The Stories of William Faulkner: Mississippi’s Talebearer

From The Wall Street Journal:

William Faulkner told all sorts of tall tales about his life and work. During World War I he enlisted in the Royal Air Force in Toronto (having given his birthplace as Middlesex, England). He returned home to Mississippi sporting RAF wings to which he was not entitled, his experience having amounted to six months of ground training. The notion that becoming a novelist was some kind of literary consolation prize is another fabrication. Faulkner said that he began his literary career writing poetry. “I’m a failed poet,” he told the Paris Review in 1956. He then turned to the short story, “the most demanding form after poetry,” and only after failing at that, too, he said, did he resign himself to the novel.

The Faulkner oeuvre is vast, and not all of it bears revisiting, but between 1929 and 1936, he produced a body of work unmatched in American literature for inventiveness in form and content. His fourth published novel, “The Sound and the Fury” (1929), introduced this catalog, followed by “As I Lay Dying” (1930), then “Sanctuary” (1931), “Light in August” (1932), and “Absalom, Absalom!” (1936), one of the most astonishing novels in the English language.

The high period was also filled to the brim with short stories: 16 in 1931 alone, published in journals such as the Saturday Evening Post, the American Mercury and Harper’s. The year before, the Post paid $750 apiece for two stories, “a better price than he had received for any novel,” according to the substantial chronology in “Stories,” the sixth and final volume in the Library of America’s splendid Faulkner edition. Edited by Theresa M. Towner, it largely follows Faulkner’s own arrangements, using his “Collected Stories” of 1950 as a backbone. The six stories of “Knight’s Gambit,” focused on the lawyer Gavin Stevens, are also included, as well as miscellaneous works.

Faulkner’s poetry has scarcely made it out of the bottom drawer, but short stories are integral to his achievement. As with the novels, the majority are set in Yoknapatawpha County, his fictionalized corner of Mississippi, with the town of Jefferson standing for Oxford. One of the pleasures of reading this book is seeing how certain stories shimmer as invisible chapters from familiar novels. “That Evening Sun,” published in 1931, links “The Sound and the Fury” to a later one, “Requiem for a Nun” (1951), yet the events it describes feature in neither. In the story, the black servant Nancy passes an anxious evening in her cabin at the Compson place, anticipating the return of a violent man. The three children with her, Caddie, Jason and Quentin, understand little of the situation and concentrate on making popcorn. In “Requiem for a Nun,” Nancy is on trial for the murder of the infant child of Temple Drake and Gowan Stevens, whose appearance whisks the reader back 20 years to “Sanctuary.”

 Another much-anthologized story, “Barn Burning” (1939), provided the seed for “The Hamlet” (1940), the first volume of Faulkner’s Snopes trilogy. In the novel, Ab Snopes’s arson habit is merely suggested, while in the story, written earlier, it is, so to speak, fully lit.

The Compsons and the Stevenses are among Yoknapatawpha’s prominent families, a grouping that also includes the Sutpens, the McCaslins and the clan of Ikkemotubbe, chief of the Chickasaw tribe that occupied the territory when the first white settlers arrived. “A dispossessed American king,” Faulkner called him. Among several good stories involving Indians are “Red Leaves” and “Mountain Victory.” There are no prominent “Negro” families, to use Faulkner’s preferred word, unless we count the indomitable figure of the sharecropper Lucas Beauchamp and his brood—Lucas features in the interconnected stories of “Go Down, Moses” (1942), included in an earlier Library of America volume—or the Compsons’ servant and moral compass, Dilsey Gibson.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

PG remembers one of his college professors mentioning”Yoknapatawpha, ” but can’t recall what the word sounded like. However, that didn’t prevent PG from being a big fan of Faulkner’s work in high school and college. As I Lay Dying was PG’s favorite.

7 thoughts on “The Stories of William Faulkner: Mississippi’s Talebearer”

    • Sinclair Lewis set many of his works in the state of Winnemac, after the residents of his home town got upset with him for insufficiently disguising the setting of Main Street.

      It would have been cool were Yoknapatawpha a county in Winnemac, but of course the geography was all wrong for that.

      • Maybe the same world?

        ERB stories all took place in the same world: characters from Tarzan, Barsoom, Venus, Pellucidar, all knew of each other and even crossed over. But that is genre from the pulp era. Less common in “serious” literature.

  1. Yoknapatawpha County, his fictionalized corner of Mississippi

    *Narrows eyes* But why this name?


    From Sartoris (1929) onwards, Faulkner set all but three of his novels in the county, as well as over 50 of his stories (the three later novels which were set elsewhere were Pylon, The Wild Palms, and A Fable). Absalom, Absalom! includes a map of Yoknapatawpha County drawn by Faulkner.

    The word Yoknapatawpha is derived from two Chickasaw words—Yocona and petopha, meaning “split land.” Faulkner said to a University of Virginia audience that the compound means “water flows slow through flat land.” Yoknapatawpha was the original name for the actual Yocona River, a tributary of the Tallahatchie which runs through the southern part of Lafayette County. The first mention of the county, in Flags in the Dust (originally published as Sartoris), refers to it as “Yocona County.”

    Emphasis mine. This sounds very much like something a fantasy writer would do: 1) a made up map 2) A fantastical name taken from an obscure past, or a mash-up of two real words in an obscure language that resolve into a meaningful definition.

    Pretty cool, I don’t think you often see fictional “universes” outside of fantasy / sci-fi / comics.

  2. He returned home to Mississippi sporting RAF wings to which he was not entitled,

    Never heard that. Today it’s known as stolen valor.

Comments are closed.