Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Monday, July 9, 2012

My Boy Bill: Adventures with William Faulkner

In the Akron Beacon Journal yesterday was an op-ed piece by Philip Weinstein, a professor of English at Swarthmore.  The headline read: "Faulkner captures the 'sound and fury' of our experience."  And the piece began with this: "William Faulkner's best novels show what it is like to live through baffling experience--experience that you can't sort out while it is crashing into you."

I liked the piece, though the image in that first sentence is a little odd--sorting experience while it's crashing?  (Never mind.)  (Link to piece: Faulkner)

I can't really remember not knowing about Faulkner (1897-1962).  He was alive throughout my childhood and boyhood and died on June 6, the day I graduated from high school, fifty years ago.  It was a big story, his death.  He--along with Frost and Hemingway--glowed most brightly in our literary sky.  (All three died between 1961-1963--our American version of the deaths of Keats,Shelley, and Byron in the early 1820s.)  He had won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949.  He twice won the Pulitzer (1955: A Fable, 1963: The Reivers).  His picture was here and there in the press.  He was still publishing books.

My parents owned a boxed set of Faulkner's Snopes Trilogy--The Hamlet, The Mansion, The Town--a set I read one summer not long after my marriage in 1969, a set that now sits on my own shelf.  But I don't think I read any Faulkner until I got to Hiram College, 1962-1966.  (In high school, history ended with World War II, American literature with Mark Twain.)

By then--college--I was a bit afraid of Faulkner.  I'd heard he was "hard," wrote long sentences about stuff going on in his characters' heads.  That didn't sound interesting, not, anyway, to a young man (or old boy?) who still watched cowboy shows on TV, thought he was going to play for the Cleveland Indians, and read books about Jim Bowie.

My English 101 anthology--Interpreting Literature--contains two Faulkner pieces, a story ("Dry September") and the text of his Nobel acceptance speech.  I don't think we read either in freshman English (I took the course the summer before I started college, so we didn't have time to read a whole lot).  In my American lit survey courses (two of them) we perhaps read "The Bear"; I don't remember too clearly.

The cover in the 1960s.
But I do remember the first Faulkner novel I read--As I Lay Dying for an American Thought course taught by Dr. Abe C. Ravitz in the mid-1960s.  Just looking at the pages of that novel frightened me.  Dozens of little sections, each headed by a character's name.  Dr. Ravitz did some lecturing about Faulkner, then assigned each of us a character to follow through the novel.  I don't know why he gave me Cash, the older brother, the carpenter who made the coffin for Addie, his mother, who lay dying.  But I'm glad he did.  I actually kind of understood Cash--and some of those others?  They were just plain weird.

Okay, Cash was weird, too--obsessed with the perfection of the coffin, a quiet sufferer (his broken leg and the "treatments" he received for it are grim reading).  I was pleased with myself when I realized that (1) Cash was a carpenter who suffered, (2) Jesus was a carpenter who suffered.  I pointed this out in class.  Dr. Ravitz seemed pleased (if not surprised), and my classmates, not used to hearing something mildly observant coming from me, probably wondered if I'd somehow cheated--perhaps I'd asked my older brother (who by then was working on his Ph.D. in English at Harvard) or my mom (who was an English teacher).  I did not!  (Probably because I didn't think to do so.)

As I Lay Dying was all the Faulkner I read in college, but as the years went on, I read a lot of his work over the summers and even during the year when I was teaching.  In my public school days (1966-1997) I didn't ever teach Faulkner: I taught seventh and eighth graders, and I couldn't picture myself asking them to read Absalom! Absalom!  Perhaps I told them about As I Lay Dying, for the notion of multiple points of view had spread throughout popular fiction.  I remember a YA  novel a lot of my students read, Paul Zindel's The Pigman, a story with two narrators, a high school girl, a high school boy, who take turns telling what happened.  So Faulknerian!

When I returned to WRA to teach (2001-2011), I had juniors, and I figured they could handle As I Lay Dying.  I gave them the book as an "outside reading"--i.e., a book they had to read, on their own, outside of class.  At the end of the marking period we would talk about it for a day--then a quiz.  I tried to give them a lot of help with the book--a list of the characters, a map of the journey the Bundrens take to bury Addie, odd vocabulary--that sort of thing.  (BTW: One expression in the book--pussel-gutted (fattened)--appears in the OED with only one source--As I Lay Dying.)

One summer (2004), Joyce (who'd also taught the book) and I drove down to Oxford, Mississippi, Faulkner's hometown, and spent a few days driving around looking at Faulkner sites--and there are lots of them: homes, graves, workplaces, statues.  There's a statue of Faulkner near courthouse square; he's sitting on a bench, and you can sit beside him.  Have some chat.  (I did.)

And in nearby Byhalia you can see the what's left of the place he used to go to dry out.  Which he needed to do more often ...

Faulkner said that he wrote As I Lay Dying while he was working the night shift at the Ole Miss power station; for a table, he used an upside-down wheelbarrow.  Okay.  We looked at that old power station and wished for a marker: Here, novelist William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying  on an upside-down wheelbarrow when he was supposed to be shoveling coal.

Not far away, BTW, just across the square, is one of the great bookstores I've been in, Square Books--lots of signed editions from the many visiting writers who come there.  We left with armloads.

One day we drove the route of As I Lay Dying (an approximate one, of course), and we were both surprised at the terrain.  I don't know why I'd pictured flatter land, but there are lots of rolling hills--Oxford itself sits on one.  The river was much tamer the day we crossed it, too--nothing like the flood scene in the novel (the one that broke Cash's leg ...).

I still have a few Faulkners on my I-haven't-read-these-yet list.  The Wild Palms.  Requiem for a Nun.  Time to get to them, I know.

Oprah, I remember, picked three Faulkner novels for her summer reading recommendations in 2005: As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, Light in August.  In the New York Daily News that June, under the headline "As I Lay Frying: You May Want to Skip Faulkner's List," writer Sherryl Connelly thought Oprah had assigned too much homework.  She recommended Cliff's Notes.  (New York Daily News piece)

Which, of course, is the American Way ...

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