Evie Stone grows roses. She sits on her porch in the afternoons and calls you “darlin’”. Her son and daughter are buried in another state. The mayor is her great nephew.
In the old church tramps curse and strays whelp. Streetlight shines against the vaulting. Shards of blue glass cling to corners of the broken windows.
White smoke climbs from a field of burning cotton. Silhouettes twist in the flames. Passengers watch from parked cars. Goldenrods wave in the ditches.
You take a seat at the diner counter beside a man praying. The waitress puts a glass of ice tea before you. “Corn bread or roll?” she asks. It’s the only choice you have.
People bury pets in the woods. Dogs prowl in packs and kill everything they can catch. Nobody locks their doors at night.
The town constable takes football players hiking in Tennessee. His daughter weaves tapestries and listens to jazz in the garage. His wife drowns puppies in the kitchen sink. His son is somewhere in Canada.
When the flower shop burned, Charlie the mynah trapped inside said, “Poor Charlie! Poor Charlie! Poor Charlie!”
East of town is a sun-bleached, tattered neighborhood that no one ever seems to leave, where feelings and relatives are buried alive, and the earth waits to swallow you.
What compels writers of great works for adults to write for children? For whatever reason, many do, and some titles are familiar: C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, Tolkien’s The Hobbit, E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, and T.S. Eliot wrote a series of whimsical poems published under the title Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, a childhood favorite of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber.
More obscure are Joyce’s, The Cat and the Devil, Twain’s, Advice to Little Girls, Woolf’s, The Widow and the Parrot, Mary Shelley’s The Fisher’s Cot, and then we have these little-known children’s books by two of Mississippi’s brightest literary lights; Welty’s The Shoe Bird and Faulkner’s The Wishing Tree.
In 1927, Faulkner gave the story that was to become The Wishing Tree to Victoria “Cho-Cho” Franklin, the daughter of his childhood sweetheart, Estelle Oldham. Faulkner was still infatuated with Estelle and had hopes of her leaving her current husband and marrying him, which she did in 1929. Faulkner typed the book on colored paper, bound it himself and included a lyrical dedication:
‘. . . . . . . I have seen music, heard Grave and windless bells; mine air Hath verities of vernal leaf and bird.
Ah, let this fade: it doth and must; nor grieve, Dream ever, though; she ever young and fair.’
But Faulkner made copies for three other children as well and when Victoria tried to publish the book decades later, copyright had to be worked out between the four. In 1964, Faulkner’s granddaughter Victoria, Cho-Cho’s daughter, got Random House to publish a limited edition of 500 numbered copies, featuring black-and-white illustrations by artist Don Bolognese.
The Wishing Tree is a grimly whimsical morality tale, somewhere between Alice In Wonderland and To Kill a Mockingbird. Dulcie, a young girl, wakes on her birthday to find a mysterious red-haired boy in her room who whisks her, the other children, the maid Alice, and a 92-year old man through a “soft wisteria scented mist” to find the Wishing Tree. They wish, and they unwish, and at the end they meet St. Francis who gives them each a bird–a little winged thought. The Wishing Tree is about the importance of choosing one’s wishes with consideration. “If you are kind to helpless things, you don’t need a Wishing Tree to make things come true.”
On April 8, 1967, a version of the story appeared in The Saturday Evening Post. Three days later, Random House released a regular edition, which went through three printings that year alone and no more. The book is now regarded as a literary curio from the man who put an Ole Miss coed in a cathouse in Memphis.
Eudora Welty finished what was to become The Shoe Bird in 1963 under the working title Pepe to fulfill a contractual obligation to Harcourt Brace—and to put a new roof on her house. She sent the final draft to Diarmund Russell in March, and he was enthusiastic: “totally charming—something all ages can read.” Eudora readied what was now entitled The Shoe Bird for publication in early 1964 with illustrations by Beth Krush, dedicating it to Bill and Emmy Maxwell’s daughters, Kate and Brookie.
The Shoe Bird is Arturo, a parrot who works in The Friendly Shoe Store “in a shopping center in the middle of the U.S.A.,” helping Mr. Friendly greet customers and bringing him a match for his end-of-the-day pipe. Arturo’s motto is: If you hear it, tell it. One day, a little boy who was leaving the store said, “Shoes are for the birds!” and after the store had closed Arturo, true to his motto, repeats the phrase and all the birds in the world—including a dodo and a phoenix—gather at the shoe store to be fitted for shoes. The Shoe Bird is a nice little story with lots of puns, but it’s heavy-handed with the moral of speaking for oneself instead of just repeating what others say.
Reviews in adult publications were “cordial but restrained,” while reception among children’s literature commentators was either negative or—as in the case of the influential Horn Book, nonexistent. Kirkus Reviews described the novel as uneventful and concludes: “the overly wordy result is so obscure that readers are likely to want to leave dictionaries as well as shoes to the birds.” An orchestral ballet was composed by Welty’s friend Lehman Engel and performed by the Jackson Ballet Guild in 1968. A 2002 choral piece was also commissioned by the Mississippi Boy Choir and composed by Samuel Jones.
As to what compels a writer to write for children, can it ever be as simple as to win over a childhood sweetheart, or to roof a house? It’s never that simple, and it’s not that easy.
It was mid-morning, late June, and Harlan’s truck was shaking, rattling and rolling, kicking up dust on a snake-neck red gravel road two miles northwest of Big Creek, Mississippi, hauling ass over about a hundred square miles of nothing but hills and woods, heartache, hydrocodone and honky-tonks, bait shops and the occasional double-wide Baptist church, making our way by fits and starts to the backwaters of Grenada Lake.
I was red-eyed from a blunt, grumpy and road-weary, but Harlan was ebullient behind the wheel, grinning like a Tartar, regaling me with his cynical and irreverent observations on the state of mankind and his critical assessment of my life as a microcosm thereof.
“I told you not to take up with that nigga Ricky, but did you listen? No, hell no, you had to move into that shit-hole duplex he shared with his sister.”
“That was three years ago,” I said. “Besides, I was in love. People do stupid shit when they’re in love. What about that Miss Lauderdale County you took up with who threw that five-carat engagement ring you gave her out the car window while y’all were driving across Lake Pontchartrain?”
He just threw back his head and laughed and said she was worth every damn carat and if he’d had any sense at all he wouldn’t had fucked her sister. Suddenly it occurred to me how little I knew of Harlan; he never mentioned a wife, never mentioned children and always changed the subject.
For the last week and more emphatically for the past hundred miles he’d been explaining why we were making our way to a farm near a place called Cave Hill in the middle of nowhere to get a damn watermelon. Harlan claims to be the world’s leading expert on watermelons. His qualifications include a stint in the Navy, a PhD from Cornell and 32 years in USDA’s harness. Along the way he picked up enough knowledge to make him a recognized authority on not just watermelons, but the melon family of plants. Watermelons, however, are his consuming passion and he has traveled across the globe in search of rare ancestral varieties. On his farm in George County, Mississippi he grows dozens of varieties, his prize crop the white-fleshed tsamma of the Kalahari. Harlan is a tall, solidly-built man with a head full of thick, unruly greying red hair, an incandescent smile and a voice like Sam Waterston. He’s also full of shit he can talk his way between tiger teeth and gets his way in places most people won’t even go, like this farm in the middle of nowhere that grows the world’s most sought-after watermelon.
Bred from ‘Black Diamond’, ‘Moon and Stars’, ‘Charleston Grey’ and the Ur melon itself, the so-called “vine of Sodom”, Citrullus colocynthis, the fabled Red Zeppelin is a pearly green oblong melon averaging some twenty-five pounds, it’s most distinctive characteristic a lateral ribbing of pale, subtly shaded stripes that gave the fruit an illusion of light ribbing unknown in Citrullus lanatus. The Zeppelin is also distinguished—indeed ennobled—by a dense, velvety flesh of surpassing succulence. Arabian weddings are scheduled around its ripening in late August, when second-field melons are just coming in from other farms.
The watermelons grow on a tall dune that climbs out of an indenture in the ridge south of the Schoona River, the “hill”, nd a deep depression of red, clay-ey sand with an ever-weeping spring. We’d been on the road a long time, and I was just flat-out tired from the long drive up from Jackson, tired of the road and impatient with Harlan, who seemed alternately fidgety and distant. I just wanted to get there, get the ‘Zepp and go.
On a wave of bravado, I summed our mission up: “So basically this laid-back ass-lick who makes more money in a day than I see in a month working for a slick new regional calls you up out of the blue and says he’ll give you a dollar a word?”
“I’m all over it.”
The sun, lowering towards the rim of the world, shone in random rays over a stark country sculpted by loggers and downpours. The road turned round and around, looping over the hills, plunging down the hollows, following the design of some sweaty, half-drunk supervisor to no rational destination whatsoever.
Then suddenly there it was, a gently sloping sandy hill, glowing and imposing, on the red side of gold, a washy bronze in the pale summer sun. as lyrically striated and undulating as a vineyard and punctuated by tiny glowing ovals situated like so many open whole notes up and down a page of symphonic notation, As we grew closer I made out upon that terraced hillside a lithe figure in loose, faded red overalls with wearing a broad red straw hat with a billowing polka-dot ribbon gently hoeing a row of bouldered vines.
“That’s Royce,” Harlan said. “Let’s go on up to the house.”
The house was a solid dogtrot overlooking the broad Loosa-Schoona bottom refitted with a wrap-around porch sheltering high windows framing mandalas of dangling melded Mardi Gras bead disks, swinging strings, mandalas and figurines of colored glass. Each line, angle and corner of every room of the house, glowed in turn with ruby, topaz, purple, aquamarine and a hundred dozen colors in between, refracting light into blades, bringing tears to my eyes.
As we stood in the foyer, Royce came in. “Hey, daddy,” Royce said.
“Hey, sugar-booger,” Harlan said, giving him a sloppy kiss and a pat on the fanny. “Where’s Owen?
“He’s on his way back from Grenada. He’ll be here around dark. Y’all come get something from the refrigerator and we’ll sit on the porch.”
The winds were warm and shifty, the gloaming sky a bowl of scattered dirty cotton clouds. We arranged ourselves on the back porch. Around dusk, a light breeze sprang from the bottom. We could see the cloud pushing it sailing north up the river from the backwaters of the reservoir. and a little slipper of a moon dangeled over the fading sun. Soon,we heard a car horn beeping in the distance.
“Here comes Owen,” Royce said, looking in the distance, and turning to Harlan said,“Where is she?”
Harlan exhaled, stretched, stamped his feet and said, “In the back floorboard. I had a nice little box made, put a couple of photos in with her. One of us on our honeymoon in Daytona Beach. We both were wearing cut-offs. We were so happy. I put a picture of you in there, the one at the Sugar Bowl after the touchdown. She did love you, Royce. Don’t rob yourself of that.”
Royce looked up and pointed to a faint star at mid-heaven. “There she is, Daddy. That little dot of light nobody can touch caught in the middle of the sky. Momma was a lightening bug in a beer bottle, caught up in a storm of her own making.”” Royce leaned over and patted Harlan on the knee. “I’m settled with it, daddy. You know, she always tried to keep herself pretty for you, even when she saw the end coming. Let’s go get her.”
Owen, dark and quiet, embraced Royce as we walked down the hill, the field sky blue around us . We came to the east side of the hill, and there in the shadows Harlan placed the glossy black box on a flat red rock beside the weedy rill leading from the slow spring. The wind began to rise again, and Royce said, “Bye, Momma. Go home now. Don’t hurt anymore.”
Harlan began crying and we helped him back up to the house where we sat on the porch and drank and told stories about love and pain and loss until the noise of the night coaxed us inside and abed. In the morning Harlan and I drove south with a clutch of pearly melons nestled in pine straw against the cab in the bed of the truck. An orange-red sun blistered the morning sky.
Will and Scott met in a dusty New Orleans bar on a wet November afternoon and shortly fell into a discussion of favored bridge abutments in surrounding states. Neither in fact were vagrants, both family men: Will an attorney, Scott a businessman, both Mississippians in NOLA for the wedding of mutual friends, Will the bride’s, Scott the groom’s. In time they found ethanol, automobiles and tall women in common too, but not hunting. Scott had never taken the field for game.
“Let me take you hunting,” Will said.
“Okay,” said Scott. “For what?”
Will looked him dead in the eye and said, “Snipe.”
“That’s not funny.”
“I’m serious,” Will said.
“It’s still not funny.”
. . . . . . . . . .
They left Jackson in the darkest dawn, drove through for coffee and biscuits, then went up 49 watching the earth settle, fall away and go somewhere else.
Clambering from the truck with gear, they sank ankle-deep in muck, slugged first to one patch of mud just above the pooled water to another atoll of broken grasses, the Delta sky pushing distance to the rim of a tall lens, bringing all else into focus, amplifying sound. The rattles of the brittle grass echoed into the distance, across the river, all over the world. The mud was as old Egypt’s, deeper and richer than sin itself.
That close to the river, the land is a matter of water–making it, shaping it, teaching it–letting earth absorb all light, all air, all crisp, cold and fragile, brushing a thin bitter crust on a north Mississippi morning with clouds coagulating white and gray atop a steady northwesterly breeze.
Furrowed and churned, dead with intention, the field was a patched mat of pale brittle stems that collapsed hither and thither, hiding muck, confusing footwork and sheltering snipe, the being itself, a will-o’-the-wisp the very color of winter—white, grey and black fading to or from indiscriminate brown, beige or buff in indifferent patterns on insignificant substance—a bird of earth without place in air where it seeks in fits to find a place and failing, furtive rustles back to the tussocks.
. . . . . . . . . .
“Here we go,” Will said, stepping into the muck and pointing out into the water-mirrored field. “The birds hide up in piles of grass near water. They flush easy, so ease up before you move in.” The grass in front of them rustled and set alight two birds, translucent in the sun trailing faint alarms before they lit in another field.
“Can’t even see them mid-air,” Scott said. “They’re too light and grey.”
Will grinned. The sky was a blinding blue that dribbled down in pools and puddles. The only wind blew way above under a small cool sun, moving shadows of blades, leaves and stems. They walked, guns at their hips, talking to fill the void.
. . . . . . . . . .
“You don’t talk much about over there.”
“Not a lot to say,” Scott said. “It wouldn’t make sense to you.”
“Does it have to? Did it to you?
“Some of it did.” Beside them a clump of cattail folded brown and enclosed exploded into a busy ball of air. Scott crouched and shot, the sound bouncing across the field, the bird falling, twisting, one wing still struggling for buoyance.
Will found the winged bird, wrung its neck, put it in the sack on his shoulder and said, “I want to know what it’s like to kill someone.”
“Why? You gonna kill somebody?”
Will grinned. “Maybe. Maybe I just want to know what it feels like to point a gun at a man and pull the trigger and watch him fall.”
“They weren’t men,” Scott said. “Not to me. They weren’t even enemies. They were just things in the distance. Dark shapes that moved. I never killed anyone. I just shot things and watched them fall.”
“But didn’t they shoot at you?”
“Yes, dammit! Sure they did. You know they did, and I got hit, too!” Scott said.
“I didn’t know that,” Will said.
“In the fucking back,” Scott said. “Shattered my shoulder blade. It’s a steel plate now. Went right through. Bled like a motherfucker.”
“Can I see the scar?”
“It’s too cold to take my shirt off, man,” Scott laughed.
“You don’t have to. Just let me feel it,” Will said.
Scott stopped walking and rubbed the tears off his face. He cradled his gun in the crook of his left arm and with his right unzipped his jacket. “It’s on the left side,” he said.
Will took the glove off his right hand, turned and moved his hand into the jacket, beneath the shirt to the skin, the hair, gently probing, pausing, feeling.
“That’s not it,” Scott said, “That’s my . . .”
“I know what it is,” Will said.
“Up,” Scott said, “There.”
“Yes. Does it still hurt?”
“No,” Scott said. “Not any more. It’s still tender, but you’re not hurting me.”
“I don’t want to hurt you,” Will said. “I just wanted to feel the scar.”
“You’re not hurting me, Will.”
“It’s okay, Scott. It’s okay. Why don’t we call it a day, have a couple of drinks on the way home?”
. . . . . . . . . .
They moved towards the ruts atop the dam that passed for a road, their steps less measured, more insistent, no longer stalking, but in pursuit, the sinking sun reddening, silhouetting the distance, a glittering planet punctuating the blueprint heavens.
They climbed into the truck. Will cranked it up and turned on the lights.
“We can grab a bottle and go to Smitty’s cabin on the Big Black. I’ll call Beth and tell her to call Ann,” Will said. “We’ll tell them we didn’t kill anything, be home tomorrow.”
“Okay,” Scott said, wiping his face. “I’m just tired.”
The Fairchild household is in an uproar over Dabney’s marriage, but however peculiar the match, the proprieties must be observed, standards maintained, and that includes lavish decorations for rehearsal supper. At one point during the hustle and bustle the matriarch Ellen says, “I thought in the long run . . . we could just cover everything mostly with Southern smilax.”
Most of those who read Welty’s Delta Wedding probably skip over Ellen’s references to smilax without taking the time to find out what smilax is, likely thinking it a type of fabric or paper, but had they bothered to look it up, they’d have found that smilax is a coarse evergreen vine whose many varieties proliferate throughout the South in woods, fields, roadsides and back yards. Evergreen and durable, the vines have long been used for greenery in the home during festive events and holidays, and not just in the South. In the stage version of Harvey, the opening scene describes the home as being “festooned with smilax”.
Members of the enormous lily family, smilaxes are close relatives of asparagus, and they’re just as edible, just not as toothsome. In fact, before the invention of artificial flavorings, one species, Smilax ornata was used as the basis for sarsaparilla and root beer. (S. ornata was also registered in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia as a treatment for syphilis from 1820 to 1910.) Linnaeus named the genus Smilax after a nymph who was by reason of some divine infraction transformed into a brambly vine (her lover Croesus for the same reason was—unfairly, it seems to me—transformed into a crocus).
Indeed most smilaxes are “brambly”, profuse with thorns, a notable exception being Smilax smalii (previously lanceolata), which only has thorns around the base of the stems. Steve Bender says one name for this plant, Jackson vine, comes from ladies in Alabama who would decorate their homes with the evergreen when Stonewall Jackson came to town, but frankly I have a hard time swallowing that. Most people just call it, as Ellen Fairchild did, Southern smilax. People once often trained smilax vines around their porches for evergreen framing, but is no longer cultivated because of an undeserved reputation as invasive.
Smilax takes readily to use in wreaths, swags and garlands. Like any plant cutting, the vines last longer when kept in water, and must be discarded when dry.
When he came out of the restaurant, turning my way and looking at his watch, I slipped into the store next door not because I didn’t want to see Charles but because I didn’t know what to say.
He looked haggard and pale, unsurprising since he’d been sick for a while, likely not to get better I’d heard, but here he was walking toward me in the same rumpled wear and with the same wrinkled brow he’d always carried.
We’d had our ins and outs, but had come to an understanding. Charles always held me under his thumb, reminding me how much of a rube I was here in Jackson, how little I’d ever know of the machinations of the city and its people and how tragic it was that I didn’t care. I still don’t care, which is why Charles helped me in any way he could with the same gusto he might give an old crutch to an in-law who’d broken an ankle.
So when I saw him that morning I tilted the bill of my cap down, hastened my step and disappeared into the store, hoping to avoid him for the present and speak with him later. I was surprised to see him on his feet, to be honest. That afternoon I heard he’d died.
I’m just going to let it go. I don’t want to deal with it right now.
Light in August is in many if not most ways Faulkner’s darkest work, dealing with driven madness, grueling toil, alienation, miscegenation, murder and castration, and the title has inspired a great deal of speculation. Some consider it simply a reference to the distinctly onerous nature of sunlight in a Mississippi August;. others would have us understand that the title refers to the light cast by Joanna Burden’s burning house. Then there are careful readers who point to Reverend Hightower’s observation of “how that fading copper light would seem almost audible, like a dying yellow fall of trumpets dying into an interval of silence and waiting” while scholars with a regional bent so note that the phrase “(to be) light in August” is a Southern slang term for pregnancy, concentrating on Lena Grove.
Yet the story that would eventually become the novel, started by Faulkner in 1931, was originally titled “Dark House” and began with Hightower sitting at a dark window in his home, but after a casual remark by his wife Estelle on the quality of the light in August, Faulkner changed the title, and some time later the author affirmed this luminous inspiration: “…in August in Mississippi there’s a few days somewhere about the middle of the month when suddenly there’s a foretaste of fall, it’s cool, there’s a lambence, a soft, a luminous quality to the light, as though it came not from just today but from back in the old classic times. It might have fauns and satyrs and the gods and—from Greece, from Olympus in it somewhere. It lasts just for a day or two, then it’s gone…the title reminded me of that time, of a luminosity older than our Christian civilization.”
No matter which gutter of the global warming argument you trickle down, barring an asteroid impact—I think we have a 7-year window for those—we’re not likely to see anything drastic in the next century, so don’t let the likelihood that your great-grandchildren can’t grow roses keep you from telling them that you did. Keep a garden notebook, if only by writing on a funeral home/insurance company/alumni organization wall calendar when you plant a bulb, move a shrub or sow your greens, the date of a late frost and of course the first ripe tomato. Do not neglect to include such enriching details as when Heather drove her three-wheeler all over Sally Jane’s daylily bed as well as accounts or video of the mayhem and its consequences. Start today.
The name beneath this recipe from New Stage Theatre’s Standing Room Only: Recipes for Entertaining (1983) is Ellen Douglas, but everyone should know that Ellen Douglas is the pen name for writer Josephine Ayers Haxton. Born in Natchez, she married composer Kenneth Haxton in 1945 and shortly afterwards moved to Haxton’s hometown of Greenville. There she befriended Shelby Foote and Hodding Carter and began writing in earnest.
According to the author, she entered into a wager with her husband and a mutual friend on who could finish a novel in the least amount of time and won the bet. The resulting work, A Family’s Affairs (1962), is largely autobiographical in nature, requiring her to get her family’s permission to publish the narrative and resulting in her adoption of the pen name Ellen Douglas. The book not only sold well, but it also won the Houghton Mifflin Esquire Fellowship Award for best new novel and was named as one the year’s ten best books by The New York Times. Her second work, Black Cloud, White Cloud (1963), a collection of short stories, also won the Houghton Mifflin Esquire Fellowship Award, and her 1973 novel Apostles of Light was a finalist for the National Book Award. Other works include The Rock Cried Out (1973) and A Lifetime Burning (1982). Josephine Haxton died in Jackson in 2012.
Though Ayers was not Jewish, her mother-in-law Ellise Blum Haxton was the daughter of Jewish merchant Aaron Blum of Nelms and Blum department store in Greenville, and this recipe may have come from her kitchen. From my (demonstrably obvious non-Jewish) perspective, fried matzos seem like just another variety of hushpuppy, though serving them with catfish—which is decidedly non-kosher—might be a bit rude. These make a great side for any number of meat dishes—baked chicken or fish, beef roast, what have you—but they’re also a great buffet nosh served with a sauce made with one part each grated horseradish, sour cream and mayonnaise seasoned with salt and cayenne to taste.
Soak two matzo crackers in water; drain and squeeze dry. Heat 2 tablespoons chicken fat, and sauté ¼ medium onion until golden brown. Add soaked matzos and cook and stir until the mixture “clears” the skillet. Cool. Add a teaspoon chopped parsley, a teaspoon salt, a quarter teaspoon of ground ginger, an eighth teaspoon both ground pepper and nutmeg, two lightly beaten eggs and enough matzo meal (about a quarter cup) to make a soft dough. Let stand for several hours to swell. Shape into small balls. Fry in deep fat (assumedly not lard, jly) until golden brown. The balls can be formed and frozen before frying. (This recipe makes about 20 balls.)
In 1931, William Faulkner published his first collection of short stories, These 13, which in addition to some of his most acclaimed and most frequently anthologized stories—“A Rose for Emily”, “That Evening Sun” and “Dry September”—included “Divorce in Naples”, Faulkner’s most direct if not overt exploration of homosexuality.
Faulkner had already broached the theme in the intimacy between Quentin Compson and his Harvard roommate Shreve McCannon in The Sound and the Fury (1929), and Jenny and Patricia as well as the openly gay lesbian Eva Wiseman in Mosquitoes (1927), and would touch on the theme in later works, but “Divorce in Naples” stands as his most explicit examination.
Simply put, the story depicts the relationship between two sailors, George (“Greek, big and black, a full head taller than Carl”) and the younger Carl (“with his round yellow head and his round eyes, looking like a sophisticated baby”).
‘THEY CAME INTO THE SHIP together at Galveston, George carrying a portable victrola and a small parcel wrapped in paper bearing the imprint of a well-known ten-cent store, and Carl carrying two bulging imitation leather bags that looked like they might weigh forty pounds apiece. George appropriated two berths, one above the other like a Pullman section, cursing Carl in a harsh, concatenant voice a little overburred with v’s and r’s and ordering him about like a nigger, while Carl stowed their effects away with the meticulousness of an old maid, producing from one of the bags a stack of freshly laundered drill serving jackets that must have numbered a dozen. For the next thirty-four days (he was the messboy) he wore a fresh one for each meal in the saloon, and there were always two or three recently washed ones drying under the poop awning. And for thirty-four evenings, after the galley was closed, we watched the two of them in pants and undershirts, dancing to the victrola on the after well deck above a hold full of Texas cotton and Georgia resin. They had only one record for the machine and it had a crack in it, and each time the needle clucked George would stamp on the deck. I don’t think that either one of them was aware that he did it.’
One night Carl disappears and George, frantic, fails to find him. When Carl returns after three days, he reveals that he has been with a woman, and George kicks him out of their berth only to discover later, after their reconciliation, that Carl was too naive to have sexual congress with the woman, and
“ …two weeks later we were watching him and George dancing again in their undershirts after supper on the after well deck while the victrola lifted its fatuous and reiterant ego against the waxing moon and the ship snored and hissed through the long seas off Hatteras.’
Most of Faulkner’s examinations of same-sex desire focus on men; Faulkner had close relations with many homosexual writers and artists, including his townsman and fellow writer Stark Young and his childhood friend Ben Wasson as well as William Alexander Percy and Lyle Saxon. It goes without saying that while living in New Orleans he doubtless knew many others.
The story draws most directly on Faulkner’s experiences with William Spratling, a down-on-his-knees New Orleans fairy, in sailing to Europe on the West Ivis beginning July 7, 1925 and to Genoa on August 2, where after landing they celebrated their arrival by going drinking with the ship’s officers. The drinking bout turned into a brawl with “pimps and prostitutes”, after which Spratling was arrested and thrown into an Italian prison where during the night he had a “homosexual encounter”. Rape is of course implied, but then again we don’t have any evidence that the encounter wasn’t consensual. The event in Genoa provided the kernel for the story, and Faulkner himself was heard to joke at one point that he was jealous of Spratling.
Faulkner’s representations of human sexuality are ambivalent and veiled. “Divorce in Naples” displays sexual activity blended with romantic idealism and sexual innocence if not confusion, but typically for Faulkner leaves the tension between them suspended.