In his life and writings, William Faulkner continually created and "performed" selves. Even in letters, he often played a part—gentleman dandy, soldier, farmer—while in his fictions these and other personae are counterpoised against one another to create a world of controlled chaos, made in Faulkner's own protean image and reflective of his own multiple sense of self.
In this groundbreaking book, James Watson draws on the entire Faulkner canon, including letters and photographs, to decipher the complicated ways in which Faulkner put himself forth as the artist he felt himself to be through written performances and displays based on the life he actually lived and the ones he imagined living. The topics Watson treats include the overtly performative aspects of The Sound and the Fury, self-presentation and performance in private records of Faulkner's life, the ways in which his complicated marriage and his relationships to male mentors underlie his fictions' recurring motifs of marriages and fatherhood, Faulkner's readings of Melville, Hawthorne, and Thoreau and the problematics of authorial sovereignty, his artist-as-God creation of a fictional cosmos, and the epistolary relationships with women that lie in the correspondence behind Requiem for a Nun.
This book evolved from my work with Faulkner's personal letters as well as his published writing and with relationships between the two that led to speculations on the question, How did he do that? I wanted to write about how he made the things he made and why he made them as he did. My speculative answer to those questions is, essentially, that he put himself forth as the artist he felt himself to be by written performances and displays recognizably based in his life as he both lived and imagined living it. From the beginning, Faulkner's was a self-presenting art, characterized by confident creation of personal modes of expression. He created in his work a world of controlled chaos, aggressively unconventional in its forms and disruptive of pragmatic thinking in its effects, which was deeply, personally his own. Self-presentation and performance are manifested both in Faulkner's life, in the guises and disguises he assumed, and in his art, where those figures and others of his emotional biography are separate but interlocking modes of representation. Self-presentation, as I mean the term, is a narrative strategy that capitalizes upon the experience of the man and artist, including of course the performative experience; by performance I mean the heightened mode of written expression that reassembles familiar experience in the forms and language of spectacle. By means of such self-affirming performances, the self and the word became one in the writing.
That thesis is set forth in expanded form in Chapter I, "Self-Presentation and Performance," where it is illustrated from overtly performative aspects of The Sound and the Fury and from several self-presentational manuscripts, including drafts of Faulkner's introduction to that book. Chapter II, "Photographs, Letters, and Fictions," extends self-presentation and performance to pictorial and privately written records of Faulkner's life, especially in early photographs, in his correspondence with his mother, and in published works where those are reflected, including short stories, the verse play The Marionettes and Quentin's chapter of The Sound and the Fury. Chapter III, "Marriage Matters, " treats the recurring Faulknerian motif of weddings and marriages in The Sound and the Fury, the two versions of Sanctuary, and Absalom, Absalom!. Much of this derives, I believe, from his complicated relation to Estelle Oldham Franklin Faulkner. Chapter IV, "Who's Your Old Man? " examines the related motif of fatherhood in terms of Faulkner's relationship to male guides and sponsors in his life and traces its expression in the short story collection These 13, in Pylon and Absalom, Absalom!, and in Faulkner's cinematic writing in the mid-1930s. The novelist's sense of himself as artistic "Stage Manager" and the relation of that persona to the problematics of authorial sovereignty are rooted in his reading of Melville, Hawthorne, and Thoreau in Chapter V, which focuses upon Absalom, Absalom!, Mosquitoes, and If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem. Chapter VI, "Old Moster," extends Faulkner's self-presentations to the self-proclaimed artist-as-God, to his extended mastery of his fictional cosmos in The Hamlet and in Go Down, Moses, and to the complex of very personal epistolary relationships with women that lies in the correspondence behind Requiem for a Nun.