Written by By Staff Writer
When William Faulkner first traveled to Paris as a visiting scholar in 1929, he found himself a bit out of place.
In the French capital, as in the country as a whole, Faulkner was a controversial figure. He wrote one of the century’s great novels, “Requiem for a Nun,” which explored taboo subjects and critiques of the white community. He also angered his hosts by preaching racial equality.
The odd turns of fate made Faulkner feel himself to be a foreigner not just in France but in America as well. He was struggling to find his niche among his countrymen, and his longing to belong shone through in his first short story collection, “A Good Old Fashioned Orgy.”
In 1931, when Faulkner visited New York for the first time, his wife, Ardeth Hamilton, was dismayed to learn that her husband had no plans to write another novel. It was a sign, she thought, that he was stepping down from his “sweaty throne.”
He had made a terrible mistake, she thought. He had started talking about the life and the books he wanted to write.
“And everything has taken me on my wildest dreams,” Faulkner later wrote in his journal.
That reaction was typical for “absent-minded” Faulkner, whose personality was chaotic. A great lover of literature, and a great reader, he often found himself unable to focus on writing. For that reason, he turned to children’s literature and created family stories in 1927, published in three volumes under the title “DeDerbee.”
The success of the novels and children’s stories is both obscure and remarkable. Even today, when the quintessential Faulkner story, “Absalom, Absalom!” reads like a Bible to today’s high school students, the success of the “DeDerbee” books is even less documented.
The fiction in “DeDerbee” focused on Faulkner’s lonely boyhood. There were characters drawn especially for children: his imaginary friend Henry Langston Hughes, who stood out as a playwright of genius and sophistication.
Faulkner was a cautious writer, devoting as much space to making an argument as to writing. He took great pains to explain every use of language and sentence to his wife, and he’s quoted in some of his later books as saying: “You don’t write until you understand.”
Faulkner’s novels tended to be more linear than his children’s fiction, whose narratives did not require such a fast read. And his work was intimate. “DeDerbee” was about Faulkner’s family, the careful details of his childhood, while “As I Lay Dying” is more epic, more somber.
For Faulkner, though, the writing must have flowed. He had the gift of narrative and the reader’s imagination was taken on wild adventures, lost in the stories that echoed Faulkner’s childhood in Abbeville, Louisiana.
He was equally known for his peculiar sense of humor, which hung in the air and couldn’t be ignored in the family stories he wrote.
Writing about the home he grew up in, Faulkner named his maid and dog after famous New York stage actors. After the show, viewers would hear them say, “Listen to Lee Strasberg speak.”
When the show ends, the maid would say, “Keep the sound of Strasberg burning in your ears, sir.”