Monday, June 13, 2011


William Faulkner
1897 - 1962

There is a scene in Woody Allen's recent film, Midnight in Paris, in which the protagonist reminds his fiancĂ©e of one of my favorite lines from William Faulkner: "The past is never dead.  It's not even past."  Hearing that line again reminded me of a couple of brief, personal encounters I had with Faulkner in 1961, when I was a student at the University of Mississippi, better known perhaps as "Ole Miss."

Like most other students at the university, my roommate, Anthony, and I were reading Faulkner as part of our freshman curriculum.  Emboldened by our intellectual pursuits, we decided one day that we could better appreciate Faulkner's novels — perhaps even understand The Sound and the Fury — if we had a personal, face-to-face conversation with the writer, who lived in Oxford, just a couple of miles from the university campus.  We recognized, of course, that Faulkner was a man of considerable fame, having received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950, and having published more than sixteen novels, but we remained undaunted in our quest.  If Faulkner had such great affection for all of those dreary characters he created in the fictional Yacknapatawpha County, Mississippi, he would surely welcome a couple of idealistic, albeit naive, students from the real deal — Stone County, a few hundred miles to the south.

Thus inspired, Anthony and I drove to Faulkner's home on Taylor Street one afternoon and entered the tree-lined driveway that led past a couple of barking bloodhounds to the house.  After knocking on the front door several times, all to no avail, we walked to the back of the house and mounted the back steps to the door of a screened-in sleeping porch.  Peering through the screen door, we saw an elderly man taking a nap on an old iron bed.  Immediately sensing that we were pressing out luck, we turned and attempted to scamper away with nothing more than a few giggles.  Alas, however, it was too late.  The man arose from the bed and demanded to know what we wanted.  Summoning what little courage I could find, I replied that my friend and I were just university students who were hoping to get a chance to talk with him about his work.  "I'm not Faulkner," he replied.  "Faulkner is in New York to see his agent and will not return until next week."

Armed as I was with a paperback copy of Faulkner's third novel, Sartoris, which boldly displayed a photo of Faulkner on the back cover, I knew for certain that this was Faulkner and that he was lying through his teeth, all in the hope of banishing the two students who had disturbed his afternoon nap.  In deference to the Nobel Prize winner, however, and with due respect for his menacing bloodhounds, Anthony and I apologized for our intrusion and politely asked the gentleman to please give Mr. Faulkner our best wishes.  We then promptly departed, plotting our next move as we drove away.

Having been rebuffed in our first attempt to have a serious conversation with Faulkner, Anthony and I decided that a more creative approach was required.  We needed to make better presentations of ourselves, perhaps by wearing suits, and, more importantly, we needed our next visit to be accompanied by dates with two lovely university coeds, whose charms would prove to be irresistible to the curmudgeonly author.  Happily, the approach worked flawlessly.  When we returned to Faulkner's house a few evenings later, he came to the front portico and spent a short amount of time with us as we made idle chat and I asked inane, pretentious questions.  At one point, I told Faulkner that I was reading Sartoris and wondered if the rumors were true that Colonel John Sartoris, the old patriarch of the novel, was modeled after the author's great-grandfather.  With a look of considerable disgust, tempered by patience, Faulkner stared at me for a moment and then brushed the question aside, strongly suggesting that we should confine our discussion to a matter of mutual interest, specifically, the comeliness of the two young ladies who had joined us.  Respectfully, though reluctantly, I complied.

I have never been a great fan of Faulkner's novels, with the possible exception of Light in August.  Had I been given another chance to meet the author, however, I would have asked  him a question that has puzzled me for years.  The question relates to two quotes, one the soliloquy from Macbeth that inspired the title of Faulkner's fourth novel, The Sound and the Fury, and the other being from Faulkner's Nobel Prize acceptance speech.  In Macbeth's soliloquy, Shakespeare wrote:

                    Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
                    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
                    And then is heard no more: it is a tale
                    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
                    Signifying nothing.

This philosophy — beautifully written as it is — offers little solace to the questing heart.  In his Noble Prize acceptance speech, however, Faulkner suggests that we are not condemned to a fate of despair, that we may, indeed, find lasting meaning in our lives.  Listen!

I decline to accept the end of man.  It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.
I refuse to accept this.  I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail.  He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.  The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things.  It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.  The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

So this is the question I have always wanted to ask, Bill (as Faulkner was affectionately referred to around Oxford).  Did you finally conclude that Shakespeare was wrong?  Did you discover that our shadowed lives are more than tales told by idiots, more than mere sound and fury, and that our lives do, in fact, signify something, especially when the compassionate soul finds a way to speak, to lift the human heart, and to imbue man with courage, honor, and hope?  As you can see, Bill, there was so much we could have discussed on that humid summer evening some fifty years ago.  Ah, but why debate the past?  As you have always reminded me, Bill, the past is never really dead — indeed, it's not even really past.

Faulkner's House, "Rowan Oak,"
Now Maintained as a Museum 
By the University of Mississippi

Photo by Gary Bridgman