On ‘As I Lay Dying’

Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos
William Faulkner, Oxford, Mississippi, 1947

Talking to a class at the University of Mississippi one day late in his life, William Faulkner remarked that his cogenerationist Ernest Hemingway lacked courage as a writer, that he had always been too careful, never taking risks beyond what he knew he could do, never using “a word where the reader might check his usage by a dictionary.” The remark, quoted in a university press release, was picked up by the wire services and eventually made its way to Hemingway, who was outraged that Faulkner had questioned his courage. Faulkner then had to write a letter of apology and explain that he never questioned Hemingway’s physical courage, but only his courage as a writer who never went “out on a limb” or risked “bad taste, over-writing, dullness, etc.” Hemingway’s hurt seemed to have been assuaged, the criticism applying only to his life’s work.

But what did Faulkner mean? Certainly more than a matter of not using words from the dictionary. We might be tempted, considering As I Lay Dying, his novel of 1930 about a Southern family of poor whites narrated by its members and their neighbors, its events refracted through multiple points of view, that Faulkner was referring to Hemingway’s reliance on standard fictional conventions—the simple declarative sentence, the single narrative voice, and a linear sense of time. But we would be only half right.

Faulkner had never lived as rarefied an existence as Hemingway, a man who organized his life around pursuits—hunting, fishing, writing, war reporting. Faulkner’s life was messier, less focused, a struggle from the beginning to make enough money to survive: he was a school dropout, and worked at various jobs—postmaster, bookstore clerk—and he held down the midnight shift in a coal-fired power plant, where, as it happened, he wrote most of As I Lay Dying. He was an air cadet in Toronto when World War I ended and unlike Hemingway had to pretend to the combat experience that had eluded him. He wrote poetry before he ever considered fiction, fell in love with a woman who married someone else, bought a house in some disrepair and did all the renovations himself, lost his brother to an airplane accident for which he felt responsible, and became a heavy drinker presumably to deal with the intensity of his writing life.

But it is possible that the way writers live can find its equivalent in their sense of composition, as if the technical daring of Faulkner’s greatest work has behind it the overreaching desire to hold together in one place the multifarious energies of real, unstoried life.

And so now we are here with the Bundrens, a down-at-the-heels family of dirt farmers in Yoknapatawpha County. Who lays dying is Addie Bundren, the mother. She listens to the “chuck, chuck” of the adze as her son, Cash,…

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