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Another Faulkner Biography

ISSUE:  Summer 1994
William Faulkner and Southern History. By Joel Williamson. Oxford. $35. 00.

Hats off to anyone who, in the wake of biographies by Joseph L. Blotner (1974 [two volumes], 1984 [one volume]), David Minter (1980), Stephen B.Gates (1987), and Frederick R.Karl (1989), attempts yet another biographical study of William Faulkner! It is a daunting task that by its very nature demands a good deal of repetition of what has already been written, plus, if a genuine contribution is to be made, new data that will provide material for original interpretations of Faulkner’s life and works. Like Joyceans and learned rabbis, Faulkner scholars know chapter and verse; they memorize texts so that the interiority of the sacred words rises up to allow them to venture the most authentic interpretations they can muster. Above all, they are concerned that these texts be situated in what they consider the proper contexts and intertexts, even when they try, as is often the case nowadays, to deconstruct them.

Joel Williamson, Lineberger Professor in the Humanities at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and author of the award-winning The Crucible of Race (1984), among other distinguished works, sets out, as indicated by the three sections of William Faulkner and Southern History, to explore Faulkner’s ancestry, life, and work. His “Acknowledgments” and “Notes” at the end of the book reveal the genesis of his interest in writing a Faulkner biography and the methodology and resources that he used. He acknowledges his debt to Professor Blotner, whose letters and interview notes are now housed in the impressive Louis Daniel Brodsky Collection in the Kent Library at Southeastern Missouri State University at Cape Girardeau. The Brodsky Collection, coedited by Brodsky and Robert W.Hamblin and published serially by the University Press of Mississippi, has given Faulkner students and scholars access to inscriptions, manuscripts, documents, letters, and filmscripts that complement the “uncollected” stories and selected letters of Faulkner edited by Blotner. Williamson has made use of much of what Blotner chose not to write about or include, but which was filtered, nevertheless, through Blotner’s critical imagination as he wrote both his two-volume and then the revised and corrected onevolume biography.(I remember a discussion Professor Blotner and I had in the early 1970’s about Estelle Faulkner’s alcoholism. Since Mrs. Faulkner was alive then, and few outsiders knew about her drinking habits, Professor Blotner had to discern the difficult problem of how to reveal her condition. Blotner made a conscious decision to be as honest about this as he could.) The archival material in the other Faulkner repositories, at the University of Virginia, the University of Texas, Yale, Princeton, and Tulane were all available to Blotner and the other Faulkner biographers, and thus could have provided Williamson little that was totally new, though it must be admitted that both the University of Virginia and Brodsky, in particular, have not stopped acquiring significant materials whenever feasible. To his credit, Williamson, unlike Blotner or Frederick Karl (Williamson mistakenly refers to him as “Theodore” Karl), has made extensive use of The Ripley Advertiser, The Oxford Eagle, the U.S.Census (particularly in the antebellum period), records and materials in the Ripley Public Library, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, and in the Lafayette County and the Tippah County Courthouses, all in Mississippi, as well as the financial records of R.G.Dun & Company in the Baker Library at Harvard. His exhaustive research into Faulkner’s ancestry has made this the richest part of his book.

What prompted Williamson to begin his study was his realization of the “almost total neglect” in accounts of the Butler and Word families, who were in the maternal lines of the Falkners. In addition, Williamson saw a need to recast the image of “The Old Colonel,” William C.Falkner of Ripley. In doing so, he discovered and traced the Falkner “shadow family,” those blacks who were direct descendants of William Faulkner’s ancestors, but who were never acknowledged (or perhaps even known) as such. Conversely, in the case of Ned Barnett, the old Faulkner retainer, Williamson indicates that Ned was almost surely never a slave, and certainly never one who belonged to the Old Colonel. Thus, it is clear from these sources that Williamson’s strength is as a professional historian who is familiar with archival material. The weakness of his research, and it is a telling one, is found in the notes for the third section of his book—on Faulkner’s writings. The 18 footnotes, paltry in comparison with the footnotes for the other two sections, list no Faulkner literary critic at all. None. Surprisingly, even Cleanth Brooks, who has written extensively on Faulkner’s works and is a knowledgeable critic of Southern literature in general, is not even listed in Williamson’s index. There is no need, in my opinion, to critique Faulkner’s works as if this has not been done at all; the challenge is to enter into the critical dialogue, add an original voice, and provide the necessary correctives, however extensive they might be.

Williamson meticulously traces the Falkner (the “u” was added later by William Faulkner) clan, beginning with John Falkner, who came to America from England in 1665, and more immediately with Joseph Falkner, who died circa 1842, and ending, for all practical purposes with the three grandsons of William Faulkner, who himself died in 1962. William C.Falkner, Joseph’s son and the first of the Falkners in Mississippi, arrived in Pontotoc County about the time of his father’s death. Born in Tennessee, William came further south in search of his uncle John Wesley Thompson. When he arrived in Pontotoc, Mississippi, he is reported to have waited for his uncle, then supposedly in jail for murder, and met on the steps of the local hotel a young girl by the name of Lizzie Vance, who would eventually become William’s second wife. Williamson has set the record straight: John Wesley Thompson was never charged with any crime in Pontotoc County and made up the story about meeting Lizzie in an attempt to gain support for one of his ambitious railroad ventures. In 1849, the sons of Thomas Hindman, Sr., Thomas, Jr., and Robert, both of whom had fought with William in Mexico, were to change the fate of the Falkners. Robert Hindman wanted to join the local chapter of the Sons of Temperance and mistakenly thought that William Falkner had voted against him. During their subsequent confrontation, William stabbed and killed Robert. Though acquitted, William further incurred the wrath of the Hindmans when he shot and killed Erasmus Morris, a friend of the Hindman family. At the trial, William had to face Thomas, Jr., one of the lawyers for the prosecution whose hatred for William was so intense that he subsequently tried to shoot him in a nearby hotel. A scheduled duel was cancelled due to the intervention of Matthew Galloway, though the feud continued in more subtle ways after Thomas, Jr., was elected to the U.S. Congress.

As Williamson amplifies and provides correctives to previously recorded legends and information about the Falkner family, he is careful to give due attention to the slaves owned by the Falkners and their relatives. By doing so, he calls attention to two crucial questions: how did Faulkner deal with slavery and the sons and daughters of freed slaves in his fiction? What stance did Faulkner take in his nonfiction with regard to the race question as it gradually came to the forefront of the consciousness of the American public during Faulkner’s lifetime? In 1850, William C.Falkner owned five slaves in Ripley who were listed in the census as “black” rather than “mulatto,” a distinction that would gain more importance as time passed. Ten years later, with assets of $10, 000 in real estate and $42, 200 in personal property, Falkner was enjoying considerable prosperity, and the six new slaves in his household were all of mixed blood, a rather uncommon situation in Ripley in 1860.In questioning the probable father or fathers of these mulattoes (“the ultimate in masculine cheating”), Williamson is drawn more and more into the fascinating history of the black side of the Falkner family, particularly the family of Mrs. Emeline Lacy Falkner, born in 1837 and died in 1898, who was very “white” in her appearance. Williamson notes that Lizzie Vance Falkner was not always worshipful of her husband, and at one point took their daughter to live with her in Memphis, leaving her husband wifeless and in need of affection.

After the Civil War, Colonel William C. Falkner became unquestionably the outstanding ancestor in the Falkner family. No one else measures up to his real or imaginary status. He helped organize at the outbreak of hostilities the Magnolia Rifles, which amalgamated with other Mississippi companies to form the Second Mississippi Volunteer Regiment. He and his men fought well at the Battle of Bull Run (or Manassas as the Confederates called it), though in the spring of 1862 he eventually lost his colonelcy to John M.Stone. Falkner returned home to Ripley, but soon returned to action, this time with little success against General Phil Sheridan’s troops near Corinth, Mississippi. In the fall of 1863, citing ill health, he resigned his command. His rival, Thomas Hindman, Sr., on the other hand, rose to the position of major general partially because of his effective leadership during the Battle of Shiloh. Once back in Tippah County, Colonel Falkner began to parlay his resources by building a railroad, eventually becoming by 1872 one of the richest men in the area with a net worth of over $100, 000.By the summer of 1888, Colonel Falkner owned the Ship Island, Ripley, and Kentucky Railroad; his goal was to have a railroad that connected the Gulf of Mexico with Chicago. As the author of The White Rose of Memphis, a highly romantic novel, and a travelogue entitled Rapid Rumblings in Europe, he kept his focus on being a writer and an entrepreneur to the detriment of his relationship with his wife. On Nov.5, 1889, he was shot in Ripley’s town square by his former business partner, Richard Thurmond. With a recently discovered account of the shooting in The Memphis Avalanche, Williamson is able to provide more evidence about this event than was previously known, particularly in terms of the local and state elections that were being held. Thurmond, to the outrage of the Falkners, was eventually acquitted.

The colonel’s son by Holland Pearce, John Wesley Thompson Falkner, a lawyer, moved in 1885 with his wife Sallie Murry and their family to Oxford. With their children Murry Cuthbert, Mary Holland, and John Wesley Thompson, Jr., they lived in a rented house on North Street and eventually built a house called the “Big Place” just below the town square. A civic-minded man who supported James K.Vardaman, John Falkner invested in land, operated a livery stable, an oil company, and the Opera House, in addition to organizing and running the First National Bank of Oxford. The Falkners soon integrated themselves successfully into Oxford society. In the fall of 1896, Murry Cuthbert and Maud Butler were married, and they lived wherever Murry’s job took him, first to New Albany, Mississippi, where their son William Cuthbert was born on Sept.25, 1897.

One of the more innovated sections of Williamson’s biography of William Cuthbert Faulkner is the history of Maud Butler’s family, particularly her father, Charles Edward Butler. After his brother William died in 1868 in Oxford, the male leadership of the Butler family passed to the 20-year-old Charlie, who married Leila Dean Swift a few months after his brother’s death. He functioned in the dual role of town marshal and tax collector, for which he received 5 percent of the taxes collected. Yet Charlie was a schemer and eventually his wily ways caught up with him, especially after he shot S.M.Thompson, the editor of The Oxford Eagle, in 1883.Indicted for manslaughter, Charlie Butler was found not guilty, and four years later during the Christmas holidays, when his daughter Maud was 16, he absconded—never to be seen again—with approximately $5, 000 (though it could have been more since he might have previously stolen money from tax collections) and a “beautiful octoroon” companion. If Charlie Butler ever did have sexual relations with this octoroon, then their one-16th black offspring would have been William Faulkner’s cousins—an incredible situation given the problems that Charles Bon faces in Absalom, Absalom!

Young Billy Falkner grew up in New Albany and Ripley, where Murry worked for the Traffic and Freight Claim Departments. The Falkners moved to Oxford on the eve of Billy’s fifth birthday. One significant event in Billy’s rather comfortable life occurred when Grandmother (“Damuddy”) Leila Butler died in 1907; the funeral was held at home in the parlor, and became one of the sources of The Sound and the Fury. It is curious, as Williamson points out, that while William Faulkner knew his extended family, his writings make no clear references to Sherwood or Addie Buffaloe Butler (“Addie” is the first name of the protagonist in As I Lay Dying), or even Edwin Butler, a cousin he knew well. Williamson develops, as is fitting, Billy’s relationship with Lida Estelle Oldham, a rather precocious girl who would eventually become his wife. By the time Billy dropped out of school at the end of 1915 to work as a bookkeeper in his grandfather’s bank, Estelle had become engaged to marry Cornell Franklin, seven years her senior, though she admitted she really wanted to elope with Billy. Married three years later, Estelle dropped out of sight for a while as she traveled to Honolulu and China with her husband, though she would appear with some regularity back in Oxford.

With the encouragement of Phil Stone, a law student at Yale, Faulkner began to educate himself by reading some of the classics of English literature. He also served a stint in the Royal Air Force in Toronto, though he never saw battle, in spite of the limp he occasionally had, the result of an imaginary crash he liked to talk about. Separated from Estelle, Bill Faulkner held odd jobs in Oxford (he was postmaster at Ole Miss for nearly three years) and started writing. Yet, within a few years, the shakiness of Estelle’s marriage to Franklin was all too apparent, and after her divorce, she married William in June 1929—definitely a watershed year in Faulkner’s life since it was the year both The Sound and the Fury and Sartoris were published and marked the beginning of an unprecedented period of literary productivity that ended, I believe, with the publication of The Hamlet in 1940.

One of the strengths of Williamson’s development of Faulkner’s mature years is his discussion of the women in Faulkner’s life: Estelle and their daughter Jill, and the women Faulkner turned to during those times he felt alienated from Estelle: Meta Carpenter, Joan Williams, Else Jonsson, and Jean Stein. Though Meta Carpenter had escaped Blotner’s purview the first time round, her 1976 book, A Loving Gentleman, written with Orin Borsten, recorded her version of their relationship; Blotner, in his one-volume biography, accounted for her love affair with Faulkner, minus (gratefully) the excessive hagiography. In stressing these relationships, Williamson has not developed Faulkner sufficiently as a tireless writer, as is evident in the thousands of pages of manuscript and typescript material at the University of Virginia. A glance at the drafts of A Fable, to cite but one example, clearly indicates what a Herculean task it was to compose this novel. Williamson reduces the pang and tether of writing this particular novel to a few lines: “At Rowan Oak after the war, A Fable proceeded slowly and painfully. In his mind, it was his magnum opus, and Faulkner was “weighing every word.” He was able to survive financially only by the faithful support of Random House, a fact that bothered him more and more and raised the threat of his having to return to Hollywood.” Williamson gives the impression that some, if not most, of Faulkner’s novels appeared full blown at the last minute, as if Faulkner did not rework drafts of his fiction.

In his last section, which begins with trying to delineate a Faulknerian universe, Williamson begins with an unfortunate sentence that never really points to a methodology that would assist him in his role as literary critic: “Faulkner’s writings, like the Bible, are voluminous and often cryptic.” In trying to unpack these words, Williamson admits upfront that he is “new” to the task he has set before him, but is willing, nevertheless, to give it a try; he bases his subsequent literary analysis on a discussion between idealism and realism, a topic addressed directly in Faulkner and Idealism: Perspectives from Paris, essays by nine Faulkner scholars who met in Paris in 1980.In setting up an ideal-real and a nature-society continuum, Williamson has polarized a very fluid and dynamic Faulknerian community as seen most graphically in the novel Requiem for a Nun and in Faulkner’s 1954 essay entitled “Mississippi.” In setting up the controlling axes in such an apriori manner, rather than arriving at a controlling framework after an analysis of various texts, Williamson has run the risk of forcing his literary insights into categories that do not adequately fit the subject matter, as seen in his brief discussion of Quentin and Jason in The Sound and the Fury, which omits any treatment of Caddy, Benjy, or Dilsey. And by focusing rather exclusively on notions of sex and community, Williamson is blindsided to the marvelous give-and-take within certain novels, most notably in the The Wild Palms and The Reivers. It might have been better for Williamson to have offered his views on Faulkner’s works of fiction when he discusses the history of the compositions of these texts, rather than to deal with them all at once under a rather small umbrella.

William Faulkner and Southern History shows that ongoing careful research of William Faulkner’s ancestry and life can only add to our appreciation of one of America’s outstanding creative writers. But the life of a Faulkner literary critic is tricky at best. If a Faulkner short story or novel lives in the mind of a critic as the critic reads and reflects on that story or novel, then the critic willy-nilly goes through a process of co-creation in an attempt to explain the significance of the text in as rounded a way as possible. Williamson has by no means foreclosed on the ways he can continue to discuss Faulkner’s works.


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