The Grounds and the Fury

The sound was china breaking, and the fury was that of Faulkner’s housekeeper — as I discovered when reading a funny essay by 1961 College alumnus Ken Ringle that is part of a new archive about the great southern writer’s residencies at the University of Virginia. “Faulkner at Virginia: an Audio Archive” is the work of Stephen Railton, a professor of American literature in the College, and others in English and at the University Libraries. With a note of thanks to Ken, I am pleased to share his perspective with you on my blog.

 

The Grounds and the Fury: William Faulkner at the University, 1958

By Ken Ringle (College ’61)

God obviously created William Faulkner to explain the American South. He may have regretted it, because then He needed an army of scholars, critics and teachers to explain William Faulkner.

Those of us who found ourselves on the same campus with him half a century ago in Charlottesville needed at least that much aid. Faulkner himself was not much help at all. It wasn’t for lack of availability. The agreement that made him the University of Virginia’s first writer in residence in 1957 and 1958 specified that he keep regular office hours something like once a week. Those of us hoping to write our own selves into immortality (or at least into the arms of English majors at Sweet Briar) would show up to sit at his feet and study the muse.

Surprisingly, the regulars were a pretty small group, perhaps because the novelist rarely said much. He would lean back in his chair in his tweed sport coat, khakis and a green wool tie with little fox heads on it, then puff on his pipe and make infrequent gnomic pronouncements. We would sit there gaping, wracking our under-booked brains for some question that wouldn’t make us look stupid.

“Mr. Faulkner, in your short story ‘The Bear,’ do you consider the bear a positive nature symbol or a negative nature symbol or a symbol both positive and negative like the white whale in Moby-Dick?”

“Oh,” he’d eventually say in his thin, reedy voice, after puffing on his pipe long enough to raise the suspense: “That’s just a story about a bear.”

I was usually too intimidated to ask anything. Though I was certain I was destined to write the Great American Novel, I was mortified that I found his work unfathomable. How could I write a novel when I couldn’t even read his?

“Mr. Faulkner, how do you start a novel? How do you even know what you want to write about?”

Pause while he stroked his gray mustache.

“M’boy you have to write because you can’t not write. You have to be demon-driven by what’s inside you.” More pipe puffing. What the hell did that mean? It was years before I’d learn.

Stalking him for clues became a passion. Once, on my job shelving books at Alderman Library, I borrowed the key to the room in the stacks where he wrote. He’d just finished The Mansion and I thought the pictures on the wall, the books he used for reference, his general writing environment would give me clues on how to be a writer. I found the answer, but not the one I expected. The room was absolutely bare. There was nothing in it but one of the library’s standard oak tables and a chair, an upright Underwood typewriter and a big stack of writing paper. Nothing else. No books, no pictures or posters on the wall, no jottings, no comfy sweaters, not even a dictionary. It was all in his head. How depressing.

Undeterred, I soldiered on. Faulkner liked to wander around the university grounds and observe things, usually from beneath one of those little green Tyrolean hats with the shaving brush in the hatband. I would run across him regularly near Lambeth Field, where he used to idle at track practice. He showed little interest in the major university sports of football and lacrosse, but would spend hours timing sprinters and hurdlers with two stop watches that never seemed to agree.

I pondered that for clues. Maybe it had something to do with the horses in his books and stories. He rode to hounds with the Farmington Hunt and always rode horses too big for him, which greatly excited Freudians in the English department. But I wasn’t sure what it told me.

He didn’t appear demon-driven whenever I saw him. Just a meditative onlooker, galloping somewhere deep in his imagination.

Not all our encounters were planned. In the winter of 1958, as a photographer for the Cavalier Daily, I was stationed across from the Virginia ABC store on Charlottesville’s Main Street to get a shot of students stocking up for Midwinters weekend. I was framing the line snaking into the door on the right when out of the door on the left came William Faulkner. Wholly dwarfed by his enormous burden of bottle-packed shopping bags.

In those days college drinking was a source of more celebration than hand-wringing, particularly at Virginia, and we merrily ran the picture on the CD’s front page. The English department faculty was horrified. Faulkner was not. “They caught me,” he said with a grin.

The faculty reaction was symptomatic. In those days novelists didn’t hang around campuses much, believing real life a more profitable laboratory for observation. Faulkner was such a prize that obsequious professors all but laid their coats over puddles in his path. The writer himself, who lacked even a high school diploma and was famously disdainful of academics, remained polite but distant, countering scholars’ questions with mischievously opaque replies.

His agreement with the university specified that he was required to give no more than an occasional speech and no classroom lectures at all. But, in addition to keeping office hours, he was to answer questions periodically from both graduate and undergraduate students in a classroom setting. Thus he was regularly led before us like a trained bear to deepen the mystery of just what he meant by the biblical allusions in Light in August or the stained-glass imagery in Go Down, Moses. There was much tape-recording of all this, the results appeared years later in Frederick L. Gwynn and Joseph Blotner’s book Faulkner in the University. But Gwynn and Blotner edited out much of the mischief.

Unenlightened by such sessions and despairing of unlocking Faulkner on my own, I sought out a superb young English instructor named John Graham, who was far more passionate about nourishing learning than about nourishing cults of celebrity.

“I’m not surprised you found Faulkner difficult,” he said. ”You probably started off trying to read The Sound and the Fury.” I had. “Everyone does that. It’s his best-known book. But it’s also his most difficult.”

The way to read and appreciate William Faulkner, he said, was to take one of two routes. To just sample his power with language and as a teller of tales, he said, read “Old Man.” It’s a mesmerizing short novel – originally part of The Wild Palms – about the 1927 Mississippi flood and a convict trapped therein with a pregnant woman who, in one of literature’s great Gothic sequences, gives birth in a swamp atop an Indian mound aswarm with cottonmouth water moccasins.

To go further and understand Faulkner’s panoramic sweep of history, he said, one should start with The Unvanquished, a historical novel that’s one of his most accessible. It deals with the earliest years in his saga of the Southern aristocracy. Then read Absalom, Absalom! and Go Down, Moses, which continue the story of the aristocratic decline and focus on how that affects blacks. Then The Hamlet, which charts the rise of the poor white Snopes clan. Then, he said, you’re steeped in Faulkner’s mythical Yoknapatawpha County and its secrets of blood and history, and ready for all his other books, which weave in and out of the cultural stream he chronicles with such power.

Graham’s insight, which I’ve never seen published anywhere, finally unlocked William Faulkner for me. And as it did, his books became a passion and the writer himself seemed to open up. One day as we talked in his office, he presented me with an insight as valuable today as it was then.

“Mr. Faulkner,” I asked him “In your book As I Lay Dying, most of the characters are socially pretty reprehensible. The only one with any kind of sensitivity or nobility is Addie Bundren, the schoolteacher. Yet you have her marry Anse Bundren, absolutely the most dreadful of the whole lot. How can you justify that?” Faulkner rubbed his mustache and re-lit his pipe, then looked at me a long, long time.

“My boy,” he finally said in his slow drawl. “Haven’t you ever heard the story of the beautiful butterfly? That flitted from flower to flower? And lit at last on a horse turd?”

Despite the courtly charm with which he inevitably responded to those who approached him, Faulkner was normally reserved and, though he basically liked students, he appeared somewhat remote and most held him in awe.

But not all students were so cowed.

One who wasn’t was a fraternity brother of mine named Zeke Waters. Zeke was a jovial good-hearted guy but, like most of us then, did not over-exert himself in the classroom. He was always looking for shortcuts.

One spring evening we were lounging in he sun on the porch of the Beta House next to Beta Bridge before dinner. Zeke was panicked. He was an English major and the next day faced the dreaded senior “comprehensives”, the do-or-die examinations which in those days tested every student facing graduation on the entire body of knowledge absorbed in his major field of study over four years. Zeke was weak on American literature, and was looking for some quick fix to repair the situation. Where could he find it? he asked us. He got a few opinions but mostly shrugs. Then, from the direction of the Rotunda he spotted William Faulkner, walking home to his house up Rugby Road.

“That’s it!” said Zeke. “Faulkner knows all about American literature! He can tell me what I need to know!”

Now, I’m pretty sure Zeke had never read a line of Faulkner’s, but he was the most amiable and approachable of souls, and could make friends with a tree. He loped across Rugby road, greeted Faulkner and soon they disappeared together up the road and over the hill chatting, tall and lanky Zeke with his arm around Faulkner who was a kind of splendidly dapper but miniature man.

An hour or more went by. Zeke did not appear and we Betas went in to dinner without him. Finally, after dinner, Zeke showed up.

How did it go? we all wanted to know. Did Faulkner give you the keys to American literature?

“Well, not exactly,” said Zeke. “He couldn’t have been nicer and we talked about all sorts of things. But I never quite got him around to where I could ask the right question.”

It turned out Faulkner appeared glad to meet Zeke and grateful for the company on his homeward stroll. They chatted about the weather, the football weekend, where Zeke was from and other topics. When they got to Faulkner’s house, he asked Zeke in. He said his wife was away, the housekeeper was fixing dinner but he was going to have a drink first. Would Zeke like one too?

Zeke, like most students, never turned down a drink and soon they were seated companionably in Faulkner’s living room sipping good bourbon. The talk turned to horses, the pictures on the wall, the house – Faulkner liked Charlottesville because his daughter lived there – and so on. Faulkner suggested a second drink. Zeke accepted. There may have been a third.

“I was trying to think how to get him around to the literature question when the housekeeper came in and said dinner was ready,” Zeke said. “Faulkner is just the most courteous man in the world. He asked me to stay to dinner, saying there was plenty to eat. I protested no, I couldn’t do that, I was expected back at the Beta house. But I said I would come in the dining room with him and finish my drink while he ate. I was still trying to work him around to American literature.”

The housekeeper had arranged the small dining room beautifully, Zeke reported, with crystal, wine glasses, a vase of flowers and so on, all set off by a splendid white table cloth. Faulkner sat down and began spooning his soup. Zeke stood against the wall with his glass of bourbon, making conversation, trying desperately to turn the talk to books.

“That’s when it happened,” Zeke said. “For some reason I crossed my legs while I was standing there talking and thinking, and I lost my balance.”

Down he slowly toppled, grabbing desperately for support. He caught the end of the tablecloth. Off came the tablecloth, the vase, the glasses, the flowers, Faulkner’s soup, everything. The sound of crashing crockery and glass, Zeke said, seemed to go on forever.

Faulkner, who had somehow escaped both injury and stains, was unconcerned by the mess. He was worried Zeke might have hurt himself. He picked Zeke up, brushed him off, apologized for the incident and asked once again if Zeke wouldn’t stay and share the rest of the dinner.

“But I decided it was time to leave,” Zeke said. “Because even though I hadn’t had a chance to ask him about literature and even though Faulkner could not have been nicer, that housekeeper was really, REALLY pissed off.”

I can’t remember if Zeke passed his comprehensives.

©2009 Ken Ringle

Ken Ringle retired in 2003 after 33 years as a writer, editor, essayist and critic for The Washington Post. His work has also appeared in The National Geographic, Smithsonian, European Affairs and other publications, and he has been a writer-in-residence himself as a Washington Post Fellow at Duke University.

10 Responses to “The Grounds and the Fury”

  1. James Graham (College '59) says:

    Unfortunately for me, I was one of those awed by William Faulkner much to my regret in the years that have passed. But I felt myself fortunate to see him walking around the grounds during his year at Virginia and this writer has described him exactly as I remember him. Thanks for this article.

  2. “Demon driven by what is inside you” this is the most helpful literary insight I’ve come across.

  3. Rosa Ann Thomas Moore says:

    Mr. Gwynn prepped our American Lit class rather sternly in anticipation of Mr. Faulkner’s visit. Several class meetings in advance, we were required to submit a list of tentative questions that we might ask our guest. These sheets came back to us in the next class, the last before the visitation, with acceptable questions checked, and the handwritten note, “Ask this one.” (It was humbling to realize that any of our questions might have been unworthy.)

    On the appointed day, thoroughly coached, we sat in silent anticipation as Mr. Gwynn stepped out into the hall, and ushered Mr. Faulkner into the room. He introduced our guest formally and, after seating him at the professor’s desk, retired to a student desk on the side near the windows.

    A very long silence followed. Faulkner sat, hands loosely clasped on the desk, and looked at us. He was utterly serene, and we began to realize that we could sit a very long time with nothing being said unless someone asked a question. Finally, the veteran from the Marine Corps, who sat on the front row, broke the silence. Faulkner answered the question fully, graciously, and then the silence fell again. But we now saw how the game was played, and for the next hour, we proceeded in this manner, feeling our way and getting insights into this man who was both mystery and object of admiration to all of us.

    For the rest of the year, we would see him from time to time on the Grounds, walking alone. When we walked down the hall (was it on the third floor of our building?), we would see him through the always-open door of his office, typing at the big typewriter at his desk. I never missed one of his public readings, of which there were several during the year, and for which there were always large audiences, from both the University and the community.

    What happened to me in this process was that I learned to read his work. Whereas before, it had seemed complex and difficult, not providing me, I thought, any handles to relate to his story, I found that, as I got to know him in some small way, I was able to read him with greater understanding. I developed some sense of what he was about, why he was important, and a great appreciation of his accomplishment.

    Being a graduate student at the University of Virginia during the time that William Faulkner was there was one of the most important educational experiences of my life. It helped me to see more broadly, think more deeply, appreciate with greater comprehension the fact of growing up in that time and that place, and that point in our country’s history.

  4. Don Query CLAS 1984 says:

    I appreciate the blog greatly! It is the highlight of my day whenever it appears.

    I too greatly appreciate Faulkner’s comment about the “demon within”. I am an amateur poet and when asked about why I write poems have often told people that they “just come to me and then I have to write them down.” I guess there is a demon within us all and this one is far less devilish than others could be. Thanks again. Don Q

  5. Harold Shulman says:

    I arrived at the University in 1962, just a few months after Faulkner died, so I missed the opportunity of seeing and meeting with him. For those who want to read more about Faulkner’s meetings with students at the University, go and get “Faulkner in the University” (edited by Gwynn and Blotner) (Vintage Books, Random House), if you can find it. The questions and answers deal largely with his books, but they also touch on other things. For example:
    Q: Sir, are there particular reasons why you do not go to the movies?
    A: Yes, sir, they come at the wrong time of day. That’s the time of day I like to have two or three drinks and eat supper and then sit down and smoke and read. If they had moving pictures, well, I don’t know, I’d have something better to do any time of day. I think I’d rather read it than listen to it. I’d rather read Shakespeare than see it played.

    Harold Shulman, College

  6. Wonderful essay! Thank you for sharing.

  7. Gretchen Ward(CLAS'02) says:

    As an English major, I was wowed by Faulkner. As a matter of fact, I was just thinking about his work this morning and contemplating revisiting The Sound and the Fury. I read As I Lay Dying in one day camped out on my sofa in Lambeth as my roomates laughed and complained that they had found the book imcomprehensible in high school. As a second year English major, I was enraptured and spent hours with my study group trying to solve the mystery of the italics. Thank you for the insights regarding Faulkner’s time at the University. I often wondered what it was like to have him wandering the grounds and if he ever gave any straight answers.

  8. I had graduated from Christchurch School, and was attending the University of Virginia (1955-58). I found myself in a small lecture hall, straining to hear a world-renowned writer-in-residence who spoke in a shy voice and a strange accent. He wrote of a mythical place with an Indian-sounding name: Yoknapatawpha, which reminded me of my mythical place– the Rappahannock. This was William Faulkner, whose novels I had heard about from another Mississippian, Robert M. Yarbrough Jr., our senior English teacher at Christchurch in 1952-53.
    Someone in the audience that day in 1957 at the University of Virginia asked Mr. Faulkner to give his view of promising new American writers. He replied:

    “Wull. . . one of the best is from right here in Virginia. . . .
    His name is William Sty-ron, and he’s published a book called
    Lie Down In Darkness.”

    Deciphering Faulkner’s low-pitched, unamplified Miss’sippi drawl from my seat on the back row of the small auditorium in Rouse Hall, I realized he had spoken the name of a graduate of my old school––William Styron, who at Christchurch in 1942 was known as “Sty.” Faulkner knew how to spot talent, too.
    William Faulkner had a special impact in the brief period of his presence in Charlottesville – similar to the legacy of Edgar Allan Poe, who was enrolled for just one academic year, beginning February 1, 1826, in the second session at the University of Virginia – perhaps marking the end of the Jefferson Era.
    The University of Virginia’s first president, Edwin A. Alderman, wrote in 1925 a remarkably poetic and convincing essay on Edgar Allan Poe’s brief time as a student at the University. He described how Poe, despite a short stay and a less than exemplary lifestyle, had represented the presence of a “world poet” at the University. Alderman concluded that Poe “…has contributed an irreducible total of good to the spirit which men breathe (at the University) as well as a wide fame to his alma mater that will outlive all disaster, or change, or ill-fortune .… May I call it a clear tradition of beauty and poetic understanding, a feel for the gold and not the dross in life, a genius for reverence, an instinct for honor…?”
    This was a clear statement of the effect that a true artistic talent may have upon a community of scholars—even when that presence is brief, complicated, and controversial. Countless students and faculty in the arts and sciences, including me, believed that Mr. Faulkner’s arrival on the Grounds signaled the presence of a “world writer,” of a caliber equal to that of Edgar Allan Poe and Thomas Jefferson -— both of whom were admittedly complex members of the University of Virginia’s pantheon of genius.
    Jefferson too had walked the Lawn for a short but influential time. After years of planning, he set the University in motion on March 7, 1825, and only 16 months later he left it to fend for itself, for he died on July 4, 1826.

  9. Sarah Graham says:

    What a treat it was to see my late father, John Graham, remembered so fondly. His grandaughter, Sarah Hald, is finishing up a Master’s Degree at The University this fall.

  10. Charles Westfall says:

    ^Sarah, I had my very last class was on The Corner with your dad…in 1989…he was a wonderful instructor, a good soul. I took 3 courses from him–Satire, WWI literature, and another one that I can’t remember. I loved the fact that he threw himself into academia and yet was approachable. God, I miss John Graham.