Today is the birthday (1897) of William Cuthbert Faulkner, Southern U.S. writer and Nobel Prize laureate from Mississippi. Faulkner wrote novels, short stories, a play, poetry, essays, and screenplays. He is primarily known for his novels and short stories set in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, based on Lafayette County, Mississippi, where he spent most of his life. Faulkner is one of the most celebrated writers in Southern literature. Though his work was published as early as 1919, and largely during the 1920s and 1930s, Faulkner was relatively unknown until receiving the 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature.
Faulkner was born in New Albany, Mississippi, the first of four sons of Murry Cuthbert Faulkner and Maud Butler. Soon after his first birthday, his family moved to Ripley, Mississippi, where his father worked as the treasurer for the family-owned Gulf & Chicago Railroad Company. Murry hoped to inherit the railroad from his father, John Wesley Thompson Falkner, but John had little confidence in Murry’s ability to run a business and sold it for $75,000. Following the sale of the railroad business, Murry became disappointed and planned a new start for his family by moving to Texas and becoming a rancher. Maud, however, disagreed with this proposition, and it was decided that they would move to Oxford, Mississippi, where Murry’s father owned several businesses, making it easy for Murry to find work. Thus, four days prior to William’s fifth birthday on September 21, 1902, the Falkner family settled in Oxford, where he lived on and off for the rest of his life.
As a schoolchild, Faulkner was initially successful, not least because his mother taught him to read before he went to school. He excelled in the first grade, skipped the second, and continued doing well through the third and fourth grades. However, beginning somewhere in the fourth and fifth grades of his schooling, Faulkner became a much quieter and withdrawn child. He skipped school as he saw fit and became indifferent to his schoolwork, even though he began to study the history of Mississippi on his own time in the seventh grade. The decline of his performance in school continued and Faulkner wound up repeating the eleventh, and then twelfth, and never graduated from high school.
At this point in the history of my blog I feel the need to emphasize the fact that so many famous people struggled with formal education and either failed out or quit. I wouldn’t want to generalize about this fact, but it is curious to me. As a lifelong teacher and academic I would say that poor teaching has a great deal to do with it. Both as a student as a teacher I’ve experienced the gamut from truly inspiring people to utter dullards, the latter, sadly, in the majority. What lights my fire is being goaded into THINKING, not being made to memorize reams of facts. Facts are very important, don’t get me wrong, but they are not the foundation of education – thinking is. Some people, such as Faulkner, learn to think all on their own; but most have to be taught, and a great many never learn. I see this as the great tragedy of the modern world, but it is more than likely that this state of affairs has always existed in all cultures and in all times.
Faulkner spent much of his boyhood listening to stories told to him by his elders. These included Civil War stories shared by the old men of Oxford and stories told by the family’s Mammy Callie of the Civil War, slavery, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Falkner family. Faulkner’s grandfather would also tell him of the exploits of William’s great-grandfather, after whom he was named, William Clark Falkner, who was a successful businessman, writer, and a Civil War hero. Telling stories about William Clark Falkner, whom the family called “Old Colonel”, had already become something of a family pastime when Faulkner was a boy.
In adolescence, Faulkner began writing poetry almost exclusively. He did not write his first novel until 1925. His literary influences are deep and wide. He once stated that he modeled his early writing on the Romantic era in late 18th and early 19th century England. He attended the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) in Oxford, enrolling in 1919, and attended three semesters before dropping out in November 1920. He was able to attend classes at the university despite not graduating high school because his father was a business manager there. He skipped classes often and received a D grade in English. However, some of his poems were published in campus journals.
When he was 17, Faulkner met Philip Stone, who would later become an important early influence on his writing. Stone was four years his senior and came from one of Oxford’s older families; he was passionate about literature and had already earned bachelor’s degrees from Yale and the University of Mississippi. At the University of Mississippi, Faulkner joined the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. There he was supported in his dream to become a writer. Stone read and was impressed by some of Faulkner’s early poetry and was one of the first to discover Faulkner’s talent and artistic potential. Stone became a literary mentor to the young Faulkner, introducing him to writers such as James Joyce, who would come to have an influence on Faulkner’s own writing. In his early 20s, Faulkner would give poems and short stories he had written to Stone, in hopes of them being published. Stone would in turn send these to publishers, but they were uniformly rejected.
The younger Faulkner was greatly influenced by the history of his family and the region in which he lived. Mississippi marked his sense of humor, his sense of the tragic position of Black and White Americans, his characterization of Southern characters, and his timeless themes, including fiercely intelligent people dwelling behind the façades of good old boys and simpletons.
I have to admit that I am not a big Faulkner fan. I know the U.S. South quite well. I have lived there and done fieldwork there for many years, and was married to a Southerner. I’ve even published a number of articles and books about Southern culture. But I am an outsider and cannot summon any sentimentality or romanticism except maybe when it comes to the food, of which I am very fond. The privilege, poverty, bigotry, and racism, which are deeply rooted, all disgust me. I am not part of that world. Faulkner was completely embedded in that world and could see it in a way that I cannot. I acknowledge Faulkner as a great writer, but his subject matter is not to my taste at all. I suspect that you have to be totally outside the culture of the Deep South or totally immersed in it to like his writing. Unfortunately I am caught somewhere in the middle.
Here are a few quotations that appeal to me, mostly because they are of a general nature and have an inspiring quality for me:
Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world…would do this, it would change the earth.
Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.
You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore.
We must be free not because we claim freedom, but because we practice it.
Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Do not bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.
The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
In writing, you must kill all your darlings.
Given the choice between the experience of pain and nothing, I would choose pain.
I’ve given you plenty of classic Southern recipes in the past and could give you many more. But the Faulkner museum reports that his favorite dish was salmon croquettes using the recipe on the can. Make sure you use a good, old fashioned cast-iron skillet, black with age, as found in every Southern kitchen.
1 16-ounce can pink salmon, drained and picked clean of stray bones and skin
2 large eggs
1 tsp lemon pepper
1 tsp garlic salt
2 tbsp minced onion
1 tbsp dill pickle relish
10-12 saltine crackers, crumbled
Mix all the ingredients except the flour and oil in a bowl until thoroughly combined. Divide into 6 balls, and then flatten them to form round patties about ½” thick. Let them rest for about an hour (in the refrigerator if you must).
Heat a few tablespoons of vegetable oil over medium high heat in a heavy skillet.
Dredge the croquettes in flour, shake off the excess, and sauté until golden on one side, then flip them and brown on the other. Be careful in handling them because they are a bit fragile.
Drain on wire racks and serve with Southern favorites such as greasy collards or mustard greens, and boiled potatoes.