BILL MINOR: In Oxford, it can be Falkner or Faulkner, in life or death

By Bill Minor

JACKSON – You wonder after reading Dean Faulkner Wells’ little memoir about the eccentric Faulkner family of Mississippi and particularly her beloved uncle, Nobel-Prize winning William, how it was that William Faulkner was the one vested with literary genius.
As the oldest survivor of the complicated Faulkner clan, Wells got the assignment from Crown Publisher (an imprint of Random House) to tell the family’s story with intimate, compassioned detail, touching on the lives of the scoundrels, unconvicted murders, a black-marketing Civil War “Old Colonel” and an unbroken strain of boozers.
First, you have to wrestle with the name thing. Over the years it was not Faulkner, but Falkner, and St. Peter’s Cemetery in Oxford is filled with Falkners and Faulkners buried side by side.
Wells titles her book “Every Day by the Sun,” which symbolizes her father, Dean, whom she had never known, who never wore a watch, telling time by the sun. Her father, a barnstorming pilot, died in a crash at age 28 when his wife, “Wese” was seven months pregnant.
William blamed himself for the death of his younger brother, Dean, because he gave him the Waco C cruiser that crashed. Consequently, William felt responsible to look after his niece the rest of his life. Though Dean Faulkner Wells doesn’t seem to have inherited the writing skills of her uncle, she makes up for it by providing never-before published memorabilia and whimsical insights that make her work a valuable contribution to literary history.
Several outrageous incidents of William Faulkner’s are noted in these pages. Such as the hunting trip with Clark Gable and a producer when Faulkner was in Hollywood to work on a movie script: Gable asks Faulkner to name the nation’s current best writers and Faulkner names several, ending with “and myself.” “Oh, do you write?” Gable asks. Faulkner responds: “And Mr. Gable, what do you do?”
Of course there is Faulkner’s disastrous stint as postmaster at the Ole Miss campus post office when Faulkner would not wait on customers at the front counter while he was in the back playing bridge. (One of his bridge partners was my old boss at The Times-Picayune, George W. Healy who was then an Ole Miss student.)
Faulkner, though well-known as a distinguished author for many years in Europe, was not recognized in his native state or taught in state school textbooks until after he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1950. There was a period in his hometown of Oxford when he was called “count no count” when he sported an English Bowler hat and carried a walking cane. Even his own family used to ask him to explain what he meant by the long sentences he was noted for.
Thankfully, I was able twice to have long conversations with Faulkner, the first being in 1951 in Oxford at the world premiere of a movie based on his book, “Intruder in the Dust.” With controversial Ole Miss professor Jim Silver – a good friend of Faulkner – we spent a cold winter evening with Faulkner at Rowan Oak in December 1959, sipping whiskey as the noted writer fed brush and sticks to a roaring fire. Faulkner was notorious for never answering his phone, and Newsweek was desperate to find out if he was coming to New York for a stage play based on his “Requiem for a Nun.” I was a part time correspondent for Newsweek so they asked me if I could get the answer to their question. Jim swore me not to ask Faulkner about his writing.
Silver had stood outside yelling, “Pappy, are you there. This is Jim Silver?” Finally, a light came on and the door opened. We barged in, with Jim telling him that I wrote about Mississippi politics, a subject that appealed to Faulkner. The conversation got around to what might happen on the Ole Miss campus if the school was integrated. I predicted turmoil. Faulkner wrongfully predicted students wouldn’t join any uproar, but added “you’d have look out for those boys from Beat Two of Lafayette County.” (Two men were killed in the campus riot the night of Oct. 30, 1962, one a French newsman, the other a jukebox repairman from Beat Two.)
Before we left, I popped the question to Faulkner, asking if he would be going to New York for the play opening. Graciously he said he wasn’t.

Bill Minor is a columnist who has covered Mississippi since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman – edinman@earthlink.net.