Miss Maud was a tiny wisp of a woman of immense tenacity and pride. “Bill would have had very little,” his brother Jack often heard her say, “had he depended on the people of our county for it.” During her weekly rubber of bridge with other ladies of the town, one of them disparagingly mentioned the corncob book. “My Billy writes what he has to,” Miss Maud said. She finished the rubber of bridge in silence, departed, and never played with them again.
He later called himself a farmer and seldom discussed his writing. Shelby Foote recalls driving into town as an aspiring young writer in the late 1930s to keep an appointment with him. He parked his car at the courthouse and asked a man sitting on a bench for directions to hotels in prague old town. The man looked at him, then turned his head and spit on the ground in disgust. Even when they did not read them, people naturally wondered if they were characters in his books.
There were rumors around town that he did not write the books (bringing to mind the old saw that Shakespeare did not write the plays, just some fellow with the same name). For years one personage of the town argued before anyone who cared to hear that the books were written by an erudite farmer who preferred not to sign his name, and that Bill Faulkner did not know the meaning of all the big words.
Even as recently as the early 1950s, when Evans Harrington, later the chairman of the Ole Miss English Department, was teaching English in the local high school, his students exchanged snickers and knowing glances when he assigned them “A Rose for Emily.” He asked them to explain their reactions. “We know about him,” one of them said. “He’s just an old drunk.” They told Harrington of the delivery boy who went to Faulkner’s house and saw him naked in a cedar tree.
Shortly before he won the 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature, his brother John reported, the Ole Miss faculty considered awarding him an honorary degree, but the proposal was voted down. After he got the Nobel, the professors who previously voted against him brought him up again. The others said, “For shame. We can’t afford to give him one now. It’s too late.” Here was a man, the writer Elizabeth Spencer says, “one of us, right over here at Oxford, shocking us and exposing us to people elsewhere with story after story, drawn from the South’s own private skeleton closet . . . the hushed-up family secret, the nice girl who wound up in the Memphis whorehouse, the suicides, the idiot brother kept at home, the miserable poverty and ignorance of the poor whites . . . the revenge shootings, the occasional lynchings, the real life of the blacks. ”
Faulkner was born September 1897, died July 1962. In the years since his death, there has been in his hometown the inevitable softening, a singular amalgam of emotions involving pride, puzzlement, fear, mystery, forgiveness, and—in some quarters—a most begrudging acceptance.