- Becoming Faulkner: The Art and Life of William Faulkner
In his acknowledgements to Becoming Faulkner, Philip Weinstein recounts how his book almost never came to be. Solicited for the project around 2003, he responded that though he was “invested professionally in Faulkner’s work,” he was “no biographer” (v). That we have his volume in hand today is a testament to his change of heart not about himself, but rather about the genre of the biography as it might be brought to bear on this particular writer. By Weinstein’s account, there is something inimical to life in the biography as it is typically conceived, an inability to “do justice to the inconsistency and waywardness of its subject’s actual life in time” (4). “Retrospection,” he suggests, “magically transforms the messy scene of ongoing present time into the congealed order it (later) appears always to have been headed for” (2), a sleight of hand that proves particularly misleading when the subject of that life was, himself, convinced that “life did not add up” (3) and when he dedicated much of his career to representing precisely that experience of life “as an inexplicable derailment.” But what happens if, instead of taming the messiness of lived experience, the biographer attends to the “turbulent present moment” (2)? This is what Becoming Faulkner attempts to find out.
It does so by thematizing “Faulkner’s life and art as a narrative—in five different keys—of trouble encountered but not overcome” (9). Rather than organizing these keys in a strictly linear account reaching from cradle to grave, Weinstein seeks to “compose Faulkner” by “rearranging the material of his life and art so as to seize on latent patterns within a larger troubled weave” (10). The effect is repercussive and recursive. Chapter 1 begins with the devastating rejection of Flags in the Dust in 1927 and his marriage to Estelle in 1929, life-changing events that occasion a brief, backward look at Faulkner’s work prior to Flags. The chapter concludes by taking up, via an account of Faulkner’s childhood, The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying. Chapter 2 revisits Faulkner and Estelle’s failed elopement in 1918 and Faulkner’s equally aborted attempts to enlist in the war, experiences of “untimeliness” that prompt additional discussion of The Sound and the Fury (88), as well as of Sanctuary and Light in August. When Weinstein takes up the “nightmare of southern race relations” in chapter 3 (9), he revisits The Sound and the Fury and Light in August—this time in relation to Faulkner’s “paradoxical racial stance” (116)—before following up with readings of Absalom, Absalom! and Go Down, Moses. Chapter 4 reads If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem and The Hamlet in tandem with Faulkner’s alcoholism and affair with Meta Carpenter before giving way, in chapter 5, to a brief treatment of the novels from Intruder in the Dust through The Reivers. [End Page 341]
Readers seeking a straight-forward, detailed account of Faulkner’s life are likely to be dissatisfied with this book to the same degree as readers seeking self-contained treatments of the individual novels. Weinstein is after something else, what he describes as the “incandescence” or “bonfire” that occurs when the life and the work are brought together, the “composite gesture that an imaginative placing of the life against the work—the work against the life—might let us glimpse” (4). The strength of this approach is that it allows for a more dynamic interplay between art and life, in which one is not understood to determine the other, so much as they collectively reveal the essential conditions of being, or becoming, that Faulkner experienced through his life and work—conditions that Weinstein goes to great lengths to preserve undomesticated in his own discourse. In place of the usual terms that describe an artist or character’s “achieved becoming,” he offers a rich vocabulary that includes the following: “untimeliness,” “outrage of unpreparedness,” “the turmoil of ‘is,’” “stumbling,” “unclotting,” and “hemophilic” (8).
Weinstein’s commitment to...