ONLINE EXCLUSIVE — Approaching William Faulkner’s works can be daunting for first-timers. As Oxford prepares to remember the 50th anniversary of Faulkner’s death, scholars and fans offer their suggestions for where to begin.
Those unfamiliar with William Faulkner may have a difficult time deciding which of his many works might be the best one to read first. It’s a tough question, one with as many answers as Faulkner has novels and short stories.
During his 64 years, Faulkner produced an enormous body of literature, including 19 novels (20 if you count “Flags in the Dust,” the unabridged version of one of his first novels, “Sartoris”), well over 100 short stories and more than a few poems.
As a result, the uninitiated have many entry points into the literary world of Faulkner. Perhaps the best way to begin is with a question. Do you start with one of his best-selling and most recognizable titles, such as “Sanctuary” or “Intruder in the Dust”? Or maybe go for one of his books receiving the most critical praise, such as “The Sound and the Fury,” Light in August” or “Absalom, Absalom!”?
You could also take the chronological approach and jump into his very first novel, “Soldiers’ Pay.”
Then again, there’s always “Sartoris,” the novel in which Faulkner introduced the world to his mythical literary world of Yoknapatawpha County and Jefferson, which more or less stand in for Lafayette County and Oxford. It’s the novel to which one of Faulkner’s most frequently famous quotes is in reference to.
“Beginning with ‘Sartoris’ I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it.”
Not sure about committing to one of his novel? Then how about a short story. “The Bear” is probably his most famous short story, but several others are popular, including “A Rose for Emily” and “Barn Burning.”
No, it’s not easy knowing where to start, so we asked a few Faulkner-philes to suggest which of Faulkner’s novels or short stories — or both — they would recommend. Here’s a sampling and we’ll add to this as others provide us with their recommendations.
Speaking of recommendations, we’d like to know your suggestion as to which Faulkner novel and/or short story you think might be the first one readers should begin with.
“Of the trilogy of masterpieces (’The Sound and the Fury,’ ‘Light In August’ and ‘Absalom, Absalom!’), I always direct people to ‘Light In August.’ It’s the most linear in narrative technique. So for those coming to Faulkner for the first time, in terms of a novel, I’d say ‘Light In August.’ When it comes to short stories, I love the Native American stories, such as ‘Red Leaves.’ Of course, ‘The Bear’ is also a pretty good place to start. The ‘Uncollected Stories of William Faulkner’ are much shorter and more episodic, so I recommend the ‘Uncollected Stories,’ as well.”
Olivia Milch, the daughter of David Milch, is a scholar and fan of William Faulkner. She and her father recently completed the screenplay of Faulkner’s “Light In August,” which they hope to film in Oxford.
“I suppose, among the novels, ‘Intruder in the Dust’ might be a wonderful initiating experience. Among the stories, maybe ‘A Rose for Emily.’”
David Milch, an Emmy-award winning writer and producer of television shows, created such landmark TV shows as “NYPD Blue” and “Deadwood.” Milch’s production company, Redboard Productions, has an agreement with HBO to bring the works of William Faulkner to the screen.
“I believe that ‘Light in August’ (1932) offers the most accessible introduction to the ‘great’ Faulkner. It’s the most readable of all of his undisputed masterpieces. On the other hand, ‘The Unvanquished’ (1938) and ‘The Reivers’ (1962) are more entertaining, less strenuous alternatives for the first-time reader seeking to get a feel for Faulkner’s sensibility.
“And I do think that dipping around in Faulkner’s ‘Collected Stories’ volume (1950) is also a great way to get started in Faulkner. Some of the high points in the volume include ‘Barn Burning,’ ‘A Rose for Emily,’ ‘Dry September,’ ‘Red Leaves,’ ‘Mule in the Yard’ and ‘That Evening Sun.’”
Jay Watson is the Howry professor of Faulkner studies and English at the University of Mississippi, as well as the director of the annual Faulkner & Yoknapatawpha Conference at UM. He is the president of the William Faulkner Society and the author “Forensic Fictions: The Lawyer Figure in Faulkner” (1993) and essays on Faulkner.
“I tend to recommend to novice readers ‘Go Down, Moses’ (much of which is in ‘The Portable Faulkner,’ which I also recommend), ‘As I Lay Dying,’ ‘The Selected Short Stories’ and any one of the Snopes trilogy novels. His first published story, ‘A Rose for Emily,’ is certainly one of his best stories.
“People often ask us about biographies, and I usually point out Joseph Blotner’s. Cleanth Brooks wrote three critical companions to Faulkner and his ‘First Encounters’ is a good start.
“Just for capturing Faulkner in his element — Oxford — I love Dean Faulkner Wells’ book, ‘Everyday By the Sun,’ and those interested in the history of both Lafayette County and Faulkner should look at ‘Faulkner’s County: The Historical Roots of Yoknapatawpha County’ by Don Doyle. Finally, ‘Faulkner’s Essays, Speeches, and Public Letters’ is a good way to understand Faulkner apart from his fiction.”
Richard Howorth is the former mayor of Oxford and the founder and owner of Square Books and its two literary off-spring, Off Square Books and Square Books Junior. He is also a past president of the American Booksellers Association.
“I agree with Jay Watson that ‘Light in August’ is a good choice for one’s first Faulkner novel. It is not the first one I read; that was ‘The Unvanquished,’ which was assigned in high school, but which I didn’t care for much. ‘Light in August,’ which I discovered in graduate school, is gripping, accessible, deeply compassionate and emotionally overpowering.
“And as far as short stories, hands down for ‘A Rose for Emily.’ No one who reads it ever forgets it.”
Ann Fisher-Wirth’s four books of poems are “Dream Cabinet,” ”Carta Marina,” “Blue Window” and “Five Terraces.” She is co-editing “The Ecopoetry Anthology,” forthcoming from Trinity University Press in 2013. She teaches at the University of Mississippi, where she also directs the minor in environmental studies, and she teaches yoga at Southern Star Yoga Studio in Oxford.
“For a first attempt at Faulkner’s writing I’d suggest ‘As I Lay Dying’ because it’s short, but his quintessential style and graveyard humor are there. For someone hoping to get a clue about the history of the Deep South, I’d try ‘Absalom, Absalom!’ I love the whole hog of his oeuvre, but my hands-down favorite is ‘The Sound and The Fury.’ For me there is nothing in the English language that so stunningly and sensuously evokes a place and its people.”
Lisa Howorth came to Oxford from suburban D.C. in 1972 and Faulkner is to blame. She writes a little, here and there.
“My advice to a Faulkner beginner is: ‘If you haven’t read Faulkner, you should read Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” first, and then go to “The Sound and the Fury.”’ You will soon find out what Faulkner’s genius is like.”
Takaki Hiraishi, 63, is a professor of English at the University of Tokyo. He is the author of 10 books, including studies on Faulkner, a translation of “The Sound and the Fury,” “A History of American Literature” and five detective stories.
“My reading recommendation is to start with William Faulkner’s ‘Sanctuary.’ Temple Drake was the Lindsay Lohan of the ‘Twenties. Ole Miss students will smile at the fraternities’ dependence on bootleggers. When the novel came out in 1931, a popular parlor game in Oxford was to guess the prototype for Temple. (Wags claimed she was a judge’s daughter and called Faulkner ‘the corn-cob man.’) Faulkner wrote the novel to make money, but ‘Sanctuary’ is no pot-boiler. It may not be on a par with Faulkner’s serious work, but it’s beautifully written and plotted. The ominous setting in Taylor is a hoot. Willie Morris once wrote on the wall of Taylor Grocery: ‘This is where Gowan Stevens got off the train to get Temple a bottle of hooch.’ Prof. Evans Harrington showed me a decayed southern mansion not far from Taylor Grocery that was rumored to belong to a moonshiner. (I can’t remember if there was a barn.) Evans listed the house on the Faulkner Conference tour. People tore off wood for souvenirs. A few years later, the rickety old mansion collapsed. Tame by today’s standards, ‘Sanctuary’ was considered scandalous at the time. Hollywood bought film rights and later hired Faulkner as a contract screenwriter. At a bridge game, a lady asked Faulkner’s mother, Maud, ‘Why did he write that book.’ Maud, biting off each word, said, ‘My Billy writes what he has to.’”
Larry Wells is the author of “Rommel and the Rebel” and “Let the Band Play Dixie” (Doubleday & Co.); co-founder and publisher of Yoknapatawpha Press, an independent press since 1976 in Oxford; co-founder and publisher of The Faulkner Newsletter; co-founder of the Faux Faulkner contest. He has also written an Emmy-winning PBS documentary, “Return to the River,” and has had four screenplays under option. He has contributed feature articles to American Way, Southwest Spirit, Art and Antiques and the New York Times Syndicate. He holds a B.A., M.A. in English, University of Alabama; Ph.D., University of Mississippi. Married for 38 years to Dean Faulkner Wells (1936-2011) he lives in Oxford.
“Recommended novel: ‘As I Lay Dying,’ the novel that got me hooked on Faulkner. A good example of his blending of humor and tragedy. Illustrates his innovative narrative technique, without being as difficult to follow as ‘The Sound and The Fury’ and ‘Absalom, Absalom!’
“Recommended short story: ‘Barn Burning.’ One of the best coming-of-age stories in the English language.”
Robert W. Hamblin is a professor of English and director of the Center for Faulkner Studies at Southeast Missouri State University. He has co-edited, with Charles A. Peek, “A William Faulkner Encyclopedia” and “A Companion to Faulkner Studies”; with Stephen Hahn, “Teaching Faulkner: Approaches and Methods”; and, with Ann J. Abadie, “Faulkner in the Twenty-First Century.” He has also published two volumes of poetry and several other works.
(May 15, 2012)