Faulkner, a Comprehensive Guide to the Brodsky Collection

by William Faulkner
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Faulkner, a Comprehensive Guide to the Brodsky Collection

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2200

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 Volume 3, The De Gaulle Story (1984), prints a previously unpublished screenplay which Faulkner wrote in 1942 for Warner Bros.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.

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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 preparing them for publication. If one accepts these statements at face value, one can see why this would be a treasured part of Stone’s life. Then Faulkner went to New Orleans, where Sherwood Anderson helped him to publish his fiction. Faulkner began to go elsewhere for his literary advice, eventually growing closest to his editor at Random House, Saxe Commins. Stone repeats that Faulkner seemed hardly to know him after he received the Nobel Prize, yet in those last years there is evidence of an enduring friendship. Faulkner appreciatively dedicated The Town (1957) and The Mansion (1959) to Stone, and Stone declined as late as 1962, after Faulkner’s death, to involve himself in telling Faulkner’s “personal” life or in taking money for the information he was willing to give. Still, with all of these facts and possible explanations available, Stone’s essential attitude toward Faulkner remains a puzzle. One sees love, hate, envy, pride, disappointment, anger, frustration, admiration, and other feelings expressed, but the proportions seem unmeasurable without some especially powerful act of imagination such as that of Quentin Compson and Shreve McCannon in Absalom, Absalom! There is little to indicate Faulkner’s private feelings toward Stone in these years.

Estelle Faulkner, as Hamblin points out, is just as puzzling. To what degree was she a cause and to what degree a victim of the estrangement between her and Faulkner that appears in the letters? Hamblin concludes that she may be seen as “a bright, creative, and refined (even somewhat pampered) woman who deeply loves her husband and children, yet who is continually plagued with extended periods of self-doubt and insecurity.” He even uses handwriting analysis to support this picture. Certainly, Estelle can be seen as a victim. She had her own problems with alcohol, her husband philandered without very successfully covering his tracks, he doled out money to her, not trusting her to manage her own affairs, and he burdened her with his own “toots.” Just why Faulkner felt driven, as he says, to seek love and the peace in which to work outside his home remains unclear in these letters.

If this volume has a hero, it is probably Saxe Commins, an editor who seems to have seen his writer as more than an investment, who showed unfailing personal interest in Faulkner’s art and in his personal life.

Commins was Faulkner’s editor from 1936 until he died of a heart attack in 1958. While the letters reveal Commins’ helpfulness to Faulkner in matters of editing and promoting, even suggesting titles, such as that for Knight’s Gambit (1949), and generally looking out for his literary and financial interests, Commins stands out most strongly as Faulkner’s friend and confidant. There are many examples of their closeness. Faulkner confided in Commins about his family problems, about his fears of failing artistic energy and invention, and about his love affairs with Joan Williams and Jean Stein. Warm personal letters attest the friendship that existed among all members of both families. Estelle also confided in Commins and his wife, Dorothy. In 1951, Faulkner made Commins his literary executor, an office which he was unable to carry out.

Both Commins and Faulkner had ample reason to believe that Commins would outlive Faulkner. In 1952, Commins became intimately involved in Faulkner’s health problems when Estelle called on him to help her handle Faulkner. In pain from a nagging back injury and in despair at the unhappiness and unproductiveness of his life in Oxford, Mississippi, Faulkner drank himself to the edge of death. Unable to persuade him to seek any kind of help, Estelle asked Commins to come. What Commins found was “a complete disintegration of a man.” Commins spent an unpleasant forty-eight hours nursing Faulkner to enable him to withstand the automobile trip to Memphis, Tennessee, and then coaxing the barely coherent Faulkner to complete the trip. Commins took the further step of offering his home in Princeton, New Jersey, as a haven and work place. After that episode, Faulkner did much of his writing in New York and in Princeton. That Faulkner eventually was able to complete his troublesome work on A Fable (1954) and then went on to write three more important novels can largely be attributed to Commins’ care. After this episode, Faulkner also finished the Snopes Trilogy, adding The Town and The Mansion to The Hamlet (1940). Finally, he completed The Reivers (1962). Even though critics rate these novels below the great works of the 1930’s, Faulkner’s collected works would be considerably less interesting and certainly less humorous without these late novels.

The portrait of Commins which emerges from these letters amply explains Faulkner’s telegram to Dorothy Commins upon Commins’ death: “The finest epitaph everyone who ever knew Saxe will have to subscribe to whether he will or not quote he loved me unquote.”

Several other figures emerge as interesting, though none more so than Stone, Estelle, and Commins. To a casual reader of this volume, these three might seem to overshadow Faulkner.

Indeed, the Faulkner letters in this volume reveal little not already known about him. One can learn more details about his relationships with Joan Williams, Jean Stein, and Else Jonsson. His letters also underline his distress, bordering on despair, as he experienced various health problems associated with alcohol, aging, and an increasingly unhappy marriage. Typical is a July 29, 1952, letter to Commins in which Faulkner speaks of complete boredom, neither able nor desiring to work. If he cannot get free of his present life, he believes that he will die in spirit.

Relatively rare is the humor which pervades the novels that Faulkner was to write after 1952. Nevertheless, his mimeographed letter of September, 1956, to Van Wyck Brooks shows a little of the old fire. He informs Brooks that he has been asked by President Dwight D. Eisenhower “to organize writers to see what we can do to give a true picture of our country to other people.” He then shares some of his own ideas which include: anesthetizing American vocal chords for a year, canceling all American passports for a year, secreting Johnson grass seed in all American cars and pushing them across the Iron Curtain, and a more complex plan to “corrupt” Russian Communists by giving them a year in the United States on the installment plan.

Because Faulkner is painted so fully in other, more accessible books, and because his letters form a relatively small portion of this volume, he seems a minor character here, even though he is the center of all of this writing activity. There are a few interesting stories here which seem quite remote from Faulkner himself. For example, readers interested in the career of Ruth Ford may be interested to learn of her work in various European and American productions of Requiem for a Nun (1951) and of her attempts to arrange a film adaptation of Light in August (1932) in letters between her and various lawyers, publishers, agents, and directors.

There are some items included in this volume that are not likely to interest most readers, airline-ticket confirmations, for example, but there is also much of the raw material from which history and biography are written. One can now gain quite a rich view of Faulkner’s life and career if one supplements this collection with the major biographies, Joseph Blotner’s Faulkner: A Biography (1974) and David Minter’s William Faulkner: His Life and Work (1980); other collections of letters, in particular Malcolm Cowley’s The Faulkner-Cowley File: Letters and Memories, 1914-1962 (1966) and Blotner’s Selected Letters of William Faulkner; and the major collections of Faulkner’s public statements, Frederick L. Gwynn and Blotner’s Faulkner in the University (1959), James B. Meriwether’s Essays, Speeches & Public Letters by William Faulkner (1965), and Michael Millgate and Meriwether’s Lion in the Garden (1968). Though this volume tells more about some of the most important people whom Faulkner knew and loved than about him, it nevertheless reveals as deeply as any other book the pain and self-doubt which beset Faulkner as he experienced the waning of his artistic powers in the years after the Nobel Prize.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 29

American Libraries. LVI, October, 1984, p. 465.

Choice. XXII, September, 1984, p. 62.

Modern Fiction Studies. XXX, Summer, 1984, p. 319.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, September 23, 1984, p. 32.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXV, March 2, 1984, p. 82.

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