"Now I am, one might say, the last primary source -- and I don't like anything about it." Thus begins the memoir of Dean Faulkner Wells, the last direct inheritor of the genius that was William Faulkner, seen here as a talent among many in a distinctive American family. Dean writes with perspicacity, dry humor, and an accent that is also an inheritance -- idiosyncratic, educated, bemused and very southern.
Dean (named for her father) was not yet born when Dean Swift Faulkner, a barnstorming pilot, was killed in a flaming crash in an airplane given to him by his older brother, Bill. She would never know her father, and fate decreed that she would be raised by her mother Louise (Wese) and Uncle Bill, whom she called Pappy. Indeed, she was shepherded through life by the entire Faulkner clan and claims "there has never been a Poor Little Fatherless Child as spoiled as I." But her recollections of her lost father have the poignancy of Pappy's own voice, the child idealizing a beautiful man she could know only through the memories of others, a man who never needed a watch because he "lived every day of his life by the sun."
The author of other books about the Faulkner family, Dean runs Yoknapatawpha Press, dedicated to the work of southern writers. Her personal recollections stand as a testament to a way of life no longer possible and barely imaginable --- slow-paced, privileged and remarkably calm considering the dynamic characters who comprised her Oxford, Mississippi family.
It is also a portrait of the town, the site of Rowan Oak, the homestead Pappy established, and where Dean and the older generation and grandchildren communed in the warmth of heritage and tradition. Oxford latterly has become a haven for retirees, touted for its porches and southern charms; ironically, many fine houses were replaced, Wells tells us, with "McMansions." The town celebrated its most famous resident posthumously with a 500-pound statue, because they believed it would draw tourists to the town center. It was set in place by prison inmates, and Dean wryly observes, "I agreed with one of the inmates' observations that Pappy was one heavy mother."
The book inevitably recapitulates the life of Pappy himself. Through Dean's sharp eyes, we see the development of one of America's finest literary lights, who, after a brief obligatory stint in Europe, chose to go home and write about the people and the culture he knew best. He recreated Oxford and its surroundings as a humid, human fantasy of the Deep South and finally garnered a much-deserved Pulitzer. Pappy, known to the rest of the world as William, understood from an early age that writing was his destiny. He tried other work, often under duress, once working at his father's behest at the post office where he threw everything but first class letters in the trash and spent his time scribbling and ignoring the customers. He wrote AS I LAY DYING by hand in 47 days while working, nominally, as the night foreman at the university power plant. He was a notorious binge alcoholic who had to drink to the point of near-death whenever he finished a creative project. He was a lover of women and a trial to his spouse, Estelle.
But most importantly, he had a deep, grieved affection for the younger brother for whose death he felt responsible, and took his brother's only child, little Dean, under his wing. He saw her through childhood and her coming of age, led her down the aisle, and told his departed brother then that he had "done what I thought would please you, my brother."
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on March 28, 2011