the legend at work
Here’s a bit of practical advice: Don’t enter the mausoleum, however ornate and lovely it looks on the outside, until you’re good and dead.
When I was first learning to be a writer, Allen Gurganus warned me not to be overawed by “literature.” If writers spend too much time being intimidated by literary greatness, he said, we would never achieve greatness of our own. Our job was to go to the keyboard every day and create something new, polish it, make it good on its own terms , but we were never to assume the pressure of immortality mid-opus. Our immortality as writers was only our problem in as much as we were to slug it out every day.
However much I try to obey this commandment, it is tempting in a place like where I am now — Oxford, Mississippi — to be seduced by the quest for immortality. Oxford is one of the loveliest Southern towns — a venerable square, many historic churches, quaint gift shops, good restaurants — and many, many shrines to the great William Faulkner, who lived here for most of his life and set many of his works in this area.
There is a statue of William Faulkner near city hall and the epicenter of culture here — Square Books, a fantastic independent bookseller with a large Faulkner section and tote bags and coffee mugs with Faulkner quotes on them.
The giant and lovely University of Mississippi is possibly more focused on football than Faulkner (especially in the administration, which surely operates with another “F-word” in mind — “fundraising.”), but in the department in which I am working and getting my PhD, the English department, Faulkner is the raison d’etre. Many professors from Europe with an inordinate love of Faulkner congregate here to be experts in him and in his dense prose.
It is hard not to think of him constantly. The college library has a large-letter quote from him on the wall. Faulkner is dead, but his ghost walks the halls. People in the English department have a ritual of drinking at Faulkner’s grave. I have yet to do this, but as I type this, I am looking at a bottle of Maker’s Mark bourbon already set apart for this inevitable occasion.
However, my writing is not Faulknerian. I am not destined to be Faulkner, but myself. No one has built me a statue. No one drinks at my grave. This feels like failure around here.
Enter my step-daughter, Charlotte, an irrepressible fifteen year-old with that delicious freshness that all young people have. Tennessee Williams remarked once that young people love as if they had invented love. A truer observation would be that young people invent love and every other human experience with every generation. Here is a photo of Charlotte taken at a store where they sell bins:
my wonderful, bright, funny step-daughter
Charlotte has sometimes gotten into trouble with older people who feel she has no respect for boundaries and their own sacred persons. She is not overawed by any adult — neither teacher, nor parent, nor store manager holds any particular fear for her. Sometimes, this gets her sent to the principle’s office or grounded.
To Charlotte, William Faulkner is just some guy.
When she saw the statue of Faulkner, cast in bronze seated on a bench, holding his pipe and wearing his fedora, she leapt onto the statue’s lap and put her arms around it.
I have not put up a photo of this event on this blog because I think a person in Oxford might get a ticket for Faulkner lap-leaping. I’m not sure.
Oh — what the heck — here she is!
a dynamic relationship with literature --no pretenses
I say Charlotte has it right. Faulkner is just some guy. So is Shakespeare. so is her dad.
Veneration is fine for the dead, but for the living, it’s premature. Literature is just some guys and gals writing some stuff and editing it so it gets really good.
I took Charlotte around campus and helped her to imagine a more serious future — SATs, college interviews, the five-paragraph essay. I bought her literature her woefully inadequate high school English and History departments don’t bother teaching. I showed her some foreign movies to help her imagine a world bigger than her small town shows her.
She is currently reading A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and now loves the movie Amelie. The universe is expanding, and there are serious parts of it, but there is no reason not to be so scared of any of it that we miss the fun of it. This is, in a nutshell, Charlotte’s experience right now.
Leaping into Faulkner’s lap is a much better impulse, I find, than making him into the patron saint of Southern writers. If he is all that good (and he is), the proper impulse is to incorporate him currently into the life of our minds, to approach him with whimsy as well as analysis, to make him useful to us, not a heavy bronze backpack for us to climb with uphill.
Writing is the problem of people living today. Literature is the problem of the next generation after my death. I’m a writer. I just work here.
One day, when she is older, Charlotte will leap less onto the laps of legends. That will be a sad day for literature.