Literary Books in Brief

This month Southern Literary Review takes a look at three recent publications from the University of Mississippi Press that focus on an aspect of Southern literature.

“William Faulkner Day by Day” by Carl Rollyson

I winced when I first saw the chronological, diary-like entries of William Faulkner Day by Day. I thought that format couldn’t be very interesting. I was wrong. This book proved to be far more informative and delightfully entertaining than I first anticipated. I had never read a book organized this way. I will confess I skimmed a few entries, but the selections reveal so much about Faulkner that I never suspected. I never considered him as “Billy,” a child growing up idolizing his great-grandfather, who was a novelist.

Because I viewed his works as offering criticism of the South, especially concerning racial relations, I was shocked to see how often he used the “n” word in his communications. Consider this description of New Englanders he writes to those back home:

“The white and [n—-rs] are always antagonistic hate each other, and yet go to the same shows and smaller restaurants, and call each other by first names. . . . You cant tell me these [n—-rs] are as happy and contented as ours are all this freedom does is to make them miserable because they are not white, so that they hate the white people more than ever, and the whites are afraid of them.”

I could have imagined his placing these words in a character’s mouth, but I was surprised to see them emanating from him. Despite this, at his Black nanny’s memorial service he pays beautiful tribute: “I learned to tell the truth, to refrain from waste, to be considerate of the weak and respectful of age. I saw fidelity to a family which was not hers, devotion and love for people she had not borne.” The diary format also reveals his evolving views on segregation. Faulkner the man was not immune to the contradictions presented by race relations in America.

I had no idea Faulkner was an artist, actor and airplane pilot; no idea he wrote so many poems and later, scripts for Hollywood movies. I didn’t know he didn’t graduate from high school. It was surprising to learn he thought of himself as a farmer first and foremost—and that he had a lifelong struggle to make enough money to pay off his debts even after he became famous. I had no idea he celebrated winning the Nobel Prize by having a coon collard supper in a hunting camp.

I hadn’t suspected his tart sense of humor, illustrated by Blue Bird Insurance Company advertisements in The Mississippian offering to insure students against failing courses. Faulkner is listed as one of the company presidents. His humor is likewise evident in advice he gives to a young writer: “Tell him the best way I know to get published is to borrow the advances from the publisher, then they have to print the stuff.” And his tongue-in-cheek remarks about warfare: “I believe I have discovered the reason inherent in human nature why warfare will never be abolished; it’s the only condition under which a man who is not a scoundrel can escape for a while from his female kin.”

As a writer myself, I could relate to his hating to finish an early novel and dreaming about characters: “I know I’ll never have so much fun with another one. I dream about the people in it. Like folks I know.” It was surprising to learn how often he received rejection letters and how he fought against censorship by publishers of what he wrote. I loved the way his mother defended him when her social circle criticized him for the content of his books. His mother says he was writing “what he has to write.” He was blessed to have a mother like mine who believed in him and supported him no matter what.

In short, this is a book that anyone interested in William Faulkner will enjoy immensely. It is full of the man’s insights, humor, and contradictions. Reading it is an opportunity to witness an entire life, laid out day by day, from the young man starting out, to the old man nearing the end of life.

Carl Rollyson is professor emeritus of journalism at Baruch Col­lege, CUNY. He is author of many biographies, including The Life of William Faulkner; The Last Days of Sylvia Plath; American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath; Amy Lowell Anew: A Biography; A Real American Character: The Life of Walter Brennan; Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews; and Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress, Revised and Updated. He is also coauthor (with Lisa Paddock) of Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon, Revised and Updated. His reviews of biography have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, New Criterion, and he writes a weekly column on biography for the New York Sun.

“Arranging Stories” by Heather A. Fox

Arranging Stories by Heather A. Fox examines Kate Chopin’s Bayou Folk (1894), Glasgow’s The Shadowy Third and Other Stories (1923), Rawlings’ When the Whippoorwill (1940), and Porter’s The Old Order Stories (1944, 1955, 1965). The book is better suited for the serious scholar of literature rather than those seeking an entertaining biography of four renowned Southern White women who wrote short stories. All four women—Chopin, Glasgow, Rawlings, and Porter—published stories in periodicals, seeking a larger audience, public recognition, and monetary compensation. But eventually, these writers also published volumes of their collected stories, enabling these “authors to revise their stories outside of magazines’ requirements and provided the agency for authors to arrange individual stories into a collective narrative while earning income from their work.” As the authors made their own decisions about the arrangement of stories, they were able to convey social commentary that “unifies, expands on, or complicates readings of individual stories.”

With impeccable research, Arranging Stories reveals the struggles of early women writers working for acceptance and agency within a patriarchal publishing world dominated by White men. Chopin, Glasgow, Rawlings, and Porter all used their collections to revise Northern magazine audiences’ views of the South. Chopin deconstructs the sentimental to expose social concerns, Glasgow presents gender and racial oppression, Rawlings tries to preserve the Florida scrubland and its inhabitants, and Porter uses her character’s childhood memories of the postbellum South. Of the four, Porter’s stories seem to promote a more romanticized version of the agrarian southern lifestyle.

While the book’s main focus is on “how narratives are constructed and maintained to perpetuate or dismantle social injustice,” the book also offers a glimpse of the gradual decline of periodicals that provided literature to the reading public.

Heather A. Fox is an assistant professor of English at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond. Her work has appeared in South, Southern Studies, Janus Head, The Explicator, and the Faulkner Journal.

“The North of the South” by Barbara Ladd

The North of the South is a very short book, only sixty-two pages, minus the chapter notes at the end. Ladd focuses primarily on Edgar Allan Poe, but one chapter also examines Elizabeth Madox Roberts, Cormac McCarthy, and Toni Morrison. Each of these writers, Ladd says, “recast the narrative of nation building in a melancholy tenor, as stories of loss and forgetting, and all of whom are remarkable as nature writers. The book is most likely to be of interest to serious scholars of literature.

Ladd points out most people likely are unaware of several key facts about the Upper South. First it was “home to a large population of free persons of color in the years before the Civil War. Second, the United States was not fully nationalized, made up of a large percentage of first-and-second-generation immigrants. And finally, she notes that numerous large, slaving-owning plantations existed in the Northern states.

One intriguing idea Ladd posits is that Poe’s dark moods and melancholy might partly be due to global effects of the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia, the worst eruption in ten thousand years of earth’s history. This event led to three years of darkness.

As for Roberts, McCarthy, and Morrison, Ladd points out that “westering” forms a large part of their works. According to Ladd, westering, contrary to national myths, is often associated with “melancholy stories of loss and failure. People moved on often because they had to, leaving behind not only place, but also memory and family. And yet these stories also hold out a glimmer of hope, “the prospect of something, some thread of belief or value or shared experience, that might unite us in the face of difference.”

Barbara Ladd is a professor of English at Emory University. She is the author of Resisting History: Gender, Modernity, and Authorship in Williams Faulkner, Zora Neale Hurston, and Eudora Welty and Nationalism and the Color Line of George W. Cable, Mark Twain, and William Faulkner. She is coeditor of The Oxford Handbook of the Literature of the U.S. South.

 

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