In Faulkner’s Shadow: A Memoir
By Lawrence Wells
University Press of Mississippi
Wells offers amusing, honest, sympathetic account of literary rivalries, family feuds in Faulkner’s hometown
By Lauren Rhoades
Special to the Mississippi Clarion Ledger
USA TODAY NETWORK
Eudora Welty once said that being a writer in the same state as William Faulkner “was like living near a mountain.” But it’s one thing to live near a mountain, and an altogether different thing to marry that mountain’s niece. Lawrence Wells, author of In Faulkner’s Shadow: A Memoir, was a Faulkner fan when he moved to Oxford to attend grad school at University of Mississippi, but little did he know how deeply intertwined his love life, family, friendships, and career would become with the lore and legacy of the Nobel Prize-winning author.
In 1972, a decade after the death of William Faulkner (and, coincidentally, the pro-segregation riots at University of Mississippi), Wells marries Dean Faulkner, Faulkner’s beloved—and only—niece. Their signal to wed? Mutual visitations from “Pappy’s” ghost at three in the morning. Wells sees Faulkner’s face in his window frame. And Dean is awakened from a deep slumber by the distinct smell of her uncle’s pipe tobacco. The two make a home together in Maud Faulkner’s—Dean’s grandmother’s—house, where they will host dozens of writers in the coming years, around the same kitchen table where William Faulkner wrote Absalom, Absalom! Call it destiny.
Wells writes this memoir with humor and humility. He is often an unwitting accomplice or hapless bystander to the booze-fueled Faulkner family drama unfolding around him. “‘Now you know my bucket of worms,’” Dean quips when Wells meets her cousins for the first time during a memorable car ride from the Memphis airport. Wells, though, resists turning his characters into caricatures. His badly-behaved in-laws can be generous and loving; plus, they’ve dealt with their own fair share of repressed trauma, grief, and the burden of living in the shadow of a famous family member. For Dean especially, “the Faulkner heritage was an uneasy legacy. There were times when she embraced her roots and her famous uncle. At other times she felt trapped and stultified. Where did she begin and it end?’”
Together, Dean and Wells establish Yoknapatawpha Press, and open their doors to a host of world-renowned writers. They play an instrumental role in bringing Willie Morris to Oxford as the University of Mississippi’s first writer-in-residency, and later succeed in getting Barry Hannah onto the English faculty. William Faulkner may have put Oxford, Mississippi on the literary map, but Wells and Dean help foster Oxford’s community of writers, many of them legends in their own right.
Readers get to witness the likes of Willie Morris, Barry Hannah, George Plimpton, William Styron, Larry Brown, Jim Harrison, among others, talk shop and drink whiskey at Dean and Wells’ kitchen table. Willie Morris and Barry Hannah feature prominently in the book. Wells very wisely stays out of the fray of these two “rivals in residency.” He writes: “Willie wanted to be loved. Hannah wanted to be feared. Where Morris was literary ambassador, Hannah peddled literary methamphetamine.”
Reading about these two “rivals” is like watching a train wreck in motion. Impossible not to avert the eyes. Impossible to deny that their debauchery, sense of entitlement, and arrogance was tolerated—even celebrated—because they were talented writers. And white and male. It came with the territory.
But the heroine in Wells’ memoir is clearly Dean, whom Wells writes about with deep affection. Throughout the trajectory of the book, Dean is many things to many people: Oxford’s “literary godmother,” a writer, mother, wife, the niece of one of Mississippi’s greatest authors. For the Faulkner worshipers who flocked to Rowan Oak, she was the closest they could get to Pappy himself.
Lovers of southern fiction will enjoy this dramatic and tender tribute to the life and legacy of William Faulkner—the mountain himself—and the literary community that prospered in his wake.
Lauren Rhoades is director of the Eudora Welty House & Garden in Jackson. She is currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing at Mississippi University for Women.