Friday, September 17, 2010

Crossing Paths: Margaret Mitchell and William Faulkner (part 2)

Yesterday we examined some letters and a review that gave us an idea of what Margaret Mitchell must have thought of William Faulkner's writing. As promised, today we're back with William Faulkner's side of the story.

William Faulkner and Margaret Mitchell
William Faulkner about Margaret Mitchell

I will preface this by saying that, although some articles (like the one encompassing Mitchell's review from yesterday) suggest that Faulkner was jealous of Gone with the Wind's success, I've found no direct evidence to that. It wouldn't be surprising, though. One can't know for sure whether Faulkner resented the quasi-total obscurity of his own name, in light of the popular recognition and prizes Gone with the Wind scored (see the 1937 Pulitzer, thought it must be said that more highbrow awards tended to ignore Mitchell). What is certain though is that he wanted at least one aspect that came with this success: the money. He had always had a hard time making ends meet and still finding enough time to write. And as you can read below, the phenomenon that was Gone with the Wind gave him hope that he could make more money with his novels as well.

Did William Faulkner read Gone with the Wind? The answer is most probably no. At least he claimed he hadn’t in an interview for the Memphis Commercial Appeal dating from November 18, 1937. According to the article in question: “His reason for not having read Gone with the Wind is that it is 'entirely too long for any story.' Nor has he read Anthony Adverse [another highly-popular historical novel made into a movie in 1936] for the same reason: That no story takes 1000 pages to tell."  We must of course take into account the fact that Faulkner famously disliked giving interviews and his answers were often short and/or flippant, and moreover that, in this particular case, we get to see the reporter's account and not his entire answer.  But the derogatory note still remains.

Gone with the Wind the movie is an entirely different story. Its connections to Faulkner are easy to trace. There is no clear indication of whether he had seen the movie or not. Blotner, one of his biographers, goes as far as to suggest that Gone with the Wind - that had played in Oxford, Mississippi, the writer's hometown, as it did all over America - might have inspired the title of one of Faulkner's books, Go Down, Moses, a collection of short stories published in 1942. [As you well know, the song Go Down, Moses appears both in Gone with the Wind the book and in the soundtrack of the movie.]

It would be a funny crossing of paths, especially if one is aware of another little coincidence regarding titles. Both Margaret Mitchell and William Faulkner had considered the Macbeth quote "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" as title for their books, Gone with the Wind and The Sound and the Fury. But however entertaining this drawing of parallels is, I personally don't think Faulkner watched Gone with the Wind. The reality is that the only time he refers directly to a scene from the movie, he doesn't seem to know what he's talking about.

One incident that happened when Gone with the Wind played in Oxford had amused Faulkner and he used it more than once as an example of how Southern women had never really gotten over the war, had never really admitted defeat. What happened was that his aunt, Holland Falkner Wilkins (Auntee ), excited by the prospect of watching Gone with the Wind, had paid 75 cents to reserve a seat at the screening.  But as soon as Sherman's name appeared in the movie, she stalked out of the theater. Faulkner recounts this incident in the series of  conferences he held at the University of Virginia in 1957-58. He also seems to be under the impression that Sherman himself appeared as a character in Gone with the Wind:
"But it was the—the aunts, the women, that had never given up. I—my aunt, she liked to go to picture shows. They had Gone with the Wind in the theatre at home, and she went to see it, and as soon as Sherman came on the screen, she got up and left. She had paid good money to go there, but she wasn't going to sit and look at Sherman."
Listen to the record or read the transcript in its entirety here.
Faulkner had already used this little incident in a paragraph from the novel Requiem for a Nun, published in 1951. Brace yourselves for a fragment (!) from a very long sentence. Lovely prose and imagery to compensate for the length: 
"(...) only the aging unvanquished women were unreconciled, irreconcilable, reversed and irrevocably reverted against the whole moving unanimity of panorama until, old unordered vacant pilings above a tide's flood, they themselves had an illusion of motion, facing irreconcilably backward toward the old lost battles, the old aborted cause, the old four ruined years whose very physical scars ten and twenty and twenty-five changes of season had annealed back into the earth; twenty-five and then thirty-five years; not only a century and an age, but a way of thinking died; the town itself wrote the epilogue and epitaph: (...) the marble effigy - the stone infantryman on his stone pedestal (...); epilogue and epitaph, because apparently neither the U.D.C. ladies who instigated and bought the monument, nor the architect who designed it nor the masons who erected it, had noticed that the marble eyes under the shading marble palm stared not toward the north and the enemy, but toward the south, toward (if anything) his own rear - looking perhaps, the wits said (could say now, with the old war thirty-five years past and you could even joke about it - except the women, the ladies, the unsurrendered, the irreconcilable, who even after another thirty-five years would still get up and stalk out of picture houses showing Gone With the Wind), for reinforcements; or perhaps not a combat soldier at all, but a provost marshal's man looking for deserters, or perhaps himself for a safe place to run to: because that old war was dead;"
--excerpted from Requiem for a Nun by William Faulkner
[Compare to Mitchell's: 
"Throughout the South for fifty years there would be bitter-eyed women who looked backward, to dead times, to dead men, evoking memories that hurt and were futile, bearing poverty with bitter pride because they had those memories. But Scarlett was never to look back."
Gone with the Wind, Chapter XXV
"Many ex-Confederate soldiers, knowing the frantic fear of men who saw their families in want, were more tolerant of former comrades who had changed political colors in order that their families might eat. But not the women of the Old Guard, and the women were the implacable and inflexible power behind the social throne. The Lost Cause was stronger, dearer now in their hearts than it had ever been at the height of its glory. It was a fetish now. Everything about it was sacred, the graves of the men who had died for it, the battle fields, the torn flags, the crossed sabres in their halls, the fading letters from the front, the veterans. These women gave no aid, comfort or quarter to the late enemy, and now Scarlett was numbered among the enemy."
Gone with the Wind, Chapter XLIX]
So judging by the way he describes it, I doubt that Faulkner really watched the movie. He was interested in it for another reason, though. Faulkner had experience as a screenwriter in Hollywood, and he was not new to the scene of novels being translated into movies either. His own 1931 novel, Sanctuary had been adapted into the 1933 drama The Story of Temple Drake, the quality of which made Margaret Mitchell fearful of what Hollywood would do to her own book. Faulkner was less concerned, though, because what he desperately needed was money.

In September of 1936, when Absalom, Absalom ("the best novel yet written by an American," as the author described it) was close to being published, Faulkner had set to sell the movie rights to it for twice the amount David O. Selznick had paid for Gone with the Wind in July: $100,000. Later that month, he sent the galleys of the book and a note to  screenwriter and producer Nunnally Johnson. The price had dropped to $50,000: "Nunnally- These are the proofs of my new book. The price is $50,000. It's about miscegenation." But unlike Gone with the Wind, and unlike some of Faulkner's other novels, this was no heroic, romanticized view of the South. As a result, no one wanted to buy  Absalom, Absalom.

Two years later, however, Gone with the Wind's success did bring Faulkner some money. M-G-M, having lost the bidding war for Mitchell's book, looked into buying the rights for another Civil War novel that they could turn into their own Gone with the Wind, and found The Unvanquished, a novel published in February of 1938. It was fashioned from stories Faulkner had already published in The Saturday Evening Post and a little closer to Gone with the Wind than Absalom, Absalom. M-G-M bought the rights for $25,000 and intended to cast Clark Gable (!) in the leading part. The project never came to fruition. Here's Faulkner's account of it: 
"Yes, they—they bought the book. That is a funny story, too. A producer named David Selznick bought Gone with the Wind. M-G-M wanted to make it, and he—he wouldn't let M-G-M make it. He wanted to use Gable, who was under contract to M-G-M in it, and they—they wouldn't let him have Gable, and he wouldn't let them have Gone with the Wind. So they bought my book and told him that—that if he didn't let them make Gone with the Wind, they were going to make a Gone with the Wind of their own. They had no intention of making a moving picture out of my book. And so Selznick let them make the picture."
Listen to the record or read the transcript in its entirety here.
So there you have it. In some ways these writers been in the each other's shadow for a good part of their lives. For Mitchell, Faulkner's work was the highbrow critical acclaim she never got, while for Faulkner, Gone with the Wind, both movie and book, represented the popular success that came late in his life. These are all the ways I could find in which Margaret Mitchell and William Faulkner actually crossed paths.

Hope you've enjoyed this as much as I enjoyed digging for all these tidbits. I hope to update this post if I find more information (actually, what I am hoping is that I will find a secret correspondence between these two writers à la A.S Byatt's Possession, but it looks like that's not going to happen...).


  1. Really fascinating segment! Thank for sharing all this! :-)

  2. Just from reading GWTW and a very small part of Faulkner's work (b/c that's all I could stand) I assumed that MM and he could never possibly be great friends or admirers of one another.

    Your excerpt of his text is a prime example of his work, rambling, poorly constructed, and ego inflated. UGH! UGH! UGH!

  3. Thank you both for commenting.


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