My dad had a soft touch for door-to-door salesmen. I can still see him laid back on the couch in his boxers listening to some guy spell out his hard-luck story. I doubt if any of them left without an order and a couple of dollars in their pocket. We had three sets of encyclopedias and all kinds of serials put out by national publication like Time/Life or the Reader’s Digest. Our home was full of books full of words and pictures, and I spent hours poring over them when as a boy.
It wasn’t until a decade after he died that I began to explore the other books, the old faded covers and the tattered paperbacks. There I found the father I didn’t know, a man beyond my comprehension as a child, and certainly beyond mine as an old man. Still the books set a mold of time, of place, and more so of my father, the contours set by such as a raggedly paperback edition of Greek poetry in English translation in which I found the epigram of Simonides that Senator John F. Kennedy cited in his speech at the Syria Mosque in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in October, 1960: “Passerby: Tell Sparta we fell faithful to her service.”
Jess Jr. had a personal connection with the Kennedys, since in his capacity as District Attorney for Lafayette County in 1962 he had to juggle the political ramifications of a grand jury indictment against James J.P. McShane, who led the federal agents who escorted James Meredith, the first African American student at University of Mississippi. The indictment was eventually revoked.
He had a copy of C.H. Cramer’s Royal Bob: The Life of Robert Ingersoll. Ingersoll, an American lawyer, Civil War veteran, political leader and orator during the Golden Age of Free Thought (roughly from 1875 to 1914), was noted for his broad range of cultural activities and his defense of agnosticism. Another book relating to Jess Jr.’s political leanings on a more local level is Kirwan’s Revolt of the Rednecks: Mississippi Politics, 1876-1925, a solid nod to his political roots in the hills of north Mississippi.
One of the most puzzling yet astoundingly revealing works I found among my father’s books was Richard Brautigan’s first novel. A Confederate General from Big Sur, published in 1964. Jess Jr. was a student of the Civil War not only as a Southerner but as a politician since its ramifications were being felt with intensity in his lifetime. In Brautigan’s novel, which takes place in 1957, a man named Mellon believes he is a descendant of a Confederate general from Big Sur, California. There is no proof of his existence, although Mellon meets a drifter who has also heard of this general. Mellon seeks the truth of his own modern-day struggle in the United States in light of the Confederacy’s past struggle with the Union. I like to believe my father picked this book up on the basis of its title alone, but read it in its entirety in what was an ongoing effort to keep abreast of the mindset of the nation.
As to other fiction, he had Faulkner’s A Fable and The Town, two very divergent works; Jess Jr. knew Faulkner’s attorney Phil Stone and might have met the writer, but I feel he read Faulkner’s works more out of a desire to understand how this man from Lafayette County came to win a Nobel Prize than for any other reason. He also had a copy of Welty’s Golden Apples, which is puzzling, since of Welty’s works this is more rooted in classical mythology than any other, and my father was very much a student of reality. Like me, perhaps he was just a rube who came to read old books, and their poems and legends became a part of who he was.
In retrospect Jess Jr. could well be considered a learned man, and as such he was quite different from his peers, who included the political lights of his day as well as an across-the-board array of businessmen and dignitaries but perhaps most importantly people from every walk of life. For all that I have a handful of his books, I have little of his life, since his papers were destroyed by his law partner, who was also his brother-in-law. He will always be a puzzle to the man I am, but not to the boy I was who loved him with every fiber of my being.
This image from A Cook’s Tour of Mississippi (The Clarion-Ledger: 1980) accompanied an article by Dean Faulkner Wells, “The biscuits Nannie and Callie baked for the boys.” Into 1 qt. sifted flour work well 1 tblespn each lard, butter and teaspn salt. After well worked moisten with 1/2 pt. (sweet) milk and make stiff dough. Beat by hand.Bake quickly.
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), included a portrait of 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 sexuality are Victorian and veiled. “Divorce in Naples” displays sexual activity blended with romantic idealism and sexual innocence if not confusion, but–typically—Faulkner leaves the tension–as well as our interpretation–suspended.
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.
When I was a little kid, I’d write stories and my mother would type them up on her Royal Standard typewriter. Writing those stories, I never supposed I’d become serious. I used to use a manual typewriter, my own 1953 Royal standard, a beautiful machine that I loved dearly. Then I got a computer, and I use that now. The thing about the computer is that it makes it so easy to revise. Stepping off into the blank page is scary, and it’s much easier to go back and revise what you’ve already written than to make up something new, so I have to watch myself with that. I only work at night; drink beer, smoke my pipe and try to write a couple of pages. It’s kind of a ritual.
When I first became really interested in writing, when I was working on the railroad, my friend Frank Smith introduced me to William Faulkner. I’d heard of Faulkner, but I had never read him. Frank and I were talking about writing, thinking, sort of coming out of ourselves and finding out things. When he gave me some Faulkner books to read, I became just totally involved in Faulkner’s world. It was a world I thought I would have loved to have lived in; the 1890s, the turn of the century, the South of the 1920s. I was fascinated by his style, so I began to unconsciously imitate it. If I had any of my early writings, you would see that I was a very poor copier of William Faulkner, but an imitator nevertheless. Parenthetically, Shelby Foote did the same thing, you read Foote’s early novels and they are a poor imitation of Faulkner’s style. Then I read Joseph Conrad, and I began to imitate him, his cadences, then I read Scott Fitzgerald and I tried to imitate his beautiful, musical lines. Every person I read, I would imitate. Many years later, when I read Lonesome Dove, that book put echoes in my head. Out of all that came my own style.
That’s how I learned to write, by reading other writers, imitating and finding my own voice, and that’s what I recommend for any writer, to not be afraid to imitate a number of writers, because eventually you’ll find your own style. That’s what Faulkner himself did; he imitated A.E. Housman, a number of stylists until he came up with his own. By the time I came to Rowan Oak as a caretaker, I was sick and tired of William Faulkner, I was sick of his baroque sentences, he had begun to annoy me with his coy, almost willful obscurity, so I lost interest in his writing for that reason. Oddly enough, the presence of William Faulkner at Rowan Oak was very small. The boys who worked with me there I think would agree. We all wrote stories and wrote things in the house, but there was no inspiration or magical breath that came down the stairs. It was like writing in a hotel room. Although we talked about him, kept the house as he and his family had, the house really had a life of its own. To us, it was always the house that was more alive to us than Faulkner. Wherever Mr. Faulkner’s ghost is, it is at rest.
I never go to a lecture unless I’m giving it. I say that kind of tongue-in-cheek, but there’s also some truth in it, too. I go to a writers’ conference to speak or read, and I look out over the auditorium and they’ve all got their pads and their pencils are poised to write down The Secret as if there must be some secret to this. They would be better off spending that time reading other writers and writing for themselves. Edgar Allen Poe never went to a writers’ conference; William Faulkner never attended classes at Bread Loaf. The great writers learn to write by reading and imitating and by working their asses off day and night. You’ve always got to be working on something, whether it’s going to amount to anything or not. You can ask any writer if he is working on anything now, and he will say yes. He may be staring at the blank page, but he’s still working.
Don’t preach. You want to write a story. Faulkner said, and I think he’s quite right, that a writer should not have an agenda, that he should not preach; his business is to tell the story of the human heart, to tell it well in all of its lights and shadows, and out of that telling, if you do it true enough and honest enough, if you don’t make fun of your characters and create a real world that your reader can move around in, if you do all that and tell the story, then the meaning, the preaching, whatever you’re trying to say will come out. The Black Flower is not about North versus South; it’s not about the Yankees and the Rebels; it’s about how horrible and unspeakable war is. That’s what it preaches about, not through the voice of the author but through the actions and reactions of the characters and the things they see in the world around them. The reader gets the message without being button-holed. What is wrong with preaching is that you begin to move away from the story, away from the work, and into the writer. And the writer doesn’t matter. If the writer has a message, it needs to come out in the work.
I think that my course has run as a writer. I don’t think that I’ll be publishing any more books. I think that the time has come for me to be a teacher of writing. But having said that, I still write all the time, I’m still paying attention. The literary world is a landscape that I don’t recognize any more, I don’t understand it; I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t think anyone would be interested in publishing anything else I write, but if I ever finish something, I’ll send it in, see what happens.
With The Dixie Limited, M. Thomas Inge fills a crucial academic niche in work on the Faulkner canon. Arranged chronologically from over the last eight decades in a collection of essays, articles, reviews, letters, and interviews by Faulkner’s contemporaries and their successors.
In his introduction Inge refers to a paper presented by Thomas L. McHaney at the 1979 Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference at the University of Mississippi, “Watching for the Dixie Limited: Faulkner’s Impact upon the Creative Writer,” later published in Fifty Years of Yoknapatawpha (University Press of Mississippi: 1980), edited by Dr. Doreen Fowler and Ann Abadie. McHaney stated that “writers seem to have more in common with one another than with their own native literary establishments.” He continues to say that “the literary establishment, especially in the sense that it constitutes the best-seller and the major book-reviewing media, did not have as much to do with him . . . as did the other creative writers in English. His impact on them was immediate and sustained . . .” Inge’s thesis echoes—and subsequently amplifies—this assessment: “The novel has certainly not been the same since Faulkner, that much seems clear, and the intent here is to document some of the reasons by surveying the exact nature of what Faulkner has meant to his colleagues both in the United States and abroad.”
The title references a famous quote by Flannery O’Connor that first appeared in a paper she read in 1960 at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. The subject of the speech, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Fiction,” notes a tendency to the grotesque in the “Southern situation” as well as the “prevalence of good Southern writers.” She then states, “The presence alone of Faulkner in our midst makes a great difference in what the writer can and cannot permit himself to do. Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.” Inge notes that O’Connor took heed of her own advice, and developed an original vision and distinctive style of spiritual and gothic austerity. Eudora Welty also cultivated her own talents in Faulkner’s looming shadow. “It was like living near a big mountain, something majestic—it made me happy to know it was there, all that work of his life,” she wrote. “But it wasn’t a helping or hindering presence.” She also said—with characteristic modesty—that “[Faulkner] wrote about a much vaster world than anything I ever contemplated in my own work.” She was not intimidated by Faulkner; she learned from him.
We often lose sight of Faulkner’s earlier works, situated as they are behind the towering edifices of his Yoknapatawpha novels, but he attracted the attention of other writers at the beginning of his career. The Fugitive poet and future Agrarian Donald Davidson found Soldiers’ Pay (1926) the product of “an artist in language, a sort of poet turned into prose,” and considered Mosquitoes (1927) grotesque, too heavily influenced by Joyce, yet admirable “for the skill of the performance.” Lillian Hellman read the manuscript of Mosquitoes (for publisher Boni & Liveright) and in an enthusiastic review for the New York Herald Tribune likewise found Faulkner at his worst under the influence of Joyce in overwritten passages, but the novel demonstrated to her a genius “found in the writings of only a few men.”
Following the publication of The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), Sanctuary (1931), Light in August (1932) and Absalom, Absalom! (1936), nobody with an eye to the landscape of American literature could ignore the emergence of William Faulkner as a dominant if not to say dominating presence. Sherwood Anderson, writing in an essay for The American Mercury in 1930—sixteen years after the editor, H. L. Mencken, published his searing denunciation of the state of southern literature, “The Sahara of the Bozart” in the New York Evening Mail—set the stage for the century’s most celebrated literary rivalry by saying, “The two most notable young writers who have come on in America since the war, it seems to me, are William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway.” This comparison became even more unavoidable as the two barreled down, traveled the same track, or —in a perhaps more apt Hemingwayesque metaphor—faced off in the same ring.
As the century wore on, more and more writers, playwrights, and poets found it contingent upon them to weigh in on Faulkner’s looming stature. His impact in Britain was impressive, though mixed, with Rebecca West and George Orwell, who, as a champion of lucid style, condemning The Hamlet in 1940 as “fatiguing” and “certainly not worth a second reading to understand it.” Somewhat predictably, considering Faulkner’s own indebtedness to Proust in both style and theme, his reception in France was both spectacular and profound. Sartre declared in 1946 that Faulkner had “evoked a revolution” through his innovations in perspective, tonal monologues, and changing the “chronological order of the story” in behalf of “a more subtle order, half logical, half intuitive.” In a letter to Malcolm Cowley, Sartre wrote, “Pour la jeune France, Faulkner c’est un dieu.”
Inge delineates Faulkner’s deep impression on the literature of South America, saying, “By liberating these writers, and many others, from the traditional themes and methods of narration, and paving the way for new techniques in dealing with time and history and modern tragedy, Faulkner helped generate what may be the most vital writing in the world at the century’s end,” even going so far as to say, “It is indeed arguable that [Gabriel García] Márquez’s 1967 masterpiece, Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude), could not have been possible without Faulkner’s fiction to serve as inspiration and master instruction.” Inge also describes Faulkner’s global impact with contributions from writers in South Africa, Japan, and China.
In addition to the two above-mentioned, Dixie Limited includes a generous portion of women writers: Kay Boyle, Dorothy Parker, Elizabeth Spencer, Lee Smith, and others. Excruciatingly appropriate on several levels are selections from black writers: Ralph Ellison, Chester Gaines, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Faulkner’s fellow Mississippian Richard Wright. Faulkner’s impact—and lack thereof—on political and social issues features prominently in Baldwin’s essay, “Faulkner and Desegregation,” and it’s also the theme of perhaps the most endearing essay in the collection, Roark Bradford’s “The Private World of William Faulkner” (1984).
Faulkner’s critics are not ignored. In addition to Orwell, you’ll find disparaging statements—in varying degrees and often at different stages in their own careers—from Ellen Glasgow, Booth Tarkington, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, Katherine Ann Porter, John Barth, Truman Capote, John Steinbeck, and Vladimir Nabokov, as well as a generous helping of bile from Hemingway. Inge includes “one of the most damning assessments perhaps ever written about Faulkner” from Irish short story writer Sean O’Faolain, who concluded in a1953 address at Princeton University, that Faulkner demonstrated “More genius than talent.” You’ll find most of these in Inge’s remarkable introduction, which deserves reading and re-reading for only for those includes these poison pen remarks, but also for and also paeons from the likes of Katherine Anne Porter, Carson McCullers, William Styron, Shelby Foote, and Walker Percy, along with illuminating observations from Richard Ford and John Grisham.
Though The Dixie Limited is an academic work, it is important for the lay scholar as well, particularly those of us who grew up in the same milieu as that of the man many consider the most important writer of the Twentieth Century. Our proximity to Faulkner seems to have bred in us a complacent acceptance of his stature. This book provides us with perspectives for a more balanced appreciation of a literary figure of global stature who just happened to have been born in the wilds of North Mississippi.
“For reasons best known to ourselves,” Hodding Carter, Ben Wasson and Kenneth Haxton decided “one low-water night some time back” to organize “still another addition to the multiplicity of publishing houses whose directors dream of an America that will some day read instead of write.”
Their brainchild, Levee Press, ranks among those small publishing enterprises—the Woolfs’ Hogarth and the Webbs’ Loujon, for instance—that are distinguished by the quality of their production. Though its output was miniscule by any standards—only four publications in roughly that many years totaling somewhat less than 3000 copies (2635 “official” count)—Levee Press imprints command a significant price among an elite of discerning bibliophiles because the names of the four authors—Foote, Welty, Faulkner and Percy—resonate in the state, the region and the world. Had Levee Press maintained production at such a level of quality, the Greenville publishing house could very well in time have become one of the premiere imprints in the nation, but indifference, dissent, certainly some combination of the two—melded to bring an end to it.
In the late 1940s, during the “golden age” of Mississippi literature, the output was phenomenal, with Welty and Faulkner as cynosures in a stellar flurry of belles lettres including works from Carter himself, who had commandeered the Greenville Delta Democrat-Times—as he had the Hammond Daily Courier—into a newspaper of integrity and distinction, an achievement acknowledged by the Pulitzer jury that awarded him the prize for editorial writing in 1946. Hodding was at the peak of his career; his reputation as a capable spokesman for a progressive South was solidly entrenched across the nation. Ben Wasson, who had worked in New York theater with Leland Hayward and acted as Faulkner’s first literary agent, wrote on the arts and as a literary critic for the newspaper. Kenneth Haxton, a composer and husband of National Book Award nominee Josephine Ayers Haxton, who wrote under the surname Ellen Douglas, worked full-time at his family’s department store, Nelms and Blum’s (his mother was a Blum), where he had installed a bookstore. Carter also had young Shelby Foote working for him at the Delta Democrat-Times then, and while Hodding can dryly drawl about the enterprising intentions of him and his cronies in their cups, it was Foote who came up with the idea to publish a book using the resources of the Delta Democrat-Times.
Shelby Foote grew up in Greenville alongside his fraternal friend Walker Percy under the patriarchal wing of planter/poet William Alexander Percy. Foote, like Walker, had literary ambitions which in time both realized, but in early 1947, Foote had just turned 30, had only one major work in progress (Tournament), and his expenses were mounting. Apparently quite on his own initiative, he decided to print and publish his own work with the limited resources of the Delta Democrat-Times print shop. Since his enterprise just happened to mesh with their own previous plans to publish books in the hub of the Delta, Ben Wasson, representing Hodding Carter and Kenneth Haxton, asked Foote if he would add the name “Levee Press” to the pamphlet they had heard he was planning to print. “We gonna call it the Levee Press,” Wasson said, nodding out the window at the earthworks against the river.
From within the Tournament manuscript, Foote excised the grim story of Abraham Wisten, the tragic story of an ambitious Jewish immigrant, entitled it The Merchant of Bristol and hired co-worker Bill Yarborough to typeset and print 260 copies of the 20-page novella on June 2, 1947. Foote stapled them together himself and—with considerable pluck—signed, numbered and marketed his work in the book section of Nelms and Blum’s at $1.50 a copy. More than one wit remarked that just as much would buy a good dress shirt, and sales were predictably disappointing, not only perhaps because of Foote’s perceived pretentions but more likely because as a publication, The Merchant of Bristol is nothing more than a pamphlet, reminiscent of the blue essay books used for university examinations. Wisten’s tragedy was reprinted in Foote’s first work of fiction, Tournament, in 1949.
Writing in the Commercial Appeal on July 6, 1947, columnist Paul Flowers announced, “Freshest literary venture in the South today is the Levee Press at Greenville, Miss. (there’s always something going on among the literati of Washington County.) The Levee Press is the idea of a group of writers, for the perpetuation of stories, essays, and other literary material which may not have enough general interest for publication on a national scale, but too good to be forgotten… Shelby Foote broke the ice with a short story, published in pamphlet form, and 250 copies, each one numbered and autographed, went out to persons who had subscribed. The project is non-profit and there’s no incentive except to keep alive bits of writing which ought to live. More small volumes will be coming from the Levee Press. It will not be commercial, and no one connected with it is looking for material gain (except Foote, of course: JY) However, most, if not all of its insiders are welling manuscripts in the open market, but they will publish at home, just for collector’s items some of the pieces nearest their hearts.” Flowers doubtless received this description of the Levee Press’s objectives from Hodding Carter himself by way of promotion, and perhaps this is an echo of the “reasons best known to ourselves” that he referred to some six years later in Where Main Street Meets the River, where he claimed—again, after the fact—that the purpose of the Levee Press was to “publish limited, signed editions of new, relatively short books—“novella” sounds better—by established Southern writers.”
With the publication of A Curtain of Green (1941) and The Wide Net and Other Stories (1943), Welty had garnered three O. Henry awards and a Guggenheim fellowship, which made her a clear candidate for publication with the Levee Press. Wasson “brazenly” asked Welty if she would permit the new publishing firm to issue one of her manuscripts as a book and had told her the plans for the new press. In Count no ‘Count, Wasson recounts, “The great and gracious lady replied that she approved of such a venture, that Mississippi needed a limited editions press, and that, as it happened, she did have a manuscript. It was a novella, Music from Spain.” In December, 1946, Welty traveled to San Francisco to visit her friend and ofttime paramour John Robinson, rented her own apartment there in January and between then and March wrote a lengthy story, “Music from Spain”. The story stands at somewhat of a distance from the body of Welty’s oeuvre because it is set outside of Mississippi, in San Francisco, its narrative is stream-of-consciousness and it is distinctly erotic—indeed, homoerotic— a daring element in a work for publication in Greenville, Mississippi in the late 1940s. After contacting Welty’s agent, Diarmuid Russell, Carter and company contracted Welty for 750 copies was agreed to give her 25 per cent of the $2.50 price—Wasson claims $4—in exchange for non-exclusive rights to “Music from Spain”.
When Ben Wasson proposed that Levee Press “do a Faulkner”, the other two laughed. Even though Faulkner in 1946 was one of three finalists for the first Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine Award (second to Rhea Galati), he was by most other standards the single most important Southern American writer of his day, but Wesson had a card up his sleeve. Not only had he been Faulkner’s agent when Faulkner was struggling to publish Flags in the Dust, but it was Wesson who for fifty dollars a week pared down Faulkner’s novel for the demands of Harcourt, Brace. For two weeks, while Faulkner sat nearby writing The Sound and the Fury, Wasson cut almost a fourth of the book, and Harcourt, Brace published the truncated version on January 31, 1929, as Sartoris. Some might say that Ben Wesson was calling in a debt, but for whatever reason, in late February, 1948, Wesson traveled with Carter to Oxford for an evening at Rowan Oak. Faulkner, “at-first-reticent”, gradually warmed his visitors, who left with an original manuscript, a “horse race piece” Faulkner suggested they call “A Long Dangling Clause from a Work in Progress.”
On March 1, Faulkner reported his commitment to his agent, Robert K. Haas: “Hodding Carter and an old friend of Mine, Ben Wasson, have what they call the Levee Press, at Greenville, Miss. Three times a year they get out an issue, which is sort of a colophon thing: a single story or article, limited number. I am letting them have the section of the big mss. Which Ober offered to Partisan Review and was declined. It will resemble a special edition pamphlet, bound of course, signed by me, to sell at $2.50. I get 25%. This is all right with Random House, isn’t it? The section is about 80-100 pages typescript. They will call it Section (of from) Work in Progress. I think. I want to do it mainly to confound the people who say nothing good out of Miss. The Press is less than a year old, is already getting known even though in slightly precious circles, like Yale reviews etc. Its foundation is Carter’s Greenville daily newspaper. His name is familiar to you, probably: lecturer, liberal, champion of Negro injustice though no radical, no communist despite Bilbo and Rankin.”
So it was with these commitments an announcement was made in the Commercial Appeal on May 2, 1948: “The Levee Press probably will be doing some celebrating about that time also (2nd week in May with publication of Cohn’s Where I Was Born and Raised), announcing books by Eudora Welty and William Faulkner, to be issued by the Greenville house. That won’t hurt the Levee Press, either, starting off with a pair of names such as Welty and Faulkner, for those are two writers highly esteemed in the English speaking world. The Levee Press may turn into an important venture in the American publishing world. It got off to a modest beginning about a year ago with a short story by Shelby Foote.”
For the Welty book, Carter stepped up his game considerably. Always the consummate newspaperman, he purchased a Jansen type plate that he had admired in certain Knopf publications. With no local bindery available, he contracted that job to a publishing company in Texas Dickens. Carter also hired local artist Elizabeth Calvert to design the colophon, a stylized “L” bracketing a river steamer, which was ensconced beneath those of Welty and Faulkner (Percy died in 1943). Ken Haxton designed and drew the Picassoesque/art deco guitar for the terra-cotta cover and chose for each of the seven section headings musical motifs from the Spanish composer Isaac Albeniz, Recuerdos de viaje, “En la Alhambra”. Writing in The New York Times Book Review in 1949, Charles Poore called the volume a “handsome example of bookmaking”. Music from Spain was incorporated into Welty’s third collection of short stories, Golden Apples, published by Harcourt, Brace in 1949. Welty’s 25 per cent of the $2.50 take was the price of literary notoriety in Mississippi at the time, but on the current market a (quality) copy of Music from Spain published by the Levee Press sells for $1000, a distinguished association copy, inscribed and signed by Eudora Welty, to authors Allen Tate and Caroline Gordon: “To Caroline + Allen/ with love/ from Eudora”.)
Though Levee Press’s relationship with Eudora Welty is undocumented, Faulkner’s exchanges are unsurprisingly high-profile, with vibrant accounts provided by both Carter, in Where Main Street Meets the River and Wasson, in Count no ‘Count, given that the author was awarded the Nobel Prize during the publishing process. Carter, Wasson and Haxton shortened the title of the Faulkner manuscript to Notes on a Horsethief. “It was good,” Carter claimed, “even though a few readers have since complained that they never before had read thirty thousand words divided into only three sentences.” Again, Levee Press extended its resources for Notes on a Horsethief. Elizabeth Calvert’s flowing, linear artwork for the rich, Sherwood green cover and the endpapers, described by Jean Stein as “horses in flight”, are striking and dramatic. Horsethief is arguably Levee Press’s highest achievement both in terms of art and letters.
Notes on a Horsethief was printed on November 4, 1950, and the following January, on the 23rd, Estelle Faulkner phoned Carter, telling him that her husband had decided that there was no sense in unpacking the nine hundred and fifty books he had received the month before for signing only to ship them right back, and he had put the unopened crate in his station wagon early that morning and was on his way to Greenville. Carter alerted Wasson, who “smuggled” Faulkner into Hodding’s office at the Delta Democrat-Times, sent out for the crate of books, and an ad hoc assembly line was organized with Wasson opening the books for a signature, Faulkner—standing, in a half-crouch—signing and numbering them and a young woman from the bindery took it from him to blot the signatures and replace them in the box. Carter sent out to Al’s Café for beer. “Hospitality dictated that I do something for a man who had driven one hundred and twenty miles just to stand in my office and sign his name to copies of a book for which he could have received far more than our limited edition’s twenty-five percent royalty could bring him at six dollars a copy,” Carter wrote, recording “for the factual-minded” that Faulkner’s ration of signed books to beers turned out that day and the next morning to be “sixty volumes of Faulkner to one bottle of Budweiser.”
Notes on a Horse Thief was published scarcely a month before Faulkner accepted the Nobel Prize Stockholm’s City Hall on December 10, 1950. The nine hundred copies sold out quickly, and soon copies were selling for as high as $25 in. Irving Howe, reviewing this “privately printed and fabulously pieced story” in The Nation, said it was “a bad piece of writing,” but Charles Poore in the New York Times Book Review, called it “at once a brilliantly told story of a manhunt and a subtly woven allegory on man’s fate.” Notes later became a section in Faulkner’s much-belated Pulitzer winner, A Fable, with gracious thanks from the author to Levee Press for permission to reproduce the material.
Choosing the next work to be published proved problematic; Carter, Wasson and Caxton intimated later that it had been their intention to publish Mississippi writers exclusively, but in the end it just turned out that way. In fact, Carter was considering publishing a book of poems by John Gould Fletcher of Arkansas that had been turned down by his New York publisher, but at the last minute the decided to print them after all. Wasson wrote to Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers and Robert Penn Warren, but none had a manuscript of suitable length ready for publication. Writer and photographer Carl Van Vechten, who Gertrude Stein had appointed her literary executor, sent some unpublished works by her, but the three principals of Levee Press found them so mystifying that they returned them, regretfully, to a subsequently indignant Van Vechten. Unknown writers (including Greenville son Howard Mitcham jly) submitted hundreds of manuscripts, but none of them seemed good enough.
The shadow of William Alexander Percy looms large in Greenville, and Carter, Wasson and Haxton all knew the man well and admired him immensely. Percy died in 1942, and Knopf published The Collected Poems of William Alexander Percy in 1943, with a second edition the following year. Yet Ann Stokes, who claimed to have worked with Percy in editing the poems for the collection, claimed that she had variant forms of some of the published poems that should be printed, and insisted with no small degree of persistence that Hodding Carter publish these poems as well. Carter felt some degree of obligation to Stokes, who sold him the land on which he had built his new Feliciana house. Ben Wasson thought publishing Percy’s poetry was redundant and the book would not sell, and Carter, while engaged in a lengthy and complicated correspondence with Alfred Knopf, whose company held the copyright to the Percy poems, actually went so far as to ask Knopf to deny him permission to reprint the poems, Knopf consented, giving Carter no excuse to refuse Stokes’ nagging.
Of Silence and of Stars, with a forward by Carter, edited by Anne Stokes, decorations by Elizabeth Calvert, was issued in mid-1953, the title taken from the poem “Home” (“I have a need of silence and of stars…”). It is a handsome volume, with a deep blue cover featuring a sketch of herons somewhat similar but not as striking as the horses on the Faulkner cover, and the end papers are illustrated with drawings of cypress in a bayou. A note on the dedication page is a quote from Faulkner’s Nobel acceptance speech. Stokes dated each poem and divided them into three groups: those written before 1915, those written between 1915 and 1920 and those completed after Percy’s World War I experiences. Six hundred and fifty copies were printed, and while each copy was numbered, of course they are unsigned.
Although Ben Haxton placed “The Levee Press” on the title page of his 1997 work The Undiscovered Country as a tribute to the spirit of the enterprise he shared with Carter and Wasson, Of Silence and of Stars proved to be the last book issued by Levee Press. Carter toyed with the idea of publishing “lost literature” of the South, particularly a stirring antebellum courtroom plea that Natchez lawyer Sargent S. Prentiss made in a Kentucky court to save the lives of three Mississippi planters involved in a bloody brawl while attending a wedding, this idea never came to fruition, and after failing to get a manuscript from Tennessee Williams, the Levee Press passed out of existence. Carter, Wasson and Haxton all had other, more pressing involvements, and Wasson, evidently the principal behind the publishing venture, clearly lost interest after the Percy work was foisted on the press. Still, the output of the Levee Press is a high-water mark in the publishing history of Mississippi and a notable achievement that’s likely never to be duplicated in this state or any other.
This is an excerpt from Malcolm Franklin’s Bitterweeds: Life with William Faulkner at Rowan Oak (1977) Born in Shanghai in 1923, Franklin was the son of Cornell and Lida Estelle Franklin. After what’s most often described as a “cordial” divorce, Estelle married William Faulkner in 1929, and he began living in Oxford, Mississippi. Franklin served as a medic during World War II, studied medicine and herpetology. He died in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1977.
Of all the holidays at Rowan Oak, Christmas was the most festive. An air of great excitement prevailed everywhere, even in Chrissie’s and Andrew’s little cabin.
I recall one cold, crisp December mid-afternoon, when the various members of the family gathered in the library in preparation for the expedition to get the Christmas Tree. This was the very beginning of Christmas, when the tree was found and cut.
Each was bundled up against the cold. This year there was Jill, Pappy, Victoria’s husband Bill Fielden, myself, Mama, and Andrew bearing the axe. It was Pappy who chose the tree-a cedar that had less of a chance to become a large tree. In making his choice he was also careful to thin out the woods properly, leaving extra growing space for the ones not cut, for our Christmas Tree always came from Bailey’s woods on Rowan Oak’s grounds.
After the tree was felled, Andrew and Pappy spread the khaki-colored tarp smoothly on the ground. Then the tree was carefully wrapped in the tarp, leaving an area at the base free so that Pappy and Andrew and all of us could take turns pulling it through the woods to Rowan Oak. This was done to protect the branches as the tree was pulled along, for it was far too heavy to carry.
The tedious chore of getting the tree up and ready for trimming was then completed. By then it was late afternoon and a cold sharp light came in through the living room windows. The trimming was left to the ladies with the men offering a suggestion now and then. Boxes of ornaments lay open on the floor. Tinsel lay heaped on the parlor table. When the decorations had found their way onto the delicate outer branches and the tinsel, sparkling and clear, reached to the very top ornament, the tree was a beautiful sight to behold. Across the hall the library door stood open. A roaring fire crackled in the fireplace. A bourbon bottle stood open on a silver tray. Cut glass waiting to be filled caught the reflection of the fire. (Christmas was preceded by trips for Christmas cheer to Memphis, seventy-odd miles away, the nearest place offering a wide selection of bourbon, wine, and of course champagne for the New Year.)
There were other trips to the woods for greens and decorations, all to be gathered before Christmas Eve. The gathering of the holly and mistletoe was quite a task. We had to drive almost eight miles out into the country to the place where it grew. This was an old Chickasaw Indian Boundary line, where the holly trees were used to mark the line running east and west. In the trees high above these hollies grew the mistletoe. So high up were they, that it was necessary to shoot the mistletoe out with a .22 rifle. Only a few berries were lost as the branches fell.
It was Christmas Eve morning. Pappy had taken Mama to Oxford in the old touring car to do last minute shopping. She had left instructions with Chrissie that if any packages or boxes should arrive while she was out, to just have them left in the house or on the verandah. Where I was at the time no one was sure. After all, it was Christmas Eve.
Toward the middle of the afternoon Chrissie was summoned by a sharp rap on the front door. It was the driver of the Railway Express van, with several large boxes for Mr. Franklin. Upon Chrissie’s instructions he and his crew neatly lined up three boxes on the verandah and drove off.
As the afternoon became colder and a grey sky brought early darkness, Mama and Pappy turned into the driveway, headed for the open fire and a drink. When Mama reached the top step on the verandah and saw those long boxes, all three of them, she was astounded. “Billy,” she called out, “What on earth do you suppose Malcolm’s receiving in these boxes?” As Faulkner reached the verandah he took one look at the boxes and called out loudly for me. **Buddy,” he said, “What on earth are these things? Come here!”
I had just come in by the back door and had not seen the boxes. I hurried through to the front verandah, took one quick look and knew. Dear God! They had sent out to me three cadavers meant for the Anatomy Department of the University!
When Mama found out what they were she took off for the library saying “Get rid of them! Get rid of them!”
I turned to Faulkner and explained. “Pappy,” I said, “I told Dr. Hogg that if anything was sent to the Anatomy Department during the holidays, the Express Company could call me and I would go over to the Department and let them in! I didn’t tell them to deliver cadavers here!”
“Well,” said Pappy. “We cannot have an array of cadavers gracing the verandah on Christmas Eve! You’d better phone Railway Express to pick these up immediately.”
Heading towards the telephone, shaken by the array of cadavers, I called back to Pappy. Please pour me a stiff drink while I make the call!
As the number was ringing the thought flashed through my mind that, as it was late Christmas Eve afternoon, there just might not be anyone there. But We had barely finished our drinks when the Railway Express van drove up again to the front Verandah. Faulkner then volunteered to drive me to the science building where I unlocked the door and made room for the Railway Expressmen to deliver the cadavers. As they emerged from the building Faulkner pulled from his pocket a pint bottle and passed it to each man.
When we arrived back, Rowan Oak was brightly lighted, and the glitter of the tree could be seen as the car came down the driveway and pulled up under the porte-cochere. Entering the library we headed toward the fire to warm up again. The aroma of various hot dishes drifted into the foyer from the dining room, where a buffet was being placed on the table. Norfleet appeared carrying a water pitcher. He bowed to Faulkner as he set the pitcher in place on the tray next to the bourbon decanter and glasses. For many friends would find their way up the cedar-lined driveway of Rowan Oak on Christmas Eve, leaving gifts or stopping by to say “Merry Christmas,” and perhaps sampling one of the hot dishes on the way to replenish a glass. This evening there were Dr. and Mrs. John Cully, Colonel and Mrs. Evans of ‘Minmagary” fame, Colonel Baker and his charmingly vivacious wife Kate, and many, many more.
The hour was a little past eleven, and younger members of the family were preparing to leave for the midnight service at St. Peter’s. A great flurry of activity could be glimpsed beyond the parlor door as coats were being held, gloves pulled on, and scarves flung across shoulders with an occasional impatient “Hurry or we’ll be late.” Older guests also began to disperse, leaving Pappy and Mama to go upstairs, where the stockings lay waiting in Mama’s room to be filled. Christmas Eve had suddenly become very quiet as Rowan Oak waited for the arrival of Santa. Even the dogs seemed somewhat subdued.
Daylight had hardly crept across the east lawn and touched the great cedars before young couples were astir in Rowan Oak. Jill’s and her young cousin Vicky’s were the first voices to be heard. Then there would be Pappy’s voice, trying to subdue the exuberant chatter as the girls headed for Mama’s room where the Christmas stockings hung waiting. Chrissie had already brought “Miss Estelle’s coffee tray up, and was peeping from behind the door and saying “Christmas Gif,” and flashing her brilliant, warm smile. She caught Pappy on the stairs, tipping down to fix his own breakfast. Chrissie knew that Mr. Bill would be the only one to eat a proper breakfast: eggs, bacon, and grits covered with melted butter, topped off with hot coffee.
On Christmas Faulkner was always a fastidious dresser. To start the stocking-opening ritual in Mama’s room, he wore an elegant and ornate silk Chinese robe. In this he would have his breakfast. Even for the early part of the ceremony of the tree he would be so dressed, for by nine-thirty the young people were there beside the tree in the parlor. It was at this time that Mama would make her appearance wearing a lovely Chinese wrapper in soft, muted pastel shades.
The younger members of the family, including the colored servants, Broadus, Norfleet, Estelle, and others, gathered around the tree. Pappy in his colorful dressing gown officiated. He offered a prayer first. Then he picked up a package and called a name. That person stepped forward and received it. This continued until all the packages were passed out, amid a flurry of paper and ribbon the boxes were opened.
The time had now come for Faulkner to receive his gifts. These consisted of little bundles of pipe cleaners, some in assorted colors, others snow-white. There were all kinds of pipe cleaners in various bundles clinging precariously to the branches of the tree, each with its little tag. There was one package of Dill pipe cleaners, which Faulkner liked particularly. The tag on this read: “To Pappy, Love Buddy.” The next, a gaily colored mixture, said “To Pappy, Love Jill.”
For Faulkner would accept only pipe cleaners from the family with the exception of an occasional handkerchief from Mama. If he received any other gift, he would carefully take it to his office and there it would remain unopened.
Colored members of the family went merrily off to the kitchen to open their gifts. There were pints of bourbon for our colored friends: Henry Jones, Wade Ward, and Wallace, who hunted with Faulkner, and of course Andrew.
The dining room table had been made ready early that morning. The Christmas punch bowl glistened ruby red, the flowers were gracefully arranged. Punch cups were placed about the ornate lace table cover. The bowl could be glimpsed by members of the family as they made their way upstairs to dress for the day. This was a Christmas punch created by Faulkner for the holidays. It consisted of apples, bourbon, dry burgundy and soda water, chilled by a generous portion of ice chunks.
During the morning and through the day frequent knocks at the kitchen door were followed by shouts of “Christmas Gif!” and various folks that had worked for us during the year received in return a Christmas drink and cheerful word. This was the custom in Oxford and throughout Mississippi. Wallace, at the request of Faulkner, stood ready with a wagon to drive to their homes those who could no longer navigate.
During the early afternoon members of my mother’s family began to arrive. There was my mother’s sister Aunt Dot, and my grandmother Oldham, this time without my grandfather. He had passed away during the war. Then there was Mary Jenkins, Dr. John Cully’s surgical nurse, who lived at the Oldhams’, and had for years been almost a member of the family. She had on numerous occasions taken care of Faulkner during serious drinking bouts.
Miss Maud, Faulkner’s mother, never went out on Christmas, or attended dinner at the homes of any of her children. She preferred to have her sons and grandchildren drop in and visit her. After her husband, Mr. Murry, passed away in the early 1930’s Miss Maud never had a Christmas Tree. Instead, there were bouquets of holly, Christmas greens, and a holly wreath at the front door. About mid-afternoon Faulkner would leave for a visit with Miss Maud, usually staying an hour. Then he would return to dress for dinner.
The afternoon grew late. Faulkner, who had returned to Rowan Oak and dressed in the white tie and tails which he considered appropriate for the occasion, made his appearance in the parlor, suggesting as he did so that drinks were in order. He then headed for the library fire and a bourbon, soon to be followed by members of the family. Conversations over drinks rose and fell with merry outbursts of laughter. Ice clicked against chilled glasses as new toasts came up. Mama came gaily into the library, saying, “Billy, will you do the honors?” Those who were seated before the fire arose, and we all placed empty glasses on the tray as we passed the library table on the way to the dining room.
Faulkner was already standing at the head of the table as the members of the family reached the dining room. The long table was draped with its elegant linen cloth, and the lighted candelabra cast uneven shadows on the polished silver. Holly and Christmas greens in a low cut-glass vase formed the centerpiece. Silver goblets with crisp white linen napkins marked each place.
There were two small tables placed at graceful angles near the dining table. These were for the younger members of the family, for there were too many to be seated at one table. Small gumdrop trees were placed in the centers of these tables. Their dainty linen and lace tablecloths swept close to the floor.
Chairs were held for the ladies as Faulkner graciously designated where each was to be seated. Norfleet’s white coat flicked through the pantry as he made a smiling entrance carrying the huge serving platter and turkey. After Pappy said the blessing, the turkey was carved. Each plate was bountifully served as Norfleet held it for Faulkner. Boojack re-set Faulkner’s place as Norfleet removed the well-carved turkey, placing it on the long narrow serving table on Faulkner’s left just in front of the fireplace.
Faulkner, lifting a crystal wine glass, poured a small portion in the glass and tasted it. Then each glass was filled by Faulkner as he walked around the table. When every glass was filled, Fau toast appropriate to the occasion. Boojack entered carrying a heaping dish of rice. Just behind, Broadus appeared bearing a large bowl of giblet gravy. There was always a tremendous amount of giblet gravy prepared, for it was a favorite with rice on Christmas. Then came the broccoli with a cheese sauce, followed by a shallow dish of sliced buttered sweet potatoes. The ham was passed, and a final platter of broiled quail. The long serving table had very little room left as the dishes were placed on it.
It was Boojack who, sometime later, swung open the door carrying a large empty tray. She, with the help of Broadus, removed the dinner plates and placed the dessert plates beside Mama.
Norfleet appeared almost immediately bearing a large cut glass bowl of ambrosia, which he placed in front of Mama. Seeing the ambrosia reminded Faulkner of a story a good friend had told him. Faulkner repeated the story as the ambrosia was passed. This friend had a cook, and when she was asked if she would like to go to heaven when she died, she stood silent for a few minutes. Then, smiling broadly, she replied: “No Sir, I don’t believe I wants to go to heaven, cause all I’d be doing up there every day for Eternity is grittin’ up coconut for the white folks’ ambrosia.”
Boojack returned carrying fruitcake and a silver urn of after-dinner coffee and the cups. Norfleet placed in front of Faulkner a bottle of cognac and delicately patterned small brandy glasses. By the time the last refill of cognac had been offered and conversation become somewhat scattered it was time to leave the table. The sky was a deep black and night had come. Christmas was over.
Best known for her work The American Way of Death, Jessica Mitford was a British aristocrat, writer and political activist who came to Mississippi in 1951 to publicize the unjust execution of Willie McGee, a black man from Laurel who was sentenced to death in 1945 for the rape of Willette Hawkins, a white housewife. McGee’s legal case became a cause célèbre. William Faulkner wrote a letter insisting the case against McGee was unproven, and Mitford sought him out in her effort to rally support against a travesty of justice that many find has striking similarities to the trial Harper Lee wrote about in To Kill a Mockingbird nine years later. This excerpt is from Mitford’s memoir A Fine Old Conflict.
‘We had already overstayed our time in Mississippi. The four weeks allotted for the trip stretched into five, as we did not wish it to appear we had been chased out by the Jackson Daily News. But we decided we could not leave the state without attempting to see Mississippi’s most (indeed its only) illustrious resident, William Faulkner. The reserves having drifted back to their respective homes, it was the original four of us who drove down to Oxford. We asked a gangling, snaggle-toothed white boy for directions to Faulkner’s house. “Down the road a piece, past the weepin’ willa tree,” was his response, which I took as augury of our arrival in authentic Faulkner country. We turned through a cast-iron gate into a long avenue of desiccated trees leading to a large, run-down plantation-style house, its antebellum pillars covered with grayish moss. Through the window we saw Faulkner, a small man in a brown velvet smoking jacket, pacing up and down, apparently dictating to a secretary. We gingerly approached and rang the front doorbell. Faulkner himself came to the door, and when we explained the reason for our visit, greeted us most cordially, invited us in, and held forth on the McGee case for a good two hours. Faulkner spoke much as he wrote, in convoluted paragraphs with a sort of murky eloquence. I was desperately trying to take down everything he said in my notebook, and frequently got lost as he expatiated on his favorite themes: sex, race, and violence.
The Willie McGee case, compounded of all three, was a subject he seemed to savor with much relish; it could have been the central episode in one of his short stories. Later it was my job to edit down his rambling monologue as a brief press release to be issued by our national office. He said the McGee case was an outrage and it was good we had come. He cautioned us that many people down here don’t pay much attention to law and justice, don’t go by the facts. He said in this case they are giving obeisance to a fetish of long standing. He expressed fear for McGee’s safety in jail. When we left he wished us good luck. William Patterson was jubilant when I telephoned to tell him of our interview with Faulkner. It was a major break- through, he said. The release would certainly be picked up by the wire services and flashed around the world! But he insisted we show it to Faulkner and ask him to initial it, for fear that pressure from his Mississippi compatriots might later induce him to repudiate it. This time I drove alone past the weepin’ willa tree to find Faulkner in dungarees and hip boots, up to his knees in dank manure, working alongside one of his black farmhands. I showed him the release and explained why I had come: “Mr. Patterson thought I should ask you to sign this, for fear you might later repudiate it.” He read it through, initialed it, and as he handed it back murmured softly, as though speaking to himself, “I think McGee and the woman should both be destroyed.” “Oh don’t let’s put that in,” said I, and clutching the precious document made a dash for my car. One can only conclude that Faulkner gave expression, in his own distinctive voice, to the deep-seated schizophrenia then endemic among white liberals and racial moderates of the region.’
In a his article “Cooked Books” (The New Yorker, April 9, 2007), Adam Gopnik points out that there are four kinds of food in books: “Food that is served by an author to characters who are not expected to taste it; food that is served by an author to characters in order to show who they are; food that an author cooks for characters in order to eat it with them; and, last (and most recent), food that an author cooks for characters but actually serves to the reader.”
Faulkner falls solidly into the second category, a writer who uses food to show who his characters are, as does (unsurprisingly) a French writer who influenced the Mississippian very much, Marcel Proust. “Proust seems so full of food—crushed strawberries and madeleines, tisanes and champagne—that entire recipe books have been extracted from his texts,” Gopnik says. “Proust will say that someone is eating a meal of gigot with sauce béarnaise, but he seldom says that the character had a delicious meal of gigot with sauce béarnaise—although he will extend his adjectives to the weather, or the view. He uses food as a sign of something else.”
This is precisely what Faulkner does with the Thanksgiving meal at the Sartoris home in Flags in the Dust, his first novel to be set in Yoknapatawpha County (called “Yocona”). Written in 1927, the novel was rejected by his publisher, but it was released in a drastically edited version as Sartoris in 1929. The full manuscript was finally restored and published under the editorial direction of Douglas Day in 1973. The novel is set just after World War I and focuses on the once-powerful, aristocratic Sartoris in decline, clinging to the vestiges of affluence. Here Faulkner describes their Thanksgiving table:
. . . Simon appeared again, with Isom in procession now, and for the next five minutes they moved steadily between kitchen and dining room with a roast turkey and a cured ham and a dish of quail and another of squirrel, and a baked ‘possum in a bed of sweet potatoes; and Irish potatoes and sweet potatoes, and squash and pickled beets and rice and hominy, and hot biscuits and beaten biscuits and long thin sticks of cornbread and strawberry and pear preserves, and quince and apple jelly, and blackberry jam and stewed cranberries. Then they ceased talking for a while and really ate, glancing now and then across the table at one another in a rosy glow of amicability and steamy odors. From time to time Isom entered with hot bread . . . and then Simon brought in pies of three kinds, and a small, deadly plum pudding, and a cake baked cunningly with whiskey and nuts and fruit and treacherous and fatal as sin; and at last, with an air sibylline and gravely profound, a bottle of port.” (Flags in the Dust, Random House, 1973, p. 281)
The meal is lorded over by the family patriarch, Bayard Sartoris II, who is soon to die as well as his son, Bayard III, leaving the few remaining members of the once proud and powerful Sartoris family destitute. Old Bayard’s attempts to maintain the family’s traditional high standards are exemplified by this meal, which is indeed a groaning board with plentiful meats and game, vegetables and breads, sweets and condiments. The inclusion of stewed cranberries, somewhat of a luxury item at the time, stands out. Towards the end, adjectives begin to cluster as they tend to do in Faulkner, and the final, “sibylline and gravely profound” presentation of port lends a dark, ceremonial coda.