Archive for Sunday, November 30, 1997


November 30, 1997


The 100th anniversary of William Faulkner's birth got right by me, and I had planned to write a column on him. Next to John Dos Passos, Faulkner is my favorite writer of the 20th century. I had read a couple of the books but I went to work on him in earnest after I read "The Sound and the Fury" for a graduate class 40 years ago. And I became addicted, even though several of the books were a battle.

Faulkner was a Mississippian, born in 1897, writing most of the time about his home territory, which he called Yoknapatawpha County, in almost all his novels. The setting is surely Oxford, home of the University of Mississippi. You walk around the town square, with the fine old courthouse and shops and not much traffic, and you can imagine Flem Snopes there, or the lawyer in "Intruder in the Dust," or the Compson brood: Jason, Candace, Benjamin, Quentin. You remember the sewing machine salesman, and the spotted ponies, and the constant search for supposed buried treasure.

There in Oxford is the Faulkner home, set back in the trees. There Faulkner wrote the books, which superficially seem on the heavy side but are really comedy. Black comedy.

"Sanctuary" was the first Faulkner I read, and I think I read it, first, because one of my college English teachers said Faulkner wasn't much of a writer, and, second, because it had the reputation of being violent and sexy. It was both. And for several years, when the other books were out of print, it was the main thing from Faulkner that people were reading. It's an ugly story, sensational, not really much fun.

"The Sound and the Fury" was a struggle. A good bit of it was stream of consciousness, and not until I figured out what Faulkner was doing could I manage it. Part of it was the story of Benjy, an idiot, and it was full of the sound and fury and signifying nothing. The Compsons are a crazy crew. Here's how the Benjy part reads: "County people poor things they never saw an auto before lots of them honk the horn Candace so She wouldn't look at me they'll get out of the way..."

One of the books, I forget which one, has a sentence that goes on for many pages. "Absalom, Absalom!" is also stream of consciousness, and it's pretty violent going. But mighty good. "As I Lay Dying" is about a family transporting the coffin carrying Mother cross country into town. "Light in August," the one I recommended to students wanting to sample Faulkner, is about a fellow and a spinster, whose throat he cuts, and how a mob runs him down and castrates him. A lot of blood flows in some of the Faulkner books.

I recommend the trilogy consisting of "The Hamlet," "The Town," and "The Mansion." Part of these became an entertaining movie called "The Long Hot Summer," with Paul Newman and Orson Welles. Welles really looks and talks like someone Faulkner could have known in Yoknapatawpha County. You read these books and feel the heat of a Mississippi summer.

William Faulkner, you know, received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950. That was when he uttered the memorable words: "I believe that man will not merely endure. He will prevail." He had shown his social conscience in the splendid "Intruder in the Dust," about a black man too uppity for white folks, one accused of murder; a white boy who has come to know him; the boy's uncle, a lawyer, who reluctantly defends the man. This became an absolutely eloquent movie. Look it up.

Faulkner won the Pulitzer Prize for "A Fable." I think this is a dreadful book, a contrived story set on the battlefield in World War I. Faulkner put his war experiences into some of the books. He wrote some good short stories, such as "That Evening Sun Go Down." His warmest, most winning book is "The Reivers," about a little boy, a black man, a white man, and a trip to Memphis in a beautiful yellow car, which the black man trades for a race horse. And there's a horse race, and the return home with car once again there's. This is a grand story, made into a lovely movie with Steve McQueen, and it's a fitting last novel from this great American writer.

-- Calder Pickett is a professor emeritus of journalism at Kansas University. His column appears Sundays in the Journal-World.

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