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"This hand holds genius": three unpublished Faulkner letters.

In the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas in Austin are xerox copies of three undated letters from William Faulkner to his friend Ben Wasson. Written in 1924, and signed in Faulkner's unmistakable hand, the letters concern the preparations for the publication of his first book, the poem cycle The Marble Faun (1924); his admiration for Sherwood Anderson's Horses and Men; and his removal from his position as a United States Postmaster. Portions of these letters have been quoted or paraphrased or summarized in various memoirs and biographical works, but they have never been published in full.(1)

The first holograph letter is either the only page or the second page of a letter announcing to Wasson that the Four Seas Company would be publishing The Marble Faun, and it was probably written sometime in the late summer of 1924. Faulkner often visited Wasson, a lawyer at the time in his father's legal firm of Wynn and Wasson, at his family's residence in Greenville, Mississippi. As the letter makes clear, Faulkner was also in the habit of showing his poetry to his friend. After negotiating over terms in July, Faulkner and the Four Seas Company signed a contract for The Marble Faun in August of 1924. In conveying the good news to Wasson, Faulkner portrays himself as a shrewd professional writer by neglecting to mention that the company was the vanity press that the previous year had offered to publish his "Orpheus, and Other Poems" -- the "one [volume] of much better stuff" -- and was now publishing The Marble Faun on the condition that Faulkner supply the manufacturing Costs.(2) Whether Faulkner actually submitted The Marble Faun to Knopf is unknown. The "terrible emotional experience last spring" of the final paragraph may allude to one of two failed romantic campaigns Faulkner waged during this time. Joseph Blotner reports that Faulkner felt considerable emotional stress when his courtship of Gertrude Stegbauer, a stenographer in Phil Stone's law office, failed in 1923 or 1924. Faulkner would parody Gertrude Stegbauer as Jennie Steinbauer in his second novel, Mosquitoes (1927). In the spring of 1923, Faulkner also dated Elise Huntington, an Ole Miss student who soon married a suitor enrolled in the university's medical school. In the last paragraph's odd "I seem to have recovered my dog," "dog" seems to refer to composure or invention or imagination.(3)

The second holograph letter was written later in the summer than the first, perhaps even in early September. Faulkner apparently wrote it upon returning, via Winona, to Oxford after visiting Wasson in Greenville to have some publicity photographs for his publisher taken in nearby Lake Washington. Faulkner sent two of the photographs and a short biographical sketch to the Four Seas Company on September 9, 1924.(4) The letter confirms Wasson's assertion that he sent another one of the photographs to The Record, the national magazine of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, a fraternity that both Faulkner and he belonged to, hoping vainly to spur sales of The Marble Faun.(5) Faulkner re-used some of the letter's paean to Sherwood Anderson's story "I'm a Fool" in his 1925 Dallas Morning News essay on Anderson.(6)

Faulkner wrote the last holograph letter shortly after he was "allowed" to resign from his position as fourth-class postmaster for the University of Mississippi on October 31, 1924: the letter's last sentence implies it was written in either early November or early December. Since the spring of 1922, Faulkner had been serving as the most unorthodox fourth-class postmaster the university and probably all of Oxford had ever seen. He was known for reading the mail before putting it up if he decided to put it up at all, for throwing away mail, and for making the post office into a kind of recreation hall for his card-playing friends. The letter is notable because it contains Faulkner's famous response to his termination: "I suppose that I shall always be vexed with ---- -- --------, but I will no longer [sic] vexed by ... any --- -- - ----- who has two cents." Although Faulkner made this remark to several people, he primly substitutes in this written version lines of varying lengths for "sons of bitches" and "son of a bitch."(7) Of particular interest is Faulkner's romantic "presentiment" that he would die at an early age.

Perhaps the most striking comment to be found in these three letters is Faulkner's partly comic, partly serious assertion that "sometimes, when my liver is in order and my bowels are open, I can believe that this hand holds genius," a declaration that he made before having written a single line of any of the great novels that would attest to that genius. Letter 1: Xerox of HRC Undated Holograph Letter from Faulkner to Wasson. The book is "The Marble Faun", which I did in the spring of |19. I am sure you have seen some of it. I have been hell-bent on seeing it in print ever since. I have one of much better stuff which I have held back on account of the other. I sent the thing to Knopf first, who turned it down cold, then I sent it to the Four Seas, who were naive enough to take it. So do not be surprised when you see me simpering from the Sunday rotogravure sections. Thanks for your letter. When I come over I shall bring a bag full of things to show you, some good mss. I know I have talent: sometimes, when my liver is in order and my bowels are open, I can believe that this hand holds genius. I will be damned glad to see you. I had a terrible emotional experience last spring, from which I am just recovering. And may the

gods keep me from another such! At present, I seem to have recovered my dog -- I have a gallon of good whiskey, and I am once more able to sit down with pencil and paper and write something before getting up again. I am sending a thing I did before breakfast today.


Letter 2: Xerox of HRC Undated Holograph Letter from Faulkner to Wasson. You fiend, I spent 6 hours Sunday night in Winona. And you call that a good trip! My God, I'll walk home next time. Mother thinks the pictures are grand. And by the way, you write the dope for the record, and let me know when you want it, and I'll send one of the pictures to you to send them. There's no need of sending it to them until the book is out, is there? or shall we send it on now? Which is best? I have read "Men and Horses." I think, next to "Heart of Darkness" by Conrad that the first story, "I'm a Fool," is the best short story I ever read. To think that a man as old as Anderson could have retained so keenly a boy's perception of a world grand and beautiful and passionate and sad in the soft intimacy of young flesh and the despair of unfulfillment! It's grand, I think. Give my regard [sic] to your mother and father, and tell Lady Ree and Ruth and Rhodes hello and goodbye. Let me know about the record thing.


Letter 3: HRC xerox of Undated Holograph Letter from Faulkner to Wasson. Ben, I am free again. My God, I didnt know how I did hate that Post Office until this morning. Its [sic] heaven to be able to walk in the sunlight and drink the air and fill the eyes with amazing unbelievable color, and then sit down before a sheet of paper and smoke a pipe and dream -- not to be at the beck and call of fools. I suppose that I shall always be vexed with ---- -- --------, but I will no longer [sic] vexed by ["every" has been cancelled] any --- -- - ----- who has two cents. I dont believe I shall ever work again. When I can no longer get food and clothes without [indecipherable word] I had rather die and have done than to measure these brief days I have to a mechanical contrivance and the moth-eaten fallacies of established society. I dont think I need worry about this, though: I have had, for about a year, a very strong presentiment of imminent death -- before I reach thirty, that is. That may be fallacious, too, however. How about coming over. I shall be here until about the 15th.


(1) See Joseph L. Blotner's Faulkner: A Biography (New York: Random House, 1974), 1, 365-366 -- hereafter Blotner -- and his revised Faulkner: A Biography (New York: Random House, 1984), pp. 116, 118, 120, 185 -- hereafter Rev. Blotner. Although I found the copies in the Center's Phil Stone Papers, they have since been catalogued under "Letters" in its William Faulkner Collection. In a letter dated July 3, 1989, the late Carvel Collins informed me that Wasson, who died in 1982, had shown him a number of letters from Faulkner. Collins wrote that he had arranged the letters' sale from Wasson to an unnamed buyer with the provision that they not be published until Collins was through with them. Wasson drew upon these letters, including the three published here, in recounting the story of his friendship with Faulkner during the year 1924 in Count No |Count: Flashbacks to Faulkner (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1983), pp. 58-72. I am grateful to the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, the University of Texas at Austin and to W. W. Norton, Inc., for permission to publish these letters. (2) See Selected Letters of William Faulkner, ed. Joseph L. Blotner (New York: Random House, 1977), p. 5. (3) James G. Watson suggested this sense of "dog" to me and pointed out a similar example in a letter Faulkner wrote to his mother on October 20, 1921: "I have recovered my dog again, and have written several things." The letters appears in Thinking of Home. William Faulkner's Letters to His Mother and Father 1918-1925, ed. James G. Watson (New York: Norton, 1992), p. 150. For Faulkner's relationship with Stegbauer, see Rev. Blotner, p. 114. For his relationship with Huntington, see Blotner, I, 345. (4) Selected letters, p. 7. See Wasson, pp. 66-69, for his account of this visit. (5) Wasson, p. 69. Indeed, a third photograph of Faulkner from this session appears in The Record's March number (Vol. 46) for 1926. The caption reads as follows: "William Faulkner, Mississippi Gamma, whose book of poetry, |The Marble Faun,' is attracting wide attention in the South" (p. 245). I am indebted to John Seal of the University of Minnesota for assiduously combing back issues of The Record to locate this photograph. (6) "I'm Fool" appeared in Anderson's 1923 collection of stories, Horses and Men: Tales, Long and Short, from our American Life (New York: B. W. Huebsch, 1923). (7) George W. Healy, Jr., recounts Faulkner's uttering this remark in "No Beck and Call for Bill," William Faulkner of Oxford, ed. James W. Webb and A. Wigfall Green (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1965), pp. 57-58.
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Title Annotation:Special Issue: William Faulkner
Author:Cohen, Philip
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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