- “I’m Afraid I’ve Got Involved With a Nut”:New Faulkner Letters
When I was working in the Random House archives at Columbia Rare Book & Manuscript Library in New York, I discovered a series of letters exchanged among William Faulkner, his editor Robert Haas, and a young aspiring writer James Culpepper. These letters can be found in a box labeled “General Correspondence; Col-Daz,” among rejection letters sent by Random House to aspiring writers. The correspondence of Faulkner, Haas, and Culpepper in the Random House archives is completed by a small cache of letters held in the Brodsky collection at Southeast Missouri State University. I have been able to identify a total of twenty-six letters, dated from January 6 to September 24, 1949.1 An exhaustive search of all relevant sources shows that nobody has ever commented on or published these letters.
In the late 1940s, Culpepper attempted to secure Faulkner’s patronage in order to sell his own writings to Random House. Culpepper had a very high opinion of his work and was determined to become a literary star. However, he was well aware that the rise to fame would not be easy; not only did he live in Atlanta, Georgia, far from the literary centers of the East Coast, but he was [End Page 98] also unemployed and under pressure from his wife and family to start making a living. In several of his letters, Culpepper reminded Faulkner that fame does not happen magically. When Faulkner himself was a young writer, he had been helped by the more experienced Sherwood Anderson. Culpepper stopped at nothing to make sure that Faulkner got his message; he went to Faulkner’s home unannounced and posed as a journalist, he repeatedly threatened to visit again if Faulkner failed to help him, and he also wrote to Estelle Faulkner to ask for assistance. At this point, Faulkner started to worry for the safety of his wife and daughter, and he reluctantly agreed to help Culpepper with the publication of his novel. In a letter to Haas, however, Faulkner explained that he was being blackmailed by Culpepper and discouraged Random House from publishing the manuscript. A form letter of rejection was subsequently sent to Culpepper, who reacted angrily. On March 8, 1949, he wrote: “If I were the wife of some great writer, or his sister, or his drinking companion, or if I drank champagne in New Yirk (sic) with the literary crowd in some Fifth Avenue apartment—it would be different: anyone down here knows that.”2
It is difficult to evaluate Culpepper’s claim to literary talent. His manuscript is not in the archive for Random House returned it to the author. There is evidence that the publisher never ordered a reader’s report. We know only two things about Culpepper’s first novel: its length (210 pages) and its title: Jack Shall Have Jill (a line from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Culpepper eventually decided to write a second novel. In September, he told Haas that he was going to stay for some time in Oxford, Mississippi.3 With this letter, all traces of Culpepper disappear from our view.
Of course, Faulkner had many reasons to dismiss an intrusive and bothersome young man such as James Culpepper. But his general indifference to aspiring writers deserves closer scrutiny. Drawing on previously unknown archival documents, my article highlights Faulkner’s refusal to follow the example of his own mentor, Sherwood Anderson, in helping young writers get published and noticed. Convinced that all good writers were eventually published, he showed no interest in the “have-nots” of the literary world. My central argument is that Faulkner’s dealings with would-be authors such as Culpepper exemplify his postwar image as a self-made writer who kept away from literary groups. The strange case of James Culpepper should therefore be read in the context of the Cold War at a time when Faulkner celebrated the ideology of individualism and rejected any kind of literary communities. [End Page 99]
My article is complementary to Lawrence Schwartz’s study of the Faulkner revival of the late 1940s. Schwartz suggests that...