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  • Eudora Welty’s 1985 Reading of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Sanctuary, and Light in August
  • Pearl Amelia McHaney

In the fall of 1985, Eudora Welty was reading the first volume of William Faulkner novels to be published by the Library of America, William Faulkner: Novels 1930–1935, which included As I Lay Dying, Sanctuary, Light in August, and Pylon, edited by Joseph Blotner and Noel Polk. She wrote notes, indicated page numbers for quotations, jotted phrases, and drafted opening and summative statements for a review for the New York Times Book Review. She had a March 1, 1986, deadline.

Welty had read As I Lay Dying in the Modern Library edition in 1946 (Kreyling 121–22). In her “Keynote Speech” honoring Faulkner at the 1965 Southern Literary Festival in Oxford, Mississippi, she also acknowledged reading Light in August when she spoke of Joe Christmas, “inside the Reverend Hightower’s kitchen,” “crouched behind the table, waiting with his hands in chains, ‘bright and glittering,’ ‘resting upon the upper edge,’ as Percy Grim arrives with his automatic” (48). From As I Lay Dying, she quoted Cash Bundren’s axiom: “It’s ‘better to build a tight chicken coop than a shoddy courthouse’” (“Keynote” 48). Having read two of the four Faulkner novels collected in the Library of America, a publisher that she regarded highly, and a project initiated by her friend Daniel Aaron, president of the Library of America, Welty perhaps looked forward to reading them anew. As the book was published December 1, 1985, I suspect that New York Times Book Review editor Rebecca Sinkler had suggested the March 1 deadline to accommodate a substantive essay, not the 400–1500 words of the few other reviews that were published in December 1985 and January 1986. I reason that Aaron, with Polk’s acknowledgment of Welty’s familiarity and admiration of Faulkner’s work, had suggested Welty as reviewer.

The publication of Faulkner: Novels 1930–1935 was announced Wednesday, June 5, 1985, in the New York Times. Herbert Mitgang wrote that the “corrected versions of four major novels by William Faulkner … are expected to clarify some of his themes and fortify his reputation as a careful writer.” Examples of the “corrections” that were being made by the esteemed coeditors Polk and Blotner included the restoration of a sentence excised [End Page 31] from Pylon by Faulkner’s editor Harrison Smith, the retention of a dialectical word in Light in August, the standardization of the varying lengths of Faulkner’s long dashes and his ellipses of six to ten dots, and the honoring of Faulkner’s paragraphing. Polk is quoted saying, “Some decisions we’re making are close calls. Faulkner has been called a sloppy writer but actually he was incredibly disciplined and revised up to the last minute. The safest course we follow is to keep it the way he wrote it—on the chance that he wanted it that way” (Mitgang).

Welty’s notes for her review address the textual corrections thusly:

There are fairly dense thickets of footnotes. But they are facts, drawn from the author’s own hand; not opinions. Matters of editing. The spirit is truth-seeking. An author is stubborn about retaining his own punctuation, paragraphing, and, in F[aulkner]’s case, spelling. These all are necessary guides and adjuncts to rhythm, to rate of speed, to dramatic rise & fall. In dialogue it is such devices that make you hear the human voice, to know the particular character—you can even tell which end of the county a speaker was born, by where F[aulkner] puts his comma. Faulkner knew all these things, when he wrote his sentences. Mr. Polk has attempted most meticulously to restore them from past editorial corrections. But the reader doesn’t have the notes there any closer than the back of the book. You read unobstructed.

(Eudora Welty Collection, Item 29, 75.4)1

Faulkner: Novels 1930–1935 was the first of the five volumes of Library America Faulkner, published between 1985 and 2006. All are Polk’s corrected texts, and all include notes by Blotner and Polk. Welty’s home includes two copies of Faulkner: Novels 1930–1935...


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