COMPLETE STORY — The late Nobel Prize-winning author William Faulkner is still popular today — even 50 years after his death. A day-long celebration of Faulkner’s life will be held in Oxford on July 6 this year to mark the anniversary of the literary great’s death.
50 years after his death, writer’s work remains popular
“It is entirely possible that in the far future, when you and I are dead and gone, that William Faulkner will still be the most famous of all Oxonians.” — Prediction made by Phil “Moon” Mullen, editor, The Oxford EAGLE, in 1938
By Jonathan Scott
When looking back at Phil Mullen’s prophesy from our vantage point in the 21st century, one wonders why he even bothered to hedge his prediction by saying it’s “possible” Faulkner would still be our town’s most celebrated citizen.
But 74 years ago, Mullen was among a small minority who dared to even imagine that Faulkner’s work would still be read and revered in the years to come, much less in the next century.
This comment was made more than a decade before Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and long before he won either of his Pulitzer Prizes or his two National Book Awards.
Mullen was, of course, correct.
Now, 50 years after his death, Faulkner still has fans around the world. He’s certainly more in demand now than he was back in the mid-1940s when nearly all his books were out of print.
Not only are Faulkner’s books still in print today, but special editions of some of his most popular works are being published this year by The Modern Library. His work still continues to be among the most studied of any American writer.
And, as a film production deal announced late last year made clear, Faulkner continues to be a hot property in Hollywood.
Sales still strong
“Sales of books by William Faulkner remain strong,” said Richard Howorth, owner and founder of the popular independent book store, Square Books, in Oxford. “I believe that there has been a steady, continuous interest in his books over the years that we’ve been in business, without too much of an increase or decline as a ratio of our overall sales.”
Faulkner fans from around the world have come by Square Books to buy a Faulkner title or two, or perhaps one of Faulkner biographies or books of critical essays about the writer’s work, which Howorth has stocked in his store.
Faulkner is featured prominently in the book store. In his main store, Howorth devotes 60 linear feet of shelf space for Faulkner’s work and books about Faulkner and his work. Howorth also has out-of-print editions of some Faulkner books, as well as some used copies in Off Square Books, another of his book stores in Oxford.
One priceless bonus for Faulkner fans shopping at Square Books is that while they are browsing through the Faulkner titles, kept on the second floor of the store, they can look out the window and see elements of the Oxford community — the Lafayette County Courthouse, the Confederate monument and the town square — that Faulkner incorporated into his fictional literary world of Jefferson and Yoknapatawpha County.
Important factor for store
Providing Faulkner with such a prime and prominent space in his store seems only fair. After all, it’s possible that if it wasn’t for Faulkner, Howorth might not have the successful book store he has today.
“When I was trying to decide in the late 1970s whether to open the bookstore, the American Booksellers Association recommended not opening a store in a community of less than 40,000 people,” Howorth recalled about what was a questionable business decision to open a book store in Oxford, a town of less than 10,000, back in 1979. “I knew I could cheat on that number for two reasons – the University and William Faulkner.
“I had also grown up among several relatives who knew Faulkner and were his, and his wife, Estelle’s, friends. So there was a bit of a personal urge about my decision, in addition to what ‘the numbers’ represented. There was also Oxford’s reputation of not having properly appreciated Faulkner, which I knew was a bit overblown.”
In hindsight, it turned out to be a brilliant business decision. Since opening in 1979, Square Books has expanded to a larger space on the Square, and Howorth has been able to open additional book stores, also on the Square: Off Square Books and Square Books Junior.
During this time, Howorth was served as the president of the American Booksellers Association and was elected to serve two terms as mayor of Oxford.
Yet, it is not just the retail book business in Oxford that has, like Faulkner’s reputation, thrived over the years.
New, old readers
Nationally and internationally, Faulkner continues to attract new admirers.
The evolution of the Faulkner fan goes something like this, according to Faulknerphiles: Most people are introduced to Faulkner’s work while in school, whether high school or college. After this point, the reader comes to a crossroad and must decide whether Faulkner continues to appeal to them and keeps going deeper into Faulkner’s works or if his writing is simply not for them and they move on without him.
A few who discarded Faulkner in their younger days, may renew their interest later in life. This return to the Faulkner fold may be sparked by a recommendation by a friend or famous fan, or by experiencing his work in another medium, such as a movie.
Whatever the reason, Faulkner continues to have an enormous base of long-time, dedicated fans, as well as newcomers of all ages, said Jay Watson, 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.
“Faulkner has a large group of readers – students in high schools and universities – who form a steady, but also ‘captive’ audience, because they’re being assigned these books,” Watson said. “Many then discover that they like Faulkner, or love him, and continue exploring on their own.”
If interest among those in academia is any indication as to which writers continue to serve as a rich source of thoughtful examination, Faulkner reins supreme.
Faulkner has been the most studied American writer during the past 65 years, according to a recent column in Commentary magazine, which based its findings on the Modern Language Association’s International Bibliography.
The Oxonian’s No. 1 ranking among scholarly articles published annually has been challenged in recent years by another writer, Henry James. In fact, the number of scholarly articles written about James has exceeded those being written about Faulkner in the past 25 years.
Still, when compared to all pieces written about an American writer since 1947, the year in which the MLA International Bibliography started tracking such articles, Faulkner comes out on top. Faulkner has had 7,108 scholarly pieces written on him and his work during that time, while 6,760 articles have been written on James and his works.
However, for a writer to remain in the collective consciousness of the contemporary world, he or she needs to sustain readership among the masses. Faulkner has managed to do this. He got introduced — or perhaps re-introduced — to thousands of readers back in 2005 by one of the his fellow Mississippians, Oprah Winfrey, Watson said.
“I think that Oprah Winfrey single-handedly made an enormous contribution to Faulkner’s current popularity when she chose three of his novels (”The Sound and the Fury,” “As I Lay Dying” and “Light in August”) for Oprah’s Book Club in 2005, which she referred to as ‘the Summer of Faulkner,’” Watson said. “I think that move put Faulkner back in the hands of a lot of everyday readers, which can only be a good thing, when his books are reaching an audience beyond the academy.” (May 10, 2012, Page 1)