The Blagger's Guide to William Faulkner
To blag (v): to sound like you know what you’re talking about when you don’t
The Blagger’s Guide to Literature (n): an invaluable resource for those who wish to blag about books without actually reading them.
Want to hold your own with the literati but find the idea of actually reading serious books about as appealing as buying lunch from Chick-fil-A while dressed in full drag? Fear not, the Blagger’s Guide is ready to help with everything you need to sound like you know what you’re talking about, even if you don’t.
Just the facts Ma’am
William Cuthbert Faulkner was the eldest of four sons, born in 1897 to a well to do Mississippi family with a colorful history. His great grandfather, William Clark Faulkner, known to the family as the ‘Old Colonel’, was also a successful author. Clark died when gunned down by a business rival in the town square, an end straight from the pages of his own fiction. Faulkner’s grandfather, John Wesley Faulkner – the ‘Young Colonel’ - owned a railroad, amongst several other businesses. Faulkner’s father, Murry, moved to Oxford Mississippi for work reasons when his son was five. Murry, although a placid individual in Faulkner terms, still managed to get himself shot in the throat as a young man. According to family legend he only survived by dint of his mother successfully forcing him to vomit up the bullet from where it was lodged in his windpipe.
Faulkner was an effete Southerner then?
More the athletic type. Faulkner didn’t indulge in the interesting pastimes of his forebears (slavery and duels being by then a thing of the past), but he only attended his final year of High School because he was the football team quarterback. At the age of 21 he faked an English accent to enlist in the RAF, then training in Toronto. The Armistice arrived before he saw active duty, but he filched a plane on the eve of his demobilization, crashed it, and walked with a limp for the rest of his life.
So how did he get into writing?
The Faulkner clan had authorial form – the Old Colonel was a writer - but Faulkner’s career received a huge kickstart when he met fellow townsman and Yale graduate Phil Stone. Stone read some of Faulkner’s poems and declared him a genius. From then on, Stone would act as critic and mentor to Faulkner, never doubting his friend would achieve a brilliant career as a writer. This seems to have given Faulkner the requisite self-belief to persevere. Stone also put up the money to cover the costs of Faulkner’s first publication.
Which was instantly popular, right?
Nope. That first book – The Marble Faun – came out through the vanity publisher Four Seas. Yes. Faulkner began his career as a self-pubber and, unfortunately for him, in the days before Facebook and Twitter. Unable to endlessly spam his work to a helpless public, Faulkner’s progression from unknown to successful author was fitful and slow. Even after the publication of The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner still struggled to make ends meet as a writer.
How did he make an honest dime?
He wrote for Hollywood. Faulkner wasn’t complimentary about his time in the City of Angels, describing himself as a ‘whore’. To set his comment in context, Faulkner’s output at this time consisted of such classics of cinema as The Last Slaver, Four Men and a Prayer, and Splinter Fleet. Haven’t heard of any of those? Don’t worry, neither has anyone else. Faulkner’s experience wasn’t improved by the low regard studios had for writers. Housed in cell-like cubicles and segregated from the other staff, writers received only slightly better treatment than the average battery hen. Think Barton Fink and you’re getting close: the Coen Brothers probably had Faulkner in mind when they created the alcoholic character of W P Mayhew, memorably played by John Mahoney in that movie.
Alcoholic? Was Faulkner a lush?
In a word, yes. Faulkner didn’t make a career of his drinking the way F Scott Fitzgerald did, but he had a weakness for the bottle, as did his wife, Estelle. His years in Hollywood cemented a fondness for whisky into a fully-fledged, sometimes life-threatening addiction. On one occasion, Faulkner became so drunk he passed out in his hotel bathroom on top of the steam pipe used for heating, suffering burns which would take years to completely heal.
Very interesting. But what about the books?
Oh fine. I’m getting to those. Faulkner published 19 novels and well over a hundred short stories, the latter written mostly for the money. Of his full length works, a handful are truly notable, the foremost being The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, and Absalom Absalom!
What you need to know about Faulkner as a writer can be condensed thusly:
- He wrote about the South, primarily about the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, which in many ways resembles Oxford, the Mississippi town Faulkner grew up and lived in most of his life.
- His stories are largely based on the Southern tradition of tall tales – fables based on a kernel of truth but wildly exaggerated and embellished, usually to the benefit of the teller. Faulkner’s own family mythology (the duels, the vomited up bullet) was heavily larded with this artform. He grew up with it and made heavy use of it in his fiction.
- But Mark Twain he is not. Faulkner reinvented the Southern fable to produce a darker, more socially realistic form. Rape, murder, incest, and abuse pepper the pages of his work, often alluded to rather than explicit. In this way Faulkner founded the tradition of the Southern gothic which has inspired many authors since, including some surprising imitators. For example, the eponymous hero of Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree bears more than a passing resemblance to the Sutpen of Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! Yes, the master of the laconic once wrote lush Southern Gothic. The shame.
‘Mark Twain but darker’ doesn’t sound like Nobel prize winning material.
Faulkner did win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1949, securing his place amongst the greats. This wasn’t so much for the subject matter of his work as his method. Faulkner, like Joyce and Woolf, pioneered the stream of consciousness style of writing. This was a breakthrough in literature. You could say this was the point when the writing became as important as the story. Another way to put it is that Faulkner invented ‘voice’: a distinctive style of writing which – although it belongs to the author – is also an integral element in making the story work.
And what to say to complete the perfect blag about Faulkner…
Faulkner was Hemingway with a Southern accent.
Faulkner’s great grandfather was a minor slave owner who fathered at least one child from his ‘property’ and who set up his own volunteer fighting unit – the ‘Magnolia Rifles’ - which fought with the Confederacy in the Civil War.
Faulkner had a robust taste in pranks. While living in the French quarter of New Orleans as a young man, he and a friend stripped a roommate and threw him out of the apartment. As a finishing touch they had painted the roomie’s penis green.
- While most of Faulkner’s Hollywood output never saw the light of day, the screenplays of both To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep were his work. Faulkner wrote To Have and Have Not while the movie was being filmed, only staying ahead of the shooting schedule by working around the clock.
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