Our Man in Mississippi
Book Review: One Matchless Time: A life of Wiliam Faulkner by Jay Parini
William Faulkner established his line on posterity 55 years ago in a letter to the critic Malcolm Cowley. "It is my ambition to be, as a private individual, abolished and voided from history, leaving it markless, no refuse save the printed books. My obit and epitaph too, shall be: He made the books and he died."
He didn't quite get his wish. A cottage industry of Faulkner studies developed in universities across America during the decades after his death in 1962. A trip to Rowan Oak, his home in Oxford, Mississippi, is now the literary equivalent of an aspiring musician's pilgrimage to Graceland: mostly kitsch and voyeuristic myth-propulsion. Every year fans enter their parodies of his style in a Faux Faulkner contest sponsored by Hemispheres, the in-flight magazine of United Airlines, which hosts a Hemingway sound-alike circus as well.
These bits of ephemera highlight a problem with Faulkner that will, unless cultural trends reverse themselves, grow worse with time: While his personal profile has become iconic, his work has moved to the margins of literary culture. In the past two decades, realism has become so firmly entrenched in American literature that, outside academia, Faulkner has come to seem like the crazy uncle in the attic: a haunting presence warily acknowledged, if at all. Writers read Faulkner only casually, since apprenticeship to the master may lead to florid imitation, and so far only Cormac McCarthy has gotten away with it.
For this reason, the time is ripe for a biography like Jay Parini's One Matchless Time, which modestly attempts to shift the focus from Faulkner's life and persona back to the work itself. Parini, who teaches at Middlebury College, has previously written about the lives of Robert Frost and John Steinbeck. Unlike the titanic Faulkner biographies by Frederick Karl and Joseph Blotner, Parini's makes no claim to being exhaustive, nor does he care to exhume every real-life association between Faulkner's invented Yoknapataw-pha County and his hometown of Oxford. Instead, what we have is a balanced explication of the work through what details Faulkner left behind.
Born the son of a frustrated dreamer and a book-loving mother, Faulkner grew into a flamboyant, effete outsider with a knack for telling stories. He earned the nickname The Count for his penchant for cream-colored linen suits and silk cravats. He dropped out of school, added a "u" in the spelling of his last name, and talked his way into military service, returning home from training without seeing combat but sporting a limp and a drinking habit that turned heads even in Mississippi.
In a certain way, Parini's Faulkner is a man forever trying on different identities -- living beyond his means, adopting other people's experience. He bought so many fine clothes that his mother had to secretly sell her jewelry to pay off her son's bills. He worked for a period of almost three years as a postmaster but spent most of his time reading other people's periodicals and novels such as James Joyce's Ulysses.
Parini is especially attuned to Faulkner's development as a writer. From his description, Faulkner in his twenties and thirties was something of an intellectual cannibal, befriending older writers, learning from them and then -- as in the case of Sherwood Anderson -- rejecting them, sometimes mockingly. It was through these men that Faulkner came to poets such as T.S. Eliot and Conrad Aiken, and, through them, to the French symbolists who so influenced his early writing.
Faulkner's image as the Southern gentleman has become so familiar that it's something of a surprise to realize he was, in essence, self-educated. In one of the book's more poignant moments, Parini describes how, during a sojourn in New Haven, Connecticut, the young novelist "would sit alone in the university library, simply observing the students at work, seeing what books they carried, sometimes making sketches in his notebook or writing fragments of poetry." He never attended Yale, and a whiff of Ivy League envy trailed him the rest of his life.
As he wends his way from Faulkner's early poetry and hastily written novels to his more mature work of the 1930s, Parini builds to the one matchless time of his title, which stretches from 1928 to 1942, the years Faulkner wrote his masterpieces -- As I Lay Dying, Light in August, The Sound and the Fury and Absalom! Absalom! These works imported modernist, stream-of-consciousness techniques to the Deep South, and in doing so, created one of America's most indelible fictional worlds. They also show the mature style: the maddeningly long and ornate sentences; the shifting points of view; the almost claustrophobic atmosphere of a community obsessively fearful of miscegenation; and, most of all, the theme of Southern history-hauntedness.
Parini understands that there are two Faulkners -- the man who believed better race relations were possible and the man who was ineluctably drawn to a certain kind of feudal Southern tradition and mourned its slow, organic dissolution. One Matchless Time has a hard time comprehending this part of Faulkner's psychology as a writer; the book apologizes more than it than enlightens, perhaps owing to the author's politically correct, northern perspective. But Parini does the next best thing in than regard. By thoughtfully steering readers from the life back to the work, he encourages us to explore the sprawling, vine-covered manse of the man's fiction for ourselves.