Faulkner, a Comprehensive Guide to the Brodsky Collection: Volume II, The Letters is the second of a multivolume project of Louis Daniel Brodsky, Robert Hamblin, and the University Press of Mississippi. The purpose of the project is to catalog and publish the significant items in Brodsky’s large and growing collection of materials relating to William Faulkner. Volume 1, The Biobibliography (1982), lists and describes the approximately three-thousand items in the collection, housed at the University of Mississippi, as of 1982. Volume 3, The De Gaulle Story (1984), prints a previously unpublished screenplay which Faulkner wrote in 1942 for Warner Bros. The publisher indicates that the next volume will be Battle Cry, a screenplay written during World War II for Howard Hawks. Other volumes which may follow include a collection of Faulkner’s Warner Bros. scripts, a manuscript collection, and a supplement to The Biobibliography.
The size of this collection is impressive, indicating the dedication of the collector. In addition to collecting Faulkner materials, Brodsky lectures on Faulkner and writes poetry. He has published a dozen volumes of poems and his works have appeared in Harper’s and American Scholar.
This second volume contains nearly five hundred letters and telegrams having to do with William Faulkner’s life and career. As Robert Hamblin points out in his introduction, about one-fourth of these pieces were actually written by Faulkner. The rest come from friends and associates, and most of these are not addressed to Faulkner. Of the Faulkner letters, about thirty were previously published in Joseph Blotner’s edition of Selected Letters of William Faulkner (1977). Hamblin asserts that his volume complements the Blotner selection: “What emerges is not so much a new and different Faulkner as one perceived in fuller detail and thus greater depth.”
It is not easy to assent even to such a seemingly modest claim as this when one reads the selections. Indeed, James W. Silver, a friend of the Faulkner family, may be closer to the mark in his 1956 response to a letter from Linton Massey: “I have been tempted many times to write down an objective account of what I know of the man, but it would have to be something that could not be opened until after the principals were gone, and the size of that kind of job has scared me off. But I’m sure that no one will ever know the real Faulkner.” To what degree “the real” Faulkner is known remains in dispute, and these letters seem to make the subject perhaps a little more obscure than before.
The collection is richest in the years between the Nobel Prize (1949) and Faulkner’s death. As Hamblin notes, a careful reader can piece together details about Faulkner’s marriage, his extramarital affairs, his drinking and health, and his fear of a loss of artistic power, which make up a picture of a deeply troubled man. Having won the struggle for recognition and financial security, Faulkner seems here to have lost the struggle for personal and family happiness.
Though this book is clearly intended for the Faulkner biographer looking for the “real” Faulkner and the Faulkner critic looking for a new angle on his works or confirmation of some hypothesis, the casual reader may also find these “private” communications interesting.
One begins with the kind of shame that Nathaniel Hawthorne professed at peering into the heart’s secrets of others. There are frequent reminders that Faulkner wanted his books to stand or fall on their own and to keep his private life to himself; he was acutely sensitive to the dangers of allowing the media to place an artist in a “fishbowl” environment. As one reads, however, some people become characters and begin to present the kinds of problems that novels present. Reading the letters of Phil Stone and Estelle Faulkner, for example, becomes somewhat like reading Absalom, Absalom! (1936).
Stone’s letters to such people as Carvel Collins, Richard P. Adams, Robert Coughlan, Linton Massey, Lawrance Thompson, and Clifton Fadiman tell more about Stone than about Faulkner, but precisely what they tell is difficult to say. Stone was Faulkner’s earliest sponsor, as he tells everyone, sometimes repeatedly. That the ninety-nine Stone letters in this volume are only a portion of those known to exist suggests that Stone’s reiteration of his opinions on Faulkner may almost have been obsessive. Hamblin points out the apparent estrangement between Faulkner and Stone reflected in these letters and the elements which may have contributed to it: Stone’s failure to repay a loan, Stone’s lack of appreciation for the kind of art Faulkner practiced, and differences over racial issues which provoked some of Stone’s bitterest statements. The volume suggests another possible cause of estrangement. Stone remembers with fondness and considerable excitement watching over Faulkner’s budding genius: telling Snopes stories to each other; listening to Faulkner read The Sound and the Fury (1929) before it was published and giving Faulkner the title; providing Faulkner with magazines, such as Poetry, which exposed him to the most exciting of the moderns, James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, and others; reading the early poems and advising him in...
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