Friday, March 1, 2013

On Square With Faulkner

Read Shelby Warner's column in the March 1, 2013 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

I went to Oxford, Mississippi to find William Faulkner or, more accurately, the statue erected in his honor by the town fathers to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birthday.

It was a cold and blustery day when I arrived. Flags were flapping and tourists scurried from store to store with upturned collars and hats held firmly on their heads. Most of them would end up at The Square Book Shop knowing they would find a warm welcome and a hot cup of coffee upstairs. I, however, was looking for something else.

I have a deep appreciation for the work of William Faulkner and had come to his home town hoping to better understand his writing and to soak up some of the images he had absorbed on the square. For those of you who are not familiar with Faulkner let me just say that he is one of the pre-eminent southern writers whose stories I had come to love and whose writings still speak to my literary soul.

Ignoring the wind and giving little attention to the tourists, I walked across the town square toward the courthouse where, I expected, Faulkner would be waiting for me. And there he was, slightly bigger than life, cast in bronze, legs crossed and one arm crooked on the back of the bench he was sitting upon. From this place on the square, he looked out over his town with the same probing, penetrating gaze you see in so many of his photographs. Coming up to the bench, I sat down beside him and let the ambience wash over me.

Oxford, today, is a town caught midway between a small, cosmopolitan city and a still sleepy Southern town. It has all the hustle and bustle of a college community and the slow paced drawl of the Old South complete with oyster po’ boys, front porch rockers and magnolia blossoms. Of course, in Faulkner’s time it would have been mostly small Southern town with a large helping of country farms, and a raw-boned style of living.

Many of Faulkner’s characters were based on folk he saw walking about that square in Oxford. He’d sit on his bench observing and salting away impressions which would later spring to life again in one of his novels. Once created, many of his characters reappeared in other stories sometimes with the same name or with a different name but the same character.

My 97 year old friend, Sally, who has lived in the area most of her life, remembers Faulkner quite well since her father was one of his hunting buddies. After hunting with friends for a weekend, they would end up at Sally’s house for a late night drink, cigar and a round of story telling. Sally and her brother would sneak out of bed, sit on the stairs and listen. What part of these tales was fact and what fiction could be pretty hard to tell apart sometimes. Think of that, having William Faulkner telling stories not more than twenty feet away from you. And here I sit with him myself.

I’m sure some of those yarns told over a glass of whiskey ended up in his story, The Bear. How could it be otherwise? A bunch of friends go off to the deep woods for a weekend hunting expedition filled with camaraderie, foolish anxiety and even a bear. It’s a great story.

Faulkner was a prolific writer, poet and screenwriter. He published 19 novels from 1926-1962 and wrote more than 75 short stories. As he said himself, he discovered “that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it.” He took this philosophy, created a place and peopled it with folks he well knew and became one of the great writers of our time. Fifteen of his novels were set in Yoknapataupha County, Mississippi, based on his own Lafayette County and peopled with characters from his own experience.

Many of his works showcased not only Faulkner’s extraordinary literary ability but some of the new techniques and styles he was introducing to literature. One example of this is his use of “time” in The Sound and the Fury. This non-chronological time was a problem to readers first encountering it but one which contributed much to writers who followed him. As I Lay Dying is also a good example of his writing style. He uses 15 different characters as narrators to tell this tragically funny story of a family’s attempt to take their mother’s coffin to town for burial. The Reivers, the last novel published just before his death, was a delightful tale of a young man’s coming of age.

He did not have much financial success in his early years. By 1946 most of his books were out of print. Many of his more challenging and important works came after he decided to stop worrying about success and critics and to just “write for himself.” Fame and fortune caught up with him. In 1949 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature and his acceptance speech is said to be one of the finest award speeches in history. He urged young writers to remember “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which, alone, can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony, and the sweat.” With the prize, Faulkner established the PEN/Faulkner award for fiction as a means of encouraging new writers.

I remembered all these things as I sat on the square with Faulkner and marveled at his accomplishments. I recommend his work to you as both entertaining and substantive. It comes in book form, CDs for listening and e-readers. There are also biographies, literary criticisms and DVD’s since some of his stories and novels have been made into movies. Come to the Morrill Memorial Library, try some Faulkner and maybe you’ll find yourself in Oxford, Mississippi someday soaking up the ambience with the man himself.