Seventy-five years ago this summer, Quentin Compson III jumped to his death from a bridge near Harvard College. He was only 19, a Southern gentleman struggling to salvage a measure of family honor as the Old South crumbled. Hopelessly out of place at Harvard, he turned to reliving in his mind all the glory, guilt and doom of the southern past.
On June 2, 1910, he surrendered, caught between memories as sweet as honeysuckle and as dark as slavery. Flatirons tied to his feet, he plunged into the Charles River, and was swallowed by the New England night.
Quentin was only a fictional character, a creation of William Faulkner in two epic novels, "The Sound and the Fury" and "Absalom, Absalom!" But his anguish is so personal and haunting that generations of readers have come to regard him as someone real.
I came upon him more than 10 years ago, another southerner-come-to-Harvard who felt very much an outsider. I was taunted for my drawl and my unhurried walk (Walk faster! No wonder you people lost the war), and felt called upon always to explain that the South was hardly a monolith of ignorant bigots.
In Quentin Compson, I found a compatriot for my southern loneliness. Like Quentin, I found that the "iron, New England dark" made me yearn for the gentleness of the South -- the friendly folk, the slower pace, the emphasis on people. Once ashamed of the South, I came to accept that in my own way, I was as southern as Quentin.
I met other southerners who had found their ways to Quentin, and we formed a cult of sorts, talking incessantly about Faulkner. We came to look on Quentin as larger than southern: He was the universal outsider; he was youth clutching lost ideals in a changing world; he was anyone who felt the ground slipping beneath his feet. He was one of us.
In 1972, an English instructor named Kevin Starr told my American Lit class of a tiny Quentin Compson memorial plaque, discovered years earlier on Harvard's Anderson Bridge at the spot from which Faulkner aficionados believe Quentin jumped. No one knew its origins; it was simply a tribute from an anonymous devotee of Faulkner.
Joined by Walter Isaacson, a friend from New Orleans and a member of the unofficial Quentin cult, I walked immediately after class to the crest of the Anderson Bridge, the Charles River lapping lazily below. I brushed aside a vine to reveal a tarnished brass plaque the size of a calling card:
Quentin Compson III. June 2, 1910. Drowned in the fading of honeysuckle.
The plaque obviously was meant to be secret, so tiny and so obscured by vines and shadows that I had walked past it countless times without noticing. From then until I graduated, I went to see the plaque almost daily, wondering each time who placed it there. And why?
I learned everything I could about the plaque. It was discovered in the mid-1960s, and students and professors had passed along word of its existence ever since. In a sort of rite of passage, one generation would direct the next to the precise spot on the bridge where it was affixed.
"I remember when we found it that I felt for once part of a certain tradition," my friend Walter recalled. "It was a secret bond among generations of people like us who felt slightly displaced. I realized: Yes, yes, somebody else knows exactly how it feels."
This is the story of what Quentin meant to us. It is a tale of youth, southerners, Harvard, honeysuckle, an extraordinary plaque, and how, through almost mystical coincidence, I learned who placed it there, and why.
Why the fascination with a fictional freshman? Surely part of it was youth. Literature was even more wondrous then, when the imagination roamed unhindered by such grown-up concerns as responsibility and the passing of time. It also was the pathos of Quentin himself, and the prodigious imagination of our fellow southerner, the great scribe Faulkner.
Quentin was the last, best hope of the Compson clan, a Mississippi family that flourished in the Old South and collapsed tragically along with it. They lost baronial land holdings, their youngest son was born an idiot, and a daughter, Caddy, whom Quentin worshiped as an ideal of southern womanhood, became a tramp.
Desperate to restore the family name, Quentin's ailing mother took the proceeds from selling 40 acres of Compson land and sent her son to Harvard. ("Harvard is such a fine sound forty acres is no high price for a fine sound.") Quentin balked, but soon accepted his fate: "No Compson has ever disappointed a lady."
Quentin lived in mourning for the Old South, knowing all the while that it was built on an evil. He created in his mind an ideal apart from slavery -- a world of grace, gentility and honeysuckle-pure women -- refusing to believe that the taint and the beauty were inseparable. So it was with his sister Caddy, whom he loved passionately and whose promiscuity focused all of his anguish over the fall of the Old South and his family's lost honor. As Faulkner wrote:
He loved not his sister's body but some concept of Compson honor . . . supported by the minute fragile membrane of her maidenhead as a miniature replica of all the whole vast globy earth may be poised on the nose of a trained seal. . . .
Just after midnight on June 2, 1972, while studying in a Harvard library, I realized the significance of the date -- the 62nd anniversary of Quentin's suicide -- and at almost the same moment, spied fellow Quentin-cultist Walter across the room. We decided at once to make a pilgrimage to the plaque with copies of "The Sound and the Fury" and "Absalom, Absalom!," and to read aloud our favorite passages by moonlight.
Walter read from "Absalom, Absalom!" the words of Quentin's Harvard roommate, a Canadian named Shreve, who was struggling to understand the southern obsession with the past:
"What is it? something you live and breathe in like air? a kind of vacuum filled with wraithlike and indomitable anger and pride and glory at and in happenings that occurred and ceased fifty years ago? a kind of entailed birthright father and son and father and son of never forgiving General Sherman, so that forevermore as long as your childrens' children produce children you won't be anything but a descendant of a long line of colonels killed in Pickett's charge at Manassas?"
"Gettysburg," Quentin said. "You can't understand it. You would have to be born there."
And I, reading a speech by the Compson patriarch, as he gave Quentin his grandfather's watch in "The Sound and the Fury":
"I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire. . . . I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools."
We lost track of time as we continued reading, and felt that we had crossed a border between fiction and reality -- as if we, too, had become characters of Faulkner. Feeling compelled to share the moment with Starr, we went to his apartment. He was out, so we slipped this note under his door:
Dear Professor Starr,
We spent the evening on Anderson Bridge, reverently observing the 62nd anniversary of Quentin Compson's final resignation to chaos. It was a truly religious experience. We missed you.
D. and W., 2 Southerners fighting off the sweet odor of honeysuckle.
In the cold air, the iron New England dark; we don't. We don't! We don't hate the South! We don't hate it!
(The last line was adapted from Quentin's final words in "Absalom, Absalom!")
The plaque was much more than a touchstone for Southern expatriates. It was a paean to great literature, inspiring students and professors who never had crossed the Mason-Dixon. Unbeknownst to Walter and me, a midwestern Harvard undergraduate named Joseph Blatt had had a mystical encounter of his own, two years before ours.
A history and literature major, he had known only vaguely of the plaque although he had immersed himself in Faulkner. His senior year, he cut short his Christmas vacation to return to Cambridge to wrestle with a seminar paper on the unifying power of Faulkner's imagery. The heat in his Harvard dorm had not yet been turned back on, and as he wrote and thought in the New England cold, his breath vaporized -- much as Quentin's had in "Absalom, Absalom!"
"I was focusing on honeysuckle in 'Sound and the Fury,' and blood in 'Go Down, Moses' and 'Absalom, Absalom!,' and I was struggling intensely because the images so inspired me," Blatt recalled recently. "What makes great literature is not plot or character or narrative, but images, which operate at a much more profound level. That's what was at work here, and what I was trying to get at.
"Finally, I decided to go for a walk, and I went all over Cambridge mulling this paper. It was the middle of the night, and as I crossed the Anderson Bridge, I saw moonlight reflecting from a point on the bridge in a way I'd never seen before. I went up to investigate, and there it was: Drowned in the fading of honeysuckle.
"I was grappling with those seemingly profound personal questions that so often come up when one works on something that matters a lot. Such as: Who am I to try to say anything about this wonderful thing? I guess you could call it classic undergraduate insecurity, but it's something that happens even now when I'm working on a project I care about. It's a hump you have to get over if you want to produce something you think is worth showing to the world. That night, it was seeing the plaque that got me over the hump.
"I went back to my room and wrote the paper, infused with a whole new energy. I felt an historical flow of thought through people who'd been in literally the same piece of ground, the same footsteps as myself, feeling and thinking the same way and leaving this manifestation of it. Standing there, I just thought: 'How could it be any other way?' "
The Quentin plaque became something of a rage at Harvard soon after Walter and I made our pilgrimage in June 1972. That summer, Harvard Magazine published an article titled "Where, Why, Whence the Plaque?" soliciting clues leading to its maker. The magazine received numerous tips, but none led anywhere.
Fascinated by the mystery, I wrote my parents in Birmingham, Ala., to share the tale of the plaque and my feeling for it. The story delighted my mother, who loves to talk about her children, and in her rounds of Birmingham over the next few weeks, she retold my Faulkner escapade dozens of times. One day, she told it to her friend Stanley Stefancic, then the minister of the Unitarian Church, in whom she expected a ready audience because he had attended Harvard Divinity School. As she told the story, my mother recalled, Stefancic's eyes widened with wonder. He was silent for several moments, and then said slowly:
Irene, I put that plaque there.
Stefancic explained that he never wanted to be discovered. But because of this uncanny coincidence, and because I was a southerner who loved Faulkner, he agreed at my mother's urging to share the plaque's history with me. I soon received from him a brief account, written in the third person, revealing how he, his wife Jean, and a friend, Tom Sugimoto, came to love Faulkner while at Harvard in the mid-1960s.
Like me, they devoured the novels and short stories, fixating on Quentin. Sugimoto, a Japanese-American graduate student in physics, and the Stefancics, midwesterners schooled in the Deep South, identified with Quentin's sense of displacement at Harvard. They also were captivated and saddened by his tragic idealism.
Stefancic shared only the most basic details. The plaque was affixed with epoxy glue on June 2, 1965, "a humid, foggy, rainy Cambridge evening," the 55th anniversary of Quentin's suicide, in a private ceremony at which only the Stefancics and Sugimoto were present. The words on the plaque, he wrote, "were not the words of Faulkner but were rather an illusion to the circumstances the fading of honeysuckle which caused Quentin to take his life."
"They the Stefancics and Sugimoto once had hoped that only those who loved "The Sound and the Fury" might discover it and appreciate its significance," Stefancic wrote, expressing disappointment that the private tribute had become so public.
As it turned out, Harvard Magazine's inquiry produced one tip pointing to Sugimoto, who then was working in Germany. The editors cabled him, asking for confirmation, but he did not respond. Several times over the last 13 years, the magazine called back Sugimoto, now an engineer with Hughes Aircraft in California, to ask again, but each time he demurred. "Mystery is more appealing than facts," he was quoted as saying.
Almost every year since then, my thoughts have drifted on June 2 to Quentin, Faulkner and the deep mysteries of the South. Sometimes the thoughts are only fleeting, but this year, the 75th anniversary of Quentin's suicide, I was seized with a desire to reopen the story of the plaque, to seek out Sugimoto and numerous other of Quentin's compatriots.
I called Stefancic, now a minister in San Francisco, with whom I had not communicated in 13 years, to find him still plumbing the Compson saga for truths. He said he gives his first sermon of every new year on the meaning of time, and this year opened it with the passage from "The Sound and the Fury" that I had read at the Anderson Bridge 13 years ago -- the one describing Quentin's grandfather's watch as "the mausoleum of all hope and desire."
He quoted the entire passage to me almost verbatim, chiding himself for hesitating at points. "At the time we put up the plaque, I darned near had the whole thing memorized," he said.
"I said in my sermon that chronological time, or the Greek concept chronos, signifies nothing, while kairos, or time and depth, is rich in content and significance. That passage illustrates one attitude toward time: the ticking of the watch. Quentin's father said that time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels. Only when the clock stops does time come to life."
My next call was to Starr, who also remains captivated. Now a professor of history at the University of California at Davis, author of "Inventing the Dream: California Through the Progressive Era," he sees Quentin's themes everywhere -- from the writings of Emil Durkheim to T.S. Eliot.
"This question of remembered and lost orthodoxies is very basic in history, and it's very basic in Quentin," Starr said. "I'm reading now about the suicides of the Depression. Durkheim tells us to look at suicide as a response to social structures that cease to be supportive. That's what was happening with Quentin. He was struggling with a remembered past. He was trying to live up to it, to relive those dreams, and yet he was faced with a very pale and tepid world.
"I think of Quentin's fellow Harvard student, T.S. Eliot -- he was at Harvard in the era Faulkner wrote about. He too had a profound need to repossess a sense of history, a need that led him to classicism and to Neo-Catholicism. He, like Quentin, was very much trying to deal with a sense of loss. . . .
"Listen to me! I talk about Quentin as a real person. I guess that's because he truly is."
Finally, I called Sugimoto, guardian of the plaque's mystery for 20 years. To my amazement, he was ready to relinquish his story.
"It was one of those books that really reached me. I guess a lot of engineers go into literature just to escape, and I probably did that in a sense, but I also really wanted to study it. And with Quentin, I just sympathized so much with him. I think it had to do with his vision of what women should be. He thought they should be gentle. He thought they were the saviors of mankind. I kept thinking that that's how Faulkner saw women, and that's how I see them. And perhaps it was my believing everything Quentin said about Caddy that made me feel so much for him. Of course, I know women aren't like that, and I thought Quentin should have known better, but I still really sympathized.
"I was taking a course at MIT Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Faulkner and other modern writers, and one day we got off on a tangent and someone talked about some people at Harvard who had found a stone near the Charles River, and engraved on it was: 'I Leif Ericsson landed on this spot and called it Vinland.' Some years later, a worker found it, and it sounded official, and so it was cemented into place and made into a public monument.
"I thought that if I did that for Quentin, maybe one day someone would find it and mount it permanently."
"Quentin was like everybody: They want permanence. They want constancy. And there's a part of them that likes to hurt. Quentin did that very well. He was afraid that time erased all memory and pain and the intensity of any feeling. And he was afraid of losing that intense love and need of Caddy. And therefore he killed himself so that he would stop time. That appeals to me. I liked the idea. It was almost a heroic attempt -- to stem the tide of time. It's idealistic. You want to keep something beautiful, something that you cherish. And yet you know in your heart of hearts that it will not last. Even though it won't last, you'll survive it or you'll endure. . . .
Sugimoto paused for a moment, apparently weighing whether to go on.
"You know, I'm rather disappointed that I've said all this," he said. "The Harvard Magazine has been looking for many years for the person who put up the plaque, and I've never acknowledged it. I think it means a lot more when people say it was some love-crazed Radcliffe girl or some professor who lost his job. That's why I like the idea of it not having been put up by an ordinary person who was an engineering student; it takes all the charm out of it."
I would have felt bound by Faulknerian honor to carry this secret to the grave were it not for my recent discovery that the plaque as I knew it no longer exists.
It disappeared in the spring of 1983, when Cambridge city construction crews knocked it off while refurbishing the Anderson Bridge -- perhaps shoving it into the very waters that swallowed Quentin in 1910. Fellow Quentin cultist Joseph Blatt, who in 1983 still walked by the plaque daily on his way to work as a Boston television producer, noticed its absence immediately. He called city and construction company officials in hopes of locating it, with no success.
At the time, Blatt persuaded colleagues at Boston's public television station, WGBH, to feature the missing plaque on the nightly news of June 2, 1983, the 73rd anniversary of Quentin's suicide. Within 24 hours, he said, a viewer called the station saying he knew the entire history of the plaque, and vowing that "steps would be taken" to replace it. Several weeks later, a new plaque appeared in precisely the spot of the original, affixed in the same fashion -- anonymously in the New England dark.
I recently traveled to Cambridge, eager to retrace my familiar walk to the Anderson Bridge and to see the new plaque. This I did, but once there, I found a disappointing replica. It was, to be sure, in the same spot. But the wording was slightly different: Quentin Compson. Drowned in the odour of honeysuckle. 1891-1910.
As any Quentin devotee should know, there is no "odour of honeysuckle" in Cambridge. Quentin, in fact, lamented its absence, observing on one Cambridge night "the odour of summer and darkness except honeysuckle. Honeysuckle was the saddest odour of all I think." Also gone was the notion of fading, of something being lost, slowly and irreversibly, which was at the heart of the Compson saga.
Perhaps this is what Quentin was trying to tell us. There are moments in time that we hope never will pass. And yet time changes everything, leaving us with memories and a sense of loss in place of the moments themselves. It is hard to believe at the time of a loss that there will be another such moment. But that is what leaving the South, leaving home, growing older, are all about. In Quentin's words:
"It is hard believing to think that a love or a sorrow is a bond purchased without design and which matures willynilly and is recalled without warning to be replaced by whatever issue the gods happen to be floating at the time."
As with the fading of honeysuckle, there is also a fading of Faulkner. Sugimoto today counts Nabokov as his favorite writer, and my old friend Walter, now a senior editor at Time magazine, has also moved on. He still keeps on his bookshelf the copy of "Absalom, Absalom!" that we took to the bridge many years ago, but he no longer finds himself wrestling with the meaning of being southern or other themes of Quentin's life.
"The whole thing about the plaque -- talking about it, revering it -- was part of those sophomoric, bull-session emotions that, when you grow up, you no longer immerse yourself in," he said. "That's one of the wonderful things about college; you're allowed to have moments like that. And then you grow up and you think: Gee, that was a little silly, wasn't it?"
Or was it? I too have drifted from Faulkner for years at a time. But my return to him this year persuades me that nothing pure ever fades entirely. It was a privilege to discover him as a college student with time to stay up all night reading on a bridge in the moonlight. But it is a singular gift to reopen his books now, and to find lingering there the sweet-sad scent of honeysuckle.