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William Cuthbert Faulkner (September 25, 1897 – July 6, 1962) was an American writer and Nobel Prize laureate from Oxford, Mississippi. Identified with the Lost Generation. Faulkner wrote novels, short stories, screenplays, poetry, essays, and a play. He is primarily known for his novels and short stories set in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, based on Lafayette County, Mississippi, where he spent most of his life.
Faulkner is one of the most celebrated writers in American literature generally and Southern literature specifically. Though his work was published as early as 1919 and largely during the 1920s and 1930s, Faulkner's renown reached its peak upon the publication of Malcolm Cowley's The Portable Faulkner and his 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature, making him the only Mississippi-born Nobel winner. Two of his works, A Fable (1954) and his last novel The Reivers (1962), each won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. In 1998, the Modern Library ranked his 1929 novel The Sound and the Fury sixth on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century; also on the list were As I Lay Dying (1930) and Light in August (1932). Absalom, Absalom! (1936) appears on similar lists.
The life and works of William Faulkner have generated numerous biographical studies exploring how Faulkner understood southern history, race, his relationship to art, and his place in the canons of American and world literature. However, some details on Faulkner’s life collected by his early biographers never made it into published form or, when they did, appeared in marginalized stories and cryptic references. The biographical record of William Faulkner’s life has yet to come to terms with the life-long friendships he maintained with gay men, the extent to which he immersed himself into gay communities in Greenwich Village and New Orleans, and how profoundly this part of his life influenced his “apocryphal” creation of Yoknapatawpha County.
by Carl Van Vechten
William Faulkner by Cicero Odiorne
William Faulkner by Cicero Odiorne
Gay Faulkner: Uncovering a Homosexual Presence in Yoknapatawpha and Beyond by Phillip Gordon explores the intimate friendships Faulkner maintained with gay men, among them Ben Wasson, William Spratling, and Hubert Creekmore, and places his fiction into established canons of LGBTQ literature, including World War I literature and representations of homosexuality from the Cold War.
As Louis Cochran, a friend of Faulkner’s from this period and a fellow student at Ole Miss, noted of Faulkner in an interview with Joseph Blotner: many on the Ole Miss campus “thought him queer”. By 1920, queer meant gay. The students on campus were calling Faulkner a homosexual.
William Faulkner met Stark Young through Phil Stone sometime in 1914 when Young returned to Oxford for a visit. In 1914, Young was teaching in Texas, though he would soon move on to Amherst College and, by 1921, would be living in New York in Greenwich Village. According to Parini, Young “was as openly homosexual as one could be in those days,” and his “urbane manner [ … ] attracted Faulkner, who found the bluff, swaggering models for male behavior on display around him rather stifling”. Young left Oxford rarely to return after he graduated from the University of Mississippi. When Young was home, though, he would spend time with Stone and Faulkner. Seeing his friend wasting away in Oxford, Stark Young inserted himself into Faulkner’s life in the fall of 1921. Faulkner accepted his intervention. Worried that Faulkner was “bruised and wasted” in his provincial hometown, Young “suggested that he come to New York and sleep on my sofa till Miss Prall, a friend of mine, could find him a place there and he could find a room”. Elizabeth Prall managed a bookstore in New York where Young found a job for Faulkner. This same Elizabeth Prall later married Sherwood Anderson and moved to New Orleans, where she would be instrumental in Faulkner’s migration to the Vieux Carre in the mid-1920s. Faulkner accepted Young’s offer and traveled north, though he spent the majority of October in New Haven with friends whom he had met while living there with Stone in 1918. Faulkner would not return to New York until November to rendezvous with Young. Young would be the first of two known homosexual roommates of Faulkner’s in the 1920s: Young in Greenwich Village, William Spratling in the French Quarter in New Orleans. Faulkner did eventually move to the Village, finding an apartment at 35 Vandam Street.
In the mid-1930s, William Faulkner went to Hollywood. He was joined by Ben Wasson. While there, he met and befriended Clark Gable, whose sexuality included an attraction to women but also included a closeted appetite for men.As late as 1942 Faulkner and Hawkes continued to hunt together with Gable often joining them as a companion and a drinking buddy. Hawkes’s wife would recall a 1942 incident after one such hunting expedition when “Faulkner and Gable shared a bottle of bourbon—very jolly and then very sleepy”. In his biography of Gable, David Bret describes his sexual maneuvering and labels him bisexual because Gable had as many affairs with women as with men and even married more than one woman. Growing up, Gable inherited from his father a disdain for effeminate homosexuality, but nonetheless he willingly engaged in numerous homosexual affairs throughout his life, from his earliest years in small community theaters to the height of his career as a major movie star. Gable represents what Bret calls the “lavender ladder,” or a well-established sexual trade in Hollywood in which a man such as Gable, trying to advance his career in the business, would trade sex for money or for better theatrical roles. Moreover, despite Gable’s disgust with effeminate homosexuality, Bret offers numerous stories that lead him to the conclusion that Gable preferred the passive role in his homosexual relationships. Bret quotes from several of Gable’s former male sexual partners to establish that Gable was a “bottom,” a role often associated with the effeminate partner in a homosexual relationship and, generally, with effeminacy. Gable did not engage only in homosex. He married women, but he was openly promiscuous even when he was married and many of his relationships were with women attempting a “lavender marriage” (or at least lavender date) to cover their own preference for women.
William Faulkner met Christopher Isherwood at least twice. In 1955, he, Jean Stein, Isherwood, and Gore Vidal saw Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. After the play Vidal and Isherwood engaged in a “desultory conversation [that] convinced Jean that the day of the literary salon was over,” but Faulkner remained distinctly aloof from this conversation and hardly spoke to the others about the play. Later, no longer in company with Isherwood and Vidal, Faulkner admitted to Stein that he did not care for the play. Faulkner first met Isherwood in Hollywood at a party in 1945. Isherwood would recall that, despite being warned not to talk about literature with the reticent Faulkner, he and Faulkner had a pleasant conversation “about Auden and Spender, about their work, with a distant politeness in what sounded like a very British accent”. Isherwood’s recalling a conversation with Faulkner about W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender, gay poets and friends of Isherwood, implies that Faulkner had also read them, which implies that he was generally well read in the works of contemporary writers, including homosexual ones.
Christopher Isherwood recalled a longer guest list from the night in 1955 when he, William Faulkner, and Gore Vidal went to see Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He included Carson McCullers and Marguerite Lamkin as well. Lamkin was an employee of the director Elia Kazan, whom Kazan “had hired to coach his actors in simulating Southern accents”. Perhaps her southern background led to Faulkner’s interest in her, though Lamkin ultimately makes only minimal appearance in the biographical record. No evidence suggests that they engaged in an affair, but Shelby Foote claimed that Lamkin was responsible for introducing Faulkner to Jean Stein, whose friendship would prove significant in Faulkner’s life thanks in large part to Stein’s interview of him for the Paris Review in 1956. Stein journeyed to Mississippi in late 1955 along with Lamkin, who was working with Kazan on his film Baby Doll. Faulkner introduced both to Ben Wasson and another famous Greenville native, Hodding Carter. Stein would recall how highly she regarded Carter. Conversely, she explained of Wasson that he “seemed very effeminate, homosexual, old when she saw him.” Faulkner did not share her disregard for his old friend; nor, for that matter, would Lamkin have shared Stein’s opinions either. According to Foote, Lamkin had a reputation for being part of a gay social milieu: “Her brother, Speed Lamkin, the writer, was apparently King of the perverts. Apparently she was the Queen.” Foote’s wife “admired Lamkin extravagantly.” Foote himself “seemed to think she was disgusting.” Foote’s disgust clearly emanated from his opinion of her sexual taste, an opinion he extended to Lamkin’s brother.
Approximately six months after seeing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams in 1955, which would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama in the same year in which Faulkner won for A Fable, William Faulkner and Williams met at a party hosted by Jean Stein. Williams attended with “a young friend of his from Italy”. Monique Lange, who was present at the party, told plainly that “Tennessee Williams and his Italian boyfriend were there.” Later, when Lange decided to leave the party, “she asked [Faulkner] if he minded if she went with the others to another party”. The “others” were Williams and his boyfriend. Faulkner apparently “laughed” at her for asking his permission to leave and dismissed her, saying, “Go with your queers”.
Albert Marre recounted arranging a meeting between William Faulkner and Thornton Wilder at Wilder’s apartment and at Wilder’s request. When Marre approached Faulkner about the meeting, Faulkner established the tone that the meeting would eventually take by asking Marre, when he named Thornton Wilder, “Who’s that?”. Marre understood the insult and called Faulkner’s bluff. When the two writers met, Faulkner continued his insolent performance. The “disastrous interview” consisted of Faulkner’s putting on his “super Southern country boy routine” and sitting at some distance and at an angle from the partially deaf Wilder. Faulkner’s spatial manipulation forced Wilder to lean in and cup his hand over his ear to hear Faulkner, who intentionally spoke in a low voice in response to Wilder’s questions. When Wilder tried to explain what he thought was the meaning of the title Light in August, Faulkner rudely rejected his interpretation. Marre explained that he “saw Wilder flush. He rose and departed,” clearly upset that his praise of Faulkner elicited such a boorish response. Marre’s anger at Faulkner only increased when Wilder wrote Marre a few days after the incident to ask, “Why did he hate me?”.
In 1950, after a party at the home of Leo Lerman, Ruth Ford, Truman Capote, and William Faulkner shared a cab to her apartment to have a drink. In a familiar role, Faulkner sat silently while Capote carried on his endless chattering, but when Capote turned the conversation to Ernest Hemingway’s Across the River and into the Trees to lampoon it, Faulkner suddenly spoke up. “Young man,” Faulkner patronized, “I haven’t read this new one. And though it may not be the best thing Hemingway ever wrote, I know it will be carefully done, and it will have quality”. For a few moments there was silence in the taxi. It was an impressive silence, to be sure, given Capote’s reputation for loquaciousness. Capote would later claim that he had no recollection of this incident. The two men would not meet again and certainly never struck up any friendship.
Evidence suggests that William Faulkner read other contemporary writers in addition to Truman Capote, including Calder Willingham and Charles Jackson, met other gay figures, such as Thomas Hal Phillips and Charles Henri-Ford, and possibly even helped start the career of Hubert Creekmore from the nearby town of Water Valley, about twenty miles south of Faulkner’s Oxford. Faulkner owned a signed first edition of Calder Willingham’s novel End as a Man (1947). Though this novel is not exclusively a gay novel—rather, it details a variety of “perverse” sexual practices at a military academy in the Deep South—it is often listed alongside gay novels in bibliographic studies of the genre. Also, Willingham was not a homosexual, at least not openly so.
In 1948 Faulkner published a new book, Intruder in the Dust. His publishers were so pleased that they asked him to come to New York to celebrate its publication. Though in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Faulkner regularly visited New York, in 1948 he had not been to New York in ten years. Bennett Cerf not only invited Faulkner to New York to celebrate Intruder, but he also went so far as to extend an invitation to Faulkner to stay at his home while he was in town. Faulkner accepted the invitation to New York, but he declined the invitation to stay with the Cerfs. Instead, he wrote to request that Cerf book him a room at the Algonquin Hotel. Cerf complied with Faulkner’s wishes and made the arrangements. Faulkner then wrote to Cerf that he had tentative plans to meet “a Mississippi friend, an actress, Ruth Ford” when he arrived. Faulkner arrived in New York in late October. On Saturday, 23 October, Cowley noted that he had joined Faulkner for dinner on the previous “Tuesday [19 October] evening at the Park avenue apartment of Robert Haas”. On the evening of 23 October, Cowley was called to New York to retrieve Faulkner from the Algonquin. On 26 October, three days after his arrival at the Cowleys’ home, Faulkner returned to New York. According to Malcolm Cowley, Faulkner took with him Cowley’s copy of The Lost Weekend, by Charles Jackson. In interviews with Ruth Ford, it was possible to reconstruct what happened on Saturday, 23 October, that led to Faulkner’s arrival at Cowley’s house. After dinner on Tuesday night at Haas’s apartment, Faulkner began drinking alone in his room at the Algonquin. Ford called on him the next day to invite him out, but, as Blotner explains, “When he declined she thought his voice sounded strange. She called him the next day, and again he wouldn’t go out, and his voice sounded even stranger. There was no answer at all when the operator rang his room on Friday”. Recognizing that something was wrong, Ford went to check on Faulkner with the help of her friend Harvey Breit. She found Faulkner in his room, semiconscious from his extreme drinking, and called an ambulance. Given Faulkner’s condition and his desire to avoid a hospital stay, Ford devised a plan: send Faulkner to the Cowleys’ home in Sherman where he could recuperate for a few days and dry out under the watchful eye of Malcolm and Muriel Cowley.
Ruth Ford’s connection to Faulkner did not begin in October 1948, though her actions during Faulkner’s lost weekend lionized her presence in his life. Ford entered Faulkner’s life much earlier, as a coed at the University of Mississippi in 1929–1930. A native of Hazlehurst, Mississippi, Ford attended Ole Miss at approximately the same time as Faulkner’s brother, Dean. Estelle claimed that Dean and Ford dated and that Dean, a talented painter, had Estelle and Ford sit for him. Victoria (Cho-Cho), barely a teenager at the time, disputed that any relationship existed between Dean and Ford, but Estelle would tell in 1963 that this relationship, though it “never became truly serious apparently,” is why Faulkner not only wrote Requiem for a Nun for Ford, but also why he gave her the stage rights with very little requirement on her part for payments to option it until it finally appeared ten years after his initial offer. Ford told that Dean introduced her to his brother, a struggling writer at the time. Barbara Izard, whose work on the history of the production of Requiem also serves as a biography of Ford, recounts, however, that Faulkner introduced himself to Ford, roughly around the time he was composing As I Lay Dying. According to Izard, Faulkner approached Ford in the local Oxford landmark, the Tea Hound, to tell her “‘You have a very fine face,’ Then without further comment, he turned and went back to his table”. In 1948 Ford was living in New York and working in Broadway productions but traveling often to Boston to work for the Brattle Theater Company, where, in the early 1950s, she would first attempt to stage Requiem with the help of her brother’s lover as the set designer. The novel was published in 1951. On 15 September 1951, the New York Times announced that Faulkner was working with producer Lemuel Ayers on a stage version of the play to feature Ruth Ford, whom, according to the columnist, Faulkner “had in mind for his leading feminine character.” Unfortunately, the production was profoundly delayed. Albert Marre, who was supposed to direct the production in 1951, would cite trouble between Ford’s vision and the Brattle’s interests as the source of the problem. Ford insisted that her brother’s partner, Pavel Tchelitchew, be the set designer. According to Marre, in the spring of 1952 Tchelitchew, Ford’s brother Charles Henri-Ford, and Ford had a falling out over their creative differences, which led to the death of this first attempt at producing a stage version of the play. Concerning all this theater drama, Marre claimed that “William Faulkner didn’t concern himself” with Ford’s decision to turn over set design to her brother’s homosexual partner. The creative differences, however, were between the management of the Brattle Theater Company and the Fords (including Charles’s life partner Pavel), not between Ford and Tchelitchew. Indeed, Faulkner had surely met both Tchelitchew and Charles Henri-Ford during his frequent trips to New York from 1948 to 1952, most likely at the famed social gatherings hosted by the couple in their apartment. Izard charts the history of the weekly salons hosted in Henri-Ford’s apartment in the New York landmark, the Dakota, where Ruth Ford would also live until her death in 2009. Though these salons originally started as low-key gatherings of friends, they eventually “included Salvador Dali, Carl Van Vechten, William Carlos Williams, John Huston, and Virgil Thomson”. Modeled after the weekly salons that Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas hosted in Paris, which Henri-Ford had attended in the early 1930s, these salons became legendary, so much so that in her memoir Just Kids Patti Smith would lament that by the time she attended the salon in the 1970s, it had lost the luster that made her so excited to attend in the first place. Faulkner had the luxury of attending the salon in its prime. There he would have met Henri-Ford, the young pioneer of surrealism whose first novel, written with his homosexual friend Parker Tyler, stands as one of the original novels of the gay genre in American literature, The Young and the Evil (1933). The reputation of that novel would precede it, having been praised by no less than Djuna Barnes and Gertrude Stein.
A gay-themed novel was published in 1948, however, by an author from Water Valley, Mississippi, a gay author whom William Faulkner not only knew but had once even endorsed to his then-publisher Harrison Smith. In 1948 Hubert Creekmore published The Welcome. Creekmore attempted to move to New York in 1930 but returned to Mississippi in the early 1930s. His attempt to move to New York was motivated by a manuscript for a novel he wrote in the years after his graduation. It appears he showed this manuscript to William Faulkner and his old friend Phil Stone because of deep connections between Stone, Faulkner, and the Creekmore family from even earlier, in the first years after Faulkner returned from the war. The late 1920s and early 1930s found Creekmore in Oxford working on a novel he would title The Elephant’s Trunk. Faulkner read The Elephant’s Trunk—in fact, he seems to have offered to recommend it to his own publisher. Proof that Faulkner read Creekmore’s first novel comes from a letter that Creekmore wrote to Phil Stone, and the background that led to that letter might well answer both questions, at least as far as speculation allows for making reasoned inferences.
In 1950, shortly after being awarded the Howells Medal in American Literature, William Faulkner received as visitors Thomas Hal Phillips and Ernest E. Leisy, faculty members at Southern Methodist University, in Dallas, Texas. Phillips wrote about the visit for the Dallas Morning News. A native of Mississippi himself, Phillips described a view of Faulkner completely in line with his public persona as a shy, reclusive farmer living a simple life in the Mississippi hill country. Phillips’s only subjective appraisal of the great man in what is otherwise a narrative of his visit depicts Faulkner as free from the confines of being “tamed into a drawing room lion: He remains an individual, a great one I think, a lover of the Deep South who has seen more clearly than anyone else the South’s virtues as well as its social disintegrations and decay.” Significantly, these themes also inform Phillips’s own novels, primarily The Bitterweed Path, which was published almost simultaneously with his visit to Rowan Oak. In fact, a review of Phillips’s novel was scheduled to appear in the Dallas Morning News the week after his Faulkner essay, according to the editor’s note that appeared with Phillips’s story. The Bitterweed Path takes the implicitly homoerotic material Faulkner explored in Absalom, Absalom! between the generations of male Sutpens and makes it the focus of an explicitly homosexual narrative.
In 1926 Pelican Bookshop Press, New Orleans, published "William Spratling and William Faulkner, Sherwood Anderson and Other Famous Creoles: A Gallery of Contemporary New Orleans", issued in 250 copies. The “Famous Creoles” (with ages in 1926) were
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