10 March 2015: Handling Mr. Faulkner (and his drinking)

Posted: March 10, 2015 in Uncategorized
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One of the great things about going to college in the city called home by one of America’s greatest writers is the opportunity to visit said home and learn, possibly, more about the man than the Great Writer He Was.

William_FaulknerIn my case, the great writer was William Faulkner, and the home was Oxford, Mississippi. Or at least the city in which his home was situated. Faulkner’s stately antebellum estate, Rowan Oak, is, as you can imagine, a landmark in Oxford and one of the largest tourist attractions around (the Ole Miss campus notwithstanding).

Of course, any discussion of Faulkner inevitably comes around to the fact that the writer was a drinking man as well as a storyteller. How much of a drinker? Well, so much that the U.S. State Department had to develop a full-blown program to handle his shenanigans during his international tour following the awarding of his Nobel Prize for literature. This interesting gem, courtesy of Open Culture, is equally humorous and alarming. Some of the tactics for controlling Faulkner, who was prone to drink two ways: prodigiously and incessantly:

  • “Keep several pretty young girls in the front two rows of any public appearance to keep his attention up”
  • “Put someone in charge of his liquor at all times so that he doesn’t drink too quickly”
  • “Do not allow him to venture out on his own without an escort”

One Faulkner drinking story, which I’m sure is part (if not all) legend came from my tour of Rowan Oak when I was at Ole Miss. As it was told to me, after Faulkner learned that he would receive the Nobel, and thus have to travel to Sweden, he locked himself in his upstairs bedroom and proceededRowan_Oak_1 to go on a bender. His daughter, worried that he’d never sober up in time to travel, tried in vain to get Faulkner to stop drinking. Eventually, he asked, through the bedroom door, when they would be leaving. His daughter responded, “Monday.” Faulkner told her he would stop drinking on Sunday.
His daughter, thinking the man would be out-of-his-mind drunk by then, decided to pull a fast one on him — she’d tell him it was Sunday on Saturday morning and buy herself a day. So, come Saturday, she did just that and, again through the bedroom door, exacted a promise from Faulkner that he would stop drinking that instant.

But it was a fall Saturday. And as Faulkner walked around his room, he heard through an open window a familiar distant sound. He listened more and quickly realized that the sound was that of the crowd at an Ole Miss football game in the stadium a couple of miles away. Realizing he’d been duped and that the day was in fact Saturday, he immediately resumed drinking.

I took that story, as told by the docent at the home/museum/shrine, as at least mostly true. It certainly fits the man — especially after reading the State Department’s notes and tactics for dealing with him.

Interestingly, though, Faulkner also had a reputation for not drinking while writing. Apparently, he saved that for those periods in between writing some of the most acclaimed fiction ever, picking up Nobel prizes and traveling overseas at the behest of the U.S. government.

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