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March 17, 1974 - Image 4

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Michigan Daily, 1974-03-17

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Page Four HMCHGN ALYSnyMrh1,97


Sunday, March 17, 1974


The biography of William Faulkner: A
brilliant, troubled man and his work

to that work seems to have been
his ballast throughout his often
frustrating life.
When Faulkner writes this in
1941 (because his electricity is
about to be cut off from unpaid
light bills) to his agent Harold
Ober, he has already written
many of his greatest novels-
The Sound and the Fury, As I
Lay Dying, Light in August, the
financially successful Sanctuary,
Absalom, Absalom!, The Ham-
let, and other less critically ac-
claimed books. Yet his life was
haunted with the specter of fi-
nancial chaos. On his erratic and
never large writer's income,
he was supporting his own fam-
ily (his wife, her two children by
a previous marriage, his daugh-
ter), his mother and her house,
the widow and child of his
youngset brother, and at various
times other members of his fami-
lv. Blotner gives us the evi-
dence of Faulkner's letters to
his publishers and agents as he
prooses scheme after scheme
to find monev somewhere for the
nronerty tax, income tax, the
local grocery's bill (which in
1933 had accumulated to 51200).
Advance royalties are snent lon
before novels are finished: the
sales of short stories are Fanik-
ner's most important items of
business. If he can only sell to
the Saturdav Evening Post. the
highest paving of the slick ma-
azines! A story placed there
brought from $800 to S1,000: the
other nrestige markets naid only
$'00, $30, or nerhans $40. As he
wrote when Americn Mercurv
offered his agent 15 for a
story, '"But that won't heln me
enozi0h . . . I need a thousand.
I will ijst have to knock ot
so nething for the Post. I wish to
hell T could find some man who
would gamble on my fnture on a
note, no contract. Damn these
fool laws about usnry anvow.'
Althongh he had mentioned a
thousand dollars, what he really
needed, be said, was ten thous-
and. 'With that I could nay my
debts and insurance for two
years and really write. I mean,
write. The man who said that the
pinch of necessity, butchers and
grocers bills and insurance hang-
ing over his head, is good for an
artist is a damned fool."'
possible financial battle for
most of his writing career. Not
until he has won the Nobel Prize
for literature in 1950 does he be-
gin to earn enough to meet his
bills and outdistance them. Tra-
gic as the facts of these twen-
tv years of Faulkner's life are,
Blotner does not use the pathos
inherent to rail against and un-
appreciative America. Rather,
he presents the evidence through
his reconstruction of the life and
the numerous letters Faulkner
was writing to agents, friends,
and publishers. Because of his
controlled method, his refusal to
set up obviously charged condi-
tions, Blotner's depiction is con-
One has only to consider these
"facts" of the writer's existence
to wonder that the hounded man
wrote anything at all. For in-
stance, when he begins the book
which is to become Absalom. Ab-
salom! he is rushing to fulfill a
contract to his publisher for roy-
alties already advanced. It is
1934. Faulkner is writing, simul-
taneously, The Hamlet (finally
published in 1940), Requiem for a
Nun (apearing in 1951), and
A Dark House (the working title
for Absalom) as well as several
short stories. After several false

starts, he puts Absalom away
and writes and publishes the 1935
novel about air shows, Pylon.
Then in March of 1935 he 're-
sumes Absalom, and writes on it
steadily, desperately, for nearly
five months. In mid-August, sty-
mied by financial problems, he
goes to New York for one of the
visits he dislikes, making connec-
tions, meeting possiblepublish-
ers, drinking (Blotner aptly
terms Faulkner's periodic alco-
holism "a strategy of evasion").
From then on, finishing Absalom
is interrupted by:
(1) the tragic death of his
youngest brother, Dean, as he
flies in a week-end air show, No-
vember, 1935. Faulkner assumes
full responsibility not only for
Dean's death (" I bought him the
plane, I paid for his les-
sons . . .") but also. for his
young widow and their unborn
(2) a personally debilitating
...:. . « . . .,. ul 4Sn l n r

28; then, changing studios, from
April 9 to May 30.
(4) returning home to severe
financial problems, complicated
by both his own and his wife's
(5) the return to Hollywood in
mid-July with his family and
two retainers, and the problems
of re-locating the entire family
in such an expensive area ($550-
a-month rent, in 1936), circum-
stances only leading to continu-
ing financial worries. That Faulk-
ner was able to continue work-
ing at all under such unsettling
and unsettled personal conditions
is surprising. The struggle that
his life was shows not only in his
relatively frequent bouts with
the bottle, but also in his near
death a few years later, 1940,
when he hemorrhages internally
with an undiagnosed perforated
,0 V I N G A S the events
of Faulkner's life are in
themselves, B 1 o t n e r pre-
sents them as parts-and only
parts-of the complete scene. He
keeps the reader in touch with
Faulkner's position within his
family and the community of
Oxford, Mississippi. In 1933
Blotner mentions that Faulkner
appeared in a series entitled
"Prominent Citizens of Oxford."
Faulkner was twelfth in the
series (which would run to six-
ty), having been preceded by
the mayor, the university foot-
ball coach, two physicians, and
Joe Parks, among others. (His
uncle would be thirty-fifth in
the series.) The caption de-
scribed Faulkner as EMINENT
Tragic as the facts
of these twenty years
of Faulkner's life are,
Blotner does not use
the pathos inherent to
rail against an unap-
preciative America ...
Because of his control-
led method, his refusal
to s e t up obviously
charged conditions,
Blotner's depiction is
It is also heartening to know
that Bennett Cerf, his Random
House publisher, never lost faith
in his ability. He h'ad written to
Faulkner in 1935, "'I think we'd
rather have you on our list than
any other fiction writer living in
America. I know that those are
strong words, Bill, but I mean
One of the best qualities of
Blotner's biography is that he
does include the purely literary
matters of Faulkner's life. By
seeing the work as integral to
Faulkner's existence, Blotner
makes correlations, adds critical
judgments, and generally en-
hances our understanding of a
novel by using his own full bio-
graphical knowledge. This ap-
proach is particularly valid for
the Faulkner account, simply
because it is difficult to imagine
discussing his life from 1926 to
1962 without some meaningful
consideration of the nineteen
novels and countless short stor-
ies - many still unpublished-
which he wrote during those
Blotner also provides enough

commentary from reviews and
essayscontemporary with Faulk-
ner's work that the reader un-
derstands the general critical
temper, a matter of concern to
any writer. Faulkner usually said
that he cared little what re-
viewers said, but since his fi-
nancial solvency depended on
public reaction, he could scarce-
Iy be so disinterested as he pre-
tended. Blotner's handling of
these quotations is efficient: ex-
tensive quotation could have
slowed this long study irreparab-
ly, so he often summarizes the
gist of opinion, and includes full
reference in the copious notes-
arranged by page and line, rath-
er than by number - in the rear
of each of the two volumes.
ALTHOUGH it runs to over
L2100 pages, Blotner's Faulk-
ner is not a cumbersome study.
The volumes provide an amazing
amount of previously inaccessi-
ble information. Few of Faulk-
ner's letters were ever publish-
ed; no other biographical study
has been attempted (often there
will be unauthorized accounts of
is); few literary figures have in-
cluded Faulkner significantly in
a writer's life, in addition to the
"authorized" book, which this
their own memoirs and autobiog-
raphies, simply because Faulk-
ner had close contact with com-
nnrati e-h fPr th,, t..

for the title of his last novel,
The Reivers. Blotner justifies in-
cluding detailed accounts of these
ancestors, and rightly, because
Faulkner himself made such ex-
tensive use of them-or charac-
ters like them-in his fiction. He
gives much information about
Faulkner's early friendships; his
early and continuing love for Es-
telle Oldham, which led to their
marriage in 1929, just seven
weeks after Estelle's divorce;
and his generous and loving re-
lationships with all segments of
his family.
Particularly valuable is the
information about Faulkner's
many stints in Hollywood. Leg-
ends abound about his hatred of
the movie business and his some-
times unorthodox behavior as a
screenplay writer. Blotner's ac-
count validates some of the
stories, but more important, it
documents the quantity and
quality of Faulkner's production
there. Working on so many kinds
of assignments, with so many
different people - often chang-
ing. scripts every two or three
days - Faulkner had reason to
dread the frantic months in Hol-
lywood. His desperate financial
need was his only reason for go-
ing West.
BLOTNER ALSO savors the
mellow years-after the No-
bel Prize, when Faulkner was
teaching at the University of Vir-
ginia, traveling for the State De-
partment, and finally able to
rest easy financially. We can
sense the difference in Faulk-
ner as he sees his family ma-
ture, his books back in print, his
life given ostensible value. He
buys more land; peoples it with
the inferior mules and horses
that he always managed to
choose; and keep riding. Blotner
emphasizes the three falls from
horses, one in 1959 and two in
1962, that led to his general dis-
ability and death on July 6, 1962,
just two months after The Reiv-
ers was published.
Blotner has given us an un-
derstandable Faulkner. The need
in his life for solace, for assur-
ance, is imaged vividly through
his turn to flying as well as to
alcohol. Often he takes the Waco
up for an hour, an hour and a,
half, in the midst of a hectic
weekend. Yet when he is writ-
ing well, hard at work on a nov-
el he enjoys, he flies only once
in three or four months. His
drinking is just as sporadic, and
just as predictable. When all hu-
man resources fail him, when
his own imaginative powers are
inadequate, Faulkner drinks -
hard, purposefully, and necessar-
ily; but drinking is usually a last
That Blotner can show both the
frailty and the grandeur of his
subject is possible partly be-
cause of the coherence which
permeates the book, and partly
because of his own love for and
understanding of Faulkner. And
he so gently remarks in his mod-
est one-page preface to the book,
. . . perhaps I can here per-
mit myself to say not just that
William Faulkner was a great
writer, but that to me he
seems America's greatest
writer of prose fiction. The
narrative will perhaps revel
more clearly how he seemed
to me as a man. I cannot hope
to look upon his like again.
Faulkner, A Biography is an ef-
fective whole, for desnite its
length, it was written and pub-
lished as a total presentation.
Blotner knew where he was go-
ing throughout the book, and
could make editorial changes to
keep the pace lively and the de-
tails germane in terms of the
total effect. The difficulties of

maintaining continuity and focus
when separate volumes of a
three, four, or five volume study
are published - and written-
separately, a book at a time, are
here diminished. Naturally, the
work of writing such a study as
a single book - with all research
materials "on hand" at once -
must be fatiguing, to say the
BLOTNER'S biography should
grove tattimpeccable schol-
arship is not the dry-as-dust oc-
cupation that the non-academic
world sometimes pretends. It is
rather, in Faulkner, the means
one compassionate human be-
ing uses to prove to the world at
large that William Faulkner was
not only a great prose stylist, but
an equally great man himself.
All the tragedy of Faulkner's
frustrating personal life - and
the persistent jo he managed
to find in moments of it - only
deepened his devotion to that
elusive craft of writing. his mas-
ter and his torment. That Blot-
ner can make us feel this pas-
sion so clearly, in his own ob-
jective and understated presen-
tation, is surely proof that he has
mastered his own difficult craft,
that of the perceptive and chary
Today's writer. . .
Linda Wanner is Profes-
sor of Enalish at Michigan

Daily Photo by ROLFE TESSEM
Joseph Blotner

The making o# a
biographer: An
1 year ordeal
"I'VE NEVER felt this naked and vulnerable," Univer-
sity Professor of English J)seph Blotner confessed last
week. "Every time a critic says anything negative, I think
he hates me.
Professor Blotner's case of writer's jitters is understand-
able. Eleven years of his life have gone into the making of
William Faulkner, A Biography, eleven years of research
and writing and painstaking editing. "At this point, I'm
just happy it's finally out," Blotner says.
Blotner's long-awaited biography of one of America's
greatest writers is destined to be an important work. New
Times magazine has already named it one of the three
major biographies of the year, it was hailed by Publisher's
Weekly as a humanitarian work" and the Book-of-the Month
Club has made it an alternate selection.
The biography has its roots at the University of Vir-
ginia where Blotner and Faulkner met. In 1957, Blotner
was on a committee to select a writer-in-residence for the
school and Faulkner seemed a logical choice. He was a
recent Nobel prize winner and his daughter was enrolled
at the university. The two men shared common interests,
(they both liked to go to track meets and football games),
and they became friends.
"I think he came to trust me because I made no de-
mands on him; I respected his privacy," Blotner now.re-
calls. "I realized that he was an extraordinary person and
a great artist and I did everything I could to shield him
from people who wanted to-exploit him."
BLOTNER REMEMBERS Faulkner as "a Southern gen-
tleman" who 'would sooner read Herodotus than a mod-
ern American author, and who came to school armed with
a manuscript handwritten on one continuous roll of paper.
Faulkner would sit in his office and transcribe, slowly and
painstakingly, using the two finger typing method.
"I put all thoughts of writing about him out of my mind,"
Blotner says. "You can't be somebody's friend and turn
around behind their back every few minutes to take notes."
Faulkner died in 1962 and the Faulkner family ap-
proached Blotner some time later to write a biography.
Because the family authorized the work, Blotner had unique
access to all of Faulkner's correspondence and papers.
Blotner approached his task with a reverence for his
subject and a knowledge of the work's importance. "I loved
doing the work because I knew it was important. Being
William Faulkner's friend gave it an added dimension," he
From 1963 until 1967, Prof. Blotner researched his ma-
terial, visiting 6 states and several countries in Europe
in pursuit of information about Faulkner. He spoke with
a Faulkner friend in Mexico, with Random House editors
in New York and with the janitor of a hotel in Stockholm.
In August 1967, Blotner sat down to put it all together.
It was a massive project, one that would eventually ex-
ceed 2000 pages. All the information Blotner had so assidu-
ously gathered was organized in three separate files, di-
vided by year, by title and by the names of people who
figured in Faulkner's life.
Blotner would go through the year file to pinpoint
chronology, sort thi-ough the apnropriate people file to fill
in quotes and conversation, and then work with the title
file, weaving the writing of each Faulkner novel into the
main narrative thread of the writer's life.
Work on the biography became something of an obses-
sion to Blotner, albeit a quiet professorial obsession.
"I tried to work on it every day," Blotner says. "After
I got out of class or before class or when I finished grad-
ing blue books, I would work on it. At home I would read
over the novels and study criticism. I could never quite
put it out of my mind."
" AY WIFE probably began to resent the time I was
spendingson the biography," Blotner admits. "She said
she felt as if she'd been living with two men for a long
time-Joseeh Blotner and William Faulkner."
The first draft was completed in 1969, but then there
were rewrites and conferences with editors and copy edi-
tors who needed time to read the work. And the index
had to be done (Blotner did it himself). Then, in the midst
of putting the finishing touches on the biography, Blotner
discovered important new material. The publication date
was postponed and reostoned.
Now, that the book is finally published and critics are
pondering the result of a decade's work. There have already
been some excellent reviews but Blotner calls the all-im-
portant notice in today's New York Times 'mixed.' And he
feels he is doomed to an unfavorable review in the New
York Review of Books.

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