as he had the money to spare, in 1933, he took flying lessons, bought his own plane, and briefly operated a flying circus: “WILLIAM FAULKNER’S (Famous Author) AIR CIRCUS,” ran the advertisement.
Faulkner’s biographers have made much of his war stories, treating them as more than just the concoctions of a puny and unprepossessing youth desperate to be admired. Frederick R. Karl believes that “the war turned [Faulkner] into a storyteller, a fictionist, which may have been the decisive turnabout of his life.” The ease with which he duped the good people of Oxford, Karl says, proved to Faulkner that, artfully contrived and convincingly expounded, a lie can beat the truth, and thus that one can make a living out of fantasy.
Back home Faulkner led a drifting life. He wrote poems about “epicene” (by which he seems to have meant narrow-hipped) women and his unrequited longings for them, poems that even with the best will in the world one cannot call promising; he began to sign his name not “Falkner,” as he was born, but “Faulkner”; and, following the pattern of the male Falkners, he drank heavily. For some years, until he was dismissed for poor performance, he held a sinecure as postmaster of a small post office, where he occupied office hours reading and writing.
For someone so determined to follow his own inclinations, it is odd that, rather than packing his bags and heading for the bright lights of the metropolis, he chose to remain in the town of his birth, where his pretensions were regarded with sardonic amusement. Jay Parini, his latest biographer, suggests that he found it hard to be out of reach of his mother, a woman of some sensibility who seems to have had a deeper relation with her eldest son than with a dull and spineless husband.
On forays to New Orleans Faulkner developed a circle of bohemian friends and met Sherwood Anderson, annalist of Winesburg, Ohio, whose influence on him he was later at pains to minimize. He began to publish short pieces in the New Orleans press; he even dipped into literary theory. Willard Huntington Wright, a disciple of Walter Pater, made a particular impression on him. In Wright’s The Creative Will (1916) he read that the true artist is solitary by nature, “an omnipotent god who moulds and fashions the destiny of a new world, and leads it to an inevitable completion where it can stand alone, self-moving, independent,” leaving its creator exalted of spirit. The type of the artist-demiurge, suggests Wright, is Honoré de Balzac, much to be preferred to Émile Zola, a mere copyist of a preexisting reality.
In 1925 Faulkner made his first trip abroad. He spent two months in Paris and liked it: he bought a beret, grew a beard, began work on a novel—soon to be abandoned—about a painter with a war wound who goes to Paris to further his art. He hung out at James Joyce’s favorite café, where he caught a glimpse of the great man but did not approach him.
All in all, nothing in the record suggests more than a would-be writer of unusual doggedness but no great gifts. Yet soon after his return to the United States he would sit down and write a 14,000-word sketch bursting with ideas and characters, the groundwork for his great novels of the years between 1929 and 1942. The manuscript contained, in embryo, Yoknapatawpha County.
As a child Faulkner had been inseparable from a slightly older friend named Estelle Oldham. The two were in some sense betrothed. When the time came, however, the Oldham parents, disapproving of the shiftless youth, married Estelle off to a lawyer with better prospects. When Estelle returned to the parental home it was as a divorced woman of thirty-two with two small children.
Faulkner seems to have had doubts about the wisdom of pursuing the relationship. “It’s a situation which I engendered and permitted to ripen which has become unbearable,” he confided in a letter. But honor forbade him to withdraw. He and Estelle were accordingly married.
Estelle must have had her doubts too. During the honeymoon she may or may not have tried to drown herself. The marriage itself turned out to be unhappy, worse than unhappy. “They were just terribly unsuited for each other,” their daughter, Jill, told Parini. “Nothing about the marriage was right.” Estelle was an intelligent woman, but she was used to spending money freely and to having servants carry out her every wish. Life in a dilapidated old house with a husband who spent his mornings scribbling and his afternoons replacing rotten timbers and putting in plumbing must have come as a shock to her. A child was born but died at two weeks. Jill was born in 1933. Thereafter sexual relations between the Faulkners seem to have ceased.
Together and separately, William and Estelle drank to excess. In late middle age Estelle pulled herself together and went on the wagon; William never did. He had affairs with younger women that he was not competent or careful enough to conceal; from scenes of raging jealousy the marriage by degrees dwindled into, in the words of Faulkner’s first biographer, Joseph Blotner, “desultory domestic guerrilla warfare.”
Nevertheless, for thirty-three years, until Faulkner’s death in 1962, the marriage endured. Why? The most mundane explanation is that until well into the 1950s, Faulkner could not afford a divorce—that is to say, he could not, in addition to the troops of Faulkners or Falkners, to say nothing of Oldhams, who were dependent on his earnings, afford to support Estelle and three children in the style she would have demanded, and at the same time relaunch himself decently in society. Less easily demonstrable is Karl’s claim that at some deep level Faulkner needed Estelle. “Estelle could never be disentangled from the deepest reaches of [Faulkner’s] imagination,” Karl writes. “Without Estelle…he could not have continued [to write].” She was his “belle dame sans merci”—“that ideal object man worships from a distance who is also…destructive.”
By choosing to marry Estelle, by choosing to make his home in Oxford amid the Falkner clan, Faulkner took on a formidable challenge: how to be patron and breadwinner and paterfamilias to what he privately called “[a] whole tribe…hanging like so many buzzards over every penny [I] earn,” while at the same time serving his inner daimon. Despite an Apollonian ability to immerse himself in his work—“a monster of efficiency,” Parini calls him—the project wore him down. To feed the buzzards, the one blazing genius of American literature of the 1930s had to put aside his novel-writing, which was all that really mattered to him, first to churn out stories for popular magazines, later to write screenplays for Hollywood.
The trouble was not so much that Faulkner was unappreciated in the community of letters as that there was no room in the economy of the 1930s for the profession of avant-garde novelist (today Faulkner would be a natural for a major fellowship). Faulkner’s publishers, editors, and agents—with one miserable exception—had his interests at heart and did their best on his behalf, but it was not enough. Only after the appearance of The Portable Faulkner, a selection skillfully put together by Malcolm Cowley in 1945, did American readers wake up to what they had in their midst.
The time spent writing stories was not all wasted. Faulkner was an extraordinarily tenacious reviser of his own work (in Hollywood he impressed by his ability to fix up dud scripts by other writers). Revisited and reconceived and reworked, material that made its first appearance in The Saturday Evening Post or The Woman’s Home Companion resurfaced transmogrified in The Unvanquished (1938), The Hamlet (1940), and Go Down, Moses (1942), books that straddle the line between story collection and novel proper.