Gay Faulkner: A Review

I wrote a high school junior class paper on Absalom, Absalom!, and one day I pointed out to the teacher the passage describing Charles Bon lounging in an effeminate silk robe before the cloddish Henry Sutpen. “Does this mean they were homosexuals?” I asked. She replied that Mr. Faulkner “would never write about something like that.” Years later, as a more literate scholar, I found that William Faulkner did indeed write about “things like that”; he wrote about humanity from every angle, including sexuality and homosexuality. Furthermore, I found my assessment of Charles Bon and Henry Sutpen’s relationship supported by others.

Between 1929 and 1939, Faulkner puslished The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Sanctuary, Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom! as well as dozens of short stories. These works have been thoroughly studied and analyzed, and it’s not surprising that scholars and critics have identified homosexual themes in them. Absalom, Absalom! has been the focus of much interest in homosexual matters, and as early as 1955, Ilse Dusoir Lind commented upon the “affection, mildly homosexual in basis” between Shreve and Quentin.

The first essay devoted to the question of homosexuality in Faulkner’s works was published by Don Merrick Liles in 1983. Absalom, Absalom! and “A Rose for Emily” spurred discussion about homosexuality in Faulkner’s works. The 1980s saw Queer Theory evolve from the increasing visibility of sexual minorities. These critical analyses resulted in a multiplicity of approaches that in turn became dialogues about homosexuality in the Faulkner canon.

These exchanges allow us to see Faulkner’s work differently and over time come to new understandings. With Gay Faulkner: Uncovering a Homosexual Presence in Yoknapatawpha and Beyond, Phillip Gordon broadens our concepts of Faulkner and his works by examining his immersion in gay subcultures throughout his life, especially during the 1920s, and his strong and meaningful relationships with specific gay men, particularly his lifelong friend and sometime editor Ben Wasson. Gordon’s study focuses on male homosexuality simply because that is the most revealing perspective. He also concentrates his study on As I Lay Dying and the Snopes trilogy—with particular emphasis on Darl Bundren and V.K. Ratliff—rather than the major novels of the 1930s in order “to turn a light on other works to bring into focus themes that have not yet been deeply explored.”

Gordon states flatly that the question at the heart of his study is not if Faulkner was gay, but, “Is there a gay Faulkner?” Gordon seeks to reveal a gay presence not only in Faulkner’s work, but also in his life as well, establishing Faulkner’s awareness of homosexuality and homosexuals, and his acceptance and participation in gay culture. Gay Faulkner is a solid academic work; the notes are as absorbing as the text, and the bibliography constitutes a summation of Queer Faulkner studies. Gordon also offers insight, information, and even entertainment for the general reader.

Gordon’s documentation of Faulkner’s stay in New Orleans explores the bohemian atmosphere as well as the writers’ community of the Vieux Carré. Central to this section of the book is Gordon’s account of Faulkner’s relationship with his longtime friend and roommate, the gay artist William Spratling, including an intriguing account of a trip to Italy with Spratling, a journey that resulted in Faulkner’s most openly gay story, “A Divorce in Naples.” This period of Faulkner’s life, as well as the literary and artistic scene in the city at the time, is the subject of an essay by Gary Richards, “The Artful and Crafty Ones of the French Quarter: Male Homosexuality and Faulkner’s Early Prose Writings.” According to Richards, Spratling, not the literary lion Sherwood Anderson, stood at the center of the New Orleans artists and writers. He also points out that Faulkner’s early sketches for the Times-Picayune and the literary magazine, Double Dealer, as well as some of the characters and scenes in Mosquitoes (1927), are strongly homoerotic. Richards’s paper was presented at the 34th Faulkner Conference in 2007; Annette Trafzer states that conference’s subject, “Faulkner’s Sexualities,” is an “intentionally ambiguous” subject that “blurs the line between the author’s body and the body of his work .…” (Trefzer). This conference as well as “Faulkner and Women” (1985) and “Faulkner and Gender” (1994), featured other studies on Faulkner and homosexuality.

With Ben Wasson and the New Orleans-born gay writer, Lyle Saxon in New York City after the publication of Sanctuary (1931), Faulkner interacted with the Algonquin Round Table and met Alexander Woollcott. Faulkner toured Harlem’s gay clubs and cabarets with Carl Van Vetchen, where he attended a show by the famous drag “king” Gladys Bentley. This encounter was recounted by Wasson in the Blotner Papers at Southeastern Missouri State University, a rich source for scholarship that Gordon calls “fascinating, complex, and, for lack of a better word, beautiful.” Despite his earlier disclaimer concerning Faulkner’s personal proclivities, Gordon also avers that “there is evidence in the Blotner papers that suggest our understanding of Faulkner’s sexuality might not be what we have generally assumed.”

Gordon frames Faulkner within the literary milieu of early 20th century Mississippi–by any standards a cutting edge of the Southern Renaissance in American literature–and includes several prominent gay writers. The queer planter, poet, and memoirist William Alexander Percy of Greenville nurtured a clutch of writers, including Hodding Carter, Walker Percy, Shelby Foote, and Wasson. Gordon also illuminates Oxford’s fascinating and cosmopolitan Stark Young as well as the undeservedly obscure poet and scholar Hubert Creekmore of Water Valley.

In a text, Gordon and other queer critics focus on the meaning and nuances of a text, and amplify its implications. Some readers may think Gordon is reaching to make a point, but in the end, the words and their meanings are there for any reader to understand. Gay Faulkner has a great deal to recommend it; it’s interesting, educational, and entertaining. The book is also an excellent introduction to current and ongoing studies that seek to explore new avenues in Faulkner’s work.

Play It Again, Boys!

Buried deep in my album is a photograph from the hot summer of 1979, of the boys playing music on a flatbed trailer. We appear to be laying down some pretty hot licks, going for the big $100 purse in the band contest on the Oxford square. Old John Bradley is thumping the stand-up bass; Mr. Cragin Knox frails the banjo. Randy Cross, staring off into the flaw- less summer sky, is on rhythm guitar; the immortal L. W. Thomas is playing lead; and I am sawing on the fiddle.

Our faces are solemn masks, the de rigueur expression of the old-time string band. WOOR Radio is flashing us out over the airwaves; the shirt- sleeved judges lean on their elbows; and in the foreground Mr. Jack Cofield himself is snapping our picture as if we were very big dogs indeed. It is a satisfying image, for it fails to mention that we were not big dogs at all but mere dabblers in the music trade. Moreover, it omits the dubious harmonies we sent aloft that day to the old arched windows of city hall.

And to look at it you would never guess, any more than the “bored judges” or the listeners scattered on the green, that our faces-so cool, so self-possessed-are in fact rigid with fear, and in our hearts a secret voice bargains with God to only let us live through this set and we would never, never, never play in public again.

What, then, were we doing there? It was a question we often asked our-selves when the pressure, largely self-induced, was on. It was not really all that bad, playing music-we had our good days, even a triumph now and then. But there was always the suspicion that sooner or later the People Out Front would rise up in their scorn and drive us from the stage. hey never did, of course, and we lurked on the fringes of the business for years.

We were known by picturesque names-The Waterford Road, The Eighth of January, The Horse Stealers. Friends came and went: Uncle Frank Childrey and his Gibson mandolin; Gathal Runnells, a great fiddler; young Les Kerr and Mike Burduck, a fine bass player. We played all around, turning up like rented palms at parties and banquets and wedding receptions, even at wine-and-cheese affairs where our repertoire nearly always clashed with the decor. We worked the Watermelon Festivals in Water Valley, the Faulkner Conferences in Oxford, and Ole Miss pep rallies.

And always there were the taverns: Abbey’s Irish Rose, Cajun Fred’s, The Warehouse; all gone now but lively enough places once upon a time. In the taverns we met all the usual roadhouse foolishness. People grabbed at our microphones and spilled beer on our instruments. Combatants arrived at our feet in a spray of broken glass. It was a rare show that we didn’t get 10 requests for “Rocky Top,” a song we all hated and couldn’t play very well anyway.

But in our travels, we knew also the good bright sun, the faces of friends, pretty girls dancing, free drinks, and the smell of barbecue in the air. It was a colorful pastime, and there was nothing quite like walking into a job with an instrument case and having the public mistake you for a musician.

We fooled them for a long time, though we never amounted to much more than a bunch of boys playing music on a flatbed truck. We had none of the professional apparatus, like matching shirts or our own sound equipment, and our showmanship was… elemental, you might say (“Now it’s time for the boys to innerduce themselves,” L. W. would announce, “and we would turn and nod and shake hands with each other, and sometimes the People would get it and sometimes they wouldn’t.)

Yet in time we gained, to our everlasting astonishment, a following. Not just our girlfriends and cronies, understand, but people we never knew before. To the Ole Miss students we were a novelty beyond words, to the older folks perhaps the half-remembered voice of a simpler time. And in spite of our fears none of them ever seemed to care if we were very slick or not, if we broke strings or forgot the words. All they wanted was a joyful noise, and we could give them that. Through the old songs, we touched something solid and authentic in the heart that all of them could recognize, even if they didn’t know why.

And for ourselves – when we were rolling along and hanging on to the steady thumping of the bass, we were in high cotton indeed. So in the end it was worth it, and if we had to ask what we were doing up there, we need look no further than the music for an answer. We would do it all again, I think. And when the house lights came on for the last time, and the boys closed their cases and went away into the world, they took with them a long memory, and the old songs – to be broken out in the parlor now and then, or suddenly remembered in the ruin of night. And in my album the boys are captured forever, having a bad day but trying to do their best just the same.

We won the $100, by the way-not for being top band in the contest, but for being the only one to sign up. “That’s show biz,” as the feller said. –Howard Bahr