Fact and fiction sit side by side in Oxford, Mississippi. County seat of Lafayette County and home of the state university known as Ole Miss, Oxford is at the same time the locus of the postage stamp of native soil that William Faulkner called Yoknapatawpha.
At Oxford-in-Yoknapatawpha the Faulkner industry continues to flourish. Visitors to the Faulkner home place on Old Taylor Road poke around the shady grounds and stoop to pick up bird feathers dropped there long after the departure of the Master. Inside the small room where Faulkner did his writing is The Wall: the whole outline and scheme of A Fable printed in the Master’s hand: MONDAY, TUESDAY, WEDNESDAY, etc. So presumably is the typewriter, once with the foil-covered chocolate mint beside it, a relic shown me more than 30 years ago on one of my early visits to Oxford.
It will soon be time for the 20-somethingth annual Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference, which in recent years has included tours to the nearby towns of Holly Springs and New Albany and a day spent in the Delta. The brochure for the conference refers to those it hopes to enlist as “Faulkner pilgrims,” which may not be far off the mark.
The thing has grown from that first gathering of pilgrims, no doubt of it. The conference traditionally features a picnic on the grounds of the Faulkner home and announcement of the winner of the Faux Faulkner Contest, a bit of tomfoolery run by Dean Faulkner Wells, the author’s niece, whose husband Larry Wells is proprietor of the Yoknapatawpha Press. American Airlines, once a cosponsor of the competition (it flew the winners in), has since opted out, but Jack Daniel, sometime distiller to the Master, has stepped in. The wire services will duly report it, quoting a few lines from the winning entry. The trick of course is to keep the words and sentences long and the cadences rolling, parodying the style that Faulkner himself once described as sired by “Southern Rhetoric out of Solitude.”
In addition to Faulkner’s niece there are two resident nephews, sons of his brother John, one an author himself and a purveyor of stories of “Brother Will,” as Jimmy Faulkner called his famous uncle. The older ranks of biographers have been replaced by younger ones. Joseph Blotner, who got all or very nearly all of the facts down in his two-volume Faulkner, is sometimes summoned for the Faulkner conferences, but the most legendary of the biographers, Carvel Collins, is gone now—-his tape recorder stilled forever.
The ranks of the older citizens of the town who knew Faulkner are thinning. Colonel J.R. Cofield, the wiry little man with the horn-rimmed glasses and bow tie, the court photographer, no longer shows the faithful around his studio just off the Square. Phil Stone, the Oxford lawyer who at a time in his life was Faulkner’s closest friend, was committed to the state mental hospital only a few months after Faulkner’s death and died there in 1967. Phil’s wife Emily, who those late nights in Oxford tried to explain to me what it was like to “live in the shadow of a mountain,” is also gone. Faulkner’s daughter Jill stays an aloof distance away in Charlottesville, where her father played out his last scenes of a Virginia huntsman.
The first time I visited Oxford I was a junior or senior in high school, a member of the debate team, and I stayed overnight in the dormitory where Ole Miss law students lived—spent a mostly sleepless night, as a matter of fact, as Ole Miss law students did what Ole Miss law students presumably still do on Saturday nights: got drunk and whooped it up. I met no Temple Drakes. In those Ice Age days no Ole Miss girl would have been caught dead in a men’s dormitory; not even a third-year law student would have been able to plead his way out of that one. The action no doubt occurred just off some of the dark paths on the campus, or on some lonely stretch of gravel road between Oxford and the bootlegger’s. For Mississippi was dry then, or pretended to be. Even the Illinois Central’s crack Panama Limited, speeding south out of Memphis on the last lap of its run from Chicago to New Orleans, observed Mississippi law when it crossed the state line. Hard liquor was served on the Panama, but only in china cups, in case some local sheriff or Baptist preacher should come into the lounge car.
I had not read Faulkner then, and I’m not sure I had even heard of him before I was in college in the mid-1940’s. In high school I was reading the standard textbook authors: Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, Shakespeare of course; in American literature, The House of Seven Gables. I doubt that any of Faulkner’s books were on the shelves of our high school library or in the county library, a cubbyhole on the top floor of the courthouse.
When I finally heard Faulkner mentioned outside of a college English class, it was always to the effect that he was writing about things one did not write about. The inference was: the South is not really like that. Or perhaps more to the point: even if it is, a Southerner does not write about it.
On my second visit to Oxford, in the early 1950’s, I was a fellow Mississippian passing through, but by then Oxford was beginning to take pride in itself as the home of Faulkner, and when I stopped at a service station near the Square to get gas and inquired the way to the Faulkner home the attendant not only gave me the directions but volunteered that “Miss Maud”—the writer’s mother—lived in the house across the street. This was of course the Oxford of the post-Nobel Prize era. Like everyone else, I had read the long two-part essay on Faulkner by Robert Coughlan published in Life magazine in 1953—the piece that mentioned his drinking, and incidentally prompted Miss Maud to cancel her subscription.
On down south on South Lamar I went to Old Taylor Road and my first look at the writer’s home, though it was not easily seen from the street. Summoning the courage, I ventured up the drive past the sign warning visitors away, not entirely certain what I would do. Possibly go to the door and knock, as years later I would learn from Walker Percy the young Shelby Foote did. Walker told me how he had stayed in the car while Shelby headed for the house—how he had ducked down in the seat so as not to be seen. Faulkner invited Shelby in and later walked him to the car, where Shelby introduced him to the embarrassed Walker.
My own instincts the day I turned up into the Faulkner drive were a mixture of Foote’s and Percy’s. Halfway up the drive I suddenly had second thoughts and put the car in reverse.
Once in the years after that I would see Faulkner, but not on the home ground, and my New York sighting would be just that: he walked into the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel, spoke to the clerk at the desk, and turned and walked out. I suppose as much as anything else I was struck by what a small man he was. Much to my disappointment—for I even dreamed several times of talking with Faulkner—we never met. In my dreams he was, as we used to say, friendly enough. In other words, distant.
My introduction to the Mississippi world of Faulkner came in 1963, the year after his death, when as editor of the Louisiana State University Press I visited Oxford in pursuit of a book project I was developing. What I had in mind was a book bringing together recollections of the writer by the people of the town who had had some association with him. On that visit I persuaded two professors in the University of Mississippi English department to undertake the book, which would later be published by my press under the title William Faulkner of Oxford, Actually they needed very little persuasion and I think may have already talked about doing such a book.
One of the two, James W. Webb, was then chairman of the department; the other, A. Wigfall Green, a senior professor, was the author of several books, one a biography of Sir Francis Bacon, another an impressionistic study of Mississippi’s racist Senator (earlier Governor) Theodore G. Bilbo—an unlikely subject for an English Renaissance man with degrees from the College of William and Mary and the University of Virginia. I had, as a matter of fact, worked on the manuscript of Bill Green’s book The Man Bilbo soon after I came to the LSU Press in 1962. I always intended to ask him what the A in his name stood for; at our first meeting he insisted that he was Bill to his friends and that I should by all means call him that.
Bilbo and Bacon! Bill Green was a brilliant combination of contradictions. In addition to the Ph.D. from Virginia, he held a degree from the Georgetown University Law School. He was a man with a great deal of personality and charm but at the same time a man of great dignity. Also, a small detail I recall now, a man ill with emphysema and repeated bouts of pneumonia that more than once threatened to force him to withdraw from the project. I think his work on the book kept him going, and I was moved and at the same time encouraged when he wrote me that in spite of his doubtful health he would carry on: “I need not tell you that some of our happiest days have been when you were here and that you are always welcome.”
Bill was a handsome man with the look of the Foreign Service officer about him—he dressed the part and wore a neatly trimmed mustache. No doubt he would have been as much at home in Washington or London as in Oxford. If he had not held a diplomatic post, he was most assuredly skilled in diplomacy, as I was to learn at a dinner party he and his wife Mary gave in my honor. At the time Oxford was a town divided by the Ole Miss riots that had attended James Meredith’s arrival on the campus the previous year. The smell of tear gas was still in the air, at least figuratively speaking, and I remember the paranoia present in the home of Professor James Silver the evening of one of my visits with him—Silver jumpy and occasionally going to the window to peep out through the curtains. Though I thought such behavior rather odd, in retrospect I came to believe it was, in the Mississippi of those times, uncommonly good judgment. At any moment the South has never been as enlightened as we thought it was.
Bill Green had friends on both sides of the Great Divide, and the dinner party proceeded as planned despite a number of awkward silences and an indelicate remark or two at the dinner table that Bill did his best to paper over with civilized patter. Mostly I remember it as an evening when half of the guests gathered off in one part of the house while the others raised their banner in another. Bill Green went back and forth between the two groups, and I suspect was relieved when he had escorted the last of them to the door, though he was too much of a gentleman to let on that the evening had been anything but the purest pleasure.
During the evening someone—not the host, who I’m sure would have thought that gauche—called my attention to the chair Faulkner had sat in at one of the Green parties not long before his death, and small talk that found its way onto other subjects inevitably returned to the writer. Emily Stone, wife of Faulkner’s friend Phil Stone, was one of those at the party, and so was Faulkner’s sister-in-law Dorothy Oldham, as was one of his other sisters-in-law, Louise Meadow, whose husband Dean Falkner had died in the crash of his plane— actually William’s plane—in 1935.
Dorothy, or Dot, as some called her, was the sister of Faulkner’s wife Estelle. I had already met her on one of my earlier visits to Oxford—been introduced to her by Jim Webb. Faulkner had died only a few months earlier. An unmarried woman of middle years, she was then curator of the Mississippi Collection in the Ole Miss Library, but everyone understood that she was there as gatekeeper for those interested in access to Faulkner materials. If you wished to visit Rowan Oak, the Faulkner home just off the back of the campus, you were instructed to try to charm Dorothy, a lady not easily charmed.
Even Jim Webb, a man with a quick smile and an agreeable disposition—the most likable of men—had apparently had to work on it in order to win over Dorothy. New to the ins and outs and social order of Oxford, I was relieved to find her somewhat less formidable than the Dragon Lady she had been made out to be. It was she who took me to the Faulkner home, and she insisted on driving me there in her car. At that time the house was kept locked and I believe she had the only key. It was not open to the public.
The tour was, as I remember it now, a rather short one and consisted of a look into the parlor to the right of the entrance hall, a walk through the library or study to the left, where I was allowed to scan the shelves to see what books the Master read and to comment on Miss Maud Falkner’s paintings, and a longer visit to the small room to the rear of it—I think she called it Faulkner’s office—where he did his writing. The room was spartanly furnished with a table and chair and a twin-size spool bed where, she told me, Faulkner sometimes napped when he was away from the typewriter. She referred to him as “Mr. Faulkner.” Strange that what I remember most—besides The Wall, of course—the day-by-day chronology of A Fable printed there on the plaster in the author’s hand—is her pointing out the mint in its silver and green wrapper which lay on the table by Faulkner’s old portable typewriter, and which she made a point of telling me had been left there by him.
On a subsequent visit to Oxford I was given a more leisurely tour of the house and grounds by Jim Webb. This was probably one of the visits that I made in 1964 when I accompanied Jim and Bill Green as they interviewed some of the townspeople who had known Faulkner. I remember standing out on the highway east of Oxford on a windy afternoon as they interviewed Earl Wortham, the black man who had shod Faulkner’s horses, and sitting on Mrs. Maud Brown’s porch while Jim held the tape recorder in front of her. The widow of a highly esteemed professor at the university, “Miss Maud” had been named for Faulkner’s mother. Faulkner had once written a child’s story for her invalid daughter. Though Mrs. Brown was probably not aware of it, he was later appalled to learn that she was about to put the manuscript up for sale.
I especially recall Jim and Bill’s interview with Dr. Felix Linder, the Oxford physician who had attended Faulkner—an interview that was problematical because of Dr. Linder’s health. As I recall, a stroke had affected his speech. In addition, Jim’s tape recorder was causing trouble and we were forced to turn to my portable Dictaphone instead. I have never forgotten that particular interview because I took the Dictaphone belts back to Baton Rouge and lost several minutes of one, which I recorded over when the telephone in my office rang while I was in the midst of transcribing it and I inadvertently pressed the wrong button.
To Jim Webb and Bill Green’s disappointment—and mine, I might say—Dorothy Oldham declined to be interviewed for the Faulkner book, and she remained noncommittal about giving it her blessing. The possibility that she might persuade others in the family as well as some of the townspeople not to participate gave Jim and Bill some anxious moments. I think at least some of her hesitation about the project stemmed from her conversations with Faulkner a few years earlier about a visit to Oxford by Emory professor Floyd Watkins. Watkins, gathering material for a book, taped some interviews with John Cullen, one of the local men Faulkner had hunted with—news that was not received with enthusiasm by the writer, Dorothy was equally skeptical. In the book, published in 1961 under the title Old Times in the Faulkner Country, Cullen confirmed what Oxford had known and Robert Coughlan had already put on the record about Faulkner’s drinking.
But of more immediate concern for Dorothy in the months following her brother-in-law’s death was the possibility that one of the townspeople willing to talk about Faulkner would bring up the subject of Byhalia. Byhalia, Mississippi, a dot on the map an hour north of Oxford, was the location of a private hospital where Faulkner was taken when his drinking got to the point that he needed treatment. He had been taken there the day before his death and had died in the early hours of the following morning, but the subject was one that the family did not want talked about in 1963 and 1964. Faulkner had not yet passed into history.
Jim Webb and Bill Green were all too aware of the problem and neither had any desire to steer the interviews onto that subject. The book was not going to be “William Faulkner, Warts and All,” but it was never intended to be. They never quite managed to convince Dorothy of that, however. In large part, I think, her refusal to have anything to do with the book can be explained by the absence of Estelle Faulkner, who during this period was living with her daughter Jill Summers in Virginia. The responsibility for looking after the Faulkner home in Oxford and holding Faulkner scholars at bay was Dorothy’s. At one point earlier she had even moved into Rowan Oak for a time while Estelle and Bill Faulkner were absent. Now that Bill was dead and Estelle was removed from Oxford, Dorothy assumed the role of gatekeeper.
It was on one of my 1964 trips to Oxford, I believe, that Jim took me to Faulkner’s grave in St. Peter’s Cemetery. Bill Green, curiously turned off by the mention of death, possibly because of the state of his health but more probably because of some long-standing quirk, declined to go with us. I once observed Bill come to a halt and then take a path closer to the street, an instinctive reaction to our passing a funeral home.
It was through Bill Green and Jim Webb that I met many of those who had known Faulkner and who agreed to share their memories of him: Colonel J.R. Cofield, the photographer, for instance, and Mr. Mac Reed, whose drugstore on the Square was a regular stop for the writer on his morning walks to the post office. Mac Reed could recall a time when Faulkner came into the drugstore barefooted and sat down on the floor next to the magazine stand and read magazines. Reed had also, in the late 1920’s and 1930’s, before there was a bookstore in Oxford, sold Faulkner’s novels at the Gathright-Reed Drug Store. Faulkner felt close enough to him and confident enough of him to name him to the board of the William Faulkner Foundation—and Mac Reed was one of the two honorary pallbearers at Faulkner’s funeral. The other was Phil Stone.
It was also through Jim and Bill that I came to know Phil’s wife Emily, and ultimately it was through them that I came to know Faulkner’s brother Murry Falkner, who had insisted on keeping the spelling of the name he was born with. Murry Falkner—or Jack as he was known to the family and to his friends in Oxford—was a retired FBI agent living in Mobile in the 1960’s. I thought the short pieces he wrote for William Faulkner of Oxford among the most interesting in the book, and went to Mobile to persuade him to enlarge upon them. Like his older brother William and his younger brother John, Murry Falkner had been bitten by the writing bug, but he was uncertain about how to go about writing a book, mainly about how to organize the material. I instructed him to stay at the typewriter and let me do the rest. As it turned out, I had to do little more than shift some of his stories around and ask him to write in a few transitional sentences. The result was a memoir that the LSU Press published in 1967 under the title The Falkners of Mississippi.
Both the outgoing Colonel Cofield and the shy and rather formal Mr. Mac Reed clearly enjoyed their connection with Faulkner. One of my most vivid memories of Oxford in fact is my visit to the Cofield studio where the photographer showed me a display of Faulkner photographs mounted on the wall just outside his darkroom. He showed me the photograph of Faulkner in his World War I uniform that he had printed from a negative the writer brought him. There was also a picture of William and Estelle Faulkner and friends posed on the front steps of Rowan Oak on a Sunday morning in 1938 on the occasion of a hunt breakfast. A servant stands between the Faulkners holding a tray on which there appear to be shot glasses of bourbon, an intimation of things to come if there ever was one.
Cofield told me he had been summoned by Faulkner that morning to take the picture, which demonstrates Faulkner’s sense of humor but also his love of role-playing. The connection between this picture and the later ones showing Faulkner dressed for the hunt is obvious. Later Cofield would give me, as a personal gift, a print of the famous 1931 picture of Faulkner that he had taken and that Faulkner’s publisher had used for the promotion of Sanctuary.
Most of the people I met who had known Faulkner took their acquaintance or encounters with him seriously, so that Mac Reed’s account of wrapping Faulkner’s manuscripts for him—the manuscripts that were about to go off to his publisher—seemed to take on a note of great solemnity. There was a change in the tone of his voice even. One could imagine him imagining he was posting King Lear or Othello or Hamlet.
When the director and the crew of the Ford Foundation documentary on Faulkner came to Oxford in 1952, Faulkner took them to the Gathright-Reed Drug Store and reenacted just such a scene. He also reenacted the scene at his home when the local newspaper editor, Phil Mullen, came to interview him for the Associated Press the day news came of the Nobel Prize. By 1952 at ease in the role of Nobel laureate, Faulkner thought Mullen the actor a bit too deferential toward him. But after Stockholm, Mullen and the rest of the town knew they had a genius in their midst, and it is difficult to believe that Faulkner had not come to take his connections to the town as seriously as they did.
The filmmakers inevitably found their way to Phil Stone’s law office just off the Square, and there Stone and Faulkner were reunited for what seems to have been an awkward meeting—in the still photos at least, Faulkner is cold and unsmiling.
On my visits to Oxford in the early 1960’s I had been warned by some to be wary of Emily Stone. She and Phil had made a career of playing up their association with Faulkner while at the same time devaluing him—that, in so many words, was the substance of the warning to me. Moreover Emily was friendly with Faulkner biographer Carvel Collins, of whom most of Oxford seemed to be openly suspicious. Collins, I was told, carried a tape recorder disguised to look like a wristwatch: anything anyone said about Faulkner might end up in the book. Bill Green had warned me in a letter that “Cagey Carvel Collins may turn out his product at any time,” meaning the biography, but Faulkner scholars that I talked to outside Oxford were less certain.
Collins had first visited Oxford in the summer of 1948, not long before he conducted what I think was the first seminar on Faulkner. He was then at Harvard. In the 1950’s and 1960’s he would return for many more visits.
Over the next decade and more after my first meeting with Carvel Collins, the betting was that he would never get around to writing the book. He was said to be one of those researchers who spend their lives amassing notes but never get to the typewriter. In addition, he had lost the blessing of and thus access to the Faulkner family. Collins had been caught poking in the Faulkners’ trash early one morning soon after the author’s death and had been ordered off the property. At least that was the story told me.
I ignored the warnings in regard to Emily Stone, listened to Jim Webb instead, and accepted Emily’s friendship—a decision which I might add I never regretted. I recall saying at the time, and nothing has changed since to alter it, that Emily Stone would be one of the two or three people I have known that I would choose to spend an evening of conversation with. Much of our talk had to do with Faulkner, and on more than one occasion she told me that living in Oxford was like “living in the shadow of a mountain,” a line that I later learned she had delivered to others before me. Even so, I think it was true and from the heart.
Her husband’s friendship with Faulkner was a source of enormous pride to her—no doubt to Stone too—but at the same time the thought that Phil had been used and then discarded—or, worse, tolerated—gnawed away at her. More than once in our conversations she used the phrase “Faulkner arrogance”—a characterization of the family generally but at the same time of the man himself, and I’m sure she would have seconded her husband’s comment to Life magazine writer Robert Coughlan quoted by Joseph Blotner: “Give a Faulkner success, and he’ll ride you down with boots and spurs.” Coughlan chose not to use the quote.
On the other hand, Phil Stone must have been hard to take. In a gratuitous and critical letter written to the Mississippi writer Stark Young in New York not long after the publication of Young’s So Red the Rose, Stone told the novelist: “I have often told Bill Faulkner that if I could fuse his mind and yours into one that I could make of it a writer of the first class.”
“Luckily,” Young replied, “not everyone thinks quite the same of me or of the book as you do, else I should be still in Oxford. Thus I might be on your hands.”
Emily wondered aloud to me, late at night after too many drinks, whether there had been something homoerotic about the relationship between Faulkner and her husband—this in the years when they were young and before she knew either of them. Emily had not come to Oxford until 1930. When she married Phil Stone in 1935 he was 42. He was 16 years older than Emily.
The summer Faulkner was 16 he was tramping the countryside with Stone, who was four and a half years older and then home from law school at Yale. Stone read poetry to Faulkner, told him what books to read; if we can believe him, played Professor Henry Higgins to Faulkner’s Eliza Doolittle. I think Emily had concluded that there was more than the usual male bond between them—else why would a young man of 21, in college, spend so much of his time with a 16-year-old? But she also doubted that there had been a physical relationship between them.
In spite of Emily’s lament for a life without Faulkner—a life free of the Faulkner curse and shadow—on balance I have no doubt it was a plus for her. I cannot imagine what she would have been like—how her conversations would have gone—without William Faulkner.
Occasionally she would talk about Phil, who was by then in Whitfield, the state mental hospital at Jackson—a cause of great distress for her. She and their teenage daughter Araminta were living in an apartment near the campus. On more than one occasion she talked about her son, Philip Alston Stone, who was Faulkner’s godson and who had published a novel when he was a freshman at Harvard. She told me Philip had returned one of her letters unopened and instructed her to never write him again. This had hurt her deeply. She had pinned all of her hopes on Araminta.
What I did not tell Emily, though I suspect she may have known, was that a few years earlier (I had not met her then) I had reviewed young Philip Stone’s novel No Place to Run and had given it one of the most negative reviews I ever wrote. The publisher, I said, had done him no favor; there was no doubt of the boy’s talent, but he was not yet ready for a book. I was not the only reviewer to criticize the novel. Meanwhile Phil Stone, the author’s father, turned away requests for Philip’s autograph with the explanation that, like Faulkner, the boy would be holding his autographs to a minimum to assure their value!
Philip Stone would die in 1966 at the age of twenty-five, his father the following year in the asylum in Jackson. Carvel Collins would die in 1990, his Faulkner biography still unpublished.
As an editor, I encouraged Emily to go forward with a book of her own. The working title was Phil and Bill, and at one time I read some of her work and got her to send at least one of the pieces to my agent Elizabeth McKee in New York. It was subsequently published in Harper’s. But, largely at the insistence of Bill Green, who felt that I might be pushing Emily too hard at a time when she was under great personal stress—he feared a breakdown—I shortly backed off and Emily left Oxford to teach in an Episcopal girls’ school in Vicksburg.
Carvel Collins had also encouraged her to put down her memories and thoughts, whether as a help to him in writing the Faulkner biography or to help her with her own book, or both, one can only speculate. I recall her telling me he had given her a tape recorder. She was planning to take it with her on her visits to Phil at Whitfield and to get him to recall, if he could, the early years with Faulkner.
Based in part on the stories Emily told me, I felt that a book on Phil Stone was needed, a book that would shed light on the Stone-Faulkner relationship but also on the use of Stone in Faulkner’s fiction, and I was delighted to see Susan Snell eventually come up with one some 30 years later. I was especially pleased that Emily lived to see it. Snell titled her book Phil Stone of Oxford, an echo of the book of Faulkner reminiscences.
One of my memories of Emily is of a lone woman in a raincoat standing by an airport runway. My plane from Memphis was coming in for a landing, and though I had not asked her to meet me and she had not told me she would, Emily was there waiting. She was capable of great generosity.
I still have the letters she wrote me in those years, including the one I know by heart:
Phil was, in differing ways, the source, all during Bill’s life, of much of his writing, though Bill got free of Phil in many, many ways years ago. It was not only Horace Benbow and Gavin Stevens through whom Bill pictured Phil, not only through the Compsons that he showed the Stones, not only through Major DeSpain that he showed Phil’s father, etc., but through his whole philosophy that he uses Phil’s tragic blindness to show the blindness of our time. Bill knew a metaphor when he saw one, and he could see it through flesh and blood and admiration and affection and anything else (October 30, 1963).
Emily Stone’s tragedy was not only that she and her husband were forever footnotes to the never-ending saga of William Faulkner but that she never became a writer herself—or least not the writer that her husband was determined she would be. Phil Stone believed to the depth of his soul that he had created William Faulkner. He wanted lightning to strike twice, and of course it seldom does. One of Emily’s stories was published in the Chicago Review, but the novel she worked on for years went unpublished, and she wrote her agent of the time in New York, “I have been at this so long, so long. And Phil, who kept me writing when I would have quit long ago, now has given up and wants me to quit.”
She was not going to be another William Faulkner. But she could never get Faulkner off her mind and out of her life. Some saw her as a self-deluded and foolish woman. But there was, I thought then— still think—something noble and even brave about her.
My visits to Oxford ended before the start of the Faulkner conferences—before the arrival on the scene of writers like Willie Morris and Ellen Douglas and Barry Hannah. Before the Faux Faulkner competition. Before the Oxford fireman Larry Brown broke into print (and who’s to say Oxford water doesn’t have what it takes). Before the John Grisham phenomenon. Before the Center for the Study of Southern Culture raised Moon Pies and Goo Goo Clusters and Bear Bryant T-shirts to the status of folk art. Before the Faulkner Centennial and the tug-of-war between the mayor of Oxford and some of the Faulkner family over where to put the Faulkner statue.
What would Faulkner, the man who said he wanted to be “the last private person in the world,” think of what has become the Faulkner Industry? It was he, after all, who told Malcolm Cowley that he would want to blue pencil “everything which even intimates that something breathing and moving sat behind the typewriter which produced the books.” My guess is he would be secretly pleased but at the same time astonished—or perhaps the word is outraged. Probably he would be amused by his niece’s decision to bring the Jack Daniel Distillery on board as one of the Faux Faulkner Contest sponsors. There was nothing faux about Faulkner’s accomplishments or his genius, but the man who posed as a farmer and a Virginia gentleman and who made up stories about his World War I service knew faux when he saw it.
He may even have anticipated the Faulkner pilgrims. Joseph Blotner says that when Jill Faulkner appealed to her father to think of her and give up his drinking, he told her, “Nobody remembers Shakespeare’s children.” End of that.