The Southern Literary Journal 34.2 (2002) 30-44
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Crowd and Self:
William Faulkner's Sources of Agency in The Sound and the Fury
Jeffrey J. Folks
William Faulkner's letters to his publisher Horace Liveright, his agent Ben Wasson, and others, several versions of an introduction composed in 1933, and the explanatory appendix (composed in the autumn of 1945) may be used to reconstruct the conditions under which The Sound and the Fury was written and shed light on the author's psychological state at the time. Letters that Faulkner wrote to Liveright between October 1927 and March 1928 demonstrate an initial sense of hope, even euphoria, in having completed his third novel Sartoris. In his 16 October 1927 letter to Liveright, Faulkner says, "I have written THE book, of which those other things were but foals" (208) and in the same letter encloses instructions for the printer and asserts control over the title and jacket, for which he has already painted a conception. His euphoria was followed by frustration and despair at having his hopes dashed upon his third novel's rejection by his trusted publisher, to which Faulkner responded 30 November 1927 in a hurt and resigned mood: "I still believe it is the book that will make my name for me as a writer" (209). Though he now speaks of continuing to write intermittently, it is the very different tone, particularly the stillness and solemnity of this letter, that is striking. It was within this mood of isolation and rejection—the victim of a "crowd" of New York publishers and critics—that Faulkner protested that he would never again publish. 1 [End Page 30]
Within three months, in mid or late February 1928, Faulkner in utter disgust writes to Liveright: "I have a belly full of writing, now, since you folks in the publishing business claim that a book like that last one I sent you is blah" (209), suggesting that he may have quit writing altogether. When he later responds to Liveright in early March, Faulkner's description of his current writing is quite tentative, saying of a novel that he hopes to finish that spring, "Maybe it'll please you" (210). In a letter probably of spring 1928 to Mrs. Walter McLean, his beloved "Aunt Bama," Faulkner speaks of his weariness in revising the manuscript of Flags in the Dust, stating that "every day or so I burn some of it up and rewrite it, and at present it is almost incoherent" (211). On 18 February 1929, Faulkner writes to Alfred Harcourt concerning the manuscript of The Sound and the Fury that Harcourt has briskly rejected: "That is all right. I did not believe that anyone would publish it; I had no definite plan to submit it to anyone" (212).
If the rejection of Sartoris and his hopelessness concerning further publication were reason enough for despair, Faulkner's anxiety regarding his mounting family responsibilities and the inimical relation of these new responsibilities to his future as a writer were other sources of worry. The awareness that he had, permanently he believed, failed in his attempt to gain a national audience for his fiction struck Faulkner at precisely the worst moment—just as he had undertaken a financial and an emotional commitment to Estelle Oldham and her two children, and would soon assume the support (as he must already have been more than vaguely aware) of an extended family and growing household. Separated from her husband Cornell Franklin, Estelle had returned to Oxford in January 1927. During the next two and a half years, Faulkner resumed the role of the "romantic swain," with their relationship purportedly arriving at "some sort of crisis" (Blotner 212) during the spring of 1928 while Faulkner was working on The Sound and the Fury. Amid local gossip over their intimate attachment, Faulkner felt compelled to marry Estelle despite his inability to support a family. That support eventually involved more than a dozen persons other than himself.
Accompanying the immediate burden...