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Friday, September 24, 2010

William Faulkner and The Sound and the Fury: It’s good that he didn’t wait “until publishing grows up”

Although William Faulkner was born toward the end of the nineteenth century (on September 25, 1897), the history of the publication of his most famous work, The Sound and the Fury, suggests he might have been right at home with the displays on the iPad, Kindle, and Nook.

His editor for The Sound and the Fury was Ben Wasson, a friend of Faulkner’s from the University of Mississippi. Wasson had migrated to New York to become a writer but his life changed when he started helping out his old friend. Even though he had never been a literary agent, Wasson succeeded in placing Flags in the Dust by “Bill” Faulkner with editor Harrison Smith at Harcourt. And, even though he had never edited a manuscript before, when Harcourt asked Wasson to cut Flags by twenty-five percent in two weeks, he did. He reports Faulkner’s reaction in his memoir, Count No ‘Count: Flashbacks to Faulkner: “You’ve done a good job. It ought to suit them.” Harcourt published the edited version as Sartoris in 1928.

When Harrison Smith left Harcourt to form Cape & Smith in December 1928, he hired Wasson. One of Wasson’s earliest acquisitions as a first-time editor was The Sound and the Fury. Months before, he had been the first person to read the manuscript. As he tells it in his memoir, Wasson turned in the edited version of Flags and the next morning Faulkner came to his room and dropped a large envelope on the bed: “Read this one, Bud. It’s a real son of a bitch.... This one’s the greatest I’ll ever write.” The next morning their enthusiastic discussion turned to the Benjy chapter. Wasson said he found it hard to follow. Faulkner agreed it was “demanding” but:
If I could only get it printed the way it ought to be with different color types for the different times in Benjy’s section recording the flow of events for him, it would make it simpler, probably. I don’t reckon, though, it’ll ever be printed that way, and this’ll have to be the best, with the italics indicating the changes of events.
The readability of the Benjy section kept bothering Wasson. In editing the novel he decided without consulting Faulkner to change all the italics to roman type and indicate time changes by line spaces. Faulkner first learned of this when he received the galley proofs. This prompted a long and scathing rebuke from Mississippi, of which the following is an excerpt:
I think italics are necessary to establish for the reader Benjy’s confusion; that unbroken-surfaced confusion of an idiot which is outwardly a dynamic and logical coherence.... I wish publishing was advanced to use colored ink for such.... But the form in which you now have it is pretty tough. It presents a most dull and poorly articulated picture to my eye. If something must be done, it were better to rewrite this whole section objectively, like the 4th section. I think it is rotten, as is. But if you won’t have it so, I’ll just have to save the idea until publishing grows up to it. Anyway, change all the italics.... And don’t make any more additions to the script, bud. I know you mean well, but so do I.
The Sound and the Fury was published on October 7, 1929, with surprisingly few typographical errors. In the early thirties the Grabhorn Press proposed a new edition with the Benjy section in three different colors to indicate time shifts. Newsweek writer Malcolm Jones, who also wondered recently what Faulkner might have done with e-books, noted that the author even prepared a copy for this edition, but the publisher “deemed the idea too expensive, and somehow Faulkner’s marked-up copy was lost, making it one of the missing grails of antiquarian book collectors.”

Read more at the official William Faulkner website.

Related LOA works: William Faulkner: Complete Novels

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