William Faulkner (2nd Part)
In January 1939, Faulkner was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. That same month, If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem was published under the title The Wild Palms. In April 1940, the first book of the Snopes trilogy, The Hamlet, was published by Random House. Featuring a reworked version of “Barn Burning” and other stories Faulkner had published, including “Spotted Horses,” the novel follows Flem Snopes from being the poor son of a barn-burning sharecropper to his securing a storekeeper’s job, as “fire insurance,” in the hamlet of Frenchman’s Bend (in southeastern Yoknapatawpha County). As Flem rises in stature and responsibility, and all the while bringing more and more Snopeses into the community, thus further elevating himself personally and financially, he eventually agrees to marry the store owner’s daughter, Eula Varner, who is pregnant by another man.
Throughout 1941, Faulkner spent much of his time writing and reworking stories into an episodic novel about the McCaslin family, several members of whom had appeared briefly in The Unvanquished. Though several stories that would comprise Go Down, Moses had been published separately, Faulkner revised extensively the parts that would comprise the novel, which spans more than 100 years in the history of Yoknapatawpha County. At the physical and psychological center of the book is “The Bear,” a hunting story that encompasses both the fading wilderness, Native American issues of land ownership and environmental stewardship, and the problems of miscegenation compounded by incest. The book was published in May 1942 as Go Down, Moses and Other Stories, but in subsequent editions, Faulkner had the phrase “and other stories” omitted, insisting to his publisher that the book was a novel.
Sale of his novels, meanwhile, had slumped, so he returned to California in July 1942 to begin another stint at screen writing, this time for Warner Brothers, who insisted he sign for seven years, which he was told was “only a formality.” His salary was less than what he had earned as a novice at MGM ten years earlier. The following year, he began to work intermittently on A Fable, a novel whose plot would revolve around a reincarnation of Christ during the First World War. It would take him more than ten years to complete it. Also in 1943, he was assigned to write the screenplay for Hemingway’s novel To Have and Have Not, but because of an extended vacation, he did not begin work on it until February 1944. The movie, the first film to feature Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall together on screen, would premiere in January 1945. In August 1944, Faulkner began writing a screenplay adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s detective novel The Big Sleep. It would premiere, also starring Bogart and Bacall, in August 1946. During this period, Faulkner also collaborated with Jean Renoir on his film The Southerner, but with no screen credit since it would violate his Warner Brothers contract. It would premiere in August 1945. The three films together would represent the pinnacle of Faulkner’s screen writing career.
In 1944, Faulkner began a correspondence with Malcolm Cowley, who at the time was editing The Portable Hemingway for Viking Press. Cowley had in mind a similar collection for Faulkner, whose novels by this time were effectively out of print. Though Faulkner’s reputation remained high in Europe, especially in France, where Jean-Paul Sartre allegedly said, “For the young people in France, Faulkner is a god,” in America the public had largely ceased to read his work. Cowley’s collection begins with an introductory biographical and critical essay, in which Faulkner had to correct for the first time some of the misconceptions of his war record. The collection itself consists of stories and novel passages that relate, in roughly chronological order, the “saga” of Yoknapatawpha County. For the book, Faulkner contributed a new “Appendix” to The Sound and the Fury, in which he examined both the distant past and the near future of the Compson family as told in the novel. Published in April 1946, The Portable Faulkner would mark the beginning of the resurgence in popular and critical interest in Faulkner’s work. In December, the Modern Library would publish a one-volume edition of The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying, preceded by Faulkner’s “Compson Appendix.” Over the coming years, the Modern Library would continue to re-issue Faulkner’s novels, a practice that continues to this day.
In March 1947, while continuing to work on his Christ fable, he wrote letters to the Oxford newspaper to support the preservation of the old courthouse on the town square, which some townspeople had proposed demolishing to build a larger one. In April, he agreed to meet in question-and-answer sessions with English classes at the University of Mississippi, but he invited controversy when his candid statement about Hemingway — “he has no courage, has never climbed out on a limb … has never used a word where the reader might check his usage by a dictionary” — was included in a press release about the sessions. When Hemingway read the remarks, he was hurt, moved even to write a letter answering the charge that he lacked “courage,” but when it grew too long, he asked a friend, Brigadier General C.T. Lanham to write and tell Faulkner only what he knew about Hemingway’s heroism as a war correspondent. Almost immediately, Faulkner replied, apologizing for the misunderstanding and pain caused by his remarks, explaining that it was a garbled, incomplete version of what he had said, but he defended his comment by saying that it referred only to Hemingway’s craftsmanship as a writer and told how he was judging the quality of writing on its degree of failures, that Hemingway was next to last because he didn’t have the courage to risk “bad taste, over-writing, dullness, etc.” He wrote Hemingway also, including a copy of the letter to Lanham, again apologizing and saying, “I hope it wont matter a damn to you. But if or whe[ne]ver it does, please accept another squirm from yours truly.”
In January 1948, Faulkner put aside A Fable to write a novel he considered a detective story. The central character is Lucas Beauchamp, who had appeared as a key descendant of old Lucius Quintus Carothers McCaslin in Go Down, Moses, upon whose name his own was based. In the novel Beauchamp is accused of murdering a white man and must rely upon the wits of a teenage boy, Chick Mallison, to clear his name before the lynch mob arrives to do its job. In July, MGM purchased the film rights to the novel, and in October, Intruder in the Dust was published. In the spring of 1949, director Clarence Brown and a film crew descended upon Oxford, Mississippi, to film the novel on location, and while the townspeople eagerly welcomed the filmmakers, even playing a number of extra and minor roles in the film, Faulkner was very reluctant to participate, though he may have helped to rework the final scene. In October 1949, the world premiere of Brown’s Intruder in the Dust took place at the Lyric Theatre in Oxford. Faulkner attended at the insistence of his Aunt Alabama McLean.
In November, Faulkner published Knight’s Gambit, a collection of detective stories including “Tomorrow,” “Smoke,” and the title novella. That same month, in Stockholm, fifteen of the eighteen members of the Swedish Academy voted to award the Nobel Prize for literature to Faulkner, but since a unanimous vote was required, the awarding of the prize was delayed by a year.
In the summer of 1949, Faulkner had met Joan Williams, a young student and author of a prize-winning story. In 1950, he began a collaboration with her on Requiem for a Nun, a part-prose, part-play sequel to Sanctuary in which nursemaid Nancy Mannigoe is sentenced to hang for the murder of Temple Drake’s infant daughter. Temple, now married to Gowan Stevens, tries to convince her husband’s uncle, lawyer Gavin Stevens, to save Nancy from execution. In narrative prose sections preceding each of the play’s three acts, Faulkner details some of the early history of Jefferson, Yoknapatawpha County, and the state of Mississippi. His collaboration with Williams would eventually grow into a love affair.
In June 1950, Faulkner was awarded the Howells Medal for distinguished work in American fiction. In August, he published Collected Stories, the third and last collection of stories published by Faulkner. It includes forty-two of the forty-six stories published in magazines since 1930, excluding those which he had published or incorporated into The Unvanquished, The Hamlet, Go Down, Moses, and Knight’s Gambit. Two months later, Faulkner received word that the Swedish Academy had voted to award him and Bertrand Russell as corecipients of the Nobel Prize for literature, Russell for 1950 and Faulkner for the previous year. At first he refused to go to Stockholm to receive the award, but pressured by the U.S. State Department, the Swedish Ambassador to the United States, and finally by his own family, he agreed to go.
On December 10, he delivered his acceptance speech to the academy in a voice so low and rapid that few could make out what he was saying, but when his words were published in the newspaper the following day, it was recognized for its brilliance; in later years, Faulkner’s speech would be lauded as the best speech ever given at a Nobel ceremony. In it, Faulkner alluded to the impending Cold War and the constant fear, “a general and universal physical fear,” whose consequence was to make “the young man or woman writing today [forget] the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” The artist, Faulkner said, must re-learn “the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed — love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.” He concludes on an optimistic note: “I decline to accept the end of man…. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s duty is to write about these things…. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”
At Howard Hawks’ request, Faulkner returned to Hollywood one last time in February 1951 to rework a script titled “The Left Hand of God” for 20th Century-Fox. The following month, he was awarded the National Book Award for Collected Stories, and in May, shortly after having delivered the commencement address at his daughter’s high school graduation ceremony, French President Vincent Auriol bestowed the award of Legion of Honor upon Faulkner. As he completed the writing and revision of Requiem for a Nun, he received several offers to stage the play, both in the United States and in France, but problems of financing prevented any full productions. The book was published in September 1951.
In April 1952, Faulkner attended the ninetieth anniversary of the Battle of Shiloh with fellow Mississippian Shelby Foote, whom Faulkner had met in 1941 when Foote had accompanied Faulkner’s agent, Ben Wasson, on a visit to Rowan Oak. In May he accepted an invitation to attend the Festival “Oeuvres du XXe Siècle” in France; while abroad, he also visited England and Norway. Back at home in June, he resumed his relationship with Joan Williams and continued working on A Fable with more and more difficulty. When the intricate plot became too complex for him to keep track of, he wrote outlines of key events in the story’s seven days on the walls of his office at Rowan Oak. Suffering from acute back pain, Faulkner was hospitalized twice, in September and October. In November, Faulkner agreed to participate in a short documentary film financed by the Ford Foundation. Essentially re-enacting his own life, Faulkner is depicted at his farm, talking with townspeople on the streets of Oxford, and being cajoled into an interview by Oxford Eagle editor Phil Mullen at Rowan Oak, during which Faulkner says (on camera), “Okay, but no pictures.” The film was broadcast on CBS-TV’s program Omnibus. While in New York in January 1953, he adapted his story “The Brooch” for television while also working on A Fable and suffering bouts of back pain and alcoholism that required hospitalization. In March he was again hospitalized. The following month, Estelle suffered a hemorrhage and heart attack, so Faulkner returned to Oxford. He returned to New York in May, where he met Dylan Thomas and e.e. cummings. In June, he delivered an address to Jill’s graduating class at Pine Manor Junior College. Following another hospitalization in September, Faulkner was horrified to find his sacrosanct privacy invaded by the publication of a two-part biographical article by Robert Coughlan in September and October’s issues of Life magazine.
In November, Albert Camus’ agent wrote Faulkner requesting permission to adapt Requiem for a Nun for the stage, to which Faulkner agreed. At the end of the month, he traveled to Egypt to assist Howard Hawks in the filming of Land of the Pharaohs, their last collaboration. For the next several months, he traveled throughout Europe. He met Jean Stein in St. Moritz, Switzerland, on December 25, and after visits to England and Paris joined Hawks, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in Rome on January 19. In March, he received a letter from Jill, who wrote that she had met Paul D. Summers, a lieutenant at West Point, whom she would like to marry, and asked Faulkner to come home. He returned to Oxford at the end of April 1954, after a six-month absence. That same month saw the publication of “Mississippi,” a mostly nonfiction article mingling history, his childhood, and his own work against the backdrop of his native state, in Holiday magazine; and The Faulkner Reader, an anthology which includes the complete text of The Sound and the Fury, three additional long stories (or “novellas”) — “The Bear” from Go Down, Moses, “Old Man” from The Wild Palms, and “Spotted Horses” from The Hamlet — as well as several other stories and novel excerpts. The three novellas would in 1958 be published together under the title Three Famous Short Novels. In August, after more than ten years of work, Faulkner finally published A Fable, dedicating it to Jill and Estelle. Later that month, Jill and Paul Summers were married in Oxford.
Statesman to the World
At the end of June 1954, Faulkner had accepted an invitation from the U.S. State Department to attend an international writers conference in São Paulo in August. Now an internationally known public figure, Faulkner no longer refused to appear in public in his own nation, and he usually accepted the increasing requests by the State Department to attend cultural events abroad. In addition, he also began to take a public stand as a moderate, if not liberal, southerner in the growing debate over school integration.
Though A Fable is generally considered one of Faulkner’s weaker novels, in January 1955, it earned the National Book Award for Fiction and in May a Pulitzer Prize in fiction. In August, Faulkner began a three-month, seven-nation goodwill tour at the request of the State Department, traveling first to Japan, where at Nagano he participated in a seminar whose proceedings, along with two speeches he had delivered, were published as Faulkner at Nagano. He left Japan for Manila and then Italy, where from Rome he wrote a dispatch condemning the murder of Emmett Till, a black teenager from Chicago who had been killed in Mississippi. From Italy he went to Munich, where Requiem for a Nun was playing, and then to Paris for two weeks. In October, he left for London and then for Reykjavik, Iceland, where once again he attended a program of conferences and interviews. Finally he returned to the United States in October, during which month Random House published Big Woods: The Hunting Stories, a collection of four previously published stories about hunting with five “interchapters” at the beginning and end of the book and between chapters to set or change the mood. He dedicated the book to his editor at Random House, Saxe Commins.
In November, Faulkner condemned segregation in an address before the Southern Historical Association in the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, where because of segregation much effort was needed for blacks to be admitted. The speech was published in the Memphis Commercial Appeal under the headline “A mixed audience hears Faulkner condemn the ‘shame’ of segregation.” Though Faulkner opposed segregation, however, he opposed federal involvement in the issue, which resulted in his being understood by neither southern conservatives nor northern liberals. Faulkner’s increasingly vocal stand on the issues of race drew fire from his fellow southerners, including anonymous threats and rejection by his own brother, John. Misunderstanding over Faulkner’s views increased when in a February 1956 interview with a London Sunday Times correspondent he was quoted as saying that he would “fight for Mississippi against the United States, even if it meant going out into the street and shooting Negroes.” Faulkner tried to correct the absurd statement in letters to three national magazines that had repeated the initial assertion, but the statement’s harm could not easily be undone. Two weeks after Life published Faulkner’s “A Letter to the North,” in which he pleaded for moderation, warning that one should not expect too much of the South, he had to be hospitalized for nine days after vomiting blood and collapsing into unconsciousness. While he was in the hospital, Faulkner’s first grandchild, Paul, was born in Charlottesville, Virginia. Soon after, Faulkner would agree to become writer-in-residence at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville for a period of eight to ten weeks every year.
In April 1956, black civil rights legend W.E.B. Du Bois challenged Faulkner to a debate on integration on the steps of the courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi, where the accused in the Emmett Till murder trial had been acquitted by an all-white jury. Faulkner declined in a telegram, stating “I do not believe there is a debatable point between us. We both agree in advance that the position you will take is right morally, legally, and ethically. If it is not evident to you that the position I take in asking for moderation and patience is right practically then we will both waste our breath in debate.”
In September, Camus’ adaptation of Requiem for a Nun premiered at the Théâtre des Mathurins. That same month, Faulkner became involved in the Eisenhower administration’s “People-to-People Program,” the aim of which was to promote American culture behind the Iron Curtain. At the end of September a steering committee consisting of Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Donald Hall drew up several “resolutions,” including one supporting the liberation of Ezra Pound, but Faulkner would withdraw from the committee three months later.
From February to June 1957, Faulkner was writer-in-residence at the University of Virginia and agreed to a number of question-and-answer sessions with the students, faculty, and faculty spouses. Highlights of the taped sessions would be published in 1959 by Professors Joseph Blotner and Frederick Gwynn under the title Faulkner in the University. In March, while visiting Greece during a leave of absence from Virginia, he received the Silver Medal of the Athens Academy “as one chosen by the Greek Academy to represent the principle that man shall be free.” Back in Charlottesville, in April he signed a contract with producer Jerry Wald for an option on The Hamlet. The film, made by Martin Ritt and starring Orson Welles, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward (their first on-screen pairing), would be released in 1958 under the title The Long Hot Summer.
In May 1957 Faulkner published The Town, the second volume of the “Snopes” trilogy. Picking up where The Hamlet left off, it depicts Flem Snopes’ ruthless struggle to take over the town of Jefferson. Now dividing his time between Oxford and Charlottesville, from February to May 1958 he fulfilled his second term as writer-in-residence at Virginia. Also while living in Virginia, he began to relish fox-hunting, and he was invited to join the Farmington Hunt Club, an achievement he displayed proudly by posing for photographs and portraits in his pink membership coat. In December, Jill’s second son, William, was born, and the following month saw the premiere of Requiem for a Nun on stage at the John Golden Theater in New York, making the United States the thirteenth nation in which the play had been produced.
In March 1959, Faulkner broke his collarbone in a fall from a horse at Farmington, a kind of accident that would continue to plague Faulkner for the remaining years of his life. In June, he transferred his manuscripts and typescripts from the Princeton University Library to the Alderman Library at the University of Virginia. That month, the New York Times reported he had bought a house in Charlottesville, though he would continue to live part of the year in Oxford. In November, The Mansion, the third and final volume of the “Snopes” trilogy, was published.
Throughout 1960, Faulkner continued to divide his time between Oxford and Charlottesville. On October 16, Faulkner’s mother, Maud Butler Falkner, died at the age of 88. A talented painter who had completed nearly 600 paintings after 1941, she had remained close to her eldest son throughout her life.
In January 1961, Faulkner willed all his manuscripts to the William Faulkner Foundation at the University of Virginia. In February, he accepted an invitation from General William Westmoreland to visit the military academy at West Point. In April, Faulkner went on a final trip abroad for the State Department, this time to Venezuela, where he was the guest of President Rómulo Betancourt. He spent the summer in Oxford, where in August he completed the manuscript for his nineteenth and final novel. Titled The Reivers, an archaic Scottish spelling of an old term for “thieves,” the novel is a light-hearted romp set at the turn of the century in which Boon Hogganbeck takes eleven-year-old Lucius “Loosh” Priest and a stowaway, Ned McCaslin, the Priest family’s black coachman, on a joyride to a Memphis brothel in Loosh’s grandfather’s Winton Flyer automobile while “Boss” Priest is away at a funeral. Amid the picaresque novel’s ludicrous and uproarious antics, which include Ned’s trading Boss Priest’s automobile for a racehorse named “Lightning,” are the serious issues of a child’s initiation into moral adulthood and his realization of evil and injustice. Beginning the novel, subtitled “A Reminiscence,” with the phrase “Grandfather said,” Faulkner dedicated the novel to “Victoria, Mark, Paul, William, Burks,” his grandchildren by his two step-children and biological daughter. The novel, published in June 1962, would posthumously earn for Faulkner his second Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
In January of that year, Faulkner suffered another fall from a horse, forcing yet another hospital stay. In April, he again visited West Point with his wife, daughter, and son-in-law, and the following month in New York, fellow Mississippi writer Eudora Welty presented Faulkner with the Gold Medal for Fiction awarded by the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
On June 17, Faulkner was again injured by a fall from a horse. In constant pain now, he signaled something was wrong when he asked on July 5 to be taken to Wright’s Sanatarium in Byhalia. Though he had been a patient there many times, he had always been taken there before against his will. His nephew, Jimmy, and Estelle accompanied him on the 65-mile trip to Byhalia, where he was admitted at 6 p.m. Less than eight hours later, at about 1:30 a.m. on July 6, 1962 — the Old Colonel’s birthday — his heart stopped, and though the doctor on duty applied external heart massage for forty-five minutes, he could not resuscitate him. William Faulkner was dead of a heart attack at the age of 64.
He was buried on July 7 at St. Peter’s Cemetery in Oxford. As calls of condolence came upon the family from around the world and the press — including novelist William Styron, who covered the funeral for Life magazine — clamored for answers to their questions from family members, a family representative relayed to them a message from the family: “Until he’s buried he belongs to the family. After that, he belongs to the world.”