Thursday, April 29, 2021

This Day in Literary History (Viking Fans Faulkner Revival via Anthology)

Apr. 29, 1946—In a project that began as a critical summation but ended as a literary resurrection, Viking Press released The Portable Faulkner, an anthology that not only raised the sales of a Southern writer with at best a cult following, but also sent him on a path to the Nobel Prize in Literature and a secure place in the American canon.

When the literary historian and critic Malcolm Cowley began to plan the anthology, all 17 books by William Faulkner were out of print, so the novelist paid the bills by writing screenplays in Hollywood.

Moreover, he was seen through a relatively narrow lens, with many critics viewing Faulkner’s novels and short stories simply as examples of the “Southern Gothic” tradition of violent plots and grotesque characters, as well as discrete items rather than as a part of what Cowley called the “whole interconnecting pattern” of the novelist’s works.

To counteract this misimpression, Cowley arranged short stories and chapters of books into chronologically arranged sections in which readers could see how Faulkner’s “mythical kingdom” of Yoknapatawpha County developed over 2 1/2 centuries.

Ultimately, Cowley hoped to change perceptions of Faulkner. But when he began the project in 1944, first, he needed simply to reach this novelist who could every bit as elusive as he was eccentric.

“I sent him a letter saying I wanted to write a long piece about his work,” Cowley remembered in a 1978 interview with The New York Times. “I hoped to meet him. After four or five months, he answered from Hollywood, explaining that when he got letters from strangers he first opened them to see whether there was return postage. If there was, he took out the stamps and dropped the letter in a drawer. Then, he said, every six months or so, he'd open the drawer and start reading the letters. Mine had been luckier: It only waited three or four months.”

A further obstacle awaited Cowley: Faulkner’s disdain for biographical intrusiveness: “He wrote me that the idea of finishing his career, having attracted no more attention than he had, was painful and, yes, he would be grateful to have a long essay written about him, but he didn't want to have any personal details included. He wanted to live perfectly anonymously. He said in one letter that he wanted his tombstone inscribed ‘He wrote the books and he died.’”

Under Cowley’s gentle but persistent prodding, Faulkner gradually released information about himself. He even contributed a map of Yoknapatawpha County ("William Faulkner, sole owner and proprietor”) and a “Compson Appendix” to the volume, revealing an imagination that spilled well past the temporal confines of one work: The Sound and the Fury.

Although the novel only covered from 1910 to 1928, the appendix starts with the battle of Culloden in 1745, and ends in 1945, when “Sister Caddy” Compson has last been heard of as the mistress of a German general. In this reconsideration, Faulkner revealed a restless imagination that spilled well past the temporal confines of individual works.

“Faulkner at his best — even sometimes at his worst — has a power, a richness of life, an intensity to be found in no other American novelist of our time,” Cowley wrote.

Critical opinion soon swung decisively in this direction. By 1950, Faulkner had won the Nobel, his backlist was back in print, and his newer titles were greeted with due respect. 

The only subsequent critical rescue projects even remotely that successful involved William Kennedy (through Saul Bellow’s suggestion that three of his novels be marketed as “The Albany Trilogy”) and Dawn Powell (through Gore Vidal’s 1987 New York Review of Books essay and Tim Page’s subsequent biography and editing of her novels for the “Library of America” series)

Three-quarters of a century after Cowley called for a Faulkner reappraisal, the collected works of this once-neglected novelist are considered essential in understanding both the bone-deep ties of Southerners to their region and the original sin that overshadows the land to this day: the replacement of its dense forests with baronial plantations, achieved at the cost of the subjugation of Native-Americans and African slaves and the ignorance and greed of many of its history-haunted whites.

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