The Big Thing on His Mind

Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos
William Faulkner in front of his house in Oxford, Mississippi, 1947

It would be a grave mistake for anyone trying to understand race in American history to overlook the novels of William Faulkner. Beneath their literary complexity can be found the clearest statement by anyone of the core abuse that has driven black–white conflict since slavery times, but first you have to pass a test. Faulkner’s French biographer, André Bleikasten, who devoted his life to understanding Faulkner, obviously passed the test himself, but it cannot have been easy for him. Bleikasten presents his readers with many examples of the test, but the one that seemed bluntest to me, impossible to mistake or ignore, emerges from an evening at Princeton in 1958 when Faulkner met J. Robert Oppenheimer. Both men were celebrated, Oppenheimer for building the first atomic bomb and Faulkner for writing the novels that won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1949.

Oppenheimer, when in the mood, could talk to just about anybody about anything, but Faulkner found conversation difficult with strangers; a bare yes or no was often all he could manage. Oppenheimer said he had recently seen a television play based on a Faulkner story and asked what Faulkner thought of television as a medium for the artist.

“Television is for niggers,” said Faulkner.

This is the test: Are you prepared to believe that the Faulkner who said that might also have something important to say about black–white conflict in American history? The test was probably easier for Bleikasten because he was French, because he studied the books before he studied the man, because he was interested in literature, not history or sociology, and because at the beginning of his life Bleikasten did not yet understand that for many white southerners nothing changed with the end of slavery except slavery.

Bleikasten’s long devotion to Faulkner began with a happy accident. In July 1962 he was nearing thirty and needed a safely dead writer of important novels in English for his doctoral thesis. He was close to committing himself to D.H. Lawrence when Faulkner died after falling from a hard-to-control horse in Virginia. Bleikasten devoted most of the next forty-five years to Faulkner, beginning with the novels, which he treated exhaustively in a book called The Ink of Melancholy, first published in 1990 and now reissued. Friends asked, why not follow the novels with a biography? Bleikasten resisted. “There are five already,” he thought. “Why a sixth?” But then an editor at a small French publishing house “harried me gently for months until finally I gave in.”

Bleikasten’s book on the novels took decades, the life about three years. It was published in France in 2007 and won three big prizes. By that time he was already mortally ill with cancer, and he died in 2009 before talk of an English translation…

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