Special Collections Exhibition “Faulkner: Life and Works” Examines Author as His Own Creation

Items for the exhibition “Faulkner: Life and Works” in the main gallery of the Harrison Institute and Small Special Collections Library were carefully chosen from the trove of letters, photos, and artifacts in the Library’s world-famous Faulkner Collection to explore the many roles the author played in his life. At different times he played the parts of a WWI flyer, a pictorial artist, a Hollywood screenwriter, a cash-strapped Southern landowner, Nobel Laureate, cultural ambassador, and first Balch Writer-in-Residence at the University of Virginia.

According to curator Molly Schwartzburg, the exhibition is as much about the artist’s creation of his various personae, as it is about his creation of a literary universe in his fictional Yoknapatawpha County. Artifacts in the exhibition include the author’s first-grade reader with some early attempts at his name on the inside back cover; a Royal Air Force officer’s uniform that he wore home after training as a pilot in Canada, leaning on a cane to affect a limp he said he got in a crash; examples of his artwork in the style of decadent illustrator Aubrey Beardsley; and a tweed jacket discovered hanging in Faulkner’s Alderman Library office after he died in Mississippi in 1962.

From Hollywood there’s Faulkner’s 1942 Warner Brothers studio pass; a handwritten screenplay fragment from The Big Sleep (1945), directed by his hunting and fishing buddy Howard Hawks; and a complete script, The Last Slaver, that became the 20th Century Fox film Slave Ship (1937). There are posters for movie adaptations of his work, including The Story of Temple Drake (1933), from the novel Sanctuary, about a flapper who’s raped and taken to live in a Memphis brothel, and an adaptation of Intruder in the Dust (1949), an indictment of racism and lynching. There’s also a splashy poster for Land of the Pharaohs (1955), an Egyptian epic he wrote for Hawks.

The central display focusing on Faulkner’s development as a writer begins with his first published work—the poem “L’Apres Midi d’un Faune” (1919)—and ends with the Pulitzer-winning WWI allegory The Fable (1954). In between comes Flags in the Dust, his first foray into Yocona (later Yoknapatawpha) County, which Faulkner intuited would “make my name for me as a writer.” He finally sold a severely cut version, re-titled Sartoris, to Harcourt Brace, and in a letter tells his aunt Alabama McLean about a new novel: “I don’t believe anyone will publish it for 10 years.” The Sound and the Fury was published in 1929. Correspondence with his editor and publisher shows Faulkner discussing the possibility of using colored inks to represent the mental time-shifts in Benjy Compson’s disordered mind.

Dead Addie Bundren’s epic journey to her home burying ground in As I Lay Dying is represented in manuscript pages that Faulkner penned while working the night shift in the University of Mississippi powerhouse, including the enigmatic one-sentence interior monologue of the child Vardaman: “My mother is a fish.” In 1932 Faulkner writes about how smoothly work is progressing on Light in August, which deals in part with the subject of lynching. Joe Christmas, an orphan of uncertain ethnic background, is castrated and murdered by a mob, as much for miscegenation as for killing his lover Joanna Burden, the daughter of transplanted northern abolitionists.

Faulkner’s own racial attitudes in the current of the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement of the ’50s reveals a mind as complex and contradictory as his fiction. He threatens in one letter to join with segregationists in violently resisting integration, and in another he says, “to be against giving a man what equality—cultural, educational, economic—that he’s capable and responsible for, is like living in Alaska and being against snow.”

Visitors who would like to learn more about Faulkner’s life and works can access Digital Yoknapatawpha at a computer station in the back of the gallery. The interactive website allows viewers to locate events chronologically in the contexts of both the history of Yoknapatawpha and the arc of Faulkner’s career.

“Faulkner: Life and Works” is open during regular library hours, and will run from February 6 through July 7, 2017. There will be a celebration of its opening at the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, in the Harrison/Small Building on February 28 from 5:30 p.m.–7:30.p.m.

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