William Faulkner was a complex and contradictory man. As a writer, he explored the possibilities of narrative art as had no other author in American literature. Yet, for all the brilliance of his work, he was largely ignored by the reading public and had to rely on sporadic sales of commercial short stories and assignment work in Hollywood to meet his financial and family obligations. His personal life was marked by alcoholism, a tragically unhappy marriage, disappointing love affairs, and a growing sense that he had failed as an artist, even after winning the 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature and finally receiving the long-overdue recognition he so richly deserved.
Faulkner’s life has been explored in detail by his major biographer, Joseph Blotner, and by literary critic David Minter. In his book, Oates acknowledges his great debt to these men (especially Blotner) but argues that he has written a “pure” biography, one which attempts to “elicit from the coldness of fact the warmth of a life being lived.” In doing this, he has chosen to use “novelistic techniques” to “bring Faulkner alive through character development, through his interpersonal relationships, through graphic scenes, revealing quotations, apt details, and dramatic narrative sweep.”
There are several problems with Oates’s book. One would be hard pressed to find in it any substantive information that is not found in the earlier works. In fact, Oates depends so heavily on these and other sources that he sometimes, perhaps unconsciously, echoes their very style and wording.
Equally troubling is his tendency to emphasize the personal and sexual at the expense of Faulkner’s work. The major novels are accorded a brief, and therefore simplified, reading. Oates skips over them so quickly that the newcomer to Faulkner would certainly wonder what all the bother is about. On the other hand, Oates details at length the more unpleasant and private personal events and characteristics in Faulkner’s life. Faulkner’s other biographers have also dealt with these aspects, but they have seen them in the context of the work itself, which gives a balance to our final estimation of Faulkner’s accomplishments.
Because of the inherent drama of Faulkner’s life, anyone reading Oates’s biography will surely be caught up in the narrative. One should recognize, however, that this book presents a simplistic view of the life, reducing it to the status of a miniseries.