Willie and Me Part 1

Enjoying William Faulkner is akin to enjoying Scotch whisky, the taste is not natural, it has to be cultivated. Like Scotch, too much of Faulkner will numb your mind so one should only read his writing in modest doses to fully appreciate it. Anyone who publishes a book may be called an author. The really good story tellers may additionally be called writers. Then there are a few that are so beautiful with words they qualify as artists. Faulkner is unquestionably an artist.

Recently I located an elusive modern library copy of Absalom, Absalom!  The title appears just like that on a plain white dust cover, no picture or scenery . I first bought the book in the summer of 1971 and kept  it around for 30 years until it disappeared. I wanted it to reappear but it just didn’t, the longer it was gone the more I wanted it. I couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t accept another copy, after all it is the same book, but I just couldn’t. Now that I have procured it, it is only logical to re- read it.  Having submersed myself, I suddenly recalled why I so admired this particular dust jacket. Nothing can enhance the eloquence and linguistic majesty of the art itself so just the title is perfect, just as a well-crafted whisky glass adds to the ambience of a great scotch, given a choice one would not drink it out of a paper cup.

When I fell in love with Willie, in that summer of 1971, I didn’t really know what the attraction was. You have to really want to understand his writing or there is not enough patience in the world to reinforce the exercise. His narrative technique is by far the most complex I have ever read and his vocabulary is extraordinary. His subject material is the core of Americas “original sin”. Slavery: slavery and the failed legacy of a civilization’s cultural promise that became more hellish than mythical, the American South. His telling was/is nothing like the romantic version of GWTW. He focuses on the internal struggles of the descendants of that culture, its entire hierarchy; these struggles become universally symbolic of man’s perpetual conflicts between good and evil.

Faulkner steadfastly denied that he did any research on his material, offering that his plots and characters came from the creative process. So of course all the thousands of critics that followed and analyzed his work endeavored to identify if that were true or if he had some master source that he wouldn’t reveal.  I fell into that group and spent many hours reading critics and attempting to identify and map his possible reference resources.  My apartment looked like a police investigatory office with charts and timelines all over the walls. I failed! I received a B+ in my Individual Study Course because my professor enjoyed the “free” research data that he got to keep for his own future use.

Fast forward to 2010, the truth was revealed by the discovery of his true resource material. Dr. Sally Wolff  discovered a friend of the Faulkner family that  inherited a plantation diary recounting daily life in the Antebellum South. After reading her publication, Ledgers of History, it seems quite likely that the many hours Faulkner spent reading, re-reading, note taking and discussing the material, along with oral tradition of the “front porch” South, the ledger was key source material. Her book so fascinated me that I felt reenergized enough to again undertake the enriching challenge of reading Faulkner. So I begin with Absalom, Absalom! Bound in the perfectly modest dust cover that I first discovered in Bills Bookstore in the summer of 1971.

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4 Responses

  1. As, I said, my hat is off to you. The one I tried to read was As I Lay Dying, and that was back in college when I was a little more tolerant and artsy than I am now. I could not finish it. No offense to you, but I think Faulkner is simply terrible. Of course, I don’t like Scotch either. If I wanted obfuscation,I would read Solzhenitzyn…and did. But Cancer Ward did me in.

  2. Well I can think of a Nobel winner I think is terrible too. Willie needs no defense so I won’t offer one.

  3. Faulkner takes me into the world of my ancestors. When I first read him there was an entire side of my family that remained hidden from me (much like Faulkner’s plot and character development). So perhaps that helped fill gaps until I actually began to discover who they were and trace my ancestry back through the South much like the genealogy in Yoknapatawpha County. Mississippi actually occupied a central position in my family’s development. I even had a Plantation owner as a half GG Grandfather.

    The truly ironic and almost unbelievable development was that in the same Summer of 1971 (when I was so into Faulkner) I had a first cousin, that I was totally unaware of, who was a Faulknerian Scholar at Ole Miss who started the Yoknapatawpha Conference there which became world renowned and continues on today. Wish I could have met him.

  4. You know, I seem to recall something about that, that there was a whole branch of your family you were unaware of but discovered not long ago. Would you mind sharing it with me again? (You can certainly do that privately, if you wish.)
    A good thing about your post is that it caused me to look up winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature since it started in 1901. Out of 104, I only even recognized 26 of them–not that I’ve read them all. If you want to do that as a fun exercise too, here’s where I found it:
    http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/

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