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Issue 1, Spring 1992

A Marriage of Speaking and Hearing

Not suprisingly,  given its subtitle, Susan Snell’s splendid biography, Phil Stone of Oxford: A Vicarious Life (University of Georgia Press; $19.95, paper), has two stories to tell. One is the story of Phil Stone, the other the story of his friendship with William Faulkner that, not only for the vast majority of readers but perhaps for Stone himself, was the most significant part of his life. Phil Stone lived most fully in, for, and from his relationship—initially with Faulkner, then with his wife Emily, followed by his son Philip: as if this energetic, superbly educated, intellectually passionate and bold man were invisible— believed himself invisible—until recovered in reflection: the endless flood of talk for which he was so well known meaningless, until re- turned to him as the articulate voice of a writer he had chosen to inspire.

The relationship Snell examines most deeply—because its answering voice has become the most powerful in our literary history—is the one with Faulkner. The great achievement of the book is to retrieve this relationship from its several re-interpretations over the years, by Stone as well as by Faulkner’s biographers and critics, and through careful documentation and a restrained, yet evocative prose restore it to persuasive life.

The story of Phil Stone himself, as a single separate person, surrounds his vicarious relations like a shadowy outline of incomplete gestures: the need for the mother never satisfied, the debts never paid off, the promise of the legal career never quite fulfilled, the conflict with the “rise of the rednecks” and the threat of integration never resolved. By his own criteria of success—to establish reputation, to regain the family’s wealth and status—Stone considered his life “an abysmal failure.” The relationships in which he invested so much could not, in his own mind, save him from that judgment.

Born in 1893, Stone was the youngest son in a prosperous and prominent family, honorably rooted in the Southern past. With four degrees in the Arts and the Law, Stone was prepared to add to that prominence, only to have to preside instead over the sudden collapse of the family fortune and the reversal of his self-designated role of Southern gentleman to that of desperate and harried survivor. Within five years of the failure of the Bank of Oxford in 1931, Phil Stone's father, who had been president of the bank, and two brothers were dead. He was left with a debt of some $50,000, and sole responsibility for a mother toward whom he had long felt bitter resentment. Marriage in his early forties and the birth of two children helped sustain him, and enabled him to replace the relationship with Faulkner that by then had lost its intensity— yet a slowly deteriorating mental condition, characterized by severe paranoia, eventually led to his confinement in an institution, where he died in 1967.

Whatever the frustration and anguish of his own story, the relationship between Stone and Faulkner was an unmistakable triumph, a wonderful, if at times bizarre engagement between two young men of different backgrounds and antithetical personalities, each of whom, for a time, seemed to be precisely what the other needed. Stone, with B.A.s from Ole Miss and Yale, was ready to assume the position of patron, eager to empower some undiscovered talent to give a formal shape to the inchoate history of Stone’s own life and land. Faulkner, an apparently aimless high-school dropout, who in his mid-twenties would still be without profession and frequently without a job—“an embarrassment to the family”—was eager to write, yet needed a language, a set of values both philosophical and aesthetic, a stance to the world: a “story” within which he might realize what it was he wished to say. For about thirteen years, from the summer of 1914 to roughly the end of 1927, they participated in a kind of duplicate vicariousness: each one an enthralled observer to the other’s vivid actor, each performing a life the other required as the extension and completion of his own.

Eventually, as part of the process of becoming a major writer, Faulkner had to free himself from the relationship, or at least reduce it to a much less intimate, although enduring, friendship. The necessity of the shift, however, and the irrational bitterness toward Faulkner that Stone occasionally manifested in his last years, should not detract from the importance of that relationship, or its charm. The triumph lay in the passion of the engagement and in the genuine gifts it bestowed on each man. For Phil Stone it was the one extended period in his life when, as Snell puts it, “his whole being was given free play.” For William Faulkner it was the indispensable seedtime of his career. Perhaps he might have acquired what he needed elsewhere, in different circumstances, from different people. Still, to borrow some words from T. S. Eliot, there might have been other possibilities, “but this [was] the nearest, in place and time.” Phil Stone provided a significant amount of what was necessary, if not sufficient, to the young writer. When Faulkner edged away from the relationship, he did so because he was finally ready to write a great book, one for which that relationship had prepared him, but which he could only write as the act releasing him from it.

Snell examines the relationship from two perspectives. The first, familiar enough from previous biographies of Faulkner but valuable for its detail, documents Stone’s amazingly varied assistance to Faulkner during the long process of his becoming a published poet and novelist. As Snell summarizes it, Stone played a full range of roles, from “tutor, librarian, and purveyor of books...[to] first reader, editor, and critic of Faulkner’s manuscript verse and early novels....[to] agent, publicist, patron— and on occasion bank.” He was a classicist, who retained his love of Greek all his life, and an entrepreneur with, as he said, “the gall of Ole Nick.”

Stone’s knowledge ranged from the Ancients to the Modern poets, and he had no hesitation in sharing it. In the shy, self-effacing, extraordinarily quiet Billy Falkner (he added the “U” later), he had a perfect audience. In each other’s homes and during long walks in the country or drives to the Delta and Memphis, Stone talked and Faulkner listened: of classical drama and philosophy, the late romantic and the early modern English and American poets, the French symbolists and nineteenth-century novelists, contemporary criticism and Southern history. One of the most vivid incarnations of that history was Stone’s own aristocratic line from grandfather—a Confederate major who rode with Nathan Bedford Forrest—to father—a hard-driving, hard-drinking lawyer, landholder, bank president, and hunter—to son—a young gentleman-in-the-making, groomed for the dual roles of partner in the family law firm and literatus of Oxford. Stone also supplied an over-simplified narrative conflict by identifying the enemy who threatened the continuation of that tradition: “the real revolution in the South,” he wrote later, “was not the race situation but the rise of the redneck, who did not have any of the scruples of the old aristocracy, to places of power and wealth.”

Snell’s second perspective on the relationship is far from familiar, and it constitutes her most original insight. Her claim is that Stone’s greatest contribution to Faulkner’s writing was not so much as a mentor and promoter but as a character—including not only his own life and personality but that of his family and friends as well. To begin with, Stone introduced Faulkner to a Southern aristocratic world he had experienced in his own family largely as a memory of past distinction: of the Old and Young Colonels who had been superseded by the frustrated, failed Murry Falkner— not to mention the eldest son Billy, who seemed to be hastening the family decline. Faulkner would draw on his own ancestral past, but Snell argues effectively that it is the Stones’ family history, with their nineteenth-century generals and twentieth-century lawyers, with ante-bellum mansion and Delta hunting camp, that provided Faulkner an example of fulfilled dynastic promise he could envy and appropriate as a language for fiction.

Snell offers dozens of moments as possible sources of familiar Faulknerian characters and episodes. Sometimes no more than a name—Stone’s great-uncles Amodeus and Theophilus, his first sex partner, Dewey Dell, his automobile named Drusilla; sometimes people Faulkner actually met, such as Stone’s mother, with her Mrs. Compson-like hypochondria, her selfishness, her inability to cook, or Stone’s brother James, Jr., upon whom Phil was sure Faulkner had based the younger Jason Compson, or the gamblers and prostitutes of the Delta and Memphis, who came to fictional life in Sanctuary.

Above all there was Phil himself—in guises and actions that go far beyond his common identification as the source of the garrulous, well-educated Gavin Stevens. At about the age of thirteen, during one of James Stone’s annual November hunting expeditions, Phil shot a bear and the hunters smeared the boy’s face with the blood; at sixteen he had held a large buck in his rifle sights, only to lower the gun and watch the buck disappear into the woods. One Christmas vacation the train carrying him home from Yale stopped at a Virginia crossing, where the sight of a black man on a mule—“like a sign put there saying You are home again,” as the corresponding scene in The Sound and the Fury describes it—brought tears to his eyes. And always of course there was Phil Stone the man of words, more abundant it seemed than hearing could absorb or reality keep abreast of. Behind such bits of fact and memory Snell invites us to see the fictional figures of Ike McCaslin and Quentin Compson, of Horace Benbow and Darl Bundren and Gavin Stevens.

At times we may find ourselves comparing Snell’s conjectures with the attempts of others to play this best of all biographical games of glossing fiction with fact, however much the second will seem like the replica rather than the origin of the first. Ben Wasson thought that he was the source—“I’m afraid so”—for Horace Benbow; and Maud Falkner insisted that Jason sounded exactly like her husband Murry, although Faulkner’s brother Jack was the one who, like Jason as a little boy, would fall down because he walked with his hands in his pockets, “holding his money.” And of course the Falkner history—however distant it might have seemed to Faulkner, and however vivid the Stone saga might be in its contemporary presence—still persuades as the source from which much of the Sartoris story sprang. One need not choose, however (nor does Snell compel us to) among Jim Stone, Jr., Murry Falkner, or Jack Falkner, the Falkner history or the Stones’. For the writer, as Faulkner once said, they are all part of the “lumber room” or the “filing case” or the “junk box”: “he collects his material all his life from everything he reads, from everything he listens to, everything he sees...”

Putting aside for the moment the question of the ultimate impact of the relationship on Faulkner, it is clear that for Phil Stone this was the great time in his life, surely the period he was referring to, years later, when he would say plaintively to Emily: “You’ve never known me when I was myself.” The self of Stone’s recollection was one that included a passionate devotion both to literature and to experience—at times perhaps confusing the two, enhancing experience with fantasy and masquerade. What began as an elaborate tutorial—of books and periodicals loaned and discussed, of poetry and prose written and critiqued and revised—became as well a grand comedy of adolescence, extending far beyond the teenage years.

The two young men made regular expeditions in “Drusilla” to the Delta and Memphis, where Stone introduced Faulkner to the gambling houses and brothels. Faulkner maintained his characteristic remoteness—on the scene but rarely of it—watched the poker games, chatted with the prostitutes but never went upstairs with them; while Stone, the actor to Faulkner’s detached observer, indulged fully, especially in the card games, and fantasized about giving up the law and his future in the Stone firm for a career as a professional gambler.

More spectacular was the series of highjinks that constituted the bulk of their experience with World War I. In the spring of 1918, Stone and Faulkner were in New Haven, eager to get into the War but unwilling to do so without commissions. They decided to enlist in either the British or Canadian services by passing themselves off as Englishmen— equipped “with enough documents to have put us in Leavenworth for the rest of our lives,” highlighted by a character reference from an imaginary Anglican clergyman known as the Reverend Edward Twimberly-Thorndyke. Faulkner finally managed to get into the Canadian RAF but did not even learn to fly, let alone see action—which did not prevent him from subsequently inventing a rich war record of training-camp fiascoes and combat crashes resulting in near-fatal wounds. The upshot of the whole episode, as Snell writes, was that “the great event of their youth, which wiped out ‘the last literate generation’ in Britain and marked irrevocably Faulkner’s colleagues in literature, had passed them by.” No matter; upon returning home, “William Faulkner limped around Oxford and New Orleans and Phil Stone refined his tales of their military chicanery.”

Later there was the more serious business of writing, editing, marketing, and publicizing poems and novels, as well as promoting the writer himself, but even here one might say, as Snell does of the War experi- ence, that “the adolescent summer of 1914...continue[d].” Stone kept Faulkner’s first publisher, Four Seas, abreast of his movements and incipient productions, announcing in 1925, for example, the imminent publication of a Faulkner-Sherwood Anderson collaboration that had barely been conceived and would quickly be abandoned, as well as offering Four Seas book rights to a series of articles—never written or published— Faulkner would be sending from Europe later that year to a local newspaper. He approached Harriet Monroe with the news that, with the appearance of Faulkner’s volume of poems, The Marble Faun (1924), “the literary star in America was passing from the Midwest to the South. ” Most fanciful—and futile—of all were the “letters of introduction” Stone wrote, prior to Faulkner’s departure for Europe, to a number of British and expatriate American writers—including Eliot, Pound, Joyce, and Bennett—whom of course he knew no more than Faulkner did.

In the midst of this strange hodgepodge of serious commitment and juvenile pretense, a powerful dynamic of complementary desires and strengths was being enacted. Stone would occasionally minimize the significance of his recognition of Faulkner’s promise—“anybody could have seen that he had a real talent. It was perfectly obvious”—but the fact is it was not obvious at all. Faulkner’s own uncle—and he was not alone—publicly ridiculed him: “Billy just ain’t worth a damn, and that’s all there is to it....Never has been worth a damn and never will be. Not worth killing.” But Faulkner’s apparent deficiencies only made Stone’s pa- tronage seem all the more striking, his role in the formation of a writer as active as a vicarious involvement could be. It was as if the act of inscription alone belonged to the writer-elect, while the drive, the imagination of a Southern myth, originated with the muse and mentor, who merely spared himself what he called “that horrible itch of messing up clean white paper with little crooked marks.... Besides, if I have to write what good is Bill to me?” Faulkner, in turn, the congenital listener, clung to his passivity as if it were an inviolate privacy, content to shape with reciprocal words the life being played out before and with him: “No, Stone doesn’t write,” he once said, “he’s too busy living to write.”

Out of these interactions and dependencies, whatever the fantasies and self-indulgences that occasionally fueled them, there emerged the concrete achievement of published books. Stone had not only seen the talent; he had acted. And Faulkner had written. By the time 1927 was drawing to a close, a volume of poems and two novels of genuine promise had been published. Another novel, Flags in the Dust, was completed, one which Faulkner believed was easily the best thing he had ever written, and in which Stone had played perhaps his most significant role.

And then, certainly by the close of the decade, it was over. Faulkner and Stone remained friends, with varying degrees of closeness, for the rest of their lives, but the nature and intensity of their relationship altered completely. 

What had happened?

Snell describes a gradual winding down, spread out over a number of years, and a number of factors. First, the surprising rejection of Flags in the Dust in 1927 by Boni & Liveright, which forced Stone to admit, probably for the first time, that his ambitions for Faulkner might be hopeless. Then, in 1929 Faulkner married Estelle Oldham Franklin, who Stone thought would be detrimental to Faulkner’s career, and would certainly compete with Stone for his attention. A year and a half later occurred the Stone bank failure. In the spring of 1931 Stone told Faulkner, “you don’t need me any more, and I have to make a living for my old folks.”

The end, however, had actually come years earlier—and for largely literary reasons which Faulkner would relate, with only faint displacement, in his account of the writing of The Sound and the Fury, and whose profound implications he would dramatize in the novel itself. While using the biographical information Snell has supplied, but getting closer to Faulkner’s texts, we may be able to understand more deeply why the break occurred, and how it helped determine the fiction that immediately followed.

The first gap in the relationship was doubtlessly opened by Horace Liveright’s letter of rejection of Flags. Faulkner and Stone had had high hopes for the novel. Faulkner had written to Liveright (with a brashness that exceeded even his publicist’s): “I have written THE book, of which those other things were but foals. I believe it is the damdest best book you’ll look at this year, and any other publisher.” Liveright’s reply over a month later stunned Faulkner: “It is with sorrow in my heart that I write to tell you that three of us have read Flags in the Dust and don’t believe that Boni & Liveright should publish it. Furthermore, as a firm deeply interested in your work, we don’t believe that you should offer it for publication....It is diffuse and non-integral with neither very much plot development nor character development....The story really doesn’t get anywhere and has a thousand loose ends.”

Faulkner’s initial response was anger and denial, but in the ensuing months these gave way to a complete rethinking of what he was trying to accomplish as a writer and, concomitantly, of the place—and meaning—of Phil Stone in that endeavor.

More than anything else Faulkner had written up to that point, Flags in the Dust was the book that Phil Stone wanted. In its prevailing nostalgic tone and its largely unironic glorification of the Southern aristocrat—not to mention its treatment of blacks and rising poor whites—the novel exemplified Stone’s attitudes, which were consistent with the general Lost Cause mentality of many Southerners at the time. Stone claimed that Sartoris, the greatly edited version of Flags published in 1929, was “the one novel of Bill with which I had anything to do”; “I invented a great number of the incidents...and several of the characters.” A good deal of their earlier talk of Southern history had been of the Confederacy: “I began pumping him full of it around 1919 and 1920 and showed him what splendid romantic material it was for a writer.” Eighteen years later he was still defending romantic passages in the novel that Malcolm Cowley found of questionable taste, and which Faulkner would never duplicate.

This is not to suggest, of course, that Flags was anything but Faulkner’s book—the novel he was ready to write at the time—but it is strikingly different from, and inferior to, the fiction he began four or five months later. In a 1933 essay, unpublished in his lifetime, Faulkner remembered these months as a time of turning inward—and away: from “all publishers’ addresses and book lists,” from the idea of publication itself; and, in the act of writing The Sound and the Fury, a turning away from books: “I discovered then that I had gone through all that I had ever read...without making any distinction or digesting any of it, as a moth or a goat might. After The Sound and the Fury and without needing to open another book and in a series of delayed repercussions like summer thunder, I discovered the Flauberts and Dostoyevskys and Conrads whose books I had read ten years ago. With The Sound and the Fury I learned to read and quit reading, since I have read nothing since.” Having abandoned publishers and books, possibly even the hope of readers, “I said to myself, Now I can write. Now I can just write.”

Publishers’ lists and books had been the special purview of Phil Stone. In recounting the great shift of his career in these terms, Faulkner was signaling his recognition of the need to free himself, not only from Phil Stone of course, but from what Stone had come principally to represent: the whole world of literature and history that exists prior to writing and of publishers and readers that waited to judge its outcome; that world already fixed with meaning and value, whose languages he had listened to at incredible length, and which now, having brought him to the brink of original speech, threatened to bind him to reiteration.

The Sound and the Fury is Faulkner’s leap toward autonomy—the process and product of his separation from Stone. With our focus on the relationship of the two men, the novel reads as both a celebration of the writer’s freedom and a despair over the resultant loss of controlling context: a novel that ecstatically mourns its abandoned design.

Like Flags in the Dust, The Sound and the Fury focuses on a Southern aristocratic family in decline, but instead of the gallant Sartorises, playing out their disastrous history of “glamorous fatality, like silver pennons down rushing at sunset,” we have the pathetic Compsons, plagued with alcoholism, hypochondria, promiscuity, incestuous desire, and idiocy. Whereas the Sartorises can locate and partially sublimate their loss in Stone’s “splendid romantic material” of old tales of gratuitous heroism, the Compsons have only the female child, Caddy, as their primary image of that past they can neither recapture nor articulate. Faulkner continued to use Stone models for some of the qualities of Mrs. Compson, Quentin, and Jason, and the Compson situation reflected the Lost Cause theme, but he had emptied it of its glory and even its clarity—a way for modern Southerners to understand their sense of a diminished world.

The confusion and paralysis of the Compsons is revealed primarily in the three brothers’ desperate attempts to identify in successive monologues what has happened to them. They recognize only dimly the heritage that has failed to descend to them, and even more dimly the reasons for that failure. They are left with the memory of their sister, a word—“Caddy”—they arbitrarily use to name their despair. Yet the upshot of their monologues is to convey not the truth of their suffering but only the symptomatic signs behind which it remains hidden. 

That series of monologues demonstrating the failure both of tradition and historical understanding becomes, remarkably, the shape of Faulkner’s narrative revolution, the violation of literary inheritance that accompanies his violation of the romantic Southern tradition that had fascinated Stone. In its disruptive scene shifts, looping chronology, and perversely allusive prose of interior monologue, The Sound and the Fury seems willfully to mount an assault on lucidity itself, challenging not only the narrative tradition but the very possibility of coherent utterance.

The great irony of The Sound and the Fury is that it embraces the opposing values of loss-as-deprivation and loss-as-freedom, and its power is that it renders the emotions of both simultaneously. The Compson’s bereavement becomes the prose of Faulkner’s breakthrough. The effect is that of an equivalence always awry, like a slant rhyme grinding with tension, or a fugue in which an identical melody is being played in major and minor keys. Freedom and entrapment, obsessive reminiscence and defiance of all norms, employ the same words to totally different ends. Depending on one’s perspective (is it a picture of a vase or two facing profiles?), the novel reads as a narrative that is always beginning, open continually to new configurations of meaning; or a narrative turning perpetually backward, trying to close the past into meaning, clinging frantically to forms already slipping into irrelevance.

In his two best known comments on the writing of The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner recounts a process of creation that repeats and biographically illuminates the novel’s conjunctions of linguistic power and linguistic failure, of freedom as an adventure of originality and freedom as the loss of context and definition.

In the first statement, written in 1933, he said, “When I began it I had no plan at all. I wasn’t even writing a book. I was thinking of books, publication, only in the reverse, in saying to myself, I won’t have to worry about publishers liking or not liking this at all.” The recollection of his autonomy, a version of deprivation, leads him to this remarkable sentence, “So I, who had never had a sister and was fated to lose my daughter in infancy, set out to make myself a beautiful and tragic little girl.” He sharpens the claim of independence: from that which was not, not before and not after, I will make something—as if the creation of Caddy, the silent center of The Sound and the Fury, were ab ovo: a replica of nothing outside the text, just as in the text she is nothing but a recreation by her three brothers, a function of their particular needs. Faulkner’s assertion of Caddy’s origins—or lack of them— transforms her into an image of the condition of pure art. Probably the most radical statement about writing Faulkner ever made, it suggests not only the significance of the novel for him, but his memory of the powerful pressures from which he had to release himself in order to write it—the need to create something independent of determining context.

As for the value of that independence, Faulkner said that in writing The Sound and the Fury he experienced an unforgettable and unrepeatable elation: “that emotion definite and physical and yet nebulous to describe: that ecstasy, that eager and joyous faith and anticipation of surprise which the yet unmarred sheet beneath my hand held inviolate and unfailing, waiting for release.”

Faulkner’s second comment, first made in a 1955 interview, completes the paradoxical experience of our reading of the novel. Although written in the first flush of freedom, with an exhilaration he would never recover, The Sound and the Fury was, he said, a failure of telling: a four-fold failure to explain fully the single image from which the whole novel flowered: “It began with the picture of the little girl’s muddy drawers, climbing that tree... I tried first to tell it with one brother, and that wasn’t enough. That was Section One. I tried with another brother, and that wasn’t enough. That was Section Two. I tried the third  brother... And that failed and I tried myself—the fourth section—to tell what happened, and I still failed.”

The “failure” is joined to his triumph. His inability to exhaust an image of his own conception drives his text beyond the temptations of centering, beyond the resolution of the absent Caddy into definition, as if that would be the ultimate violation of her and the creative dream she embodies. Failure becomes the sure sign—the only sign—that he has invented authentically and originally.

The “doubleness” of reading The Sound and the Fury is comparable to these seemingly contradictory versions of the writing. The novel suggests to us the possibility of language overreaching the meanings that precede it, breaking free into untrammeled utterance, its power generated only by the abandonment of everything before and after. And yet such overreaching is another name for defeat, as Faulkner’s second statement, and the four narratives of the novel, testify. Caddy can never come clear, for she has no prior existence against which to measure a replication—not for Faulkner, not for the readers of the novel, not even for the brothers, who in their narratives are from the outset aware of Caddy only as that which is already moving beyond their boundaries of reference.

Faulkner became, in the process of writingThe Sound and the Fury, a modern novelist. The biographical matrix of that process, as we find it embedded in the language of Faulkner’s accounts of it and in the language and situation of the novel itself, is to a significant extent the relationship between Faulkner and Stone and the separation that took place during those months. What Paul de Man has described as the modern quest to “wipe out whatever came earlier” was enacted by Faulkner as a process of loosening his tie with his long-time mentor, the largest image in Faulkner’s life of everything that precedes and prepares writing.

The spaciousness of The Sound and the Fury, and Faulkner’s tribute to the long and necessary relationship with Stone, is that the novel knows so deeply the cost of its willful forgetting. The glorious past of the Compsons survives only in mockery, in imaginations stricken by loss into obsession: in the fragments of memory of the three brothers—the smell of innocence, the empty gestures of honor, the lost job at the bank. Yet the sorrow of the novel is as real and as powerful as its exuberance.

The story of the writing of The Sound and the Fury had a strange, if fitting, conclusion. Stone did not play the role in that novel he had played in Flags, in its inception, its working out, its typing, or its publication. Yet when Faulkner was done, he read the entire book aloud to Stone. “I had an experience,” Stone recalled years later, “that no other human being has ever had or ever will have: this was that I sat night after night in Bill’s little room in the little tower of the old Delta Psi chapter house [where Faulkner’s family was living while his father was assistant secretary of the University] and had him read The Sound and the Fury to me page by page.” The reading— whether from manuscript or typescript Stone does not say—took “three or four nights a week over a period of three or four months.”

The scene is staggering. Faulkner had read before to Stone, and would continue to, but even Stone recognized the extraordinariness of the experience. For a period sustained over several months, the roles of Faulkner and Stone were reversed; the listener became the talker—and given the enormous difficulty of the novel, one can imagine the confusion, indeed the astonishment of Stone as he sat in Faulkner’s “little room.” It is as if Faulkner were confirming in the most graphic way what the writing of the novel had meant: that his long years of listening to Stone were over. He had taken hold of that verbal power he had listened to and read for years, and assumed it as his own. Perhaps he even recognized his link to one of the many sources he had now “for- gotten”: “Very well; I hear; I admit, but I have a voice too, and for good or evil mine is the speech that cannot be silenced.”

Faulkner continued to make use of materials from Phil Stone’s life in much of the major fiction that followed The Sound and the Fury. As Snell documents, the Memphis underworld of Sanctuary, some of the characteristics of Horace Benbow and Darl Bundren, the hunting episodes in Go, Down Moses as well as the increasingly prominent Gavin Stevens can all be traced back, to some degree, to Stone. Nor did Faulkner forget the lore of Southern history and the North Mississippi locale that Stone knew so well, and had introduced him to in the 1920s—particularly the world of the rising poor whites that Faulkner had first explored in the unfinished Father Abraham and would bring to fruition in the Snopes trilogy.

But Stone’s place in Faulkner’s fiction was more significant than such borrowings. Although the collaborative intensity of the relationship had cooled, and Faulkner was writing through the 1930s and early ’40s with a confidence and originality unprecedented in American fiction, he continues to refer back to a core of his past experience in which Phil Stone had played perhaps the leading role. That core is a “scene of instruction,” a scene of speaking and hearing in which characters participate in dramas of explanation: Miss Rosa Coldfield informing Quentin Compson at great length as to “why God let us lose the War”; V. K. Ratliff leisurely relating the “souring” of Ab Snopes to a few men on the veranda of Littlejohn’s hotel; Ike McCaslin recounting to his cousin McCaslin Edmonds the moral rationale for giving up his land. Inherent to the scenes is the inevitable conflict of speaking and hearing: of tellers trying dogmatically to impose on listeners their readings of the world; of listeners trying to escape dominion, to discover voices of their own.

In The Sound and the Fury the possible emptiness of such scenes of any sense of passage or meeting is the most obvious sign of the alienation that pervades the novel. The speaking of the three brothers is, in effect, without hearing: not simply because it is interior consciousness, but because it is solipsistic, indifferent to hearing or to any contingent reality. The words of the Compson brothers comprise a kind of monologic aggression which does not pretend to be about or for anyone, to be relevant to anyone—not even the sister whom they presumably seek to understand. They do not engage a real world (as, say, the consciousness of Leopold Bloom does) but rather create an imaginary one—“symmetrical above the flesh”—a verbal universe in which they suffer the divine torment of being the only inhabitants.

Ultimately the scene of instruction expands from isolation into forms of union, from acts of monologic domination to ones of dialogic interaction, as speaking begins to impart less than it learns, and listening moves from passive silence to reciprocal power. Its great climax is Absalom, Absalom!, Faulkner’s preeminent novel of speaking and hearing. 

The central listener is Quentin Compson, who listens throughout the novel and has listened for the whole of his brief life: “His childhood was full of them; his very body was an empty hall echoing with sonorous defeated names; he was not a being, an entity, he was a commonwealth. He was a barracks filled with stubborn back-looking ghosts...” He listens to Miss Rosa Coldfield, to his father and grandfather; when he speaks, he is in fact spoken by the words that have preceded him—as he authorizes virtually everything he says with: “father said,” “grandfather said.” And then, having told all that he has heard to his Harvard roommate Shreve, he finds himself listening again, this time to the Canadian who also wants to “play” the game of persuading another’s mind to mirror one’s own.

Quentin in Absalom is the epitome of all Faulknerian listening, a version of Faulkner himself, for whom listening was, from his youth, an instinctive way of encountering the world. While he had begun listening long before he met Phil Stone, his thirteen-year relationship with the man whose unceasing talk had complemented his own unrelieved silence takes its place as part of the biographical ground for that mammoth scene of speaking and hearing which is the entirety of Absalom, Absalom! In the engagement of Quentin and Shreve the scene unfolds toward its fulfillment, as Faulkner dramatizes once again the relationship with Stone, rewriting it now as a fiction of completed communion. The two young men finally break through the rigid structure of origin and reception, transforming it into a dynamic of cooperative telling, in which the identity of the particular speaker, rather than that of the listener, becomes irrelevant:

it did not matter to either of them which

one did the talking, since it was not the

talking alone which did it, performed and

accomplished the overpassing, but some

happy marriage of speaking and hearing

wherein each before the demand, the

requirement, forgave condoned and for-

got the faulting of the other.

Quentin emerges from his silence of thousands of inherited words in order to drive the drama of explanation toward the blackness of Charles Bon, wresting from the Sutpen history a meaning that, until the meeting of Quentin and Shreve, has been unspeakable and unhearable. The scene of instruction climaxes in Faulkner’s most powerful account of the dream of a full discourse: a speaking and hearing of words that generates a truth about the world.

For much of the decade prior to Faulkner’s death in 1962 Phil Stone, still coping with the effects of the financial disaster that had struck in 1931, suffered from paranoia, bouts of rage and bitterness, conflicts with friends and family: “The financial pressure and attendant shame and panic he tried to suppress were destroying Phil Stone.” His expressed attitudes toward Faulkner, both as a man and a writer, ranged from occasional praise to more frequent denunciations. Faulkner had gone from being underrated to being overrated, Stone said: “he is the best of the generation,” but ultimately will take his place in literary history as a “splendid second-rate writer.” While he could say of Faulkner, “he is even greater as a man than he is as a writer,” he could also lash out at what he considered Faulkner’s ignorance, his hunger for publicity and attention, and even his whole family—“the tribe of Faulkners,” whom he may have begun to place among the Snopeses as upstarts on the rise while the Stones went under. He corresponded increasingly with Faulkner critics, pointing out their errors of fact and interpretation, at times making extravagant claims for his contribution to Faulkner’s work. In a letter to James Meriwether in 1957, for example, he wrote, “almost all the characters Bill has used in his books were invented by me and not by Bill.”

Following the service at Rowan Oak on the day of Faulkner’s funeral, Phil Stone was in a car with Joseph Blotner, driving through Oxford to the cemetery. Stone could neither keep still nor quiet, to Blotner’s apparent annoyance: “Stone seemed in constant movement, chattering incessantly as they moved up South Lamar and on into the square....others in the car were silent as their thoughts turned inward.”

The scene is at once pathetic and blackly comic. On the brink of mental breakdown, his old friend, who had listened for years, now dead in a casket a few cars ahead, Stone continues talking, aimlessly, with no one left to hear, to respond, to return to him the shape of his desire.

His wife, Emily, was perhaps the only one who could remember when Stone’s talk was full and eloquent, welcome, opening a world to the seventeen-year-old Billy Falkner: “So when he came home from Yale during the summers, there was a situation made to order for both boys. Phil was five years the older, he was a talker and Bill a listener. Phil wanted to talk about literature; Bill wanted to hear it. They took long walks in the country, Phil talking, talking, talking about literature, about the Greeks, about the Civil War....And Faulkner listened. And wrote. And wrote. And wrote.”

Donald Kartiganer

Donald Kartiganer holds the William Howry Chair in Faulkner Studies at the University of Mississippi. Dr. Kartiganer has two favorite Faulkner quotes. He says that “one is a comment he made to the press after giving a talk at the University of Virginia: ‘I’m free game. But flush me first; don’t shoot me sitting.’ And the other is: ‘Life is sort of leaning over a banister to see who’s knocking on the front door.’ ”
(November/December Issue, 1999)