Rob Hardy: Faulkners of Mississippi

May 14, 2011 2:50:00 PM

Rob Hardy - robhardy@earthlink.net

 

Everyone acknowledges now that William Faulkner was one of the greats in American literature, but like many writers, he had more than his share of flaws. Any biography will tell you about his depressions, alcoholism, and affairs, and "Every Day by the Sun: A Memoir of the Faulkners of Mississippi" (Crown) touches on all of these dark areas. But as a memoir, it gives a brighter, humane picture of the famous author (and others in his family) because it is written by his loving niece Dean Faulkner Wells. William Faulkner was not only her uncle, but a stand in for the father she never knew, and he took the role seriously and seems to have done a fine job of it. Wells has written about Faulkner''s writings before, but this is a lovely, funny, and poignant personal tribute from one looking back from the vantage of 74 years. "Now I am, one might say, the last primary source," Wells says in her prologue, "and I don''t like anything about it." Maybe not, but there was a lot Wells liked in her peculiar, unique upbringing, and this is a generous memoir that will be valued by anyone interested in Faulkner''s works or in the Mississippi of the mid-20th century. 

 

"There has never been a Poor Little Fatherless Child as spoiled as I," Wells writes near the beginning of the book. She was well cared for in part because she was fatherless. Her father, Dean Swift Faulkner, was William''s brother, and he died in a plane crash before Wells was born. This was one of the central tragedies in William Faulkner''s life, and it was not just the loss of his brother. All four Faulkner brothers had been infatuated with flying ever since they saw a hot air balloon ascension from the town square at Oxford. They made an airplane out of a wooden crate, and William within it was launched into the air, only it happened to be the air down a ravine; he was to claim that he was "the first man (or child) to become airborne in Mississippi -- well, almost." When the boys grew up they really did take to the air. In World War I, William went up to Toronto to join the Royal Air Force, but the war was to end before he completed flight training. He had his own plane, a Waco C cabin cruiser, and when his youngest brother Dean, 10 years his junior, caught the flying bug, William encouraged him to learn to fly, and paid for his lessons, and gave him his own plane. 

 

Part of Well''s memoir looks into all that can be known of her father''s short life. Dean was a fine pilot, getting his commercial license in 1934. He made one single error on his examination, omitting a watch on the list of equipment every pilot ought to carry on a flight. The error was a running joke in the family. A cousin said, "Dean never needed a watch. He lived every day of his life by the sun." In 1934, a Faulkner cousin introduced him to Louise Hale (known by Wells as "Wese" from her infant pronunciation of Louise''s name; everyone in these pages seems to have a nickname, with "Pappy" going to William). She loved flying with Dean, and the more loops and stalls he performed, the more she enjoyed it. He used to fly to Oxford from his home base in Memphis to court her. The Faulkners loved Louise from the start. William''s toast at an elegant marriage announcement party at his mother''s house was, "To the best wife and the best flier I have ever known." Louise and William lived a happy transient life, with Dean taking her to the exhibitions where he would do his barnstorming and taking people up for a fee. It was on one of these hired trips in Pontotoc in 1935 that Dean was aloft with three passengers who had paid to look at their farms as the birds see them that something went wrong. The plane crashed and all four occupants were killed. 

 

The loss devastated William, who proved solicitous to Louise especially since she was five months pregnant. One morning before breakfast, Louise said, "I can''t eat. I dreamed the whole accident last night." William''s response was, "I dream it every night." He was to tell her some days later, "I have ruined your life. It is my fault." It was a time for him to go on a binge; Wells describes how at a crisis like this, or after he finished a book, he drank to oblivion. The family never talked about the problem, and William had the circumspection that prevented him from imposing it on anyone else. "I never saw William Faulkner drunk," she writes. More constructively, William''s guilt over his brother''s death lead him to take over the missing paternal role in Wells''s life. Part of the job of this memoir is that it documents Wells''s gratitude; Faulkner assumed legal guardianship of her, and was an ideal of responsibility, paying for her education, a year in Europe, and her wedding. It is an appealing part of Faulkner''s life. 

 

All the Faulkners joined in to help. Wells and her mother would stay at her grandmother''s or at William''s (the famous Rowan Oak, of which Wells says, "For me, it is no longer a familiar and private place for Faulkners but a well-kept museum.") They weren''t a tight-knit family: "The only place we can be found in relative harmony is St. Peter''s Cemetery in Oxford, Miss." They built walls to keep other families out and they walked themselves in from one another. "Over the generations my family can claim nearly every psychological aberration," Wells writes. "Narcissism and nymphomania, alcoholism and anorexia, agoraphobia, manic depression, paranoid schizophrenia. There have been thieves, adulterers, sociopaths, killers, racists, liars, and folks suffering from panic attacks and real bad tempers, though to the best of my knowledge we''ve never had a barn burner or a preacher." Oxford was slow to acknowledge Faulkner as a genius. When MGM came to Oxford to film, and then premiere, "Intruder in the Dust" in 1948, the locals got an idea that there was some special writer among them, though Faulkner''s novel had an attitude toward racial justice that was not popular in Mississippi, or even among Faulkners, at the time. "Pappy, Wese, and I formed a moderate minority in our family of ardent segregationist and racists." As a schoolgirl, Wells was proud to recite the declaration to her grandmother, William''s mother, "All men are created equal. They are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights." "Yes they are, my lamb," the grandmother replied, "with the exception of nigrahs, foreigners, Catholics, and Jews." 

 

There are plenty of William Faulkner anecdotes, as seen by a little girl who adored him. Wells, for instance, got to accompany him when he was an air raid warden for Oxford during World War II, a job he took seriously, politely but dutifully informing neighbors when their window shades were allowing a bit of light to escape. There are also family stories about Faulkner, like the time he wound up drunk and barefoot in Memphis, where he wanted to go shopping but he also didn''t want to carry his jug of corn liquor around. He placed it on the ground behind a traffic policeman, knowing it would be well guarded, and Wells says family members swear it was still there unmolested when Faulkner returned to retrieve it two hours later. And who knew that Faulkner, who hated television and didn''t own a set, adored going to a friend''s to watch "Car 54, Where Are You?" There are also plenty of stories about the wider, stranger family, some of whom obviously hail from Yoknapatawpha County. And, as in any loving memoir, there are passages of loss, regret that the way things used to be is no longer. Faulkner is gone, for instance, but in his place on a bench in front of city hall is a 500-pound statue, which the city fathers thought would draw tourists. It is, Wells writes, "available 24/7 to every tourist with a three-dollar throwaway camera who wants to have his picture taken with a Nobel Prize winner -- old what''s-his-name. One Christmas, some fool put a Santa Claus hat on him."

Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is robhardy@earthlink.net.