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National Book Award Classics

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The following essay appeared in the February, 2003 issue of Ingram's Advance e-letter, as part of National Book Award Classics, a monthly series of essays by Neil Baldwin, highlighting past Winners of the National Book Award.

William Faulkner [1897-1962]

Collected Stories, National Book Award Winner for Fiction, 1951

It was Sherwood Anderson who planted the crucial idea in William Faulkner's imagination that he should focus upon the local terrain as the vital focus for his work. Thus was born Yoknapatawpha County, which will not be found on any map, but nevertheless lingers near Oxford, Mississippi, and has claimed a permanent place in American literature: "I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it, and by sublimating the actual into the apocryphal, I would have complete liberty to use whatever talent I might have to its absolute top," Faulkner reflected in an interview toward the end of his life.

The sagacious editor and critic Malcolm Cowley was responsible for reviving Faulkner's lapsed reputation and setting the wheels in motion leading to the author's National Book Award. By the mid-1940's, Faulkner's great novels, from The Sound and the Fury (1929) to Go Down, Moses (1942) were out of print. Cowley put together The Portable Faulkner for Viking Press. This was followed by new editions of his novels by The Modern Library at Random House. In 1950, Faulkner received the Howells Medal for distinction in American fiction, and published his Collected Stories. At the end of the year, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature; and the following March, the National Book Award in Fiction was awarded to the Collected Stories. Faulkner received his second National Book Award in 1955 for his novel, A Fable.

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Faulkner reminded modern writers of their forgotten mission, to meld into their work "the old verities and truths of the heart - love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice."

How many of us remember The Bear? Or As I Lay Dying, or The Sound and the Fury? Returning to Faulkner was an eye-opener for me. I encountered him in high school, and thought he was "hard." Then I read him when I was in graduate school, and took away a sense of "stream of consciousness" narrative conveyed with perplexing dialect that at the time seemed to get in the way of the story.

But this time around, it was as if the scales had fallen from my eyes. There was, on the contrary, a clarity and a precision to each and every sentence. Let me just direct you to the first few stories in the book as a metaphor for what I mean. Shingles for the Lord is "literary Southern" - a little boy is narrating, but behind him looms the author with an abiding love for the way townspeople communicate. The narrator of The Tall Men, on the other hand, is omniscient and intelligent. Two Soldiers drops us down in the middle of a situation, as if the current had been flowing all along and we just happened to come across the teeming river when we opened the book. A Rose for Emily speaks in a collective voice, as if - like Sherwood Anderson - the author had gathered everyone into the town square at noon on a scorching day and surveyed them for their opinions. And Centaur in Brass is pure reportage: our narrator moves, invisible but sympathetic, through the lives exposed to us.

Faulkner was first published as a poet, and in this genre learned to measure the weight of each word he employed. He also dabbled in drama, perfecting his art of dialogue; and then turned to what he called "sketches," or brief prose pieces. Many of his short stories were exercises for the novels that followed. He also spent some years as a screenwriter in Hollywood, working predominantly with Howard Hawks.

Reading the Collected Stories, I am reminded of the Snopeses, Compsons, and Sartorises, families given life by this great writer. However, the best reward of returning to Faulkner resides in his palpable portraits of the small-town Southern life he honored: the sparse dialogue, the occasional bursts of violence, the repetitive labor, the heat, the insularity, the gossip, and the sardonic humor, all presented with inexhaustible narrative drive, modernist variety - and compassion.

-- Neil Baldwin, Executive Director

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