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In the first major biography of Faulkner directed to the general public, Stephen B. Oates recalls Faulkner's conversation with Malcolm Cowley during his first visit to the Cowley farm in Connecticut. "I listen to the voices," Faulkner told him, "and when I put down what the voices say, it's right. Sometimes I don't like what they say, but I don't change it." This was Faulkner the romantic, Faulkner the hopeful and self-styled genius, Faulkner the accommodating guest and courteous companion; it just may have been Faulkner revealing his own best theory of creativity. It is also the theme of Oates's biography: the voices that come and go, with periods of poetic passion and writing at white heat alternating with periods of loneliness, poverty, suffering, and illness, are for Oates still the simplest and best explanation of how Faulkner's great fiction came about.
As if he means to pursue this idea as much by imitation as by quotation, Oates's own work is full of voices too: his principle of "lifewriting" is to recapture as accurately as possible the sights, sounds, and experiences that shaped Faulkner's life and haunted his imagination. At its best, William Faulkner: The Man and the Artist is as memorable in its detail as a good novel: [End Page 622]
As the train roared through the Mississippi countryside, the boy and his two little brothers sat transfixed at the open window of the passenger coach, watching the shadowy forests, the hazy fields of corn and cotton, the occasional farmhouses and barns, all slide backward toward Holly Springs. It was an arduous trip for their mother, a small, prim woman with auburn hair and stern eyes. The coach was oppressively hot, and cinder flakes from the locomotive swirled through the open window, sullying the boys' faces and clothes. But Billy, the oldest, had seldom been so excited. Already he had a love for the steam locomotive that rivaled his father's. The sharp burst of its whistle, the hum of its wheels, the throb of the exhaust exploding from its stacks—all thrilled the boy to incandescence.
But confronting the novels themselves—few of the short stories are mentioned and almost none is discussed—Oates is content to paraphrase their plots and summarize their characters. This is because for him the real stuff of the fiction came from the life: "As with the Sartoris and Compson families, the story of the Bundrens had a familiar autobiographical theme. It was about wounded, inadequate parents and their doomed children." Indeed, Oates writes by way of preface that "in many ways, the story of William Faulkner—the lonely, small-town Mississippian who won a Nobel Prize for literature, who struggled all his life with his particular demons and discovered in himself and his world a window to the universe—is as compelling as anything he ever created."
Oates's account of that struggle takes many often memorable forms. There is a sympathetic account of moments in Faulkner's childhood. There are detailed portraits of the young artist and the women he yearned for. Most significantly, and at greatest length, there is the painful recounting of Faulkner's early hardship, poverty, and lack of critical recognition, of his sense of incarceration in Hollywood, of his difficult marriage, and of his struggle against illness and despair. Throughout this account, Oates does not move beyond the information in the works of Joseph Blotner and L. D. Brodsky, but he relies instead in his retelling on the images and facts that constitute important moments: the life is given to us in brief episodes, like snapshots in a family photograph album. This is at once the book's strength and weakness. At certain moments—Faulkner's early friendship with Phil Stone, his courtships of Helen Baird and Estelle Oldham Franklin...