Noel Polk: William Faulkner "Continues to Amaze"
The pre-eminent Faulkner scholar Dr. Noel Polk is likely more familiar with the great Mississippi writer's work than anyone. He has edited corrected versions of all of Faulkner's books.
As explained below, Noel consulted Faulkner's original typescripts to correct editorial changes made when the books were first published. Because of Noel's painstaking work, readers now have Faulkner's masterful novels close to how he originally wrote them.
I briefly met Noel at the recent Faulkner & Film Conference at Ole Miss, where he and other Faulkner scholars swapped stories about the great man while enjoying drinks and the sultry evening at a bar overlooking the square that Faulkner made famous. As they matched the square's landmarks with Faulkner's writing, the last pages of "The Sound and the Fury" came alive in my mind's eye. A genial and gregarious storyteller, Noel fascinated me with his knowledge of Faulker's life and work.
The editor of Mississippi Quarterly, Noel lives in Starkville, the home of Mississippi State. In the following Southern Bookman interview, he talks about his lifelong calling of restoring Faulkner's work as he intended it to be read.
1. You’ve edited the corrected texts of Faulkner’s work for the Library of
Most of the “corrections” I made were simply to restore what Faulkner wrote as against what editors changed that to. For most of the novels what they changed was minor --- punctuation, some Southernisms, some typing errors — nothing that is going to drastically change the way we read the novels.
The editors of Absalom, Absalom!, however, made massive alterations, deleting dozens of passages of sometimes 10 lines or more, altered punctuation to shorten some of his long sentences, and, for example, clarified deliberately ambiguous relative pronoun antecedents because, as they note in the margins, they couldn’t figure out what kinds of challenges Faulkner was presenting in the new novel. Since he preserved the typescript that the editors worked from, it was pretty easy to restore those cuts and make an Absalom more nearly what Faulkner wrote.
Those same editors denied Faulkner his title If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem in favor of The Wild Palms because, they told him, Absalom had been such a bust in the bookstores and they didn’t want to risk another novel with a biblical title; Faulkner was furious (one of the very few times he actually objected to an editorial decision), but had no choice but to accede.
More difficult was the task of reconstructing Flags in the Dust from the probably preliminary typescript (not the setting copy that he submitted to his publishers), which Douglas Day used in the early 1970s to produce a text of Flags; but that Flags did not factor in the portions of Sartoris that clearly Faulkner had written, revisions of the extant preliminary typescript. Most of his novels were published in astonishingly clean and accurate texts, so that the editorial “corrections” I did in all 19 novels involved simply cleaning up some of the problems they and sometimes typesetters caused. Random House, except in this instance, was very professional and responsible in getting his works into print: They printed the complicated part 4 of “The Bear” in Go Down, Moses immaculately.
The Library of America undertook, with Random House’s cooperation, to make Faulkner the first in-copyright author to appear in the series, and after consulting with me on a problem in the text of As I Lay Dying, asked me to co-edit the Faulkner series with Joseph Blotner; I prepared the texts and he did the chronology and the annotations. The Library seems to have already made the decision to base the new Faulkner texts in the typescripts that he had preserved, perhaps partly because I had already produced new texts of Absalom and The Sound and the Fury for Random House. Though I had worked with his typescripts for years, when we began the “corrected texts” (Random House’s term for those first two texts), I really had no idea what kinds of “corrections” would be necessary in the other texts, so the whole project was a kind of adventure, that kept me off the streets, that kept me from drinking too much beer in the afternoons with colleagues; but overall I am happy to say that now the entire oeuvre of his novels are in print in texts that are as close to what Faulkner wrote—warts, perhaps, and all—as it’s possible to have.
2. The corrected texts recall publication of corrected versions of Joyce’s “Ulyssses,” but problems with “Ulysses” seem more understandable, since he was working with French printers. Is Faulkner unusual among American writers published by
Well, see above. The editors had difficulties with Absalom, as indeed do we all, but he was not alone among American authors who had to deal with editors — Max Perkins famously reduced Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel to manageable publishable proportions, for example, and the more recent notorious revelations of how his editor rewrote Raymond Carver’s stories; and Robert Penn Warren’s editors at Harcourt simply mutilated the text of All the King’s Men.
To be absolutely fair, I should point out that editors and publishing houses have to think of books as marketable artifacts: They have to make a profit in order for us to have books at all. If they sometimes made bad decisions in what we now consider high art, we have to remember that they at least at some level have to think about how to pay their own —and their authors’ — bills.
3. At the recent “Faulkner & Film” conference, I was excited and encouraged to find how vital Faulkner’s work is for young scholars and readers. Why does he have such an enduring appeal?
People say, with reason, that all of the 19th century is in Moby-Dick. I think that all of the 20th century is in Faulkner: his work is a kaleidoscope: look through it toward the light and the many-colored pieces of glass form a beautiful pattern; turn it half a degree one direction or another and that same colored glass forms itself into yet another beautiful perfectly organized pattern. So whether you approach Faulkner from the point of view of race, gender, psychology, history, the books present a brilliantly organized pattern of observation and commentary. After 45 years of intensive study of his work, I’m still discovering new stuff to talk and think about and to thrill over. Besides all that, they are damned good stories.
4. After the conference, I read for the first time “If I Forget Thee
Yes, he continues to amaze.
5. At the conference, “Absalom, Absalom” appeared to receive the most critical comment, especially because of its links with Faulkner’s
Yes, although my favorite novel is always the one I happen to be reading at the time; to me, they are all infinitely fascinating. I’m confident that A Fable is a greater book than the Faulkner field is willing to grant and that eventually we will understand it for what it is. Faulkner said it would take us 50 years to understand it; perhaps he meant 150!
6. Faulkner seems comparable to Shakespeare and Dickens. Like them, Faulkner doesn’t shy away from sensationalism to appeal to a common audience, while achieving artistic grandeur. Along with them, he created an astonishing cast of major and minor characters, and found universality in the particular. Is Faulkner the American writer most like Shakespeare and Dickens?
For me, that’s an inarguable proposition, and for the reasons you give — the number and variety of unforgettable characters and situations.
7. What projects are you working on now, whether involving Faulkner or other writers such as Eudora Welty?
Though I’ve been retired from teaching for nearly two years now, I’m staying busy, still editing The Mississippi Quarterly and still entertaining invitations to lecture and teach. Also reading a shipload of murder mysteries!