"Thought you might be interested," read the note a friend attached last week to a care package from Atlanta: copies of that city's Journal and Constitution containing a series of pieces in which Colin Campbell, a columnist, described his pilgrimage to William Faulkner's home place in the Mississippi town of Oxford. But as my friend well knew, "interested" isn't the half of it; more than two decades after my first serious encounter with his work, Faulkner remains the benchmark against which I measure all else, so reports from his universe interest me as few others do.
"I wish I could convey the strong, steady pleasures of reading Faulkner again after 25 years," Campbell wrote in the last of his dispatches from Mississippi, and then asked himself: "Why wasn't I reading Faulkner all those years?" The answers he came up with will be familiar to many readers: an overexposure to Faulkner in school, so that "he became linked with being young and instructed," and then an immersion in Faulkner criticism, which "took the freshness out." But now he's reading Faulkner again and having the time of his life.
It is the same experience I underwent in the late 1960s, and it is one from which I have never fully recovered. In the fall of 1968 I was granted a year's reprieve from journalism to study as I saw fit, a year I intended to devote to contemplation of the inexplicable machinations of God and man. But the divinity school faculty at the university to which I had been posted hadn't a clue about what to do with a 28-year-old newspaperman who hadn't much of a clue about what he really wanted, so as my year began I was already at loose ends. Then in the course of browsing the catalogue I chanced upon a graduate seminar in Faulkner, and that was that: It changed my life.
To the best of my recollection I had at that point read only "The Sound and the Fury": read it as a college sophomore, and not read it well. Maybe I'd read "The Bear"; it was pretty hard to escape "The Bear" in college in those days. Whatever the case, I was working for a paper in the South and beginning to entertain vague thoughts of a career in book reviewing. How could I work in the South and write about books and not know Faulkner?
So I leaped at the seminar as a chance to fill what I saw as a gaping hole in my professional qualifications. In the back of my mind there was also a certain curiosity: What was really so "great" about this unreadable writer whose prose lumbered along in unending sentences and whose fixation on Ol' Dixie seemed obsessive? It figured to be a long and painful semester, but at least by its end I'd have done my professional duty and perhaps even found some answers to my questions.
Well. I can't remember which of the novels we read first. Probably "Light in August." It doesn't matter. Within a matter of days I was hooked, transfixed, addicted. While the dozen or so graduate students who were taking the course for credit labored along to meet its requirements, I, the reluctant auditor, plunged in as though my life depended on it. The reading list for the course included perhaps 10 of Faulkner's novels and story collections; I supplemented it by reading everything then in print -- from the post-adolescent poetic maunderings of "The Marble Faun" to the decembral nostalgia of "The Reivers" -- and in time entered the world of Yoknapatawpha County so completely that I could scarcely distinguish it from my own.
I became, in short, a Faulkner bore, a creature every bit as insufferable as a wine bore or a real estate bore. "Tell about the South," I cried out at parties, under the influence of (what else?) bourbon. "What's it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all." In my cracker-barrel mode I snapped my galluses and opined, "Man aint really evil, he jest aint got any sense." Soulfully I muttered, "Between grief and nothing I will take grief." And of course: "I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail."
Et cetera. For every situation I had a Faulknerian aperc u, and if you think I was shy about quoting it, think again. I began to haunt bookstores in search of Faulkneriana, though largely in vain since my budget was inadequate to the Faulkner boom only then beginning to emerge; the proprietor of one bookstore broke my heart by describing the stacks of "The Sound and the Fury" first editions he'd had on his remainder tables back in the 1930s. I even went through more than the motions of taking my seminar as a real student, delivering an oral presentation on "Go Down, Moses" and writing a term paper on the role of black characters in Faulkner's fiction; the teacher, who by then had become and still remains a friend, gave me a nice grade.
The academic year ended and I went back to my job, but I wasn't shed of Faulkner, not by a long shot. Quotes from his work found their way into my journalism far more often than they should have, my little collection of his work grew by a few dogeared volumes each year, and in time I too made the pilgrimage: I drove to Oxford, was granted admission to Faulkner's house by a kindly member of the Ole Miss English department and made a solitary visit to the master's grave. This was in 1973, before Oxford discovered Faulkner's commercial potential and made something of a local industry of him; I'm glad I made it there before that particular boom got underway.
In time of course Faulkner drifted away from the center of my life and the real world, or at least my version thereof, crowded back into the picture; it had been one hell of a binge, but I wasn't a Faulkner scholar and I had to get about the business of earning a living in my decidedly non-Faulknerian world. As anyone who's been on a toot such as that can attest, it's fun while it lasts but sooner or later perspective has to be restored.
The result is that for a decade and a half I've read little Faulkner, except for a bit of rereading in the line of duty. In the living room where I do all my reading and spend much of my time, five shelves full of Faulkner's work stare down at me every day, but I rarely give them any more thought than I do the lamp in front of them or the mantelpiece nearby; they're simply part of the furniture of my life, essential yet taken for granted.
But reading Colin Campbell's columns got me to thinking that it's about time to take them back out of the shelves. How's that for a New Year's resolution: Back into Faulkner. I need to reread "Absalom! Absalom!"; maybe I'm old enough to understand it better than I did in the fall of 1968. I want to reread "The Hamlet" and "The Town" and "The Mansion": the Snopes Trilogy, perhaps America's greatest comic novels. Compsons, Sutpens, Benbows, Varners, Snopeses, Mallisons, Hogganbecks, McCaslins, Sartorises: Get yourselves back in my life, you hear?
And what about you? What about a Faulkner binge in 1991? It's an intimidating prospect, to be sure, but once you get started on it you can't stop. You can follow Colin Campbell's course and read through the Yoknapatawpha saga chronologically -- "The Portable Faulkner" is an excellent guide -- or you can start with the easy ones, "The Unvanquished" and "The Reivers," and gradually work your way to the daunting masterpieces. But whatever route you choose, you're in for the ride of your life. In the immortal words of Joe Willie Namath: I guarantee it.