My introduction to the writing of William Faulkner was indirect. It began in college and almost didn’t survive college.
Way back when, sophomores at LSU were required to take two semesters of English – American or English. The vast majority took English 55 and 56, American literature. English majors were required to take English 51 and 52, English literature, instead. I wasn’t an English major, but I opted for 51 and 52 (likely influenced by what I learned with my high school English teachers). We had small, rather serious classes, compared to the auditoriums overflowing with students taking 55 and 56.
At some point, early in my sophomore year, I became the unofficial English tutor for my fraternity. That meant helping pledges (and actives) prepare for tests, helping explain assignments, and reading papers.
Every sophomore at LSU who took English 56 had to write a paper on “Barn Burning” by William Faulkner. At the fraternity, that meant anywhere from 30 to 40 papers.
I came to hate that story. I came to hate reading about it, and reading a lot of really bad papers about it. One of the worst experiences I had was to see yet another fraternity member standing at the door of my room, paper in hand, smiling hopefully.
I didn’t look at anything with Faulkner’s name on it for more than a decade after college.
In 1983, I enrolled in a master’s program at Washington University in St. Louis, managing to balance one course per semester with work and family. Early on, I took a course called “the Nature of Story.” The required reading list included Faulkner.
I initially clutched, still haunted by reading those papers. Fortunately, the work wasn’t “Barn Burning.” It was The Sound and the Fury. I decided to plow through it, expecting to be gritting my teeth.
It was difficult, confusing, and a work that had to be read slowly and carefully. We had exactly one week to read it, and I think I used the entire week.
I loved it.
“Barn Burning” burnout was over.
I began to read other works by Faulkner. I took about master’s course on the Latin American novel, and discovered the authors that Faulkner had had a powerful influence on – Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Carlos Fuentes (Faulkner is the patron saint of “magic realism”).
I read almost everything written by those authors, and continued to read Faulkner. Last month, I was in New Orleans, and visited the Faulkner Book House in the French Quarter, the building where Faulkner lived for six months in 1925. And there I learned that before he wrote novels, Faulkner considered himself primarily a poet, and had actually published a book of poetry shortly before he moved to New Orleans.
I just finished reading the one novel of his that I had never read before, Soldier’s Pay, his first novel and the one he wrote during those six months in New Orleans. More on that next week, but I can say that it is both a first novel and a definite foreshadowing of what was to come with the novels that transformed American (and world) literature.
This week, I wrote about the Faulkner Book House for Tweetspeak Poetry. Go take a look. If you leave a comment, your name is in the hat for a giveaway of Faulkner’s New Orleans Sketches.
And, no, the sketches do not include “Barn Burning.” If you want to read it, and I still don’t, you can find it here. (Or you can get hold of the movie “The Long Hot Summer” with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward; “Barn Burning” is condensed into one mercifully short scene.)