I was born and raised in the South. I attended an SEC university. I passed a small apartment house in Pirate’s Alley hundreds of times, and I barely noticed the plaque about the author who had lived there. I proofread hundreds of papers about “Barn Burning” and “The Bear” for fellow fraternity members, which convinced me I never wanted to read their author again.
I didn’t read William Faulkner until I was 35 years old. And when I found him, it was by way of Mexico and Peru.
I was in a master’s degree program and taking a seminar on “The Latin American Novel.” We were reading One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez of Colombia, The War of the End of the World by Mario Vargas Llosa of Peru, The Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig of Cuba, The Death of Artemio Cruz by Carlos Fuentes of Mexico, and more. To say I was smitten with the literature of Latin America is an understatement. I went on to read everything by Vargas Llosa and Fuentes I could find.
My seminar paper and presentation were on the very long and very complex novel Conversation in the Cathedral by Vargas Llosa. I managed to get through the first 100 pages and nearly gave up. It made no sense. It jumped all over the place. Characters’ names changed, and that was the least of my problems.
But I was too close to the time for my presentation to find something else. So, I began to reread the book, and realized it was actually four connected stories, running concurrently and involving the same characters. The novel actually repeated a one-two-three-four story structure. What had blinded and frustrated me suddenly made sense. There was a deeply embedded order in the chaos. The novel not only made sense; it had become dazzling.
I talked about this in my presentation. The professor pointed out that Garcia Marquez, Vargas Llosa, Fuentes, and several other Latin American authors had been heavily influenced by Faulkner. They had found Faulkner to be liberating, allowing them to break free of the classic novel approach. (They had also quietly competed among themselves to see who could write the most complicated novel; Conversation in the Cathedral was Vargas Llosa’s entry in the competition.) (I think he won.)
I started reading Faulkner, and the first work I read was The Sound and the Fury. Perhaps reading all of that Latin American literature prepared me; I loved this story. I read Go Down, Moses, As I Lay Dying, and Absalom, Absalom! And the Snopes trilogy. And Soldier’s Pay, the novel he wrote when he lived in Pirate’s Alley. And Sanctuary, which must have been a shock to the reading audiences of 1931. I learned that Faulkner had nearly disappeared as a literary presence until critic and writer Malcolm Cowley edited The Portable Faulkner and made the writer’s reputation. A few years later, Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
I continued to read the Latin Americans, especially Vargas Llosa and Fuentes, and could see how Faulkner continued to reverberate long after his death in 1962. And I made the pilgrimage to Oxford, Mississippi, to visit Faulkner’s home, Rowan Oak.
The writer I had almost deliberately ignored was the writer who told me much about my own history and my own family. My father and his sisters were barely a generation younger than Faulkner, but they grew up in that same American South, with its memories of the “Lost Cause,” its colonels, its Bible Belt, its Southern accents, its racism, its manners and ways of behaving and thinking. That culture formed them, and it helped to form me. To read Faulkner was, for me, to read family history.
I had to figuratively travel to Mexico, Peru, and Colombia to find the writer who remains the greatest writer born in the American South. The journey has been worthwhile.
And I still read Faulkner.