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Posts Tagged ‘William Faulkner’

William Faulkner died 50 years ago last Friday.  He died in a sanatorium in Byhalia, Mississippi, not far from the “little postage stamp of native soil” he transformed into Yoknapatawpha, but not in it, either.

By then he was already the “lion in the road” for Southern writers, a Nobel laureate, his work declared “unmatched in our time” by Robert Penn Warren.  He outlived his only contemporary rival, Ernest Hemingway, and so he got the last word in their long-running and childish war of snide remarks.  “I cannot respect a man,” Faulkner said, “who takes the short way home,” though Faulkner killed himself with alcohol as surely as Hemingway did with a shotgun.

By coincidence, I finished re-reading The Hamlet last week.  The most remarkable thing about this remarkable novel is that it’s far from Faulkner’s best.  It lacks the heat and force of the earlier masterpieces; even so, I’d rank it with the best American novels of the 20th century, and would give a minor body part to write something as good.  As a young man I marveled at the rhythms of his language, at the head of steam his sentences could build.  Now I am deeply impressed by his storytelling, his skill at constructing a scene and a sequence, and I am humbled by the range and depth of his imagination.  Though he wrote almost entirely within the borders of a single fictional county, he populated that county with an entire world.  He seems to feel perfect empathy for each character he creates, to have lived an entire life on each one’s behalf.

Like George Washington and Babe Ruth, Faulkner’s excellence has become a cliché, and so he’s unappreciated in an odd sort of way.  As Southern readers and writers, we tip our caps and salute his standing, but we don’t take The Sound and the Fury to the beach.  We admire and maybe even grapple with his work, but we don’t cherish it like we do Walker Percy’s or Lee Smith’s or Harper Lee’s.

That’s a shame.  His best novels are difficult and demanding, and revelatory and extraordinary.  They’re even, at times, really, honestly, funny.  They reward the attention they require.

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