The following essay appeared in the February, 2003
issue of Ingram's Advance e-letter, as part of
National Book Award Classics, a monthly series of essays
by Neil Baldwin, highlighting past Winners of the National
William Faulkner [1897-1962]
Collected Stories, National Book Award
Winner for Fiction, 1951
It was Sherwood Anderson who planted the crucial idea
in William Faulkner's imagination that he should focus
upon the local terrain as the vital focus for his work.
Thus was born Yoknapatawpha County, which will not be
found on any map, but nevertheless lingers near Oxford,
Mississippi, and has claimed a permanent place in American
literature: "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, and by
sublimating the actual into the apocryphal, I would
have complete liberty to use whatever talent I might
have to its absolute top," Faulkner reflected in
an interview toward the end of his life.
The sagacious editor and critic Malcolm Cowley was
responsible for reviving Faulkner's lapsed reputation
and setting the wheels in motion leading to the author's
National Book Award. By the mid-1940's, Faulkner's great
novels, from The Sound and the Fury (1929) to
Go Down, Moses (1942) were out of print. Cowley
put together The Portable Faulkner for Viking
Press. This was followed by new editions of his novels
by The Modern Library at Random House. In 1950, Faulkner
received the Howells Medal for distinction in American
fiction, and published his Collected Stories.
At the end of the year, he received the Nobel Prize
for Literature; and the following March, the National
Book Award in Fiction was awarded to the Collected
Stories. Faulkner received his second National Book
Award in 1955 for his novel, A Fable.
his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Faulkner reminded
modern writers of their forgotten mission, to meld into
their work "the old verities and truths of the
heart - love and honor and pity and pride and compassion
How many of us remember The Bear? Or As I
Lay Dying, or The Sound and the Fury? Returning
to Faulkner was an eye-opener for me. I encountered
him in high school, and thought he was "hard."
Then I read him when I was in graduate school, and took
away a sense of "stream of consciousness"
narrative conveyed with perplexing dialect that at the
time seemed to get in the way of the story.
But this time around, it was as if the scales had fallen
from my eyes. There was, on the contrary, a clarity
and a precision to each and every sentence. Let me just
direct you to the first few stories in the book as a
metaphor for what I mean. Shingles for the Lord is "literary
Southern" - a little boy is narrating, but behind
him looms the author with an abiding love for the way
townspeople communicate. The narrator of The Tall Men,
on the other hand, is omniscient and intelligent. Two
Soldiers drops us down in the middle of a situation,
as if the current had been flowing all along and we
just happened to come across the teeming river when
we opened the book. A Rose for Emily speaks in a collective
voice, as if - like Sherwood Anderson - the author had
gathered everyone into the town square at noon on a
scorching day and surveyed them for their opinions.
And Centaur in Brass is pure reportage: our narrator
moves, invisible but sympathetic, through the lives
exposed to us.
Faulkner was first published as a poet, and in this
genre learned to measure the weight of each word he
employed. He also dabbled in drama, perfecting his art
of dialogue; and then turned to what he called "sketches,"
or brief prose pieces. Many of his short stories were
exercises for the novels that followed. He also spent
some years as a screenwriter in Hollywood, working predominantly
with Howard Hawks.
Reading the Collected Stories, I am reminded
of the Snopeses, Compsons, and Sartorises, families
given life by this great writer. However, the best reward
of returning to Faulkner resides in his palpable portraits
of the small-town Southern life he honored: the sparse
dialogue, the occasional bursts of violence, the repetitive
labor, the heat, the insularity, the gossip, and the
sardonic humor, all presented with inexhaustible narrative
drive, modernist variety - and compassion.
-- Neil Baldwin, Executive Director
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Baldwin photo credit: Sandra Wavrick