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Thinking of Home: William Faulkner's Letters to His Mother and Father, 1918-1925.

I have not urged a purchase on anyone withH the insistence I am about to here since I told a certain friend to be at the record stores when it opened to buy a cassette of "Maybe It Was Memphis." Those scholars, epistolary junkies, and acquisition librarians who heed the advice to buy this collection of previously unpublished correspondence can look forward to the satisfaction my friend expressed with the Tillis tape he now owns. Watson's edition of 145 letters, telegrams, and postcards by the young Faulkner to his parents during three crucial interludes (1918-25)--though one wonders what period in Faulkner's life we don't regard as crucial--draw from his wanderings at Yale under the tutelage of Phil Stone, his Canadian tour of duty in World War 1, and finally his brief stay in Paris. Faulknerians will be pleased and affirmed, and non-Faulknerians will discover a companionable correspondent on his way to becoming William Faulkner.

These early Faulkner letters offer a voice different but still familiar. He is shot full of confidence when he sells a piece to the Times Picayune and writes his mother he "can earn at least 5.00 any day I feel like writing" (p. 174); he projects earnings at $50 a week from the Double Dealer if he can work eight hours a day producing a sketch every three hours (p. 178). From Paris ten months later, he announces he has "just finished the 4th best short story in the world--the other 3 being the ones I wrote previous to it" (p. 224). And it is not just the "cash money, money you can buy things with" that pleases him, but the celebrity. He recounts correspondence from "strange females. . . . One about 40, gushing, . . . the other about 14--on pink paper and terrible spelling" (pp. 178-179). He is even solicited by "an Arkansas dame" for a name for her dog": "I wrote her to name it Fido" (p. 180). In the letter home requesting that his mother start a scrapbook for him, he reports with delight too innocent to be vanity that he is invited to dinner and gets to "sit and look grand and make wise remarks" (p. 180).

As a lonely boy far from home, he marvels at the fact that everyone at Yale drinks, even the faculty, and with the students, though no one gets drunk (p. 45). He is full of observations about his new worlds: riding subways prompts him to conclude that man was not descended from monkeys but from lice; that having been arrested six times he believes it "requires more down right dullness to be a cop than anything [else he knows]" (p. 222). He offers to return the $7.50 pen he bought his mother if she is not "thoroughly satisfied' (p. 189).

I'd be hard pressed to refute Watson's claim that the letters testify to "home" implicitly as the "standard for every judgment" (p. 15): how could a collection of letters home not suggest home is crucial? But more compelling than the differences his travels yielded are the compelling and unguarded details of Faulkner's physical self lavishly reported. Every letter seems to report some gastronomical development--weight gain, snack patterns, food he is consuming or longing to consume. Lots of Southerners miss home--it's what we do--but where else could you learn that by 1918 shortages of waffles and biscuits in the East have driven Faulkner to acquire "the pie habit" (p. 52). And that isn't all. He finds places that serve chocolate candy with breakfast and notes that his breakfast appetite is outstripped only by his ability to eat at supper (p. 57). He is in a perpetual "semi-stupified [sic] condition" (p. 57) from eating. Fresh shipments of food arrive steadily from home: "The ginger cakes came yesterday and I et 'em forthwith, also three bananas, and [sic] ice cream cone and a chocolate bar. The peppermint candy I saved and ate before breakfast this morning" (p. 100). Lena and Eula, hold on to those sardines and yams.

Home supplies other needs as well, lots of them: he needs his birth certificate witnessed; he needs his United Cigar store coupons sent (p. 153); he needs $22 for a coat and $8 for dental work (p. 129); he needs suits, linens, overcoats, and sleeve linings (p. 152): "Please send me two towels, bath towels" (p. 191). Depending on how you feel about adult children, you will suspect either that home for Faulkner is a Mississippi Alice's Restaurant, or that his mother would have recognized herself in "Death in the Woods" (minus those dogs).

Watson's editorial contributions are efficient and unassuming. He provides delicious chewy facts in the introductions to each of the groupings. He calculates the average number of days between letters home, proportion of letters to "Momsey" vs. Murry, Faulkner's father. We learn that cadet-pilots made $1.10 a day and that Estelle is mentioned only once. Watson's census of the letters at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas alerts us to the physical of the letters: origins of envelopes, salutations, Faulkner's choice of medium: pencil, ink, or typewriter.

The introductions and notes supply many of Faulkner's gaps, and Watson by and large keeps us in good supply of dead relatives and their connections, drivers for JWT Faulkner, or which luminary the young author was capturing for his Oxford kin. But it's a collection that whets an appetite, so why not note Tanagra (or index him [p. 60]) and how many Fable readers have friends to tell about boche bullets (p. 63)? And I can only be cross with Norton for design decisions that seem curious. With letters seldom running more than a page and a half, one hopes there is appropriate penance for the person responsible for placing notes following the letter rather than having footnotes. The back and forth on letters so short just seemed inhospitable. And having gone to the trouble of providing semi-diplomatic transcriptions of the letters (showing Faulkner's false starts, deletions), those in charge of such matters curiously opted not to provide a single reproduction of Faulkner's numerous drawings interspersed throughout the correspondence. Readers are left with frequent and enigmatic notes informing them that figures were included: "Line drawing of the Winchester badge inscribed |2A1/AGB Office/1680'" (p. 53); "Line drawing of a service chevron with two stripes"; or "line drawing of an overweight cadet in uniform" (p. 117). Needless to say, some representative facsimiles would have been welcome. But as Faulkner said, "If it aint mosquitoes its something else" (p. 200).

For $22.95 it's more than a bargain and it's a fine reminder of the truth in an older Faulkner's retort to joan Williams thirty years later that "of course," she liked getting his letters: "Who wouldn't? ... I think some of them are pretty good literature."(1) (Joseph L. Blotner, Faulkner: A Biography (New York: Random House, 1974), p. 1445.
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Author:Trouard, Dawn
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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