William Faulkner and the Writer’s Heart

In his 1950 Nobel Prize speech, William Faulkner lamented the affliction of young writers of the time. They write “not of the heart but of the glands,”1 he said. Prophetic words spoken in an age that would witness a progressive bankruptcy of the literary spirit. Then they feared annihilation from an atomic blast, later they would be enslaved by liberation of a ticking bomb within.

Faulkner departed this earth in 1962, the year I made my appearance. He stood just shy of five feet six inches, a diminutive height I share with him. Through the years, I have been moved by his Southern Gothic portrayals of the suffering of the human heart and mastered by his depictions of the struggle innate within us. In fact, I believe he touched the core of that which is most pitiable in the human spirit, our brokenness. It is this fragmentation, the conflict between aspirations and our bondage that those who believe in God call sin. Perhaps, it was his singular journey into his own frayed soul that resonated so clearly on the page.

Like many swaggering writers who evidenced an equal penchant for the ladies and the bottle, Faulkner’s failings peeked from beneath a cloak of shyness. A lifting of the cloth reveals a man who once haunted a Paris bar where James Joyce held court, but could not muster the courage to speak to him. Yet, the admiring glances of the ingenue, sitting attentively at the master’s feet, and the soothing vapors of alcohol afforded a conflicted, sensitive spirit an unstable zone of comfort. Only a soul who has wrestled with anguish in the innermost recesses of his heart with the aid of a formidable skill, could offer such subtle layerings of light and dark. A step into Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County is to encounter the partially plumed phoenix laboring amongst the ashes of decay.

In his most renowned book, The Sound and the Fury, we encounter one of literature’s most riveting portrayals of the innocence once found in the Garden of Eden. Through the stream of consciousness ramblings of an idiot child, we experience a lightness of being outside wisdom. According to Faulkner, “Benjy is incapable of good and evil because he had no knowledge of good and evil.”2 His lack of intelligence protects him from desire of the taste of forbidden fruit. He inhabits a verdant land where thoughts come and go as easily as a dandelion on the breeze.

Birthed by Faulkner’s concupiscent imagination, Sanctuary, shocked readers and invited censure. Yet, it was this novel that immersed me in the depths of his literary powers. Upon my first reading, I felt the presence of something very tangible, lurking about in the dark corners beyond my sight. Like an awareness of a shadow moving ever so slightly as you pass by, only later, did my psyche grasp the entity behind the uneasiness. I fell a startled victim to the most compelling depiction of evil as it is found inside the human heart. In its cold emptiness, lack of empathy and frustrated desire to possess what it cannot contain, despairing turpitude like a pebble in a shoe irritated my senses long after the book was shelved. Faulkner remarked that he wrote the book clearly to make money; perhaps, he underestimated his own talent.

Encountering Faulkner reminds me of the summer I walked into a cave. The blistering heat disappeared in the coolness and I felt relief because I had left the glaring probe of the sun. Feeling a brief security in a blanket of darkness, I soon felt the uneasiness of what lay beyond my senses. What unknown eyes lurked beyond the shadows? More disturbingly, what did they see? The light was taken away, but what lay beneath skin, blood, and marrow required no earthly light to reveal. That which made me immortal also left me vulnerable.

“He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things.”3

Faulkner accomplished this calling so well that he remains the most written about and discussed author with the exception of Shakespeare.

1 William Faulkner, Nobel Prize Speech, Stockholm, Sweden, December 10, 1952.
2 Malcolm Cowley, ed., Writers at Work, The Paris Review Interviews (New York, 1958), pp. 131-132.
3 Faulkner, Nobel Prize Speech.

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