Joseph Blotner's new biography of Faulkner ("revised," "updated," "condensed," the dust jacket proclaims) is, in the author's own words, "not just different from its predecessor of a decade ago; it is to some extent a new book." It must necessarily go through some heavy revision if it is to take a judicious measure of what has been, by all odds, the busiest ten years so far in Faulkner criticism and scholarship. Four early works appeared between Blotner's two biographies—The Marionettes, Mayday, Sanctuary (the original text), and "Helen: A Courtship" and "Mississippi Poems" (to which Blotner himself contributed an introduction). Various memoirs have appeared by members of the family; documentaries have been made; the Rowan Oak papers were discovered, and so was a journal by Faulkner's father, Murry. New letters to and from Faulkner have been published, and his stepson, Malcolm A. Franklin, has left us Bitterweeds, a reminiscence revealing and moving by turns. And, most importantly of all, perhaps, Estelle Oldham Faulkner has died, freeing the biographer to go more deeply into Faulkner's relationships with his wife and, in subsequent years, with other, much younger women.
This version, then, seems at once freer and franker. It is much more open, for instance, about Faulkner's marriage—about his wife's attempted suicide on their honeymoon, about her drinking, about her disappointment in waiting twelve years to marry him, and about the effects a drastic reduction in her material comforts had on their marriage. And there is now an important shift in focus. What emerged so poignantly in the 1974 biography was an artist who had to spend much of his energy, and untold amounts of his talent and time, worrying over making financial ends meet, fussing about his responsibilities with a much extended family, and complaining about the intrusions of popular magazines and Hollywood filmmakers on his work at the same time he used them, at some junctures shamelessly, to make room and time for his serious and more committed fiction. In this new edition, that Faulkner recedes as the man unhappy in love comes to the foreground. The treatment of Meta Carpenter Wilde, of Jean Stein, and even of Joan Williams that was missing in the earlier study is now given much of the attention it deserves, and so a fuller and clearer picture of Faulkner emerges.
But this recent biography is not so different from its predecessor as the Foreword might lead us to believe. The heavily documented ancestry of Faulkner is condensed in the new life, but the clutter of fact is still present on every page. Blotner's biographical method is to provide a documentation of details that, in their slow accumulation, will provide the best and most reliable portrait. For many readers there will still be the problem of selection, of seeing in this account what emerge as the major figures in the Faulknerian carpet. And despite occasional disclaimers, the account is still largely tied to chronology: it remains the basic arrangement. As for his accounting of Faulkner's various affairs, Blotner is perhaps most disappointing in his presentation of Meta Carpenter (who went unacknowledged in the first biography); here he relies solely on her book, rather [End Page 411] than on fresh interviews, although she has recently said herself that this account is a faulty one. In 1974, Blotner ended his two-volume life with an extended and sometimes painful account of Faulkner's death and burial. He was himself a participant in part of the ritual as one of six pallbearers. The new biography ends similarly. It is a telling point. Blotner now, as then, is still (if more implicitly) in much of this book, and it has its effects on the tale and its telling.
Joseph W. Reed's new book, of which Faulkner is one part, is a radically different kind of study. Reed's thesis seems simple enough: by examining three roughly...