When Joseph Blotner’s monumentally important, two-volume Faulkner: A Biography was published in 1974 (reissued as one volume in 1984), the gratitude Faulkner scholars rightfully felt was offset for many by the work’s hagiographic overtones and—to some—the glaring omissions of uncomplimentary facts about Faulkner and his wife, Estelle (nee Oldham). A close friend of the family who presumably wanted to avoid hurting the writer’s widow and surviving family, Blotner apparently side-stepped several issues, the most notable being Faulkner’s numerous extramarital affairs, and the names of women with whom he had had the affairs, as well as—among other things—Estelle’s acute alcoholism and her suicide attempt in 1929. With the publication of Meta Carpenter’s A Loving Gentleman: The Love Story of William Faulkner and Meta Carpenter (1976, four years after Estelle’s death), as well as that of Ben Wasson’s Count No ’Count (1983), the extent to which Blotner’s portrait of Faulkner and his marriage had been relatively wartless began to become apparent.
While not generally sensational pathography, Frederick R. Karl’s immensely authoritative study of Faulkner unflinchingly exposes blemishes—those of the writer’s character, life, and fiction, as well as those belonging to Faulkner’s progenitors, wife, heirs, and selected associates. Noteworthy is the fact that Karl nowhere acknowledges any gratitude to Jill Faulkner Summers, Faulkner’s surviving daughter and executrix of his literary estate, who—as in the ease of Judith Sensibar and her The Origins of Faulkner ’s Art (1984)—has wielded control in Faulkner scholarship by permitting some and denying others access to certain manuscripts and other papers related to her father. Nevertheless, other more distant relatives of Faulkner have obviously contributed much to this exhaustively researched biography.
A narrative biography that weaves together Faulkner’s life, work, familial and cultural background, and psychological interpretation into a masterfully integrated whole, Karl’s study should be viewed as a valuable and necessary complement to Blotner’s rather than as its replacement. While Blotner’s study reads more slowly than Karl’s, and comes nowhere close to giving Faulkner’s writing the attention, analysis, and frank appraisal it deservedly receives from Karl, with his concern for scenic development Blotner allows his reader a greater sense of entering Faulkner’s quotidian existence than Karl does with his fast-paced but largely expositional narrative. Where Blotner allows his reader a sense of, say, entering the post office where Faulkner worked for more than two years, or of boarding the writer’s sailboat and watching his daughter Jill bail water, Karl—in passing, it seems—does little more than point to the post office and boat as things that were distractions from Faulkner’s writing. The different emphases of the two biographers indicate their differing priorities: Blotner clearly wanted to capture on his pages as much as possible the man he idolized and thus idealizes; whereas Karl, whose major concern is Faulkner’s literary achievement, is interested in the man’s life only because and insofar as it made possible, contributed to, shaped, or detracted from the writing of the author he considers America’s greatest twentieth century novelist. Indeed, Karl not only analyzes but justifies Faulkner’s compulsive lying, drinking, and philandering as necessary for his art and great literary achievements. While such a rationalization might be perceived as Machiavellian, it provides the essential premise of Karl’s psychological approach to Faulkner’s life and art, as he notes:One of the temptations of Faulkner Criticism and biography is to see him as composed of separate elements which, somehow, fail to cohere. In this view, Faulkner as writer, heavy drinker, remiss family man, hunter and horseman, even as farmer and country gentleman, all remain diverse pieces of a puzzle which resist a clean fit. This view flounders, however, because then the creative ability appears to derive from areas which cannot be discovered or even plumbed. Faulkner does exist as a whole; all the parts do fit. And the creative ability can be found where everything overlaps. The creative imagination was revealed in his work; but his drinking, his attitude toward family life, his desire to identify with hunters and farmers—these are also acts of revelation, almost on a par with the writing in their importance in his life.
Because Faulkner did not attend school until he was eight, attended classes somewhat regularly only through the sixth grade and thereafter—to the eleventh grade—attended sporadically and distractedly, he was always insecure about his intellectual abilities, according to Karl, and never escaped his perception of himself as a school dropout. This—together with the fact that his father was distant from his family, an alcoholic with little ambition and generally a weak man (his weaknesses being magnified by his wife’s peremptory and dominant nature)—lends itself to explaining why Faulkner became a compulsive liar and impostor. The eldest of four sons, he suffered displacement by younger brothers, and his marginality in the family was magnified into a marginality in the...