Chautauqua 1998

William Faulkner
A Heart in Conflict With Itself

By John D. Anderson

"A change will come out of this war," WilliamFaulkner wrote his stepson Malcolm on July 4, 1943. "If it doesn't, if the politicians and the people who run this country are not forced to make good the shibboleth they glibly talk about freedom, human rights, then you young men who live through it will have wasted your precious time, and those who don't live through it will have died in vain." In the decade of the 1950s, Faulkner used the acclaim afforded him by his Nobel Prize for Literature to encourage changes in civil rights and international peace. In the writings of his last decade (he died on July 6, 1962) and in his capacity as a goodwill ambassador forthe U.S. State Department, Faulkner proclaimed his positions on enduring moral issues.

The decade of the 1950s brought William Faulkner a recognitionthat had been long in coming. The Depression era had beenextremely productive for America's greatest but most neglected novelist. The same years also saw Faulkner pursuing a prolificparallel career as a Hollywood screenwriter as well as weatheringsome major crises in his personal life. By 1944 only one of his 17 books was still in print. Winning the 1949 Nobel Prize changed his life dramatically.

Faulkner's had been a long and sometimes frustrating literary apprenticeship. Born in 1897 in Mississippi, he had dropped out of high school in Oxford (his lifelong home) in 1915, preferring to explore literature with his friend and mentor Phil Stone. With Stone's help, Faulkner had published a book of pastoral poems called The Marble Faun in 1924, and through the influence of the novelist Sherwood Anderson, Horace Liveright published his first two novels, Soldiers' Pay (1926) and Mosquitoes (1927). After the modest success of these books, Faulkner was dismayed when, in 1927, Liveright flatly rejected his third novel, Flags in the Dust, about an aristocratic Southern family named Sartoris, saying it was too loosely plotted. Faulkner was so discouraged that he was close to abandoning his writing career: "I think now that I'll sell my typewriter and go to work--though God knows, it's sacrilege to waste that talent for idleness which I possess" (Faulkner, Selected Letters 39).

Instead, he decided to write to suit only himself. "One day I seemed to shut a door," he later wrote, "between me and all publishers' addresses and book lists. I said to myself, Now I can write" (Blotner, vol. 1, 570). The result was his favorite among his works, his "splendid failure," the novel that he wrote his "guts out"to produce, The Sound and the Fury (1929). Never again was the experience of writing to feel as ecstatic as it did with this tale of a beautiful doomed girl named Caddy, told from four points of view.

Up to this point in Faulkner's life, his writing had been more of an avocation than a source of livelihood. He had been content to support himself with odd jobs such as rum-running,house-painting, and--most notoriously--as a postmaster who so neglected his job that he was asked to resign in 1924. However, he began to look to his writing as a source of income in 1929.

The onset of the Depression also coincided with Faulkner's marriage to Estelle Oldham, his childhood sweetheart. She had thrown him over to marry another man in 1918, and ended up ten years later divorced and with two children. Faulkner's marriage to her, which took place on June 20, 1929, was troubled from the beginning. Shouldering the responsibilities of a wife and two children, but encouraged by the lucrative sale of several stories to national magazines, Faulkner took a $6,000 mortgage on a faded antebellum mansion in April 1930. He chose the name Rowan Oak for the house he planned to restore with earnings from his pen.

Now the pressure was really on to write what would sell, while still retaining his artistic integrity. This tension was to strain his professional life for years to come, leading him to risk his reputation on a lurid story of rape and degradation (Sanctuary) and to succumb to the temptations of Hollywood.

Also, by the early 1930s, Faulkner had established a pattern of periodic binge drinking that posed a serious risk to his health. Essentially a shy man, he drank in part to ease the pressure of social situations and his difficult marriage to Estelle, also an alcoholic. The succès de scandale of Sanctuary, however, at least eased his financial pressures, although in anunexpected way.

When silent pictures had given way to "talkies" inthe late twenties, Hollywood studios began importing writers from the east to supply literate dialogue and stories. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios offered Faulkner a contract for six weeks at $500 a week. Behind in his mortgage payments, overdrawn at the bank, and unable to get credit, Faulkner headed for Hollywood.

Many of the stories about Faulkner in Hollywood have expanded in the telling until they have become as fictive as his novels. He enjoyed exaggerating his ignorance of movies and emphasizing the extravagance of the studio system. The truth is, though, that Faulkner worked hard as a screenwriter, writing thousands of pages of unproduced scripts as well as contributing to about fifty films (Kawin pp. 2-3). His initial contract was extended largely because director Howard Hawks, who optioned Faulkner's short story "Turn About," convinced MGM to hire Faulkner to adapt it for film. The film was released in April of1933 as Today We Live, directed by Hawks and starring Gary Cooper and Joan Crawford. In the 1940s Hawks and Faulkner collaborated on To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946), both starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

When Paramount bought the rights to Sanctuary in October of 1932, Faulkner cleared over $6,000 and headed home to Oxford. When money ran short again, Howard Hawks arranged for him to be put on a $1,000-a-week salary with Twentieth Century-Fox to work on a screenplay about World War I. Back in California in 1935, he met Meta Carpenter, Hawks's secretary and "scriptgirl," a lovely blonde from Mississippi. In a short time, they became lovers, a relationship that would continue intermittently for fifteen years, to be followed in the 1950s by an affair between Faulkner and his young protégée Joan Williams. Faulkner's marriage to Estelle had improved briefly following the births of their two daughters. The first, Alabama, born in January, 1931, had lived less than two weeks. The second, Jill, born June 24, 1933, was Faulkner's "heart's darling." He could not risk losing her in a custody battle, and so he stayed with Estelle despite the bitterness of their differences.

Faulkner struggled to keep his fiction free of the taint of screenwriting. Absalom, Absalom!, an epic novel of the tragic Sutpen family, took Faulkner two years to finish. When it was finally done, early in January of 1936, Faulkner thought it was "the best novel yet written by an American" (Oates138). Returning to Rowan Oak, he revised the manuscript and then binged on alcohol so badly that he had to go to dry out in a sanitorium in Byhalia, fifty miles north of Oxford, the first of many such detoxifications to come. Byhalia was to be the scene of his death twenty-six years later in 1962. His drinking was now beginning to endanger his ability to get work in Hollywood.

As the last year of the 1930s began, Faulkner's position seemed secure. In January, along with John Steinbeck, he was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, his picture was on the cover of Time magazine, and he was at work on the first novel of a proposed trilogy about the Snopes family, a clan of greedy rednecks. However, these signs were misleading. In the 1940s, Faulkner's novels, except for Sanctuary, gradually went out of print, and he was increasingly unable to support himself and his extended family by writing fiction. The literary critical fashions of the 1930s had favored more socially-conscious, proletarian writers such as John Steinbeck, Erskine Caldwell, and James T. Farrell. Faulkner's work, although admired for its style, was considered nihilistic and perverse by the Marxist-influenced critics of the 1930s. Desperate for money but now notorious for his drinking, Faulkner reluctantly signed a seven-year contract with Warner Brothers at a third of hisprevious salary.

Released from Warner Brothers in 1946, Faulkner began in earnest to write A Fable, avowedly his "magnumo," an allegorical work about a Christ-like unknown soldier in World War I. This ultimately flawed book took him almost a decade to complete and marked a turn toward a more didactic, moralistic purpose to his fiction. In a break from toiling on A Fable, Faulkner dashed off Intruder in the Dust in 1948, a "mystery-murder" novel about race relations,"the premise being that the white people in the south, before the North or the govt. or anyone else, owe and must pay a responsibility to the Negro" (Faulkner, Selected Letters262). In a windfall for Faulkner, MGM bought the screen rights for $50,000 and shot the film on location in Oxford.

Intruder in the Dust
presaged Faulkner's speaking out on integration. He argued in several public letters that southern blacks must receive equal rights, which led to harassment and threats by bigoted neighbors. However, his resistance to federal intervention to enforce those rights alienated staunch liberals. Faulkner's moderate liberalism angered everyone.

In 1950, though, Faulkner became a Nobel Prize-winning writer recognized around the world as a chronicler of (as he stated in his Stockholm Address) "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" (Faulkner, Essays 120). The more conservative values of the post-war era contributed to a revival of interest in Faulkner's work, now perceived as mythic and universal rather than macabre and regional. The U.S. State Department sent him on a series of goodwill missions to South America, Europe, and Japan starting in 1954.

The decade of the fifties was a difficult one for Faulkner creatively and personally, in spite of his long-awaited fame and the money accompanying it. He feared aging and the loss of his potency as a man and a writer; his drinking binges periodically required treatment; he even underwent electroshock therapy in 1952. In spite of these obstacles, he endured and prevailed, leaving a lasting legacy of stories of the human heart in conflict with itself.

In accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950, William Faulkner observed that the tragedy of the postwar era was "a general and universal physical fear," leaving only the question: "When will [we] be blown up?" His words stood in ironic contrast to President Roosevelt's reassurance in his first Inaugural Address in 1933 that we had nothing "to fear but fear itself." For Faulkner, the poet's, the writer's, duty and privilege were to remind man "of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past." Faulkner's hope was to use his voice to help us win peace and justice with words rather than weapons.

Bibliography


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Wilde, Meta Carpenter, and Orin Borsten. A Loving Gentleman: The Love Story of William Faulkner and Meta Carpenter. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976. 

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