Sunday, June 19, 2016

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

“Memory believes before knowing remembers.” 
William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

Eudora Welty, Shelby Foote, Tennessee Williams, Walker Percy, John Grisham…  It is quickly apparent that Mississippi has produced a long list of influential Southern writers, but William Faulkner remains one of the most beloved by readers all over the world… and probably the most feared by many a high school American Lit student for his characteristic style.

William Cuthbert Faulkner was born in New Albany, Mississippi in September 1897, the oldest son of Murry and Maud Falkner.  Faulker’s  family (like many old Southern families) was populated by colorful characters that threw their shadows with long intensity and influence over their descendants.  Faulkner’s forebears instilled many of the loves and dreams that fueled his life and writing, especially his parents - his father shared his love of hunting, fishing and the outdoors while his mother inspired with her love of reading and art.  From them, and the other older relatives in his family, William heard the old family histories, in particular the adventures and exploits of his great-grandfather and namesake who was a successful businessman, writer and Confederate hero. Caroline “Callie” Barr, who worked for the family and raised the Faulkner children had immeasurable influence on William Faulkner. Born into slavery she never learned to read or write but her stories of slavery, the Civil War and her own people profoundly found their way into many fictional characters in Faulkner’s writing.

“That's the one trouble with this country: everything, weather, all, hangs on too long. Like our rivers, our land: opaque, slow, violent; shaping and creating the life of man in its implacable and brooding image.” 
William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

The Falkner family moved to Oxford just before William’s fifth birthday and this place too became a fertile ground for his growth as a writer - first as a poet and then moving into fiction. Oxford was a small town but it exposed Faulkner to a wide variety of characters and places that interpreted their way easily into his fiction.  Oxford became “Jefferson” in his works and his home county of Lafayette inspired “Yoknapatawpha County”.

It is hard to believe that one of the most celebrated among Southern writers and the most noted writers of American literature - writing novels, short stories, plays, poetry and screenplays - never graduated from high school and although he enrolled at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, only attended three semesters before dropping out.

“It's like it ain't so much what a fellow does, but it's the way the majority of folks is looking at him when he does it.” 
William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

Faulkner’s writing career was rich and varied.  His original love was writing poetry and he first became published at the age of 21 with his poem “L’Après-midi d’un Faune”, which appeared in The New Republic magazine in August of 1919.  But his debut novel, Soldier’s Pay, published in 1926 began a succession of works that spanned over 36 years with his 19th and final novel, The Reivers which released the same year of his death.

For his important body of work, Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949 for “his powerful and artistically unique contribution to the modern American novel”, two Pulitzer Prizes, two National Book Awards and a Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur by the government of France.

In 1930 As I Lay Dying was published by Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith and was his fifth novel. Told in stream-of-consciousness style by fifteen different speakers over 59 chapters, it is a work described by Faulkner himself as a “tour de force”.  He began As I Lay Dying while working night shifts at the University of Mississippi Power House and claimed to have written it in just six weeks almost with no revisions.  It is the first work in which he used “Yoknapatawpha County” which became a setting throughout his most well-known works. 
In Homer’s The Odyssey there was a line “As I lay dying, the woman with the dog’s eyes would not close my eyes as I descended into Hades” and it sits as an apt title for the journey of a family through a death and the obstacles that face the speakers who follow through with burial requests of the matriarch, Addie Bundren.  It is novel that considers the nature of grieving, of community and family.

“I could just remember how my father used to say that the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time.” 
William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

William Faulkner’s influence on writers has been deep-seated and intense.  Various competitions have been created to give a leg up to unpublished writers such as The William Faulkner - William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition sponsored by The Pirate’s Alley Society, Inc, a non-profit literary and educational organization and The William Faulkner Literary Competition which originated in New Albany, Mississippi.  But perhaps one of the most creative of the competitions is the Faux Faulkner Contest, which was an annual parody essay contest founded in 1989 by Dean Faulkner Wells, niece of William Faulkner. Each entry to this highly-enjoyed contest could be no longer than 500 words and must draw on the author’s distinctive style, themes, plots and/or characters.  Not currently an active competition, many of the essays that were submitted and won are still entertaining and skillfully crafted works that can be found in a simple online search.

“In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were. I don't know what I am. I don't know if I am or not.” 
William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner is the third read in our new reading plan, A Southern Study. You have plenty of time to start reading to discuss over a Summer Book Lunch to take place on Saturday, July 30th, 2016.  Bon courage!  If you like - write us your own “Faux Faulkner” to share at our Book Lunch!