My mother was a reader, and she loved the novels of William Faulkner. When I got to an age (around eleven) that I was choosing to read classic fiction, she suggested I try Faulkner. Start with As I Lay Dying, she said. She wasn’t the sort who’d tell you the whole plot—just little snippets of interesting things with maybe a discussion about why that coffin had to get moved so quickly. Then she’d say, “I think you’d like it.”
As it turns out, I was in high school before I read my first Faulkner. It was The Sound and the Fury, and I hated it, as did most of my classmates. I wasn’t ready for stream of consciousness, and, let’s face it, it’s not an easy book for kids who’ve known nothing but a Beach Boys–sunny, California dreamin’ kind of life.
A sense of place—and a little personal perspective—makes a lot of difference, though. I moved to the South, began meeting (as an adult) my Southern family, and was exposed to Southern fiction. And there is no fiction more Southern than William Faulkner, my friends. I became obsessed, reading one after another. As I Lay Dying, yes, Light in August, Absalom, Absalom! (Mom’s other fave), Sanctuary, The Hamlet, The Reivers. Go Down, Moses, a book of related short stories, knocked me out; I will never forget “The Bear,” never.
Faulkner was born in New Albany, Mississippi, in 1897; his family moved to Oxford when he was five, and he lived there for the rest of his life (aside from that brief stint in Hollywood, the less said about which the better). It is interesting for his admirers—and fellow writers—to note he was both ignored and ridiculed in Oxford; his family considered him the black sheep; he struggled for years to pay the bills. He raised his wife’s children from her first marriage in addition to the daughter they had together. He also raised the daughter of his younger brother, who died before the girl was born.
A couple years ago Southern Living magazine ran an interview with Dean Faulkner Wells (the fatherless niece). You can imagine my delight. She’d just published a memoir (Every Day by the Sun, and, no, I haven’t read it yet), and the Southern Living piece meanders intimately through Faulkner history.
As he approached his thirtieth birthday, the fear of failure and burden of genius lay heavy upon him. Yet he was about to enter the most productive period of any writer in all of American letters. … All the while, [he] was writing landmark fiction in a house overrun with children and dogs, and supporting an extended family of 11 on a writer’s paycheck during the Great Depression. To add electricity and a stove to primitive Rowan Oak [the antebellum house he’d purchased after his marriage in 1929], he wrote feverishly, submitting 37 short stories in one year—and selling only six. Just after publishing The Sound and the Fury, he took a night job at a power plant. He went to work with a roll of legal paper, and between shifts, wrote As I Lay Dying in 47 days. Dean never knew until she read his biography, as an adult, that he ever struggled financially.
When Faulkner died at sixty-four, he’d won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction twice (1954 and 1962) and the Nobel Prize in Literature (1949). This is not a bad recommendation for reading an author.
I could make others, and I will in a separate post. For now, if you haven’t read Southern fiction, try these:
As I Lay Dying / William Faulkner
A Virtuous Woman / Kaye Gibbons
Fair and Tender Ladies / Lee Smith
It’s a start. :)
* As far as I’m concerned. :)
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