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Read an Excerpt from THE LIFE OF WILLIAM FAULKNER, Vol. 1

This spring, UVA Press is proud to be publishing THE LIFE OF WILLIAM FAULKNER, Volume 1: The Past is Never Dead, 1897-1934 by acclaimed literary biographer Carl Rollyson. Awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949, Faulkner was a southerner who became widely regarded as one of the greatest American writers of all time. Despite being such a studied figure, however, to date no biography has captured the complexities at the heart of the man and his work. In THE LIFE OF WILLIAM FAULKNER, Rollyson portrays a new Faulkner—a man of astonishing paradoxes. Based on extensive interviews with family and friends of Faulkner, as well as unparalleled access to primary and secondary source materials, this first of what will be a major two-volume work offers a dramatic narrative that breaks the bounds of the traditional literary biography. In short, the book offers the most comprehensive biography of William Faulkner in forty-five years, revealing new information about the American literary icon.

Read the starred review of the book in Kirkus -- "A filling, satisfying feast for Faulkner aficionados" -- and for more, see an excerpt from the book (to be published on March 24, 2020) and Rollyson's events schedule below. 



In spite of all this previous biographical work, no biographer has integrated Faulkner’s screenplays, fiction, and life into one narrative. To do so has resulted in a biography much longer than I originally projected. In the last two decades Faulkner scholars have shown how Faulkner’s work in Holly­wood contributed to the creation of his novels, but only recently have they looked at his screenplays in their own right. As Ben Robbins notes: “Most studies of Faulkner and film do not immediately take into account the idea that a craft as plastic as Faulkner’s could in fact be advanced through the exertion of new conventional conditions within Hollywood, overtly commercial or otherwise. . . . Faulkner both reshaped and was shaped by the alien territories of commercial film.” How the plasticity of all his work relates to the whole man has been one of my chief concerns. Certain screenplays like “The De Gaulle Story” and “Battle Cry” changed the nature of Faulkner’s writing, as Robbins argues as well for To Have and Have Not and Mildred Pierce: “Though his screenplays may not be as formally ground-­breaking as his prose, the presentation of new social realities within his work for film is in fact at times more progressive than equivalent presentations in his novels.”

All Faulkner biographers have to confront his drinking. Why did he do it? He advanced some answers, and friends, biographers, readers, and scholars have advanced others. I report on what they said and what Faulkner did, but I do not attempt to offer a diagnosis. I don’t see how it could be done while he was alive or now that he is no longer with us. He seemed singularly uninterested in why he drank and showed scarcely any interest in stopping. In the end, I have to side with King Lear: “reason not the need.”

I abjure one primary function of the literary critic. I refrain, in most cases, from dwelling on the flaws in Faulkner’s work, except insofar as contemporary reviews rendered such judgments, thus providing a view of his evolving reputation. Faulkner biographers and critics have assessed his strengths and weaknesses, but my main concern is to understand how his work functions and to explain how his life and work can be coordinated in narrative terms. I don’t believe, at this advanced stage in the work on William Faulkner’s life and career, that readers need my opinion, except to state the obvious: I believe he is a great writer, and all of his work fascinates me and has done so for more than fifty years. Similarly, with the exception of Absalom, Absalom!, which seems caught up in the very process of revision, I have not tried to trace in detail Faulkner’s process of composition, even though Michael Millgate and other scholars have shown how studying various drafts of his work enriches our understanding of his genius. To replicate their work, or even to add to it, would make this long biography even longer and truly test the patience of even the most dedicated Faulkner reader. Nevertheless, I have included crucial details about Faulkner’s working methods and drafts, relying, in the main, on the Digital Yoknapatawpha site: http://​faulkner​.iath​.virginia​.edu/.

That Faulkner was a paradox, and one that should not be too easily explained, is the point of this biography. Or to put it another way: What you think you know about William Faulkner may be true, and everything you think you know about him has to change. . . . 


On Faulkner’s return to New Orleans from Pascagoula, where he enjoyed a brief holiday, he met twenty-­one-­year-­old Helen Baird. Described as “elfin”—­a word also applied to Faulkner—­she had a “don’t give a damn look,” which also fit him. They did not so much couple as flit. Helen’s aunt said Faulkner appeared like “a bird who just flew in from the trees.” He arrived barefooted, a nature boy. This female Faulkner could be not only aloof but downright recalcitrant, as Carvel Collins discovered in one of his frustrating interviews with her. Faulkner liked to recall “a sullen-­jawed yellow-­eyed belligerent humorless gal in a linen dress and sunburned bare legs sitting on Spratling’s balcony and not thinking even a hell of a little bit of me that afternoon, maybe already decided not to.” He did not exaggerate. She called the scruffy, short writer “a fuzzy little animal.” And yet she would become a kind of counter to Estelle, whom Faulkner had recently seen again on one of her periodic returns to Oxford. Perhaps Faulkner found Helen appealing precisely because she was not “very interested in him.” He could pursue her, like one of those figures on a Grecian urn, without ever worrying that she would let him catch up.

Faulkner sailed and swam in Pascagoula with Helen. Often dressed in a painter’s smock, she had an artist’s eye: “Look, the moon looks like a finger­nail in the sky,” she said to Faulkner, who asked, “May I use that?” She treated him as he sometimes treated others. She failed to show up. She had the boyish, tramp-­like flair he had celebrated in his sketch about David in “Out of Nazareth.” She abjured the southern lady courtesies and cared nothing for the gentlemanly code that he sometimes profaned in his barefoot performances. He worked on a sequence of poems that he would present to her in June 1926. Her remarkable personality informed the portrayal of Myrtle Monson in Elmer—­“a Dianalike girl dark and fierce and proud with an impregnable virginity”—­Patricia Robyn in Mosquitoes, and Charlotte Rittenmeyer in The Wild Palms, and he would see her occasionally after she married. Something about her independence forever intrigued him. She did more than rebuff him and later told Carvel Collins that Faulkner was “one grand person to know and be with—­a truly great companion like the ones you read about but never meet.” If Helen could not reciprocate Faulkner’s romantic interest, perhaps her presence bolstered him. Helen may have reminded Faulkner of his diminutive self-­contained mother, who also painted.

During a short trip home to say his good-­byes before sailing off to Europe, he conferred with his Aunt Bama, the old Colonel’s daughter and Faulkner’s closest link to his great-­grandfather. Faulkner decided that he would support his travels by writing for various newspapers, perhaps in emulation of Rapid Ramblings in Europe, first published as reports to the Ripley Southern Sentinel. Phil Stone wrote to the Four Seas Company, hoping to get a second contract, asking for $250 for the published travel articles in book form. The contract never materialized, and Faulkner never wrote the articles.

He came aboard the West Ivis on July 7, 1925. He had taken aboard five hundred sheets of paper, promising to write his mother and to keep a diary. He sailed with Bill Spratling and had a list of people to look up abroad. “Quite a gang are coming down to see us off,” said the literary hopeful whose favorite word in his letters home was how “grand” the world seemed in New Or­leans, the place where so many have come to find a new future. And now: “If Europe just stands by me, I’ll do her up brown and come home.” He believed he would find a receptive audience in France by introducing himself, “Je suis un poete.” The last New Orleans letter to his mother on July 6 sounds the familiar note of the boy who always thought he could go home again: “I wont hesitate to sing out if I need any cash, in plenty of time. . . . I got my hair brushes alright. Thank you. Love, Billy[.]”



• 3/8: Boston Biographers event, Harvard Square

• 3/21: Baltimore: Charm City Books, 1 PM

• 3/22: DC: Politics & Prose, 1 PM

• 3/23: Charlottesville: Rotunda, 10:00-11:30

• 3/24: Richmond Main Library, 4:00 pm

• 4/15-18: PCA Conference in Philadelphia

• 4/29: Center for Civic Engagement at Waterside Plaza 

• 5/7: NYC: Levy Center for Biography, recital hall

• 6/4: Lewes, DE: Lewes Public Library, 5:00 pm

• 6/23: New Albany, MS: Union Heritage Museum, Noon



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