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This Friday, July 6, marks the 50th anniversary of William Faulkner’s death. I read this bit of trivia in Mississippi Magazine in an issue that also features a dozen ways to use the Mason jar for home decoration and beverage consumption, numerous recipes for boiling, roasting and grinding peanuts, a fanatically reverent essay on the charms of sweet tea, and an ungodly number of full-color advertisements for bridal shops, children’s boutiques and cosmetic laser surgery. Also, there is more than one recipe for pimento cheese, which seems silly when you realize that there are only so many ways to combine shredded cheddar, mayo and pimento peppers, and that none of them will make you unhappy.
My mother sends me this magazine subscription. I think it is her intent to provide a connection to the place where I grew up. The thing is, there is not much in this glossy, optimistic magazine that I recognize. The peanuts and pimento cheese? Sure, though I don’t ever remember anyone consulting recipes to make either. The rest of it, though, the glossy photo spreads in gentrified old homes, the women with their shiny tight faces, the children wearing fresh polo shirts in pastel hues, the linen-clad adults who pass the time by playing croquet, are not what I remember. It’s a Mississippi that I don’t recognize.
Oxford, the town that will celebrate Faulkner on Friday with “A William Faulkner Remembrance,” is no longer the place that Faulkner wrote about either, at least not on the surface. The remembrance events are a precursor to the annual Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference, which begins this weekend. The town of Oxford loves William Faulkner. It was not always so. Faulkner was a notorious drunk. In the south, we are happy to forgive alcoholism so long as the drunks are charming and entertain us. Faulkner was ill-tempered and rude. For much of his life, he was in debt and struggled to pay his bills. He cheated on his wife. He even cheated on his mistresses. His novels and stories portrayed the worst of the south–racism, classism, narcissism, poverty, ignorance, misogyny, hypocrisy–and many of his neighbors resented the unflattering light he shone upon them. Faulkner talked about how his neighbors did not bother to speak to him on the street until MGM came to town to film Intruder In the Dust. Then, as now, most people are gobsmacked at the sight of a film crew. Faulkner hated Hollywood and resented that he had to write screenplays to pay his bills while his books languished out of print in America. Once he won the Nobel Prize, he’d gained the town’s respect, but that was just 12 years before he died at the age of 64.
Faulkner once said he hoped to be the type of writer who was remembered only through his work. He shunned the literary spotlight when he was living. There was speculation that he might not show up for the Nobel ceremony. He did show up, of course. For one thing, he needed the money. The first words of his speech deflected the honor from himself back on to his work.
“I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work – a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before.”
Faulkner did not get his wish to live on only in his work. His home, Rowan Oak, is now a museum and his grave site has become a tourist destination. A statue of Faulkner has been erected in downtown Oxford. He sits on a park bench looking thoughtful and perhaps a bit sour, which, if there is to be a statue at all, seems right. It’s as if the town of Oxford has created of Faulkner “something which did not exist before.”
There are plenty of people who will try to convince you that the south Faulkner wrote about no longer exists. The problem is that it exists just as it always has, beneath the surface of all those good manners. If Faulkner were writing today, I suspect his stories would be much the same. That’s probably true of most places and most writers. However, I will say that if the south has one fatal flaw, it is denial about the past and willful blindness about the present. It is a hubris that allows folks to imagine that their way is the only way. This is most evident, unfortunately, as I follow the musings of childhood acquaintances on Facebook. (I imagine Faulkner would have hated Facebook.) As the political season heats up, the good manners give way to vitriolic diatribes that are painful to read. And yet I keep reading. I don’t wonder why. I know why. It’s because this is something I recognize. And every now and then, I get a glimpse of hope that things may be shifting. There are more voices of compassion now than there were four years ago. There are more calls for sanity than there were when I was a child and the KKK handed out pamphlets at an intersection near our private, white-only neighborhood swimming pool. Faulkner, for all his negativity was hopeful about mankind, as well. In that same Nobel speech he said, “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 south was not then and is not now a place defined by wraparound porches, magnolia blossoms and sweet tea. Good manners cannot gloss over hate. We must all tap into our souls, into our spirits, if we hope to become compassionate, to sacrifice, to endure.
Faulkner believed that the writer’s job was to help man do just that.
“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.”
Amen to that. Rest in peace, Mr. Faulkner. Wherever you are now, I hope there are plates stacked high with pimento cheese sandwiches, sacks of boiled peanuts and plenty of bourbon.