Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Faulkner and Love

Faulkner and Love: The Women Who Shaped His Art

Judith L. Sensibar
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 608
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1npw2c
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Faulkner and Love
    Book Description:

    This book is about the making of the writer William Faulkner. It is the first to inquire into the three most important women in his life-his black and white mothers, Caroline Barr and Maud Falkner, and the childhood friend who became his wife, Estelle Oldham. In this new exploration of Faulkner's creative process, Judith L. Sensibar discovers that these women's relationships with Faulkner were not simply close; they gave life to his imagination. Sensibar brings to the foreground-as Faulkner did-this "female world," an approach unprecedented in Faulkner biography.

    Through extensive research in untapped biographical sources-archival materials and interviews with these women's families and other members of the communities in which they lived-Sensibar transcends existing scholarship and reconnects Faulkner's biography to his work. She demonstrates how the themes of race, tormented love, and addiction that permeated his fiction had their origins in his three defining relationships with women. Sensibar alters and enriches our understanding not only of Faulkner, his art, and the complex world of the American South that came to life in his brilliant fiction but also of darknesses, fears, and unspokens that Faulkner unveiled in the American psyche.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14243-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-xi)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xii-xvii)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xviii-xxii)
  6. General Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    Unlike the novels of most of his high Modernist counterparts, Faulkner’s greatest works—The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August, Absalom, Absalom!, Go Down, Moses—are about families, generations of Mississippi families, and, perhaps most of all, they are about marriage, in its most inclusive sense. In current critical terms we would say that the politics of racialized desire are central to Faulkner’s imaginative vision. So, it is surprising that those politics in his life and family history remain untraced. We have little sense of the relation of Faulkner the Southerner, the son, lover, friend,...

  7. Part 1. William Faulkner and Caroline “Callie” Barr

    • INTRODUCTION TO PART 1
      (pp. 19-24)

      On the square, flat, unadorned, gray granite tombstone that marks Caroline Barr’s grave in the old “colored” section of St. Peter’s, Oxford’s main cemetery, William Faulkner had carved, “callie barr clark / 1840–1940.”

      He knew her given name but marked her with the familiar diminutive; he knew her death date but did not give it; if he knew her real birth date, he chose not to reveal it here. According to Barr’s relatives, he was wrong about her last name. I begin with her gravestone, ordinarily a source of vital factual information, in order to alert you to the...

    • 1 Caroline Barr in Black and White Voices Miss Callie, Aunt Callie, Aunt Carrie, Great-Great Grandma Callie, Mammy Callie
      (pp. 25-33)

      In 1897, one year afterPlessy v. Fergusonlegalized racial segregation and Jim Crowism was accepted as constitutional, William Faulkner was born in New Albany, Mississippi.¹ Caroline Barr began caring for the baby, known as Willie, either at his birth or in 1898, shortly after the Falkners moved from New Albany to Ripley, William’s great-grandfather’s hometown. Then sixty-five years old, which to Willie “seemed already older than God,” Caroline had grown to maturity and borne children as a slave and then had lived through Reconstruction and its failure (“Mississippi,” 16). Freed in 1865, she did not work again in the...

    • 2 Caroline Barr’s Origins A Speculative Reconstruction
      (pp. 34-55)

      Sometimes she’d say instead, ‘a blue-gum niggah’ or ‘Gullah niggah.’ I have a vague memory of someone who was kin to Mammy, someone I used to see with her. Her gums were purplish looking. She and Mammy had the same color skin—very dark, a dull black, not a shiny black. She had a relative called Aunt Blue-Gum or Aunt Tempe, who used to visit sometimes.” Concerning what Callie told her about her life as a slave, Jill remembers very little. “She’d talk about when she was a house-slave on a rice plantation in the low-country. I don’t remember her...

    • 3 Negotiating the “Mammy” Tradition: Callie Barr as “Second Mother”
      (pp. 56-65)

      In the late 1940s, the Southern writer and activist Lillian Smith wrote that a Southern white child’s education into race marks its violent passage from child to adult. Central to this education is the tissue of lies about what a black person is, lies that center necessarily on the person whom the child most loves, the black woman who has cared for him or her since before memory began. Smith states it succinctly: the most bitter lesson her white parents taught her was “that my old nurse . . . was not worthy of the passionate love I felt for...

    • 4 Callie Barr and Maud Falkner “Twin Sistered to the Fell Darkness”
      (pp. 66-88)

      White Southerners’ memorial tributes to their African American mammies, which appeared regularly in theConfederate Veteran, always stress their fidelity to (white) racial hierarchies and their total availability to their white employers.¹ “Mammy next to mother, was the children’s best friend.” She was “second only to their mother,” and “her faithful heart beat like an echo of ‘her white folks.’ She belonged to them and they to her.” But the narratives that follow confirm only the first part of that clause: “In her strong arms every white child was laid at birth. . . . On her breasts childish sorrows...

    • 5 Caroline Barr and Faulkner’s Poetics: Go Down, Moses
      (pp. 89-110)

      Loss is a major theme in all of Faulkner’s art. It is one of the most significant organizing tropes of his poetics, shaping the content, form, tone, and texture of his best writing. Loss as in “Things fall apart; the Center cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” is the trope of high literary Modernism to which his European and American critics link Faulkner.¹ Loss, as in “The South lost the Civil War,” was also, in Faulkner’s lifetime, a (white) Southern preoccupation. And although many Faulknerian characters are similarly preoccupied, that loss is not Faulkner’s subject. He...

    • 6 Family Secrets: “Mississippi”
      (pp. 111-126)

      Early in his childhood Faulkner transformed his forbidden and therefore unmourned love for Callie Barr into a core memory. Lodged in his unconscious it served as the “figure of transgression and hybridity at the center” of the writer’s imaginative life. His fiction claims the world she opened to him as central to his creativity. Consistently he adopts “blackness” as an artistic persona—from “Faulkner,” the “crazy,” “little kind of black man” who “said he was a liar by profession” inMosquitoes, to the rebel and mythmaker Rider, inGo Down, Moses(MOS, 144–45). His poetics of racialized loss, deeply...

  8. Part 2. Faulkner’s Mother, Maud Butler Falkner

    • INTRODUCTION TO PART 2
      (pp. 129-137)

      These next chapters foreground Faulkner’s relationship with his mother, Maud. My division of Parts 1 and 2 of this narrative, between Callie Barr and Maud Butler Falkner, is to some extent arbitrary. They are “joined,” as Yoknapatawpha’s poetess laureate says, “like a fierce rigid umbilical cord, twin sistered to the fell darkness that produced” them (AA, 112). By this, Rosa Coldfield means that she, Clytie, and Judith are haunted by the central paradox of their common history: the intensely charged physical intimacy of the vestiges of what was once a slave economy together with the racism that is slavery’s legacy....

    • 7 Maud’s Mysterious Ancestry Wild Butlers and Wandering Swifts
      (pp. 139-159)

      Faulkner’s fiction teems with wandering women. In his first novel,Soldiers’ Pay, Margaret Powers, a woman who marries men but loves women, rides the rails from North to South. In the final frame of her, she’s on a train again, this time heading West—willfully homeless, without destination, still fiercely desirous, still unattached. Lena Grove, inLight in August, is Faulkner’s most famous wandering woman. Unmarried but pregnant, she sets off from Tennessee, supposedly in search of her child’s father. But at the novel’s conclusion, like Margaret, she, too, is still happily on the road, now with babe in arms....

    • 8 Willie Falkner’s Childhood World, 1896–1907 Oxford, New Albany, Ripley, Oxford
      (pp. 161-185)

      Most children reflect on and react to the intellectual, emotional, and psychological climates into which they are born and raised. Their subjectivity, their identities, are influenced by them. Faulkner was no exception. This chapter re-creates the volatile emotional and psychological currents flowing in the bitterly racialized political, domestic, and social worlds into which he was born and in which he lived, worlds further complicated by a family history of three generations of alcoholism. In doing this, it outlines the shifting dynamics in Faulkner’s white family between 1896 and 1907. It begins with the players in his parents’ household, during the...

    • 9 From Honor Roll to Truancy, 1907–1914 Finding Himself in the Butler-Falkner Legacy
      (pp. 186-196)

      Not surprisingly, Willie did exceedingly well in first grade and consequently skipped to third grade at age nine. Until 1908, when he entered fifth grade, he consistently made the honor roll. First grade was marked byThe Clansman, third grade by the family’s loss of both grandmothers and the upheaval that followed. After Lelia’s death in June, Maud, now thirty-five and seven months pregnant with her fourth child, moved the family into her father-in-law’s house, where they lived for the next three months while their own house was being fumigated and repainted. Dean, named for Maud’s mother, was probably born...

    • 10 Choosing Roles and Role Models Faulkner’s Delinquent Fathers
      (pp. 197-204)

      In about 1912, at the age of fifteen, Billie Falkner quit school, started drinking, and committed himself to becoming a poet and visual artist. Simultaneously, he began some serious role-playing. As we have seen, his initial poses seem to have sprung from his attachment to two very different people, his grandfather and Estelle Oldham. Until December 1924, he dedicated himself to his poetry and drawing. Then suddenly, within a matter of weeks, he switched from poetry to prose fiction, where he found his genius and his voice. What was the relation of his role-playing, which at times verged on imposture,...

    • 11 Learning to Speak with His Eyes Lelia, Maud, and the Origins of Faulkner’s Visual Aesthetic
      (pp. 205-220)

      By declaring himself an artist, Faulkner crossed a cultural divide into feminine pursuits.¹ As he wrote his editor Malcolm Cowley in 1946, “oratory” was the South’s “first Art. . . . Apart from that, ‘art’ was really no manly business. It was the polite painting of china by gentlewomen.”² A Southern gentleman knew better than to be an artist. “Theforteof the Old Dominion,” wrote a pre–Civil War news editor, “is to be found in the masculine production of her statesmen . . . who have never indulged in works of imagination.”³ Moreover, for all white Southern writers,...

    • 12 Reading Faulkner’s “Mothers” The Maternal Imaginary in Absalom, Absalom!
      (pp. 221-234)

      To many people of Oxford, Faulkner’s costumes and behavior made him a joke, but when he was in his teens and early twenties, he felt them a necessity. To give himself space to pursue his art, he assumed a variety of poses. It is no accident, then, that Rosa Coldfield, a mediocre poet like her creator, appears to the twenty-year-old Quentin Compson and his father as a joke as well. Quentin’s and other townspeople’s descriptions of Rosa frame her in ways that often diminish and caricature. The spinster grotesque they have made of her is an object of pity and...

  9. Parts 3, 4, and 5. William Faulkner and Estelle Oldham

    • INTRODUCTION TO PARTS 3, 4, AND 5 William Faulkner and Estelle Oldham
      (pp. 237-246)

      You may not be a poetess but you’re a darn good literary critic,” said the fourteen-year-old Billy Falkner to Estelle Oldham when she caught him trying to palm off verses from “The Song of Solomon” as his own.¹ John Faulkner, whose memoir is not sympathetic to Estelle, still claims her continuous intellectual and emotional connection to his brother as primary: it was she who set free his voice. Yet, almost no one writing about Faulkner has suggested that their lifelong relationship was crucial to Faulkner’s creativity.²

      Like Callie Barr and Maud’s, Estelle and William’s intertwined lives pose hard biographical problems....

    • Part 3. Estelle and Billy, 1903–1914: The Early Years

      • 13 Estelle Oldham’s Mississippi Frontier Family
        (pp. 249-263)

        On or shortly after 20 June 1929, in a painful letter to her parents, Estelle announced her marriage to Bill Faulkner, the man she claimed to have loved since she was sixteen.¹

        My Darling Mama and Daddy—

        I wish with all my heart thatthisleaving-taking, for you, had been as joyous a one as the other—but circumstance reversed the order—It was I who left home, not with a ghastly fear and abhorrence as before, but with happiness, tinged all about (it is true) with sorrow, but a happiness with the conviction that I’d done at last what...

      • 14 Kosciusko Childhood, Southern Belledom, and Estelle’s Fictional Memoir, 1897–1903
        (pp. 264-288)

        When Faulkner wrote this sly, private joke impugning his wife’s legitimacy, both of his in-laws were dead, and he was no longer supporting their insolvency. Contrary to this fictional rendition, Lem and Lida Oldham’s daughter was conceived with all the propriety her parents so esteemed. She was also the first of the Oldhams’ four children and the only one born during their ill-fated attempt to resettle in East Texas. Her name and birth date, recorded in the Oldham-Doty family Bible in her father’s flowery hand, are given as “Lida Estelle Oldham / Bonham, Fannin County Texas / 19 February 1897,...

      • 15 Billy Falkner and Estelle Oldham, Oxford, 1903–1914
        (pp. 289-306)

        Estelle’s iconic love-at-first-sight account to a Richmond reporter, which she repeated a month later for her dead husband’s authorized biographer, Joseph Blotner, provides the romance narrative that appears in all biographies to date.¹ The fateful viewing takes place sometime in winter 1904, shortly after the Oldhams moved to Oxford. In it the seven-year-old girl stands beside a parlor window, where, to keep her still while she cuts her straight dark hair, her nursemaid, Magnolia (Nolia) Cottrell has told her to watch the passing street scene. It is early winter but still warm enough for the Falkner boys to be out...

    • Part 4. First Loves, First “Marriages,” 1914–1926

      • 16 Shifting Alliances, 1914–1918 From Estelle to Phil
        (pp. 309-322)

        Katrina Carter, who was two years younger than Phil and two years older than Bill and Estelle, had, along with Maud and Estelle, been one of the earliest readers of Faulkner’s poetry. That summer, when Phil Stone returned from his senior year at Yale, she had shown some of Billy’s poems to him. Seeing that Phil was bursting with ideas about art and aesthetics and deeply interested in current experiments in poetry and prose Katrina suggested that he “ought to know this little Falkner boy who writes; he’s always telling stories.”¹ As she may have suspected, Phil was eager to...

      • 17 The Oldham-Franklin Wedding, April 1918
        (pp. 323-335)

        The bride’s tears also fell at the Oldham-Franklin wedding, but Billy Falkner was not there to see them shed. For Cornell, his marriage that 18 April marked the climax of a sporadic four-year, long-distance courtship begun in June 1914, when the newly minted but empty-pocketed lawyer left Mississippi to seek his fortune in what was then called the Hawaiian Territory. Three years later, when Cornell officially proposed, his success appeared assured. On 1 June 1917, he had resigned from the Honolulu law firm in which he had practiced since his arrival in the summer of 1914 to accept a political...

      • 18 Marriage in the “Crossroads of the Pacific,” June–September 1918
        (pp. 336-347)

        Estelle left no account of the first three years of her marriage and her life in Hawaii other than her statements to her daughter, Jill, and her granddaughter, Victoria Johnson, saying that she had loved living there. There are no surviving letters from friends or family and no record of contact with Bill Faulkner while there. (Recall that like Estelle, he, too, had changed his name the summer of 1918—when he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force.) What follows is therefore a speculative reconstruction based on Cornell Franklin’s business correspondence, official documents, archival sources like newspapers (especially the...

      • 19 An Army Wife, Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, September 1918–May 1919
        (pp. 348-358)

        In late September 1918 the “Schofield Society” column in theAdvertisernoted that “Lieutenant and Mrs. Cornelius [sic] Franklin have moved into one of the new bungalows recently completed between the 2nd Hawaiian Infantry and the 4th Cavalry Cantonment” at Schofield Barracks. This 29 September notice marks the paper’s first mention of the Franklins as a couple since their June arrival. Five months after her wedding and more than four into her first pregnancy, Estelle finally began a married life something like what she had anticipated.

        Mamie Hairston, acting as Cornell’s mother and father, had taught her only child self-discipline,...

      • 20 Stolen Interludes, 1919 and 1921 Estelle and Bill, A Continuing Dialogue
        (pp. 359-386)

        The years 1919 to 1921 mark the most innovative period of Faulkner’s long self-apprenticeship to poetry. His bursts of creativity coincide with Estelle’s two extended visits home during the first three years of her marriage to Cornell. Their renewed contact and ensuing dialogue—actual and literary—were crucial to Faulkner’s becoming a novelist.

        The exchange above between Lorelei Lee and Mr. Esmond about smart women is relevant to Faulkner and Estelle. Although Lorelei is speaking about her own problems with men, Estelle was dogged by similar problems in both her marriages. Her unwillingness to play dumb enough was partly the...

      • 21 The Marketing of Estelle and Her Rebellion Honolulu, 1919–1921
        (pp. 387-404)

        In the twenty-first century, the concept of men in modern Western societies exchanging women to strengthen their social bonds, maintain the status quo, and stimulate their capital is no longer new. Like the slave economies that preceded them, plantation-based economies, into which Estelle, Cornell, and Faulkner were born, were extremes of this model. With rare exceptions, their political, social, and economic structures were run by and for white men. The Oldham-Franklin marriage is a case in point. By 1921 in Oxford, Mississippi, their union had produced precisely this effect, for it stimulated other “exchanges” among groups of men. These began...

    • Part 5. The Emergence of a Mature Novelist: Faulkner and Estelle’s Collaboration, 1924–1933

      • 22 Estelle’s Shanghai Sojourn, 1922–1924 From Franklin to Oldham
        (pp. 407-423)

        Although Cornell may have missed his wife and daughter, in many ways it was easier for him to lead the life he loved without them. In the 1940s, explaining his decision to move from Honolulu to Shanghai, he described that bachelor summer of 1921 to a news reporter. He was due a paid holiday for having served as a territorial judge since April 1919 and had always wanted to visit the Far East. So, rather than return to Mississippi, he sailed for Japan and from there to China. On shipboard he met another polo-playing lawyer who invited him to play...

      • 23 Collaborating with Estelle, Oxford, 1924–1925 “Star Spangled Banner Stuff,” Her Shanghai “Romance”
        (pp. 424-440)

        Estelle’s original manuscript of “Star Spangled Banner Stuff ” is missing. The earliest of its three extant typescripts, however, provides evidence of Faulkner’s and Estelle’s collaboration. The latest, an unmarked original and its revised carbon copy, typed for Estelle by Jill in 1964, is marked with Estelle’s additional revisions.¹ These further emphasize her flapper’s lack of any real agency and her own critique of Shanghai’s colonial culture. They also provide continuing evidence of her still very active intellect, but because she made these revisions in the 1960s, they are not part of this story.

        “SSS” #1, a sixty-three-page typescript dating...

      • 24 Faulkner’s Other Collaboration, New Orleans, 1924 and 1925
        (pp. 441-455)

        Between November 1924 and May 1925, when Faulkner finishedSoldiers’ Pay, Sherwood and Elizabeth Anderson and Estelle were instrumental in providing him with the actual and imaginative environment he needed to begin to transform himself from poet to novelist. The prior chapters narrate Estelle’s and Faulkner’s relationship up to her unexpected return from Shanghai in early December 1924 and Faulkner’s initial reading of the fiction she had written during their three-year separation. As they are temporally and psychologically intertwined, I turn now to Faulkner and Anderson’s concurrent brief friendship, literary dialogue, and collaboration. It’s a well-known story that fits snugly...

      • 25 The Sound and the Fury and Its Aftermath, 1925–1933 Faulkner and Estelle
        (pp. 456-480)

        In the early spring of 1928, Faulkner entered the most creative and productive period of his life. Within the next four years, publishing a novel a year, he would write four of the twentieth century’s most remarkable works of fiction:The Sound and the Fury, Sanctuary(the first and final versions),As I Lay Dying, andLight in August.¹ In between and while working on these novels, he also wrote at least twenty-seven short stories. These two final chapters draw together Estelle, Callie Barr, and Maud Falkner and bring to a climax the story of Estelle and Faulkner’s literary collaboration,...

      • 26 Faulkner’s Suppressed Tributes to Estelle, 1933–1935
        (pp. 481-500)

        This time Estelle carried their child to term. Jill was born on 24 June 1933. Her father was immensely happy and gratified. These feelings would be the immediate impetus in what for him was an extraordinarily self-revealing piece of work, his introduction toThe Sound and the Fury.¹ Within three days of Jill’s birth he wrote Ben Wasson, “Well, bud, we’ve got us a gal baby named Jill. Born Saturday and both well” (SL, 71). He was ready “to start right away” on the introduction for a commissioned special edition ofThe Sound and the Furyin which he would...

  10. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. 501-503)
  11. Notes
    (pp. 504-568)
  12. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 569-580)
  13. Index
    (pp. 581-594)