By the time he dropped out of high school, Billy Falkner was generally regarded as one of the laziest sons that the town of Oxford, Mississippi had ever known, a strange misunderstood character. He was madly in love with a girl named Estelle Oldham, but painfully shy and painfully aware of his diminutive stature. At five feet, five inches, with a voice he described as cricket-like, he was hardly taller than the confederate soldier who stood atop the Civil War monument in front of the courthouse at the center of the town, forever facing south.
His father, Murry, was a man of fallen fortunes. He had once run the family railroad founded by his grandfather (and Falkner’s namesake and inspiration), the fabled “Old Colonel” William Falkner, who had commanded troops in the Civil War and had also written a fairly successful potboiler. Murry’s father had sold the railroad out from under him, which drove Murry to drink. He put his son to work at the family livery stable. Most of the time, however, Billy Falkner spent listening to the stories of the hostlers there, or in the shadow of the courthouse where men gathered to swap stories that stretched back to the Civil War. When the livery business failed, Murry bought a hardware store, a purchase that Falkner found quite useful, as the building had a sturdy wall to tilt an old chair against and gaze out at the square for hours at a time. He seemed as useless and unpromising to his family, and Estelle’s, as a stunted tree that generated an insignificant amount of shade and little else.
But like a tree, Falkner was sending roots down deep into the rich red soil of Lafayette County. “Men grow from the earth, like corn and trees,” he observed in an essay on Sherwood Anderson. And indeed, without knowing what for, or even that he was doing it at all, perhaps, young Falkner was absorbing the lore and the atmosphere of that patch of red earth.
In the summer of 1914, when William Falkner was 17, a dashing young man named Phil Stone drove out to the house to meet him. Son of a family friend, “General” James Stone, Phil Stone had twin bachelor’s degrees from Ole Miss and Yale. He had heard that Billy wanted to be a writer, had already written some poetry, and he was curious. He thought he discerned talent in the directionless boy and decided that what he needed was an education. Stone’s mission: no less than to make William Falkner the poet laureate of his native Mississippi. Stone’s charge fell in love with verse, a wonderful vessel for his romantic feelings and teenaged morbidity. He decided he’d had enough of school and left it for good after his second attempt at 11th grade.
Valuable as Stone’s tutelage and friendship were, however, they did not do much to increase his protege’s stature in the eyes of his family. Or Estelle’s. Falkner and Estelle had a strong bond between them. But her parents, despairing at the prospects of the jobless high school dropout, steered her towards marriage with the handsome and successful Cornell Franklin. Estelle told Falkner that she was ready to elope with him. But he wanted to act in a manner befitting his family’s status (fallen though it was). He went to Mr. Oldham to properly ask permission but the man flew into a rage. Using family connections, Falkner took a bank job to prove he could support himself and Estelle. But it was no use. He crumbled under the pressure of the job and low expectations and, in 1918, Estelle married Franklin.
Distressed beyond belief, Falkner and Stone concocted a plan to get him into the war in Europe, then in its final horrific throes, so that he could die a hero. Ineligible for the U.S. military because of his height, he went up to Canada and joined the Royal Air Force, amending his name, for the first time, to “Faulkner.” He also adopted a British accent and told his fellow flight school trainees that he was a Yale graduate. Dashing all his hopes, the war ended before he had a chance to get into it. He returned to Oxford. When his family met him at the train station, they found a distinguished young man in the RAF uniform, who walked with a slight limp he said he had gotten while flying a dangerous mission. He went around Oxford that way; stiff, British, every bit the ersatz war hero, fooling no one and earning the nickname “Count No ’Count.” This must surely have hurt. But he had gone far in blurring the lines between reality and fiction. And after that he never looked back.
Faulkner bounced around over the next few years. He wrote a lot of poetry. He went to New York City to try to make it as a writer but ended up impressing people more with his prodigious ability to hold his liquor than with his prose. Bottomed out and back in Oxford, he worked for a stint as the postmaster on the Ole Miss campus. But he worked when he felt like it, returned mail, and eventually refused to open even the general delivery window. Released from his job, he went to New Orleans to take a ship to Paris but he wound up staying in New Orleans instead, a bit like Henry Sutpen from Absalom, Absalom!, a “yokel out of a granite heritage where even the houses, let alone the clothing and the conduct, are built in the image of a jealous and sadistic Jehovah, put suddenly down in a place whose citizens had created their All-Powerful and His supporting hierarchy chorus of beautiful saints and handsome angels in the image of their houses and personal ornaments and voluptuous lives.”
He fell in love again, with a woman named Helen, whose face later launched him on the ship to Europe. There he was also befriended by Sherwood Anderson, who had struck a nerve with a book of sketches of an American town, Winesburg, Ohio, and was one of the most admired writers in America. Inspired by Anderson, Faulkner began his first novel, Soldier’s Pay, a story that paralleled his own fictive experiences as an injured war hero coming home to a small town. Once he got started writing, the project completely swept him up. Phil Stone, impatiently waiting for his poet laureate to emerge, sent him a wire: “WHAT’S THE MATTER. DO YOU HAVE A MISTRESS.” Faulkner’s response: “YES, AND SHE’S 30,000 WORDS LONG.”
Around this time, the outlines of Yoknapatawpha County had begun to come hazily into William Faulkner’s view, like a morning mist rising above the fields. There was the town of Jefferson, the county seat, with the courthouse set down right in the middle of it, just like Oxford, and roads radiating out to the points of the compass. It stretched from the sinuous Tallahatchie River in the north—a river that existed in Lafayette and Yoknapatawpha counties—to the Yoknapatawpha river in the south, which existed only in Faulkner’s imagination. Yoknapatawpha County was a permeable overlay that covered the contours of the land that William Faulkner knew best. It was populated by unforgettable families like the Snopeses, the Sartorises, the Sutpens, the Compsons, the Varners, and a host of thoroughly black residents like Dilsey and “possible blacks” like Joe Christmas, whose doubts about whether he was black or not led to his violent death. The Snopes and the Sartoris families appeared as early as 1926, in works in progress. The Compsons first appeared in 1929 in The Sound and the Fury.
Meanwhile, back in Lafayette County, Estelle, with her two children in tow, had returned from the Orient, where her marriage to Cornell Franklin had fallen to pieces. Faulkner had pretty much gotten over her (by falling in love with another woman who eventually broke his fragile heart). But her miserable situation and his sense of responsibility moved him. In 1929 he borrowed some money for the honeymoon and married her. The Sound and the Fury came out to admiring reviews but little commercial success. Faulkner got a job working the night shift at the University power plant and wrote As I Lay Dying, where Yoknapatawpha County was first mentioned.
Over the next four decades, the residents of Yoknapatawpha County came to him insistently. He sequestered himself in his writing room for hours each day, much to the dismay of Estelle. In Absalom, Absalom! (1936), he included a hand-drawn map of Jefferson and its environs. The legend reads:
AREA, 2400 SQ MI.
POPULATION, WHITES, 6298
SOLE OWNER AND PROPRIETOR
Indeed, he was filling in the history of an entire county similar to Lafayette. As he wrote, in an essay called “Mississippi,” the state had been settled by the sturdy, wasteful Anglo-Saxon, “roaring with Protestant scripture and boiled whiskey, Bible and jug in one hand and like as not an Indian tomahawk in the other…dragging his gravid wife and most of his motherin- law’s kin behind him into the trackless wilderness…felling a tree which took two hundred years to grow, to extract from it a bear or a capful of wild honey.” The Anglo Saxon was to be followed by the slaves and the plantations and then, much later, the carpetbaggers and the Snopeses, a kind of white not-quitetrash that propagated like weeds, giving up farming in favor of devising various ways to milk the community, especially the black people.
Although the histories are not 100% consistent from book to book, they are interrelated. Minor characters from one book reappear as narrators of later books. They live, love, marry, commit murder, take revenge, die, and inherit both money and curses. Their glories and follies and fates live on in the collective memory of the townsfolk and countryfolk. Faulkner once wrote that his state was “dotted with little towns concentric about the ghosts of the horses and mules once tethered to the hitch-rail enclosing the county courthouse.” This was where things happened, around the courthouse and the country store, where the local wits and halfwits gathered and mingled, creating a sort of Greek chorus to provide background information and comic relief.
In the books set in Yoknapatawpha County, Faulkner’s words roll over the pages in intricate bends, sometimes almost looping back upon themselves, like stretches of the nearby Tallahatchie River. The sentences, some of them more than half a page long, are controlled, as if by means of small dams, by commas. The tone and intricacy of the writing differ from book to book, character to character. Faulkner contended that Hemingway had never used a word that needed to be looked up in the dictionary. By contrast, Faulkner’s writing was rich with grand words, some of them invented. Others were dusty gems that supported the ceaseless aura of the Old South, where women like his aunts, unvanquished, refused to let the Yankee bullets be dug out of their pillars and porticoes, even so long after the war.
As he once wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” It had been decades since the Civil War, and yet, in a place where every kid, it seems, built models of the battle of Vicksburg out of sand and water, the South was still preoccupied by it. It had also been decades since the emancipation of the black people in the South. And yet that social construct of masters and slaves lived on even though its structure had been abolished. When he and Estelle and her two children moved into Rowan Oak in 1929, he brought with him a former slave named “Uncle Ned,” who had served his grandfather, and a woman named Caroline Barr (Mammie Callie), already old when he was a boy, who had helped bring him up and who lived behind the main house until she died at over 100 years of age.
Not only the complicated relations between white and black in the old families seemed “not even past.” The younger generation unconsciously carried on old ways. Faulkner described a young woman at a drug store whose grandfather had been a notorious bootlegger in the area, “watching her virginal and innocent and without self-consciousness pour Coca-Cola syrup into the lifted glass by hooking her thumb through the ring of the jug and swinging it back and up in one unbroken motion onto her horizontal upper arm exactly as he had seen her grandfather pour whiskey from a jug a thousand times.”
This was the lush, complicated Mississippi that Faulkner loved, and rarely left, in the early days. It was a country that Quentin Compson, a character in The Sound and the Fury, missed when he ventured up North. Homesick, Quentin reflects that, “our country was not like this country. There was something about just walking through it. A kind of still and violent fecundity that satisfied even bread-hunger like. Flowing around you, not brooding and nursing every niggard stone. Like it were put to makeshift for enough green to go around among the trees and even the blue of distance not that rich chimaera.” Even in the fullness of summer, at its greenest, the Northeast must have seemed rather thin to someone from Mississippi. Into still and violent fecundity Henry Sutpen ventured with his wild slaves in Absalom, Absalom!, to carve out his hundred-square-mile plantation. And it is no doubt in order to preserve some of it that Faulkner bought Rowan Oak, for the thick alluvial swamp of Mississippi was then, and is now, being cleared and developed, tamed.
Faulkner stubbornly held on to Rowan Oak, a big old mansion in Oxford that he had bought in the 1920’s for $6,000, with no money down, at 6% interest. At the time he noted cheerfully to its seller, “I believe that a little debt is good for a young man.” He had many occasions to regret that statement later as he struggled to retain the house and support Estelle in a pared down version of the manner to which she had been accustomed. He churned out any number of potboilers for the magazines. And he was forced to make several trips to Hollywood to work in indentured servitude in the script mills, a prospect that was somewhat improved by his friendship with Howard Hawks and one of Hawks’ “script girls.” He even moved Estelle and her daughter and the servants out to Los Angeles for one stint. But he always ended up missing Rowan Oak.
At last, ironically, it was the movies that made Faulkner some money, though not any of the ones for which he had slaved away as a hack. In 1948, Random House sold the movie rights to his novel, Intruder in the Dust, for $50,000, of which Faulkner’s share was $40,000. His reputation also underwent a renaissance. At the time of his death, he and Estelle, with whom, after years of bitter fighting and mutually solitary drinking, he had finally made some sort of peace, were about to move into a big estate in the Blue Ridge Mountains so that they could be closer to their daughter. But Rowan Oak called him back one last time. Riding hard near the house, he had a bad fall from his horse. After three days of pain, he died of a heart attack on July 6, the date of the Old Colonel Falkner’s birthday. Even on the day of his passing he looped back to a colorful character from the never-dead past of Yoknapatawpha/Lafayette counties one last time.