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Monday
Oct242011

Faulkner and the Southern Renascence

Although sometimes called "the Southern Renaissance," the flowering of literature that occurred in the South in the 1920s and 1930s is better known by the spelling "renascence"--and is pronounced (tongue in cheek, mostly) the way certain Vanderbilt professors insisted it be said: "ruh-NA-suhns" (that middle "A" voiced like the "a" in "bathtub.")

The explosion of Southern literature can said to have been sparked by the (infamous) literary critic and satirist H. L. Mencken. Not because he was helpful, but because he was so darn snide. He titled his 1920 essay on the lack of any literary merit from the South "The Sahara of the Bozart," a sneer on the way "Beaux Arts" would be pronounced by Southerners. Mencken went on to write that a poet was as rare down there as an oboe player. And he offered this bit of cheeky doggerel: "Alas for the South, her books have grown fewer./ She never was much given to literature." (If you rhyme "fewer" with "literature," you'll hear the sneer.)

In response, certain Vanderbilt professors--poets and literary critics like John Crowe Ransom and Alan Tate--founded a series of literary groups (The Fugitives, The Agrarians) that eventually put the South on the cultural map--not necessarily because of anything they themselves wrote and published, but more because they formed a cohesive literary base, publishing magazines and journals, reading each other's works, supporting other writers--all of which eventually gave rise to the first generation of Southern literary greats like Tennessee Williams, Katherine Anne Porter, Robert Penn Warren, and (yes) William Faulkner.

The South was now on the literary map. In fact, it can be argued that until 1960, the South produced the most fulsome and gorgeous literary output in the United States--with these "founding" authors (none of whom saw themselves as part of a literary movement, with the possible exception of Robert Penn Warren) as well as with the writers who followed them in the next generation, the likes of Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, Carson McCullers, and Walker Percy.

However, it's important to note one thing: Faulkner was an outsider, even to this group. He did not fit in. Ever. He was not a "Fugitive," was not an "Agrarian." He remained outside any literary movement until late in his life, until he won the Nobel Prize and a professor at the University of Virginia (Joseph Blotner) sought him out to give a series of (rather incoherent) literary lectures.

Faulkner was always the outsider. Born in New Albany, Mississippi, in 1897, he wanted badly to fight in World War I. He was too young for the U. S. military and too short (5'5"), so he enlisted in the Canadian forces, only to make it to flight school but never to the war. That didn't stop him from buying a uniform off an airman, coming home, and parading around in it, telling everyone about his daring exploits fighting the Kaiser in Europe (and leading to his first novel, "Soldier's Pay," about a daring veteran trying to fit in to his more mundane life back home). In the end, such lies only served to distance him from others.

He flunked out of the University of Mississippi after three semesters, partly because he would not attend class and also because he simply refused to play the game. He wrote a paper on Hamlet in which he claimed that Ophelia was really Hamlet's sister. When asked to explain himself, he said that he thought it made "a better story."

Faulkner was also poised to be part of the generation of Americans who went to Paris to be the avant garde (think Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein). But while he did make the journey, he never could fit in, was far too poor, couldn't afford the glam life in cafes, and never really hooked up with any of them, stayed out on the fringes. That didn't stop him from writing letters home, full of stories of his literary exploits among the Parisian lights. When his aunt and a cousin came to Europe for "the grand tour," he bought canvasses, blotched them with paint, tossed them around his one-room apartment, and claimed when his relatives showed up that they'd just missed Picasso, Braque, James Joyce, and the rest.

So he wanted to be in the center--but did everything in his power to make sure he stayed out of it. (Think about the book we're reading. Does it have a central character?) Although later picked up by the finest editors of his day in New York, Faulkner held them at a distance, never going to parties or taking part in the literary culture of the city.

Although drafted by Hollywood to write scripts--which he did for the likes of the fabulously noir "To Have and Have Not," as well as "Gunga Din" and Chandler's "The Big Sleep"--he hated the West Coast and hightailed it home as often as he could. Once, when he was having trouble finishing a script on set, he told Howard Hawkes he could write better at home. Hawkes agreed, thinking Faulkner would hole up in his apartment. Instead, a few days later, to Hawkes' surprise and with filming halted, he discovered Faulkner was back in Mississippi. (This in the early '40s before cell phones, even before many people in rural America had house phones.)

Faulkner also had numerous love affairs, distancing himself from his marriage throughout his life. And he was a raging alcoholic, rarely ever sober by his late-40s. (LIGHT IN AUGUST was written in his early 30s.)

He lied constantly to reporters, made caustic fun of people interested in his work, and pushed away most others. When a reporter from New York came to his home in Mississippi to interview him for a big spread in the 1950s, Faulkner hired African-Americans to loll about the front yard because he thought the Yankee would like to see the South as Yankees thought the South was. Needless to say, such shenanigans did not bring him any closer to anyone in the world.

As you can see, Faulkner yearned for recognition and was determined to be an outsider, someone who did everything in his power to stay beyond the center of the circle, maybe even beyond its rim, to distance himself from everything around him that might have given him heft and stability. Most literary figures would relish the attention of New York and Hollywood; Faulkner wanted nothing to do with any of it. He wanted to write. If Faulkner ever had a center, it was found somewhere in his books. He poured everything into them, every ounce of his emotional and even physical reserves. They left him a wreck, the mere shell of a person. They exhausted him. (Read much of LIGHT IN AUGUST and you can see why.) If he is the most towering figure of the Southern Renascence, and one of the three or four greatest writers America has ever produced, he didn't want to be put in those circles, didn't seek it, and probably would snicker today at the thought of it.

Instead, he was most happy (if he ever really was happy) head down at his desk, writing. In an interview of "The Paris Review" in the early 1950s, he had this to say: "Let the writer take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique. There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error. The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice. He has supreme vanity. No matter how much he admires the old writer, he wants to beat him."

And beat "him" he did. So well, in fact, that one could argue no American writer has ever beaten Faulkner.

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