Faulkner Walks on the Wild Side

In 1931, William Faulkner published his first collection of short stories, These 13, which in addition to some of his most acclaimed and frequently anthologized stories—“A Rose for Emily”, “That Evening Sun,” and “Dry September”—included “Divorce in Naples”, Faulkner’s most direct if not overt portrayal 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). He’d renew and expand his depiction of Quentin and Shreve and introduce a parallel relationship with Henry Sutpen and Charles Bon in Absalom, Absalom! (1936). Faulkner employed the theme in diverse manners in later works, but “Divorce in Naples” stands as his most explicit work on homosexuality.

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. 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.) This 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.

With “Divorce in Naples” Faulkner presents an unmistakably gay male relationship fraught with stereotypical dynamics brushed with innocence, confusion, and our hunger for love in the precise, lyrical prose which is the hallmark of These Thirteen.

One Reply to “Faulkner Walks on the Wild Side”

  1. This piece takes me back to sophomore year of high school when I chose some of the stories from THESE THIRTEEN for a book report. I was (I was told) unusually precocious for my age and in my paper brought up what I thought were some “queer incidents” in DIVORCE IN NAPLES and even decided Faulkner was homosexual. Well, didn’t Mr. Leblanc get out the red pen, writing, “WHAT do YOU know about THESE THINGS??” I was hardly about to tell him and so he made me do the whole report over again. I love and have always loved Faulkner, and am always so cheered when your write-ups are about him.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.