The Booky Man: Hunting William Faulkner's Great Bear

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I carry in my pocket a bit of magic. I’m a writer, so it’s writer’s magic, of course.

It’s a miniature pecan, picked up from under a big old tree in the back yard of William Faulkner’s house in Oxford, Mississippi. Trees wear their age well, and it’s hard to guess their years without cutting them open and counting rings. But this tree was almost certainly putting out leaves in late spring and dropping nuts on the ground in late fall while the great writer still lived, almost 50 years ago, at Rowan Oak, his Oxford home.

I’ve had my Faulkner pecan good luck charm since a visit three years ago to see writer friends at Ole Miss. Tom Franklin, the dandy novelist from Alabama, teaches at the university, as does the celebrated poet Beth Ann Fennelly, his wife. Another old friend from Alabama, writer and comic genius Jack Pendarvis, was the Grisham visiting writer in residence at the university then, and I stayed with Jack and Theresa, his brilliant wife, at a home John Grisham provided visiting writers. We all slept about a hundred yards from Rowan Oak. Roy Blount Jr. stopped by that night, and we talked about wild boar roasts and hunting rattlesnakes.

It seemed like a great weekend to pick up something magic, a totem, from Mr. Faulkner’s back yard. So I chose a little nut.

For a long time, that’s what the 5’ 5 ½” William Faulkner was to the citizens of Oxford—a little nut. Faulkner grew up there, went to college there, became a familiar face. But he was known as something of a flake in his tiny southern town. He pledged Sigma Alpha Epsilon at Ole Miss, but dropped out of college after three semesters. He took odd jobs, sometimes writing stories on the clock instead of working. And he spent most nights in the company of a most questionable companion—a typewriter.

Also, despite having no apparent ambition or means, Faulkner retained a very high opinion of his own opinions. His dandified attitude earned a nickname, behind his back: Count No Account.

Faulkner first wanted to fly. He wasn’t tall enough to be a United States biplane pilot in World War I, so he went to Canada and joined the British Royal Flying Corps, learning to fly planes after all. The war ended before he got to Europe and had those thrilling dogfights over France against the bloody Red Baron. Count No Account came home to claim his Oxford throne again.

It took a brief time away in New Orleans for Faulkner to get enough perspective on Oxford to write his first novel. Soldier’s Pay came out in 1926. Three years later, the writer married an old flame, a woman who had spurned him a decade before, married another man, then divorced. With his new responsibility and with the dogs of debt always nipping at his heels, Faulkner began churning out a remarkable run of 11 books in the years from 1929 through 1942. That 13 years of productivity, including landmark works like As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, Sanctuary, and Absalom, Absalom, went mostly unnoticed by the American public.

In 1949, all that changed. Faulkner received the Nobel Prize for Literature. Nearly 50 years after his death, he’s now regarded as one of the most influential writers America ever produced, and he’s as close to a household name as any writer has ever been.

You see why Faulkner magic is good magic for a writer to carry in his pocket.

He’s a most unusual literary giant. Has there ever been a more willfully difficult writer, a novelist who put more challenging pages before his public? I still recall part of a sentence I memorized from Absalom, Absalom back in college—a line I remember for its ridiculous comic complexity. Faulkner wrote of “… a Presbyterian effluvium of lugubrious and vindictive anticipation.”

But you learn to read Faulkner the way you read Shakespeare—you give way to it, sink into it. You immerse yourself. You let the challenging strangeness, the barbed-wire coils of complex language and structure mesmerize, then suffuse. In Faulkner, you go THERE … his work does not, will not, come to you.

Then, once you’re deeply settled into the unspooling sentences and the rushing streams of consciousness, once you’ve caught the rhythms, things start to make sense. Insights and revelations arrive. It takes more energy to read Faulkner than any other writer I know, save maybe James Joyce. But the divine rewards of giving up your soul to Faulkner are tremendous. His works, like Shakespeare, build a new architecture of ideas in the mind. Much other serious thought can then be supported on this framework. Especially if you’re from the South.

Among Faulkner’s greatest achievements is the subject of today’s Booky Man review, a novella included in the 1942 collection, Go Down, Moses. That novella, “The Bear,” attempts in a single work to explain the whole sorry mess the South was making for itself from the time of settlement to Faulkner’s day. Though the 100-page or so work is mostly a coming-of-age story carried by a plot centered on the hunt for a great bear named Old Ben, Faulkner here comes to grips with issues of freedom and slavery, innocence and sin, the wild world and commercial exploitation.

The Bear has five parts. Four basically tell a hunting story. The first three give us Ike McCaslin, a boy being tutored on the ways of the wilderness by a half-Indian, half-Negro mentor named Sam Fathers. The hunting party goes out yearly to pursue Old Ben, the great bear, and during these years, Ike grows to young manhood and becomes a skilled woodsman. But it takes the arrival of a huge and savage dog, given the name Lion, before these hunters have any serious shot at bringing down Old Ben.

Here’s a passage from these hunting chapters—vintage Faulkner. It’s where we meet the bear. The “he” the narrator mentions is 11-year-old Ike, on his first hunt.

The fourth section of The Bear may be the focus of as much literary scholarship as any work in 20th-century American literature. In this section, Faulkner abandons the story of the hunt and the woods to pursue a long, wildly convoluted discussion between Ike and a cousin. Their talk ensues from the discovery Ike, now age 21, has made. His slaveholding grandfather sired a line of the family with a black slave woman, a fact hidden from public knowledge the way mentally disabled children were once locked away in an attic. Ike decides that he will renounce his inheritance – the very lands where he hunted Old Ben – to expiate this sin of the fathers. Meanwhile, logging crews take apart that very wilderness … everything is changing before the eyes of the blacks and whites in this part of the world.

Faulkner wrote bravely and, maybe, wisely of the issues of race in the South. But he isn’t held in high esteem as a social change agent. His novels may have been analytical, but they did not galvanize change the way works by, say, Ralph Ellison or even Harper Lee have done. Even so, the seeds of southern change – the dawning realization that change gonna come – fill Faulkner’s work. In those seeds, he clearly saw the future, even if he didn’t demand as loudly as some writers that we hurry to make it happen.

Seeds of change.

The Rowan Oak pecan – that magic seed – has now been polished to a lustrous mahogany glow after three years in my pocket. It’s small, no bigger than the fingernail of my ring finger.

But when one considers the enormous idea within the shell of this little seed – a towering dream of a tree, limbs rising, leaves wagging in bright light, a thundering shower of fat pecans falling to the ground in the gusts of November, all that potential – it seems beyond any miracle, beyond comprehension. Still, it’s all there, in that little work waiting to be released by the right combination of sun and soil and water.

Booky Man reader, give yourself a long afternoon soon and settle down with “The Bear.” Pour yourself a finger of good bourbon – Faulkner sipped when he wrote, so good whiskey will help more than CliffsNotes.

You’ll get up from the reading chair with so much to consider. From the seeds of this story, you’ll feel the powerful roots of this great writer’s ideas spread down into your limbs. You may even feel a Presbyterian effluvium of lugubrious and vindictive anticipation bud out from rough, shaggy branches in your mind.