By William Shelton • September 26, 2020
I first set my feet on the stony path to being a devoted Faulkner reader as a freshman at Southern Methodist University. My semester's writing submissions for a Rhetoric course were being reviewed by a quirky professor, in a basement office, dominated by movie posters from the 1920s. Her appreciation for my writing was evident in the glow of her eyes, as she struggled for a compliment sufficient to express her assessment: "It's like, it's like...Faulkner!" I recoiled, distaste and disdain likely evident on my face.
All that I knew of Faulkner was that he penned sordid stories, filled with characters of questionable breeding, and motives, such as Sanctuary, which even Shelby Foote, a devoted acolyte of William Faulkner, described as a scandalous novel. Then there was The Sound and the Fury, a stream of consciousness novel written from the perspective of an intellectually-challenged Mississippi recluse eventually castrated and placed in a sanitarium so that he cannot act upon the sexual desire he harbored for his sister. Nobel Prize for Literature not-withstanding, I felt that it was no compliment to have my personal writing style, and subject matter, likened to that of Faulkner. In subsequent years, when I found myself among literary circles, and Faulkner's name was raised as a topic, I would freely lecture at length on the weaknesses of his prose; except, I begrudgingly gave him credit for his inventiveness for developing titles: If I Forget Thee Jerusalem for a novel about the 1927 flood? Genius!
It was only decades after college, when conversing with my siblings about our rural Texas upbringing that my curiosity about Faulkner was piqued when my sister likened our childhood to "something out of a bad Faulkner novel". Eyebrows raised, I began turning this over in my mind, and in an effort to disprove her assessment, I picked up Absalom!, Absalom!. Aging southern spinsters whispering family secrets in crumbling old mansions? Cemeteries shrouded in Spanish moss with wisteria draping the rusted wrought iron fence? Clocks on the walls forever stopped at a certain hour so that "time would cease during the happy hours of a person's visit..."?
Had our childhood really been like this? It had.
The realization came over me that I had rejected Faulkner because his words were too close to home, too much like the world that had no place in modern living that I had left behind to attend university. Only now, when viewed through the lens of time passed, when all that remained of that childhood was the crumbling mansion and the weed choked cemetery, did I realize that Faulkner's books were a link to bygone family.
Like any new convert I devoured every novel and short story as if it were holy writ: I shuddered at A Rose for Emily, I turned, time and again, to The Bear and Barn Burning for their lessons on human character. I learned that not all of his books dwelled on the sordid unpleasantness, poverty, and human failings of early 20th century rural life. There was also dignity, endurance, and touching regard for human relationships. Today my favorite is his collection of short detective stories, Knight's Gambit.
Readers chose books for a myriad of reasons: to escape, to be thrilled, chilled, challenged, and reaffirmed. There are elements of each in the works of William Faulkner that should not be missed.