Thursday, September 16, 2010

Crossing Paths: Margaret Mitchell and William Faulkner (part 1)

1936 was undoubtedly a good year for Southern literature. It marked the publishing of the most popular novel that came out of the South--Gone with the Wind, without the shadow of a doubt--and of one of the most, if not the most, critically acclaimed books of the whole Southern Renaissance, William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom. Nothing could be more different than the trajectories of these two books. Gone with the Wind, published in June, immediately became the public’s favorite, selling over a million copies by the end of the year (the millionth copy was printed on December 15), while Absalom, Absalom, published in October, was by comparison a minor success at best. Its first printing only amounted  to 6,000 copies. 

Through the years, Gone with the Wind’s popularity continued to grow with audiences all over the world, though literary critics would always remain less than unanimous in their appraisal of it. By contrast, Faulkner's books always enjoyed a good reputation with scholars, academics and Europe’s literary elite, but remained virtually unknown to the American public until the late 1940s. In 1946, some of his works, that had all been out of print, were made available to readers in the form of a Portable Faulkner, and the Nobel Prize he won in 1949 brought him to the public’s attention for good. 

Margaret Mitchell and William Faulkner
My goal today is not to compare the works of these two writers, though I don’t rule out the possibility of a post/posts with that topic in the future. (Have patience, your here blogger is quite the Faulkner fan.) Instead, what I put together for you is a selection of trivia, attempting to highlight the ways in which Margaret Mitchell and William Faulkner crossed paths in American culture. I was fascinated to find clues of what they might have thought of each other, and hope you'll enjoy reading this as well. 

Me being me, however, the material quickly spiraled out of control. So in order not to have one gigantic unreadable post, today we'll look into what Margaret Mitchell thought/wrote about William Faulkner and tomorrow you can return to read his side of the story. 

Margaret Mitchell about William Faulkner 

Margaret Mitchell would have had little reason to like William Faulkner. The men who praised Faulkner were the same critics that bashed Gone with the Wind, notably Malcolm Cowley, the man who would later oversee the publishing of the Portable Faulkner. She professed herself untouched by their scathing reviews and maintained that she didn't want "the aesthetes and radicals of literature" to like her book. The aesthetes in particular were of course Faulkner's main audience at the time.

Moreover, her letters to Herschel Brickell show her opposed to many of the tendencies in her time's literature, of which Faulkner was a prime example: "I've seen so much confused thinking, been so impatient with minds that couldn't start at the beginning of things and work them through logically through the end, etc., that when I sit down to read I don't want to read about muddled minds even if the muddled minds are muddling along in lovely prose." Whoever read a page of Faulkner might recognize him in this unwillingness to "start at the beginning of things and work through them logically through the end." (As well, as in the "lovely prose," Bugsie hastens to add!)

But despite all this, and despite some criticism directed at him and Caldwell, she seems to have kept in touch with Faulkner's writing over the years. One thing Faulkner might have had in his favor was that, though his portrayal of the South differed in many ways from that of Mitchell's, his work was not directly reflective of the leftism she so much despised. [Indeed, before the war, he had been criticized for not tackling more social issues in his books.]

Surprisingly enough, Margaret Mitchell's first reference to William Faulkner dates from a time when both of them were basically unknown to the public. In the spring of 1926, she was writing for the Atlanta Journal, while Faulkner had just made his debut as a novelist. His first book, Soldiers' Pay, had been published in February and Margaret Mitchell was  among the earliest to review it for the Sunday Magazine Supplement of the Journal. It's not verified whether she was in fact the very first reviewer of the novel, though, according to E. Bledsoe, that is a distinct possibility.

Mitchell's review, appearing on March 26, a month after the novel was published, praised Faulkner for striking "an entirely new note in post-war fiction." To me, two aspects of her commentary stood out. First, that she warns the readers against the "obvious crudities" in Soldiers' Pay, which ties in quite nicely with the way she would later distance herself from a perceived naturalistic note in contemporary literature, by pointing out that Gone with the Wind contained "precious little obscenity in it, no adultery and not a single degenerate." And the aspects she does praise are, quite interestingly, those that anticipate the focus in Faulkner's later novels and that might have appealed to Mitchell's artistic sensibility as well:
"The atmosphere of the small southern town where the duck-legged Confederate monument ornamented the courthouse square, the red dust of the road settled thick on the magnolia blossoms in the hot afternoon and the summer somnolence pervading everything except the hearts of the characters, is perhaps the best thing in the book."
From Peggy Mitchell's review of Soldiers's [sic] Pay

Margaret Mitchell seems to have maintained her interest in Faulkner's writing after Gone with the Wind was published. The first indication of this we get from a letter dated November 13, 1936, relatively soon after Absalom, Absalom appeared, and addressed to her friend, literary critic Herschel Brickell.
"Herschel, did you review William Faulkner's latest? I will not be able to read it as my reading for months will be so limited. If you can get a copy of your review without too much trouble, please send it to me. I would go to the library and read it but I have abandoned the library. I know all the librarians and most of the regular visitors and when I go there I get backed in a corner or asked to autograph or have to stand for hours talking so that I come home exhausted and ready to weep. I'd be more interested in your opinions than anyone else's so I'd like to see them."
--excerpted from Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind Letters edited by R. Harwell.
We don't have her thoughts on Absalom, Absalom, which would have been quite interesting to read. Also, there is no record of Margaret Mitchell and William Faulkner meeting in person or corresponding, though the following letter Mitchell sent him on May 17, 1949 may suggest that they were at least acquainted with each other:
"Dear Mr. Faulkner:
"When I was cleaning out my files recently, I came upon an old catalogue sent me by the Italian publisher of 'Gone With the Wind.' Going through it, I observed with interest that Arnoldo Mondadori was also your publisher. On the chance that you never saw this catalogue with the reproduction of the 'Sanctuary' jacket, I am sending it to you. I showed it to a friend who is a great admirer of your books—'Dear me—how explicit the Italians are!'"
--excerpted from Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind Letters edited by R. Harwell.
[Sanctuary is one of Faulkner's most controversial novels, quite crude in some of its details. An 'explicit' jacket of Sanctuary? My personal guess is that it would involve corncobs.]

There are no letters of admiration and praise, like those Margaret Mitchell sent to other writers of the time (see Stark Young), and all things considered, I sincerely doubt she was a fan of Faulkner's writing. But she was undoubtedly familiar with some of his work and it seems to me, not unfriendly towards him either.

Did Faulkner return the courtesy? How did he take Gone with the Wind's immense success outshadowing his own work? Stay tuned to find out!


  1. Fascinating!! Thanks for sharing this. I'd love to know what Faulkner thought, as I'm a great fan of both writers...

  2. Thanks, Jillian! Very glad you enjoyed it. Well, Faulkner was not all that nice towards GWTW, but c'est la vie.

  3. Yes, c'est la vie. Those writers are a passionate bunch, I hear. ;-)

  4. Not a single degenerate? I assume she means no gay characters. Well I don't know about that. Charles was a bit questionable and described several times as a sissy (I believe he was based on MM's fiance Clifford Henry - who died in WWI - who was known within their circle of friends to "bat for both teams".
    And why did Uncle Henry never marry?
    And, come on, Ashley is hardly the most masculine character. I think it would be so funny if in actual fact Ashley was dreaming of Rhett and not Scarlett!
    I believe that the conditions set by the Mitchell estate for any authorised sequels are that Scarlett must not die, no-one is revealed to be gay and no-one is revealed to have mixed race blood. Interesting set of restrictions...

  5. Oh, no, it's hard to say how she used it, but I don't think she meant "gay". I never thought of it like that. My assumption is that, if she meant it in a biological sense, then "degenerate" means "mentally retarded" or "idiot" in a clinical sense. It's common for naturalistic currents to use characters with this disability, and Faulkner himself wrote The Sound and the Fury where one part is told through the eyes of an idiot.

    If she meant it in a moral sense, there are plenty of characters engaging in "deviant" acts (which I can't vouch, but think that given her time frame, MM would have probably classified gay sex as), at least in Faulkner, but not gay sex as much. Incest primarily, but also rape (see Sanctuary and the infamous corncob), occasional stuff that you can classify as necrophilia (A Rose for Emily, arguably) and bestiality (Ike Snopes in The Hamlet that is in love with a cow, and also mentally retarded). Also, second to incest, interracial sex (which again, at the time, would have been taboo and apparently still is for the Mitchell estate). So there was plenty for her to condemn in these books, homosexuality was underrepresented, so I will assume "degenerate" is not "gay".

    LOL at Ashley dreaming of Rhett, not Scarlett. It's Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason meets GWTW! Perhaps the name Pansy was not simply a bad choice, but a hint to this secret plot for the intrepid researcher :P

  6. Yes, interesting original choice of name for our poor little Scarlett. Quite ironic that she is the least like a pansy in the whole novel.
    I just assumed it meant gay, as I think Tennessee Williams used it in that sense a number of times. In Streetcar, Blanche's first husband was termed a degenerate and I couldn't read it any other way.
    I have read nothing by Faulkner, save the extract from your post, and must be frank in saying that I wasn't able to even read the whole extract through. He certainly knows how to ramble on with bullshit. Is that really the content of his novels? Retards in love with cows and God knows what with a corncob? (I have no desire to know)
    Thank goodness there is no cow love in GWTW and only corn meal. Though I'd have to say the Wilkes' and Hamiltons come fairly close to incestuous. It was starting to show...
    Oh, and by the way, I have my suspicions about Wade too. You may not agree, but I don't think he was chasing girls when he grew up...

  7. Well, there is more to Faulkner, but yeah, that stuff is in his novels as well. I can see how his style could be tiring/impossible to follow, though I myself have little to no problem with rambling (some might even say I openly embrace it :), so I like him.

    You are right about the Wilkes' and Hamiltons, though cousin marriages were probably not that frowned upon at the time. I can't remember whether they were first cousins or not. But it definitely showed in the genes, as Beatrice Tarleton aptly remarked.

    As for gay Wade, you know I think I could see it, though I tend to see Wade more as one who would grow up to be Charles + some serious mommy issues. Beau is the one I would cast as the gay cousin.


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