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It is not often that a fictitious character creates another, but manifest in the person of William Faulkner this phenomenon has been given truth. A walking contradiction, Faulkner existed more in the stories he wrote than in the world which housed him. Throughout his life, his characters lived his life while he descended into his own world. Faulkner was a man whose literature borrowed its essence from his reality, and gained a life of its own to be regarded among the greatest American writing. Indeed, the literature of William Faulkner was driven by the man William Faulkner.
On the chill afternoon of September 28, 1897, William Falkner came into this world. The first son of Murry and Maud Falkner, young Billy spent his first years in Ripley, Mississippi. For those first few years, the Falkner family was happy and content. Murry was doing what he loved, namely, working at the railroad owned by his old father, who everyone referred to as “The Young Colonel.” Maud stayed at home, occupied with mischievous little Billy. Soon Jack and Johncy would add to her work, but she was happy enough with the added task. Life returned to normal for the Falkners.
In mid 1902, the happiness of the Falkner family would be shattered. The Young Colonel had decided that he no longer needed to burden himself with the Falkner railroad line, and announced that it would be sold and that his son?s family would have to move to Oxford to manage his livery stable. As Stephen Oates, author of William Faulkner: The Man and the Artist, put it: “Murry was devastated, for the railroads had been his passion since the 1880s, when he had dropped out of the University of Mississippi to work as a coal-shoveling fireman on the family line.” Soon after the hated move, his father drove a wedge between himself and his family. This wedge would later come back to haunt Faulkner, and its name was booze.
When Murry Falkner was sober enough to think, he would work half-heartedly in the stable, dreaming about trains the entire time. At home he no longer paid any attention to Maud, and his occasional presence at the dinner table would throw up a veil of silence. Maud in turn grew depressed and weary from her vain efforts to cure him of the drink, and had little time for young Billy. Even at his young age, he could feel the tension in the Faulkner house. Still, Billy found a diversion for his worry and loneliness. Her name was Estelle.
At the ripe old age of 7, Billy announced to his father that he was going to marry a girl he had met at school. Sober enough to be amused, his father asked him what the date would be and made a big deal out of setting up the “arrangements.” Billy, however, called off the wedding when he found out that he would have to kiss Estelle. They decided to be friends. Estelle Oldham would play a large role in the life of Billy Falkner, and later, in that of William Faulkner. And she would come into play repeatedly in his stories and poetry. Indeed, Oates suggests that, had it not been for Estelle, William Faulkner would never have existed. Oates postulates that without the despair Estelle would cause in Billy, he would have followed through with his original desire to become a railroad engineer and never have metamorphosed into William Faulkner.
Let us now turn to some of the other factors that put Billy on the path to becoming William. Certainly nobody would argue with the fact that Maud was one the key influences on Billy as a youth. It was she that introduced him to poetry, to art, to music. Murry was repulsed that his son would behave in such a “girlish” manner. According to the Internet information site of the Center for Faulkner Studies, Murry even accused Maud of “corrupting” the boy, and took his belt to her. Still, without Maud?s influence, it appears likely that Billy Falkner would have become the railman his father desired him to be, and the world would have lost one of its great writers.
Phil Stone proved to be another important influence on Billy. When Billy was sixteen, he met the son of one of Maud?s friends. Impressed with Billy?s knowledge of Melville and Conrad, and believing that he could shape the boy into a great poet, Phil became Billy?s mentor and friend. For years, he was Billy?s only real companion besides Estelle.
The people who helped to shape Billy?s life also helped to shape his stories. The characters in Faulkner?s fiction resembled the people he knew as he grew up, as he struggled to find work in a world which seemed to reject him at every turn. This can clearly be seen from his first published poem, The Marble Faun, in which a mime tries to woo a beautiful nymph with his guitar, to no avail. From the first, Phil Stone recognized this poem as a cry of anguish from a man who, while on the verge of proposing to his companion of ten years, suddenly finds out that she has accepted the engagement of another. On April 18, 1918, Estelle Oldham became Estelle Franklin, wife to Cornell.
Within a year of Estelle?s wedding, after battling with depression, Billy decided to enter the Royal Air Force to fight in the Great War, as he was below regulation height for the United States military. There was one problem though – only British and Canadian born men could enlist in the RAF. Thus, Billy Falkner walked into the recruiting center and signed his new name for the first time to the papers. The name read William Faulkner, and it would be his name for the rest of his days.
Faulkner never got to fight in the war, but this did not stop him from pretending that he had. Hoping to earn the respect that had eluded him all his life, Faulkner arrived in Oxford wearing the illegitimate uniform of an Air Force Lieutenant and a feigned wound. Faulkner had never even performed a practice flight.
The Faulkner that came back from the war spent the next five years searching for an identity. From a bohemian poet in Greenwich Village, NYC, Faulkner transformed into a southern gentleman. He was forced to abandon this disguise when his constant defense of Black southerners earned him the scorn of his fellow men. This scorn ate away inside him, and finally expelled itself onto paper for “Dry September,” one of his best short stories.
“Dry September” is a moving story about prejudice, judgment, and willpower. It is the literature of the mature reader, for it does not follow the escapist trend of many American stories. Instead of presenting a judgment or taking a stand, “Dry September” merely presents the situation and asks the reader to discern for themselves where right and wrong lie. Furthermore, it finishes in a very open-ended manner, which the immature reader would detest. The hero having lost his courage and allowed an innocent man to die, the murderers going unpunished, the woman responsible for the entire incident unrebuked, Faulkner ends this story.
If one looks at “Dry September,” one will see a piece of Faulkner in the character of the barber. A man of morals and strong convictions, the barber is nevertheless ignored and feels himself inadequate to deal with the situation; later, he chooses the easy solution over the morally correct one and avoids the hard decision. This coincides with Faulkner?s view of himself as presented by Hans Skei in William Faulkner: The Novelist as Short Story Writer. “Having felt the scorn of society,” Skei writes, “Faulkner began to scorn himself.” He felt that he was basically a coward, “filled with hot passions and a lukewarm will.” As the barber of “Dry September,” Faulkner paints himself the timid “hero” who fails to defeat the injustice of Southern mistreatment of Blacks.
If “Dry September” was a reflection of Faulkner?s insecurity about his own worth, Faulkner?s first full-length novel, Soldiers? Pay, was testament to his perceived frailty and his imagined “betrayal” by Estelle. A melancholy work about an injured soldier who comes home to die only to be abandoned by his beloved and betrayed by his friend, Soldiers? Pay was Faulkner?s literary manifestation of his hollowness after the loss of Estelle. Interrupted for days at a time while writing this first published novel by drinking binges, Faulkner alienated even his mentor Sherwood Anderson. In a drunken rage, he accused Anderson of some imagined slight and physically attacked the older man. Anderson would not even read a portion of Faulkner?s manuscript after this; it was returned to him with a curt note saying that Anderson had not the time nor the inclination.
Not long after Faulkner left New Orleans in the wake of his fight with Anderson, he met a young woman named Helen Baird at a party and fell in love at first sight. However, in his liquored up state, she would have nothing to do with him. Thus, Faulkner stopped drinking moonshine and sobered up to court Helen. Writing her love sonnets and going out of his way to please her, Helen returned very little of his affection. According to Oates, she left him waiting on her doorstep for four and a half hours one day while she went out on a date with another man. Still, Faulkner was blind to her indifference and continued to follow her around until near the end of the summer. Having decided that he was deeply in love with this woman, eight years his junior, Faulkner bought a ring and proposed to her the night before she was to leave for Europe. She laughed at him, and then left without so much as a goodbye. Faulkner?s heart was again broken, and he became severely depressed. Over the next few months, he began to decline into drunkenness and self-loathing. Had it not been for the work of Phil Stone to get his first poetry collection, The Marble Faun, published, Faulkner might never have climbed back into his senses.
In 1928, Estelle and her husband divorced. Citing “Irreconcilable Differences,” she returned home to Oxford, where Faulkner was living with Maud. Almost immediately, he was at her door each day, buying her flowers, taking her out. Faulkner felt as if he had missed her the first time, and couldn?t possibly allow her to slip away again. Later that year, they were married. Faulkner gathered his money, turned out a few short stories to supplement his income, and purchased a house deep in the forest to settle down in. Having published The Sound and the Fury, one of his most famous works, Faulkner?s credit was now good enough to afford such a luxury during a time of depression. For a while, at least, it seemed as if his luck were changing.
In his newly acquired house, which he named Rowan Oak after the Scotch symbol for peace and security, Faulkner began work on As I Lay Dying. It was in this work that Faulkner created Yoknapatawpha County, the setting for many a future novel. Borrowing this Chickasaw word for “water flowing slowly through the flatland,” Faulkner?s novel not only opened the door to future Yoknapatawpha novels, but also to wider public acclaim than he had ever received.
As I Lay Dying is a book remarkable for many reasons. The shifting perspective allowed Faulkner to speak from many different viewpoints without losing the more personal narrative that his limited omniscience gained over a full omniscience. The characters are rich and well developed. While reading, one gets a sense that one is in the action, actually there. It?s a book which draws the reader in and engrosses them.
Telling the story of a bitter woman on her deathbed, As I Lay Dying captures not only characters from Faulkner?s life, but scenes from it as well, giving it a realism unparalleled even by his previous creations. It tells of a mother and a father who start off close together and drift apart, much like Maud and Murry had done. Addie, the mother, dies after having given birth to five children: First two legitimate ones, then a bastard named Jewel, whom she loved more than the others, then two more legitimate children. It is unknown whether Maud?s fourth son Dean, born several years after the family moved to Oxford, was a bastard. All evidence certainly points to this hypothesis however, considering that Murry had been going through a particularly violent phase for a few months prior to her discovery, and that when asked whether the child was legitimate, Murry just grunted to a family friend. Thus, Jewel can be seen to represent Dean, and indeed the personality of the one much resembled the personality of the other. Faulkner himself entered the story as Darl, one of the first two children born to Addie. The poetic nature, societal eccentricity, and mannerisms of Darl all resembled those of Faulkner. One of the climactic scenes in the book occurs when Darl attempts to burn down the barn where the corpse of his mother rests in a coffin to end a strange ordeal begun to return the corpse to the family plot and to buy Anse, the father, a new set of false teeth. The book ends with Darl committed to an insane asylum, Anse having married a plump and nasty woman, and Dewey Dell (a daughter) having sold herself for some sugar pills.
As I Lay Dying was a work to which Faulkner had devoted himself in the hopes of finally scoring that elusive bestseller. According to William Faulkner on the Web, an internet site devoted to the author, “Finally he felt that there was hope, that he could add up to a success instead of to a failure.” The reason he felt this way came in the form of two other books by contemporary authors which made it to the bestseller lists in America: Erich Remarque?s All Quiet on the Western Front and Ernest Hemingway?s A Farewell to Arms proved that quality literature could make it to the top in the public?s mind just as lesser novels could. Faulkner put his all into this book, and obsessed on it. In a letter released by a friend after Faulkner?s death, he states that “I am willing to gamble myself in full on this one. Whether it sinks or swims, I claim it.” He was gambling with the last hope he had for being a sucessful novelist. He won.
As I Lay Dying finally brought Faulkner some degree of what he desired: Recognition and the security it brang. It also brought him lecture invites, book deals, and perhaps most importantly, money. Estelle was overjoyed; at last, she could go back to being the wealthy socialite she had been while married to Cornell. Or so she thought, for Faulkner had other plans.
Esetelle was horrified when she heard about Faulkner?s plans. According to Oates, she told a family friend that she would leave Faulkner if he followed through with his desire. Nevertheless, he bought the secluded and run-down cabin, miles from the nearest town. It had no gas. It had no electricity. It was the perfect place for Faulkner to retreat to sculpt his visions into prose, and it was hell for Estelle. And it was around this time that Faulkner, always an introvert, began to draw into himself even more. It is true that he would still tell his stories to the two children Estelle had brought from her previous marriage. It is true also that he would hold Estelle and pretend to pay her the same sort of attention that he used to. But she could see through this masquerade, she could see where he was really going. He was starting to dream of what he would write next. He was becoming lost in his work.
At first it was tolerable. Even being in a horrible backwoods cabin with a semi-conscious husband was to some degree acceptable. After all, she had a new child by Faulkner to look after. But Faulkner began to retract even more. Part of this was due to the fact that he was, in truth, thinking about his novels. But part also was due to the fact that he was covering up a shameful secret, and could not let Estelle in to see this. William Faulkner had been unfaithful to his wife.
As the years passed, Estelle became a depressive alcoholic. Always a heavy drinker just as her husband was, she suspected the truth and turned to booze to fill the void. But it did not work, and she became cold, even to the three children that shared the Faulkner cabin.
Faulkner began to obsess on his literature. He spent hours, days even, locked inside his room, maddly scribbling on sheets of paper and then transcribing what he wrote with his typewriter. All the while, his house was going to pot. The money was gone, but he refused to “whore” himself out by writing fiction just for the money. If he was inspired to write, fine, he would sell that. But he would not churn out uninspired literature, for this was not his way.
And so we shall leave William Faulkner, at a midway point in his life. Only thirty-five of his sixty-five years had elapsed, barely more than half, and yet he looked like an old man. He continued to commit infidelities, continued to drink, continued to write of himself in Yoknapatawpha. Whether in fact this man who had invented his name and with it his person got lost in his fictitious county we will never know. Suffice to say, if one examines the stories in depth, one need not look hard to find him there.
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