American Biography

This collection of reviews, selected from the New York Sun, is as much about the romance of biography as it is about American lives.

A review of several Faulkner biographies:

Overstatement is one reason why biographies miss their mark as literature. Thus Jay Parini, describing the perilous plight of World War I pilots, has to add that Faulkner’s mother, bidding her son goodbye as he departed for flight training in Toronto, “must have thought she might never see her firstborn again.” Describing the scene, evoking the atmosphere of a time when aviation had both a romantic and harrowing allure, is not enough. The biographer steps in to wreck the moment, compelled to comment on what he cannot possibly know.

It is odd that Parini, a novelist, doesn’t seem to know better. Too many paragraphs in this bloated biography are ruined with this sort of tag-line: “A faint adolescent mustache darkened the area above his lips, a hint of manhood in potential The sentence refers to Faulkner, the young flight cadet, who “walked on a cloud now, delighting in the uniform, which proclaimed his elevated status to the world.” This built-in redundancy in the imagery is fatiguing—as are the cliches: “Faulkner (having permanently deep-sixed Falkner…).”

That all of these examples are drawn from a single page gives you some idea of Mr. Parini’s relentlessly bad prose. It is beyond me to explain how someone can teach Faulkner for thirty years—as Parini reports in his preface he did—and begin his biography with banalities: “This book represents a particular journey, a series of discoveries, an attempt to reach through Faulkner to find him in his work, the work in him, without reading crassly backward from the work into the life.”

Mr. Parini is a dutiful biographer—too dutiful. And so he has to acknowledge the most recent trends in Faulkner criticism, no matter how misguided. Is Mr. Parini running for office? He is nothing if not politically correct, mentioning that “feminist and poststructuralist critics have tended to look at the story [“ The Fire and the Hearth”] as a ‘subtle defense of the southern status quo in which African-American challenges to oppression either are defused through humor or are displaced to the margins of the text (and thereby trivialized).’” Such asides may win elections, but they doom (to use a favorite Faulknerian word) biography.

The “one matchless time” refers to that period 1929-1942 when Faulkner “found not simply his own voice but a teeming chorus of voices, each of them distinct, whole, and authentic.” This is generally regarded as Faulkner’s greatest period of creativity, which Mr. Parini handles competently but with little fresh insight.

Mr. Parini correctly sensed that a new biography of Faulkner was needed—in part because there are new letters and other documents to be integrated into a fresh account of the novelist’s life and art, and in part because a wholly satisfying biography of reasonable length for the general reader does not yet exist, although what is available will repay the efforts of every sort of reader.

Faulkner biography rests on the foundations of Joseph Blotner’s two-volume Faulkner: A Biography (1974) and the one-volume sequel, Faulkner: A Biography (1984), a revised, updated, and condensed version. Authorized by Faulkner himself, Blotner is the touchstone in the same way that Carlos Baker is for subsequent Hemingway biographers. Blotner had to endure a good deal of ridicule when his book first appeared because he did little to shape it as a work of art. Nevertheless, his accuracy and indefatigable effort to document Faulkner’s life are indispensable. You might not want to read Blotner cover-to-cover, but he will always be the first stop for those seeking to mine the details of this great novelist’s life and career.

Blotner, like Baker, understood that he was clearing the way for other biographers. First to enter the field was Judith Wittenberg, whose Faulkner: The Transfiguration of Biography (1979) is a competent and compact scholarly biography. David Minter’s William Faulkner: The Life and Work (1980) was another academic biography—a little longer and perhaps more searching, especially in regard to Faulkner’s own attitude toward biography and the role of autobiography in his fiction. As Minter points out, Faulkner’s “own judgment was divided”—on the one hand observing that “A book is the writer’s secret life, the dark twin of a man,” and on the other (later in his career) backing away not merely from autobiographical interpretations of his work but withdrawing from family, friends, and critics: “His manners tended to be formal, his statements formulaic, and his life ceremonial.”

Time it was, thought historian Stephen B. Oates, to turn Faulkner into a character himself. Thus William Faulkner: The Man and the Artist (1987) offered a “pure biography,” using “novelistic techniques,” without making anything up: “I’ve given Faulkner the stage, seeking to bring him alive through character development, through his interpersonal relationships, through graphic scenes, revealing quotations, apt details, and dramatic narrative sweep.”

Oates is a throwback to 19th-century romantic biography, and though he claims to document his biography, he often reads like Irving Stone: “As the train roared through the Mississippi countryside, the boy and his two brothers sat transfixed at the open window of the passenger coach, watching the shadowy forests, the hazy fields of corn and cotton, the occasional farm houses and barns, all slide backward toward Holly Springs. It was an arduous trip for their mother, a small prim woman with auburn hair and stern eyes. The coach was oppressively hot, and cinder flakes from the locomotive swirled through the open window, sullying the boys’ faces and clothes. But Billy, the oldest, had seldom been so excited. Already he had a love for the steam locomotive that rivaled his father’s. The sharp burst of its whistle, the hum of its wheels, the throb of the exhaust exploding from its stacks—all thrilled the boy to incandescence.” Biographers usually write this way for children, which is perhaps why a Faulkne-rian like Louis D. Rubin sneered at this book. Check Mr. Oates’s notes and you will find that he is closely paraphrasing a memoir one of Faulkner’s brothers published.

I’m of two minds about Oates. On the one hand, he simplifies a very complex writer, so that Faulkner’s work becomes an event, described in the past tense, rather than literature (about which Oates has absolutely nothing to say). But the biographer does manage to keep an entertaining narrative going, and some of Oates’s scenes are evocative of Faulkner’s world and his sensibility.

After Oates, an astringent has to be applied, which is what the late Fred Karl provides in William Faulkner: American Writer (1989). Karl wrote encyclopedic biographies, exploring the psychology, culture, and history that enveloped his subjects. His thousand-page plus biography is daunting to anyone without a commitment to Faulkner’s work, but it is immensely rewarding. Karl is not verbose; he is comprehensive—as this first paragraph of his Introduction demonstrates: “When Faulkner (Family name, Falkner) was born in New Albany, Mississippi, on September 25, 1897, there was still a mythical America; and it was still possible for an individual to wrap himself in that myth. Part of the myth had attached itself to the Falkner family well before the writer was born—its violence, its frontier qualities, its efforts to relocate itself as part of the Southern planter aristocracy—but Faulkner also created his own. Those famous silences which characterized his public pose were an essential part of the mythmaking; they seemed to locate him on some mystical or magical ground where no one else could tread. Faulkner desperately wanted to be a great writer, but he wanted just as desperately to be an epic hero. But nature and nurture reinforces that willed sense of self.” Karl admirably evokes the mystique captured me when as a graduate student I wrote my dissertation on Faulkner. The man, the myth, his family history, his work and sense of his own life are all present in Karl’s wonderful concatenating paragraph.

No one has bettered Karl, although Joel Williamson’s William Faulkner and Southern History (1993) is a worthy addition (especially his fresh investigation of Faulkner family history), and Richard Grey’s The Life of William Faulkner: A Critical Biography (1994) handles Faulkner criticism well and is especially insightful about the novelist’s treatment of history.

We still need a compact life written with the elegance and understatement that biographer Justin Kaplan believes ought to distinguish any biography we call literary.