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New biography highlights Faulkner at UVA

William Faulkner walking on the Lawn
Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, UVA

Imagine the sweaty-palmed dread of Ken Ringle (Col ’61) as he congregated with fellow literature-loving supplicants in the fifth-floor Cabell Hall office of the pipe-smoking William Faulkner, the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, a Pulitzer and two National Book Awards. A short, wiry man with penetrating eyes and a trim, gray moustache, Faulkner wore a tweed sports coat (likely of Savile Row origin), khakis and a green wool tie filled with tiny fox heads.

Of Faulkner, who was UVA’s writer-in-residence in 1957 and 1958, Life magazine observed “he is like a somnolent cat who still in the wink of an eye could kill a mouse.” Or perhaps an unwary second-year. “He had an extraordinary presence. He radiated power,” recalled English professor Joseph Blotner.

Faulkner created Yoknapatawpha County and chronicled decades of doings there that ranged from rape, robbery and lynchings to idiocy and intolerance. “My own little postage stamp of native soil,” he called it, a mythic stand-in for his native northern Mississippi. He came to UVA at age 59, having written Hollywood screenplays, five volumes of short stories and 14 novels.

“In his fiction, Faulkner is about the bravest, most courageous person you can imagine,” says Carl Rollyson, author of the new two-volume biography The Life of William Faulkner from the University of Virginia Press. In his fiction, “He constantly comes back to this idea of life as motion. Things are bound to change.”

“He loved sitting in his office talking to students. That was one of the most enjoyable parts of his job,” says Rollyson, a professor emeritus of journalism at Barnard College and author of biographies of Sylvia Plath, Norman Mailer and Emily Dickinson. His new biography’s second volume, This Alarming Paradox, covers Faulkner from 1935 to 1962 and will be published in September.

After two terms as writer-in-residence, a novelty in the days before such posts became commonplace, Faulkner became Alderman Library’s “consultant on contemporary literature” and the Balch Lecturer in American Literature. By all accounts, his tenure was a success. President Colgate W. Darden Jr. (Col 1922) had opposed the residency, though, perhaps fearing a repeat of Faulkner’s liquor-fueled obnoxiousness during his 1931 visit for a writer’s conference. (Faulkner vomited on the wife of poet Allen Tate, according to Rollyson.) So when English Department chair Floyd Stovall proposed the arrangement, Darden replied, “The University of Virginia has sufficient prestige without William Faulkner.”

“I feel sure that nothing like that will happen again,” Stovall insisted, and Darden relented, according to Blotner, who was in attendance.

There also may have been reticence about Faulkner’s support for civil rights. Faulkner defended the Montgomery bus boycott, backed the NAACP’s call for school integration, and condemned the 1955 murder of Emmett Till. Death threats, poison-pen letters, and what he called “nut angry phone calls at 2 and 3 a.m.” followed. People in his hometown of Oxford, Mississippi, stopped him on the street to harass him.

“When he gets to Virginia, he’s still talking about race, but the rest of his family [who were all racists] is not around. He feels a certain relief about that, and when he speaks about race in Virginia, he’s not getting death threats,” Rollyson says. “It’s a very different atmosphere for him.”

In May 1957, Faulkner told UVA students segregation was “an outrageous, an anomalous condition that simply cannot continue. … No nation can endure with 17 million second-class citizens in it.”

“Faulkner, the imaginative human being and writer, saw clearly where the world was headed,” Rollyson says. “But Faulkner, the weaker human being, would often retreat and say, ‘Go slow. Be patient. Southerners can’t be forced,’ and so on, and he hoped states like Virginia would take the lead.”

Faulkner also said things that were paternalistic at best. For example, in a 1958 speech to the Jefferson Society, the Raven Society and ODK, he said, “[The Negro’s] tragedy may be that so far he is competent for equality only in the ratio of white blood. ... So, we, the white man, must take him hand in hand and teach him that responsibility.”

William Faulkner speaking to a classroom
Virginia was very important to Faulkner, says Carl Rollyson, author of a new University of Virginia Press biography of him. Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, UVA

Ringle belonged to a “pretty small group” who attended Faulkner’s office hours from 11 to noon Tuesdays and Thursdays to sit “gaping” before him. He racked his “under-booked” brain for a question that wouldn’t make him “look stupid” before his peers. Faulkner might also have been intimidated. An 11th-grade dropout, he once told a UVA audience he was “an old veteran sixth-grader.”

But being at UVA was his chance to speak to a younger generation. “That was extremely important to him,” Rollyson says. He gave speeches, read from his works, and appeared at dozens of events and classes, where he answered 1,400 questions. (UVA’s archives, some of which are online, contain 28 hours of recordings of him speaking.)

Ringle eventually screwed up his courage to ask, “Mr. Faulkner, in your short story ‘The Bear,’ do you consider the bear a positive nature symbol or a negative nature symbol or a symbol both positive and negative like the white whale in Moby-Dick?”

“In a thin, reedy voice, after puffing on his pipe long enough to raise the suspense,” Ringle says Faulkner replied, “That’s just a story about a bear.”

“That was obviously a pose,” says Stephen Railton, UVA professor emeritus of English, who taught Faulkner’s work from 2005 to 2019 and co-created the websites “Faulkner at Virginia” and “Digital Yoknapatawpha.” “It was his way of saying, ‘You should be thinking about that. You shouldn’t expect me to tell you.’”

A study in contradictions, Faulkner was humble with students and preferred the kitchen company of Black servants at a party at the home of a Virginia grandee, according to Rollyson. Yet he was also a dandy. “I have been awarded a pink coat [by the Farmington Hunt Club], a splendor worthy of being photographed in,” he said.

Soft-spoken, even gnomic, in person, Faulkner wrote thorny thickets of fantastically involuted prose. Guinness World Records deemed his 1,288-word sentence in Absalom, Absalom! the world’s longest. “Page after page of muddled confusion, indecipherable time shifts, antecedentless pronouns” is how John A. Church (Col ’59) recalled studying Faulkner.

Resolute in his physical prowess, Faulkner loved fox hunting and horse jumping, though crashes landed him in the hospital. “There is something about jumping a horse over a fence, something that makes you feel good,” he told an interviewer at the brick home he and his wife, Estelle, bought at 917 Rugby Road. “Perhaps it’s the risk, the gamble. In any event it’s a thing I need.”

“Virginia was very important to Faulkner. Charlottesville in a curious way liberated him,” Rollyson says. “He could live an everyday existence he couldn’t live in Oxford.”

Rollyson chuckles when he tells the story of R.C. Greene (Col ’61), who gave a lift to an elegant hitchhiker wearing a white linen suit, not knowing who he was. “He described Faulkner to his friends who said, ‘Christ, that’s William Faulkner you gave a ride to!’ He had made arrangements to pick him up again the next week, and he said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, Mr. Faulkner, I didn’t know your name. I want to apologize.’ And Faulkner said, ‘Well, I didn’t know your name either.’”

Students saw Faulkner downtown at Mincer’s Pipe Shop and University Theatre on Main Street, where he took in 1958’s The Long Hot Summer, which was based on his novel The Hamlet. By chance, Ringle, then a photographer at the Cavalier Daily, snapped a shot of him exiting the ABC Store on Main Street “wholly dwarfed by his enormous burden of bottle-packed shopping bags.”

Faulkner was an alcoholic. He was hospitalized and confined to sanitariums—including once for electroshock therapy—a dozen times, Rollyson says. Five days before he stepped off the train in Charlottesville on Feb. 10, 1957, his editor found him naked on the floor of his Manhattan hotel room amid empty gin and wine bottles and a spent whiskey flask. After wiping chocolate ice cream off his face, the editor nursed him to sobriety—a process that took two days.

Faulkner was distraught. His lover, one of at least four during his 33-year marriage, had just left him. Estelle had long known of the affair; Faulkner had confessed to it months earlier. Five days after arriving in Charlottesville, Estelle, a reformed alcoholic, asked for a divorce. It was not the first time. Yet they reconciled. So far as anyone in Charlottesville could tell, they were happily married. They “became very close friends again,” Estelle’s granddaughter Vicki reported. “At times they even looked and seemed like they were a newly married couple.”

“An artist is a creature driven by demons,” Faulkner told UVA listeners. He seemed to thrive on crises, according to Rollyson. “This happens to Faulkner over and over. He gets drunk before he goes to Sweden to accept the Nobel Prize in 1949. He gets drunk during his tour abroad on behalf of the State Department in 1955. He never thought of himself as a public figure, and he doesn’t know how to handle it.”

But for UVA at the end of his life “he was always on his best behavior,” Railton says. “Virginia was always the noble Old South to him. He wanted to feel like he belonged to that world. Being at UVA and being accepted by the Virginia gentry was the last credential.” The adoration of students did much for the soul of the man who had once said being at UVA made him feel like a “hound dog under a wagon.” He boasted to his professor friend at Ole Miss, “I’m a professor, too, now.”

He felt so much at home during his UVA residency that he spent hours in the unassuming role of timekeeper at practices and track meets at Lambeth Field. At one event, a Richmond sportswriter failed to recognize him. “And what do you do?” the man asked.

“I write,” Faulkner replied.

George M. Spencer is a writer based in Hillsborough, North Carolina.