Tuesday, March 29, 2011

William Faulkner’s last surviving relative, Dean Faulkner Wells, shares her memories

Earlier this month Dean Faulkner Wells, the last living relative with firsthand memories of William Faulkner, published her deliciously anecdote-filled memoir, Every Day by the Sun: A Memoir of the Faulkners of Mississippi. Wells is the daughter of Dean, the youngest of the four Faulkner brothers.

The dramatic event that governed her life occurred before she was even born:
The best and worst thing that could have happened to me took place on November 10, 1935, four months before I was born, when my father, a barnstorming pilot, was killed in a plane crash at the age of twenty-eight. The best, because it placed me at the center of the Faulkner family; the worst, because I would never know my father.
The oldest of the brothers, William felt tremendous guilt and responsibility for Dean’s death. A pilot himself, he had encouraged his brother to fly, paid for his lessons, and gave him his own plane, a Waco C cabin cruiser. As his niece writes, “It was as if William made a vow to Dean that November afternoon when he saw his unrecognizable body in the wreckage of the plane: He would tend to me in Dean’s place.” She grew up calling her uncle “Pappy” and Faulkner became her legal guardian and paid for her education and her wedding.

For the epitaph on Dean’s grave marker Faulkner chose the one he wrote in 1929 for John Sartoris, the ill-fated flyer in Flags in the Dust:
I bare him on eagles’
wings and brought him
unto me.
For Dean Faulkner Wells–and for Faulkner’s mother–John Sartoris was clearly based on Dean Faulkner, and the lines in the novel that introduce the epitaph recall Dean’s spontaneous, generous character:
Yet withal there was something else, as though the merry wild spirit of him who had laughed away so much of his heritage of humorless and fustian vainglory, managed somehow even yet . . . to soften the arrogant gesture with which they bade him farewell.
The Faulkner who Wells reveals is less the literary lion and more the devoted brother and doting uncle, as her description of the period following her father’s death demonstrates:
After Dean’s burial, William moved into Maud’s house at 510 South Lamar to care for his mother and his brother’s wife [Louise]. He slept on a folding cot in the dining room, with his Underwood portable on the table next to the galley proofs of Absalom, Absalom!
Each night he drew Louise’s bath, and before she went to bed he would bring her a glass of warm milk and a sleeping pill. One morning, as William and Louise sat the table waiting for breakfast to be served, Louise said, “I can’t eat. I dreamed the whole accident last night.” William answered, “I dream it every night.”
Only once did Faulkner share his feelings about his brother with his niece: “Your father was a rainbow,” he said.

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: William Faulkner: Complete Novels

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