HED: Faulkner in America
By Errol Castens
OXFORD - Faulkner belongs to a time and place, Robert West said, But he took that time and place, the postage stamp and made it into a world, into a universe.
That's why West, along with 150 others, is braving the heat and humidity of a Mississippi July to attend the 25th annual Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference, themed "Faulkner in America," which began yesterday at the University of Mississippi.
The call of the great writer's native postage stamp of soil and his mythical Yoknapatawpha County is a powerful one, attracting conferees from all over the world.
"I came so I could see the landscape and feel it," said Joseph Urgo, an English professor from Smithfield, R.I. "You come here and see how incredibly accurate his descriptions were."
"My first trips here were like a trip to the Holy," said Seth Berner, a bookseller from Maine, who specializes in first editions of Faulkner. "Standing by his grave, I cried."
Conferees will spend much of their time at presentations on everything Faulknerian from the author's humor to teaching his literature to dramatic presentations of his works.
Tours of Faulkner's stomping grounds, from Pontotoc and Ripley to the Delta, will offer perspectives on the land that shaped the man.
The six-day literary gathering that Evans Harrington founded at Ole Miss was one of the first of its kind in 1974. "The (James) Joyce conference in Ireland came about that time or a little later," said Ann Abadie, associate director of the university's Center for the Study of Southern Culture.
Sunday's activities included the announcement of a Eudora Welty Award in Creative Writing awarded to Matt Hedges, Corinth High School, for the poem, "My Fight with the Furtive Flight of Life." His senior English teacher is Barbara Trapp. Also awarded was Robert Morris, Hattiesburg High School, for the short story, "The Sandpiper."
"Wherever there is great writing, parody cannot be far behind," said Charles Reagan Wilson, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture. "With Faulkner, it became official in the form of Faux Faulkner,'" a contest for bad Faulknerians around the country.
The Faux Faulkner competition "is one of the things, one of the few things, we do at this conference of which Faulkner would approve," said Charles Reagan Wilson, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at Ole Miss.
Attaching themselves to the Faulkner oeuvre were such gems as "Inclusion in the Rust," "The Round and the Furry," "Bran Burning" and last year's winner, "Dying to Lie Down."
Among the sponsors of Faux Faulkner is Jack Daniel's Distillery.
"This is something else Faulkner would have approved of," Wilson added.
This year's Faux Faulkner winner is Robert Blake, Jr., a physician and teacher at the University of Missouri School of Medicine. His entry, a single 161-word Faulknerian sentence full of words and clauses thick enough to choke a mule, describes a single play in a high school football game. In spoof of the Nobel Laureate's own "Pylon," Blake's work is entitled "Pile On."
Before reading his winning entry, Blake related an experience in which a medical professor he visited in the Republic of Georgia as well as the interpreter that Blake employed during his trip had read Faulkner extensively.
"We've had very, very different life experiences," Blake said, "yet William Faulkner has spoken to, informed and enriched our lives in profound and meaningful ways."
The universality of Faulkner's writing was an oft-repeated theme among conferees.
"He is the great American novelist, certainly of the 20th century," West said.
"Like Shakespeare, he was able to take all the mysteries of the world and boil them down to little everyday scenes," said Bern Keating, whose photos of Faulkner at the 1952 Delta Council grace this year's conference poster.
"The whole mystery of life would be in that one little scene that just seemed like a bunch of rednecks talking to each other," Keating continued. "While they were talking to each other, they were dealing with the deepest problems that human beings face.
"You'd think that Faulkner would depend so much on the English language, but it's his handling of life's mysteries that does it," he added. "It is just as beautiful in French as in English."
"He's the greatest writer who ever was," Seth Berner said. "He's not (Mississippi's) guy. His stories are based here, but he wrote about people. People who are struggling with their situations, struggling with their principles, are the same everywhere."
"We were in the south of France this summer for the Hemingway Conference," said Charles Peek, an English professor from Kearney, Neb., who will be speaking later in the conference. "There are some nice things about being in the south of France, and Hemingway's a great writer, but nobody does it quite like Faulkner. So it's worth the heat or the rain."
Conference organizers point to the variety of attendees as indication of Faulkner's broad appeal, too.
"Robert Blake is a physician," Ann Abadie said. "We've had car salesmen, lawyers, all kinds of people."
"There's not an academic conference in the world that draws a general audience of this sort and this many," said conference director Don Kartiganer. "There are more general readers here than scholars."
Print brought to life
Dramatic presentations of several Faulkner works featured readers from the Oxford area. Conference founder Harrington began this tradition so the audience, who come not only from different regions but also from different nations and continents Rcan hear what it must have sounded like to Faulkner. His wife, Betty, continues to select and arrange the writings to be dramatized.
One of the works addressed one of the focuses of Faulkner fans in the master's own words.
"People often ask me why I write," George Kehoe quoted from a Faulkner soliloquy. "The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means, and hold it fixed so that 100 years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again, since it is life."