IN HIS PREFACE to William Faulkner: His life and work David Minter says that he seeks "the mysterious armature" (Mallarme's phrase) that "binds Faulkner's life and art together." To recognize the point where the novelist turns the raw material of life into fiction, as Minter succeeds in doing, is to enhance the understanding of the whole live body of Faulkner's work.
Minter does not fall into the trap of literary pruience, the causeless invasion of the privacy of the writer. Instead he concerns himself with finding out what Faulkner saw and lived through, and why he chose those incidents and influences and changed them into art.
Neither does he catalogue, as Joseph Blotner did in his two-volume Faulkner , a morass of respectful and solemn detail that turns a book into an encylopedia, not a biography. Minter follows E. M. Forster: "Omission is the first rule of art." He concentrates on the formative and productive years before fame turns into anecdote. He covers the later years, when Faulkner had become his disguises, sketchily.
He avoids, always, the half-analysis that treats observation as autobiography, and the talent to transmute raw material into art, the essence of fiction, as psychological obsession. He sees the irony that the true artist in fiction, as opposed to the lightly masked autobiographer, presents to the world the exposed amalgam of dreams, of experiences, of what has been done and what has been learned, made into a new thing, a gift. Minter recognizes that the life of an artist is no more important than anyone else's, except when biography can expose the pattern that in a very few produces works of art.
How strong are the threads of similarity that bind the lives of so many Southern writers together! It is embarrassing to realize that even the self-destructive impulses follow a pattern. In Southern Politics V. O. Key Jr. remarks: "A depressingly high rate of self-destruction prevails among those who ponder about the South and put down their reflections in books. A fatal frustration seems to come from the struggle to find a way through the unfathomable maze formed by tradition, caste, race, poverty."
I would add to that maze the noisy, ever-present demands of social life in Southern towns, the demands that are both their comfort, kindness, and security, and their most destructive weapon against those who don't conform. A writer who is born in that region of profound subject matter inherits an almost genetic gift of story-telling, and also the misfortune to be cast out, either by ridicule or social ostracism, if he asks too many fool questions.
To be rejected is to build defenses. F. Scott Fitzgerald, genetically Southern, invented a legend about his football prowess. Faulkner, Count No Count, "derided and deriding," flew phantom missions in the First World War. This protective coloring is as classically Southern and as deep in the past as Sut Lovingood or the characters in Mark Twain. The tradition of tall tales, big brag, the conjuration of the missed event, can be limited to the cracker barrel, or in the case of genius, protect developing talent.
How classis, too, is the finding of the substitute home. There is always a provincial center where the tendrils of a wider culture extend from outside and afford a hope that makes the inner isolation bearable to the gifted. In Faulkner's growing up, the sympathetic young lawyer Phil Stone appeared as a guiding spirit at the right time. So did Ben Wasson. The Oldham home provided the illusion of a haven of music and conversation away from the stultifying atmosphere of parental quarrels, claustrophobic blood connections, and "good ole boy" ridicule.
Still another classic pattern is that of the talented Southerner who can't live in the South and yet can't stay away from the source, the deep well, the tap root that forms a writer. Ellen Glasgow bore for years the diminishment of genteel criticism from a shrillness of ladies in order to live in Richmond. Faulkner went further. From the myth of his great-grandfather, the old colonel, he reconstructed a golden past. He even bought the Big House. But behind that social facade, which all too often broke down, he worked in silence within a nostalgia almost cleansed of myth.
Not quite. A part of the myth remained intact where his life met his work, in the pulse that informed them and gave energy to them. He was, after all, a Southerner, with the nagging sense within himself of lost hope, a lost war, lost opportunity, that turned into an apologetic pride that derided the "go-getter" and emulated him at the same time.
He evoked the Sartoris of a lost past; all too often he acted Snopes. He never recognized, either in his life or his work, that they met, as they did in the South, within the paradox of his own soul. The legend he created, that Snopes and Sartoris are opposed, has been -- up until the civil rights revolution -- the self-protecting myth of the Southern gentry. But the opposition within himself was both a weakness and a strength. Out of the raw material which he lived -- a raw material succinctly set down and interpreted by Minter in William Faulkner -- he invented the opposing archetypes, Sartoris and Snopes, that are after all brothers or reflective twins within the white Southerner.