- Thinking of Home: William Faulkner's Letters to His Mother and Father, 1918-1925
Anyone who has ever worked with Faulkner's peculiarly cramped and printed writing will know how difficult it is sometimes to decipher and how at times misspellings and mannerisms increase the challenge. In time the mannersims would develop into a private code—the manuscript of As I Lay Dying, for instance, has vertical squiggles to serve generally as a suffix, so that with nouns it may mean -s or -es or, with verbs, -es, -ed, or -ing: here readers must at times resort to the later typescript to understand what was written in holograph. While that seems not to be true of these early letters and cards, the one that is illustrated shows that postmarks have a way of obliterating parts of words. Thus the 145 letters [End Page 945] , postcards, and telegrams which the youthful Faulkner sent home on five extended residences outside Mississippi—in New Haven (April-June 1918), in Canada (July-December 1918), New Haven and New York City (October-December 1921), New Orleans and the Gulf coast (January-July 1925), and Europe (August-December 1925)—which James B. Watson has carefully transcribed from the original documents recently released from the Carvel Collins collection at The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, Austin, provide a unique treasure house of the author's coming of age. These letters, Watson notes in his summary introduction, never more than five days apart, deal with Southern ways and Mississippi landscapes when writing his father and (on occasion) his own art when writing his mother, but they also record the poignancy of isolation and loneliness, the astonished excitement of a larger world than that of his childhood, and the frustrations and celebrations of his earliest public recognition.
His earliest letter here (in 1912) records how important family and home were from the start: "I have seen two little boys that I thought was Johnsy and I was going to town the other day and I saw a man and I started to yell 'Hello, Dad,' when I saw his face," he writes home of his brother and father; and concludes, of his mother, "I haven't seen any one that looks like you 'cause Lady, you're too pretty. I'm waiting for a letter." But the sense of longing continues. Six years later, he is still writing, "I'm terribly lonesome" and, holding on to the terribly absent presence, "I love you more than all the world." The first group of letters, from New Haven, is persistently marked by longings and estrangement which even the joys of discovery and travel cannot efface.
This is transformed, in part, during his military training in Canada where, it is clear, he hopes to find a safe, sure way to heroism much as his brother Jack sought and found more successfully in Europe. He revels in the hardships of training. "We are all mud to the knees today. Still carrying on, however. If you could see me wading around in the water and mud, and sleeping any way, wet clothes or not, you'd have a fit, Mother, any way would. It doesn't hurt me, I go down before dawn and eat my oatmeal and beef stew like a little man." There is the sense of being in the presence of greatness to which he also aspires. "There are quite a lot of celebrities in my course here. Almost every where you turn you see service chevrons on a sleeve," but at the Armistice, when without seeing battle, he is dismissed, there is a loss, an emptiness, that clearly strikes him deeply: "I feel lots better, now that I have my transportation 'home' safely. I'd hate to be left here without even the army to belong to, not even an address."
Throughout there is the hounding calculation of money—from first page here to last, he is documenting his frugality as necessity, sacrifice, or...