Monday, July 7, 2014

Mr. Faulkner, What Do You Do?

One of my favorite stories about William Faulkner is about his time as a screen writer in Hollywood. Apparently he had to go to work in a studio where he had little privacy and for that and other reasons he wanted to go home to Oxford, Mississippi. The main reason was that he was just plain homesick. So, he asked the producer if he could go home to work on the scripts and, thinking he meant back to his apartment, the producer said yes. Well, he got on the train and went to Oxford, much to the chagrin of his bosses. Faulkner later said Hollywood was the only place he knew of where you could get stabbed in the back while climbing a ladder. I never understood what he meant by that statement.

Another story is about his friendship with the famous director, Howard Hawks. Faulkner loved hunting and they had been hunting together a few times, so Hawks invited him to go bird hunting in the valley again, this time with him and Clark Gable. On the journey to the hunting location, Faulkner asked Hawks if Hemingway was a better shot than he was. Hawks told him Hemingway shot more birds than he did. That made Faulkner mad because he was very competitive, especially with the other great writer of the time. So, to change the subject and calm the fiery Faulkner down, he said, “Bill, if I wanted to read the greatest living writers, who should I read?” Faulkner mentioned a few, you know, writers like Dos Passos and Thomas Mann, and then concluded, “and, of course my work.” At that, Clark Gable perked up in the back seat and said, “Oh, Mr. Faulkner, do you write?” And, Faulkner replied, “Why yes, Mr. Gable, what do you to?” The funny part of that story is that they were both serious. Gable did not read and Faulkner did not go to the movies. These two great artists had no idea about the other’s gifts.

When I was doing my work of Faulkner back in the early 1970s, I went out to Oxford and talked to several people. A man named Motee Daniels said, “Will Faulkner was different from just about anybody. I have seen him in town in his pajamas. People used to call him Count No-Count around Oxford. I saw him one day just staring at the statue of the Confederate soldier, standing in the road transfixed, just staring up at the statue.” Shelby Foote said that in Oxford at the time of Faulkner’s greatest popularity, if you asked a citizen if he knew William Faulkner, the person would not reply but turn his head and spit. They felt that because of novels like Sanctuary, he was sullying the atmosphere around there.

However, all that changed after he won the Nobel Prize in 1949. Then he was considered a kind of elder statesman. I saw a video of his return to Oxford from Stockholm where he had received the coveted award. Someone sitting on the bench in front of the drug store said, “Where you been, Bill?” He replied, “Sweden.” Then the man asked, “Had a good trip, I guess?” Faulkner said, yes, good trip and then changed the subject to deer hunting. He said, “Tell you what we are going to do this year. Corral them up out there by the Yocona Creek and you can whip them to death with collard greens.” Both Faulkner and his companion had a good laugh.

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