Friday, 6 June 2014

Giants of Academia & the Arts

… but, then again, nobody is perfect

William Faulkner (25 September 1897 – 6 July 1962)

When it comes to the sphere of outstanding literature, nobody has ever stood taller than William Faulkner. Well, actually, with the possible exception of Charlotte Bronte, almost everyone stood taller, seeing he was only five feet five and a half inches tall (and, as ever at that kind of stature, that extra half inch seems absolutely crucial), something for which he would suffer cruel teasing at the hands of his schoolmates, as well as for the back brace that his mother forced him to wear. Born William Cuthbert Falkner in New Albany, Mississippi, he was named after his father, Murry Cuthbert Falkner, and his great grandfather, William Clark Falkner, a Civil War hero legendary in family lore and known as the “Old Colonel,” later to appear as Colonel Sartoris in works such as The Unvanquished. Much of young Billy’s boyhood would be spent listening to stories told by his elders: of the Civil War; of slavery; of the Ku Klux Klan; and of the Falkner family itself; and it was at this early stage, perhaps, that he learned the art of tale-telling and the inestimable value of a fertile imagination.
Four days before his sixth birthday, the Falkner family settled in Oxford (later Jefferson in the stories), where he would reside on and off for the rest of his life, in country he would refer to as his “postage stamp of land,” actually Lafayette County but immortalised as Yoknapatawpha County (easiest split into five bites: Yock-nah-pah-tor-fah) , a Chickasaw Indian word that meant "water passes slowly through flatlands," and where all but five of his novels are set. At school, things went swimmingly well, apart from the grief over the shortness and the back brace, of course, and young Billy excelled in his studies. Right up until the fourth grade. And then, quite suddenly (and ever the case with impending greatness, surely?) something went wrong, he became withdrawn and even started bunking off, sending him into an irrevocable decline that eventually culminated in his dropping out and never graduating at all. He then took a job at his grandfather’s bank and it was now that he began to write poetry and to “experiment with alcohol”, developing a lifelong taste for whisky and spending his free time carousing with the town drunk, a man renowned solely for his penchant for urinating upon lampposts. Not an auspicious start so far.

1918 saw Faulkner adding the U to the family name himself, even though myth attributes this to the carelessness of a typesetter, claiming that, when the error appeared on his first book, he was asked if he wanted it corrected, to which his supposed reply was, “Either way suits me.” Though what is certainly true to say is that the addition was made purely on the grounds of creating great fiction.
When the USA entered the First World War in April 1917, Falkner (as he still was) was unable to join the Air Force (too short, it seems) so he hotfooted it up to Toronto to enlist with the British, with the hope of joining the Canadian Royal Flying Corps, lying repeatedly in his application, including about his date and place of birth, changing the name to Faulkner and even affecting a suitable accent, all in the attempt to appear English. Even by then he must have been the master storyteller (and rather better at the accent than Dick Van Dyke, it would appear) because they believed him and let him in. Alas and alack, the war ended before ever he got near any action. Still, no real reason to stop the pretence just on account of that and so, regarding the whole thing as very much a Work in Progress, he bought himself a lieutenant’s uniform (a rank he never reached) complete with wings (he had never flown solo either) and some impressive looking (but unwon) medals, and returned to Oxford, arty and dandified, maintaining the English accent and manners, parading about in the uniform and even adopting a stick and a limp in order to support the numerous implausible tales he pedalled of his war service and injuries, which had left him (so he said) in constant pain and with a silver plate in his head. In fact, the only war injury he did receive came from getting drunk and partying too hard during Armistice Day celebrations. But Faulkner’s posturing fooled few of the Oxford townsfolk, who took to mocking him as “The Count” for his hauteur, later expanded to “Count No ‘Count” for his lack of actual achievement.

High time to get things back on track once more. By enrolling at the University of Mississippi, (despite having dropped out of high school and thus lacking the necessary grades), which was handily based in Oxford and known as the “Ole Miss,” in September 1919, thanks to a scheme that allowed World War I veterans to enrol there without the required qualifications (despite the fact that he wasn’t actually a war veteran). But, true to form, before long he was skipping classes and, by the end of the third semester in November 1920, he had dropped out again, having gained an alleged “D” grade in English. (That means nowt – Einstein were rotten at algebra, so they say). 

Nothing for it now but to seek gainful employment. Firstly, in New York in 1921 in a bookstore managed by Elizabeth Prall, later wife of writer Sherwood Anderson, who himself would help get Faulkner published. From spring 1922 until October 1924, he served as Postmaster at the Ole Miss Post Office, a job he was egregiously bad at, spending his time reading, writing or playing cards, losing the mail and failing to serve customers. Eventually, an inspector turned up and asked Faulkner to relinquish the position, which he did, saying in his resignation letter:

As long as I live under the capitalistic system, I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people. But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp.”

Ultimately, there were no hard feelings and the post office issued a stamp in his honour, but only in 1987, two decades after his death. Around the same time, he served as scoutmaster for the Oxford troop but, once again, he was asked to resign, this time for “moral reasons” (experimenting with alcohol too much, rumour has it). In 1925, he moved to New Orleans and wrote his first novel, Soldier’s Pay, and at last he tasted success, though without great financial reward. Then to Europe for a spell, staying in Paris and hovering around the café frequented by James Joyce, though failing woefully to summon up enough nerve to actually speak to him. In 1929, as well as being a golf caddy for a while, he famously worked at the Ole Miss Power Plant, where he wrote As I Lay Dying in just six weeks of night shifts, claiming that he never changed one word of it and, as we know, he’s not the sort of fellow to just make something up for the sake of making himself look good, now is he? He had to resign from that one too. By 1932, he had embarked on the Hollywood screenwriting career (which included To Have and Have Not, and The Big Sleep), which at least provided enough stability for him to pen, in an outrageously short period, some of the finest literature of the last century or any, though he continued to struggle financially until the publication of Intruder in the Dust in 1948.

Faulkner won the 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature, which was presented to him on 10 December 1950, at the same time Bertrand Russell was picking up his. At first, he said he wasn’t going to go (yes, but he said a lot of things, didn’t he?) but, in the end, the speech he made was later recognised for its brilliance and lauded as the best speech ever given at a Nobel ceremony. Which is odd, seeing that he delivered it in such a rapid mumble and at so low a volume that, at the time, nobody had the first idea what he saying and they only found out later from the newspapers. This award ensured his financial security, though his best work was now behind him and his Nobel speech was the last great thing he wrote. Still, at long last, he had actually been getting things right …  

… though not everything. Whilst serving as Writer-in-Residence at the University of Virginia, he became enthusiastic about fox-hunting and posed for photographs in his Farmington Hunt Club pink (yes, the coat does look red but it’s called a pink). The problem may have been that he was too short while the horses were too big but, whatever, he was rotten at it, with the result that he kept falling off. In March 1959, he was thrown, suffering serious injuries and was carted off to Wright's Sanatorium in Byhalia, Mississippi (the place where he was often sent to recover from his frequent extended alcohol binges). In June 1962, he again came a cropper, this time injuring his back and suffering intense pain and, by July 5, it had become so unbearable that he was taken back to Wright’s where a few hours later, on July 6 (the Old Colonel’s birthday) he died of a heart attack at sixty four.

[William Faulkner is a personal and particular favourite when it comes to authors, and highly recommended. Well worth a go at, if you’ve never read any; well worth another go, if you have. The Library holds lots of Faulkner material, both by and about, and we’ve also got four DVDs to watch, including Intruder in the Dust, which was filmed in Oxford and was when the residents finally realised who he was.] 

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