Count No-Count, Mr. Bill, Pappy . . .


Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of William Faulkner‘s death on July 6, 1962. So why, you may ask, would I write about an author who’s been dead for fifty years?

Here’s why:

I grew up thirty miles from Oxford, Mississippi, practically in Mr. Faulkner’s shadow. I vaguely remember the hoopla when Intruder in the Dust was filmed there (that’s a very early memory, mind you). The locals didn’t think much of him; they called him “Count No-Count,” apparently a reference to his laziness. His views, not to mention his often difficult, convoluted prose, didn’t cut it with the home folks back then.

Maturity Required

In college, I was forced to read Faulkner. Not until I was in my forties did I decide to have another go at his novels. One summer, I read The Sound and the Fury, Absalom, Absalom!, Sanctuary, and Light in August in quick succession. Once I immersed myself in the language and the rhythm of the prose, it became less difficult, even mesmerizing. If you’re not a Faulkner fan, I know I probably won’t convince you to take him on. All I’m saying is that it took a certain maturity on my part, both in terms of life experience and as a reader, to appreciate him.

Later, I wound up teaching The Unvanquished and As I Lay Dying to high school students (I struggled to get As I Lay Dying on the reading list–too hard, other teachers said). Many of the kids responded well to a close reading of those books. There’s also an element of pride, I would tell them; Mississippi may be last in a lot of things, but we’ve produced some fine writers, and William Faulkner is arguably among the best. Ever. Anywhere.

Bring On Mr. Bill!

If you’ve never read Faulkner, think about taking him on. The Unvanquished is a portrayal of life (on the Southern side) during the Civil War. It’s an easy read compared to most of his other books, but it’s not “typical” Faulkner in terms of style. Try As I Lay Dying, which is a manageable read and a remarkable book. Then work your way up–maybe Light in August or Absalom, Absalom! Tackle Sanctuary (possibly his most controversial work), or The Sound and the Fury; its first section is written in the consciousness of Benjy, a grown man with the mind of a child who has no perception of chronological time. Someone–I don’t remember who–recommends you read the rest of the book first; then go back and read the Benjy section, and it’ll be more accessible.

There are many others. These are just my favorites.

If you’re not up for tackling a novel, start with a short story: “That Evening Sun” or “A Rose for Emily” or “Barn Burning.” But whatever you do, read some of Mr. Bill’s work, especially if you never have. (You can find the full text of these stories online.)

Faulkner = Home

William Faulkner. [Map of Yoknapatawpha County] from The Portable Faulkner (New York: The Viking Press, 1946).
Maybe I relate to Mr. Bill’s work because it resonates of home. I recognize Yoknapatawpha County, those hills, that hard red earth, the people. Not everybody has those ties, but you don’t really need them. Faulkner’s work has withstood the test of time for a reason. Go there. You’ll recognize someone.

Here’s a recent article you might find interesting: How William Faulkner Tackled Race — and Freed the South From Itself. And if you’re curious about the man, go to William Faulkner: Frequently Asked Questions.

I’m well aware that people tend either to love or hate Faulkner! Where are you on that continuum? What have you read? 

11 thoughts on “Count No-Count, Mr. Bill, Pappy . . .

  1. Never read any Faulkner growing up in Europe and Canada, Gerry, but now feel inspired to take one on. Will probably have to wait till Sept, till I get back to Canada, but I’ll have a mooch around Oxford (UK) for a book just in case.

  2. Faulkner was one of my first favorite authors! I read The Sound and the Fury in high school and then had to read *everything* and to heck with my schoolwork. At last! Someone who wrote the way I thought! 45 years later I’m still re-reading his books and loving and understanding them more each time.

    1. I can’t believe you read The Sound and the Fury in high school. That’s amazing. I want to re-read, too, especially after reading the piece in the NYTimes I refer to in the post. Be sure to read that, if you haven’t already. Thanks so much for stopping here and commenting.

  3. i always thought faulkner was a little wordy but not difficult to read. what i do note out of this piece is that sometimes the people you are surrounded don’t have a full appreciation for who you are and that gives me hope.

    1. “. . . sometimes the people you are surrounded [by] don’t have a full appreciation for who you are and that gives me hope.” That’s so true, Bolton. And when they do, we should be doubly appreciative, I guess. That’s what’s so remarkable about having a community of writer-friends who support us. Thanks for commenting!

  4. About 30 years ago I taught a group of ESL adults a reading/writing enrichment. The students were mostly late teens/early 20-somethings from Pacific Rim countries. I used short stories that I loved from “great American authors.” We would read a loud. I would alternate with them to give a fluency and an urgency to the story while they stilted along in their newly acquired English. John Updike’s A & P was a perennial hit. The journal entries that copied his style were easily the most creative of their writing samples. Mostly this was because they understood that non-standard English was part of the story’s power. They didn’t have to apologize for their own word choices. My favorite was always our in-class reading of “A Rose for Emily.” I would wait and see the full meaning of its ending bloom across my students’ faces. They never had these sorts of stories in their SRA primers. And the glee at the stories they dished in their journals that week…seems as if Mississippi isn’t the only place inhabited by interesting characters.

    1. “. . . seems as if Mississippi isn’t the only place inhabited by interesting characters.”

      Absolutely not! They’re everywhere. I also taught Updike’s “A & P.” It was often a turning point for my creative writing students. I love Updike’s work, too. All this talk is almost enough to make me want to go back to teaching! Thanks, Lara.

  5. Terrific post, Gerry! Faulkner is so challenging, and yet so rewarding… I read As I Lay Dying in High School, and it probably influenced my desire to write far more than I can accurately recall all these years later, but I do remember it as a mind expanding experience. In college I was fortunate enough to have a very good (and very demanding) professor who assigned The Portable Faulkner as part of his reading list; I remember The Bear alone taking several readings in order for me to “get” enough of it to be able to participate in class with even a semblance of understanding.

    Somewhere along the way I remember a wonderful anecdote about Faulkner’s compositional method, although I’m not sure if it is apocryphal or not. As the story goes, a friend stopped in to see him one day while Faulkner was working on one of his novels, and the friend was surprised to find the author poring over a long, winding scroll of paper. The friend asked what he was doing with the unwieldy paper roll, and holding up a section to reveal it covered with copious notes, Faulkner replied “You don’t think I keep all this stuff in my head, do you?” Given the incredible complexity of his work and particularly in his use of stream of consciousness in both his narrative structure and in the expression of the thought and action of his characters, the “winding roll” outline seems a wonderfully apt description of the working of Faulkner’s creative genius, whether it’s a true story or not 🙂

    1. Pat, that’s a wonderful story, whether it’s true or not. Of course, we know about the outline of A Fable scrawled on the walls of his study, so a paper scroll probably worked for him! You were fortunate to have good teachers who introduced him early. I didn’t have that, even though I knew about him. He died the summer before my senior year at Ole Miss (giving away my age again!), but I never had a “sighting” of him on the Oxford square. His home, Rowan Oak, has been beautifully preserved. It’s worth a look if you ever “get down this way,” as we say.

      Thanks for the insightful comment!

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