A portrait of William Faulkner by Artur Lopes
William Faulkner achieved more in the context of Southern literature than any other writer. He was awarded the Nobel Prize, two Pulitzers, two National Book Awards, and he was further immortalized by the USPS with a two-cent stamp with his image, including his ever-present pipe. He wrote poetry, screenplays, short stories, and novels, and achieved his greatest fame with tales of the fictional Yoknapatawpha County in the post-Civil War deep south.
He wasn't particularly impressed by those awards and accomplishments. His 17-year-old daughter learned about his Nobel only because she was told about it in school. Faulkner's Nobel Prize itself was found after his death in his home, Rowen Oak, his 33-acre estate in Oxford, Mississippi. It had been stored under a stairwell and forgotten.
His literary reputation grew in 1930, when he was 33, with his first short story published in a national magazine. It was called "A Rose for Emily," a story about Emily Grierson, a woman of southern antebellum aristocracy who lives alone after a failed love affair decades before in her youth. After her death, the corpse of her lover from so long ago is found in bed in her house, a gray hair on the pillow next to him, indicating that it was Emily's custom to sleep with the desiccated corpse.
It's one of the most important short stories of the 20th century but received little notice from the public, and his career was underway. He had published a few poems in campus publications at the University of Mississippi in Oxford before he dropped out after three semesters, and his first novel, Soldier's Pay, was written in 1925, but was rejected until heavy editing allowed acceptance. Faulkner didn't like to have his work edited, and he was disappointed. His second novel, Mosquitoes (1927) was set on a small cruise ship, and it wasn't particularly noticed by the literary world. Of interest to us, however, is Josh Robyn, a minor character who busies himself with fashioning a smoking pipe from blocks of wood and whatever odds and ends he can find. In fact, the ship is temporarily marooned because he inadvertently disables it while scavenging and removing parts from the engine for his pipe.
Faulkner's first novel set in Yoknapatawpha County is The Sound and the Fury (1929), a book many readers find difficult because of its stream-of-consciousness style and the shifting of narration among three main characters. He had insisted that his literary agent not permit any editing, not even the addition of clarifying punctuation. It was with this book that Faulkner truly found his southern literary voice.
Always seemingly in need of funds, he was expecting a large payment from his publisher for his book, Sanctuary (1931), but the publisher went out of business and Faulkner was left with nothing. He'd managed to purchase his estate, Rowan Oak, with the proceeds from his writings, but now he needed a quick financial solution and found that, although he didn't like it, he could make a respectable income by writing screenplays for Hollywood. He was paid $500 a week by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, approximately equivalent to $8,500 today. He contributed to the screenplay for Today We Live (1933), a drama starring Gary Cooper and Joan Crawford. He would work on 11 screenplays that were not produced and 12 screenplays that were, including The Big Sleep (1946), starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
He didn't like Hollywood, though, and during his many extended stays there always yearned to get back to Mississippi and write novels, of which he wrote a total of 13. The Hamlet (1940), The Town (1957), and The Mansion (1959) are among his most celebrated, and comprise the Snopes trilogy, detailing the adventures of the Snopes family, the most interesting and central member of which is Flem Snopes. The name alone provides an admirable description; it is perhaps the most perfect name ever given to a fictional character.
In The Hamlet, Flem is described as having "a broad still face containing a tight seam of mouth stained slightly at the corners with tobacco," and "eyes the color of stagnant water, and projecting from among the other features in startling and sudden paradox, a tiny predatory nose like the beak of a small hawk ... as though the original nose had been left off by the original designer or craftsman and the unfinished job taken over by someone of a radically different school or perhaps by some viciously maniacal humorist or perhaps by one who had had only time to clap into the center of the face a frantic and desperate warning."
Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County stories and novels revolve around various themes of lost southern aristocracy, how the past informs the present, desegregation, and societal expectations. They became part of a genre of southern literature, a genre that has expanded dramatically in the years since. Born in 1897 in Mississippi, his views on race were not progressive, and he felt that desegregation should be undertaken slowly so as not to destroy southern lifestyles. He did not believe in the equality of black people. Given his time and place, his opinions on race were sadly pedestrian.
Around his hometown of Oxford, Faulkner was known as Mr. Bill or Mr. Billy. He was quiet, and those who didn't know him wouldn't recognize that he was one of the most admired writers in the world, but it was a small town and many were intrigued by his reserved demeanor and global reputation. Contributing to his thoughtful personality was his pipe smoking.
He smoked almost constantly and was often seen buying tobacco at the local Rexall drug store. That's where Maxwell Graves met him when he was a student, not knowing who Faulkner was at first. Max became a lawyer in Oxford and as far as I know still is, though he has most likely retired. I was editing Pipes and tobaccos magazine when in 2002 we published his article about meeting and smoking with Faulkner.
Max was a 19-year-old college student in 1958 when he struck up a conversation with an older gentleman who was buying tobacco at the same time, and that gentleman turned out to be William Faulkner, though Max had no idea who he was at the time. They wandered onto the town square and met several times afterward for conversations about pipes, never about literature. Max reported that Faulkner was always smoking Comoy's pipes in traditional shapes and that he had a high regard for them, and at that time he was exclusively smoking Balkan Sobranie. Faulkner recommended The Tobacco Bowl in Memphis, TN, the shop where he bought his Comoy's pipes, and gave Max directions.
Faulkner held firm convictions about pipes and recommended to Max that he purchase English-made briars without metal stingers, unlike the Kaywoodie that Max was smoking. Faulkner didn't like filter pipes and said that a pipe smoker should adhere exclusively to the same tobacco for at least two weeks at a time, and that the tobacco be nonaromatic. He was a good listener and was enraptured by Max's stories about his eccentric uncle. He seems to have had a keen interest in family dynamics as well as pipes. Max said that his casual acquaintance with Faulkner was as with any pipe smoker one might randomly meet, their conversations mainly about pipes. If you're able to find a copy of the summer 2002 issue of Pipes and tobaccos, you'll find Max's story in full, along with an excellent profile of Faulkner by Fred Brown. You'll recognize the issue because Faulkner is on the cover.
Comoy's weren't Faulkner's only love. He particularly enjoyed Dunhills, according to Fred Brown's article. Fred interviewed William Griffith, curator of Rowan Oak, who said that Dunhills were Faulkner's favorite and that his favorite pipe tobacco was Dunhill's 965, but that he wasn't always able to get it and often bought Sir Walter Raleigh. We know he owned at least one Digby, because it was auctioned in 2012. It was one of a few pipes rescued from Rowan Oak after Faulkner's death in 1962 by his stepson, Malcolm Franklin.
One of Faulkner's tobaccos that I've been unable to specifically identify is Dunhill's mixture A10528, which Faulkner special ordered from the Dunhill store in Manhattan. According to scholar Joseph Leo Blotner in his book, Faulkner: A Biography (1974), A10528 had a base of Burley, to which was added "Turkish and Latakia for the flavor base; when finished it was a blend of thirteen different tobaccos, which sold for six dollars a pound. Faulkner would use other tobaccos, sometimes blending a mixture himself, but for the rest of his life this would be his staple."
Blotner also describes Faulkner's smoking process:
Taking a wooden match from a box held in a metal rectangle bearing RAF wings, he would push the diminishing tobacco down into the briar or corncob, relighting it until he would tap out the last fine gray ash. He was a constant smoker with a pipe almost always in hand except for mealtime and drinktime. Marc Connelly once declared that Faulkner used his pipe as a ploy, yet though it was true he filled and lit it with concentration and care – and doubtless it gave him time to think before answering questions – he was no tobacco engineer with a pocketful of cleaners, reamers, and filters; he was a man who loved tobacco as he did whiskey and horses.
Faulkner: a Biography, 1974
Blotner's excellent biography reveals an interesting anecdote about Faulkner's stay in Japan in 1955, where his work is still popular today: "One tangible memento was a gift from the students, a thick, heavy gray worsted kimono with one thoroughly un-Japanese modification: an inside pocket to accommodate the needs of a pipe smoker."
Others have also commented on Faulkner's pipe smoking, including James W. Webb, a resident of Oxford who remembered the author from childhood. In his book, William Faulkner of Oxford, he states that,
Bill and my Uncle Phil smoked pipes. I remember, as a little boy, seeing them load and tamp their pipes with a mixture, popular then, called Blue Boar. I remember this brand mostly because it came packed in a heavy, lead-foil wrapper which my uncle would give me when he had used up the package. After World War II, when I was discussing pipe tobacco mixtures with Mac Reed, he reached up on a shelf and took down a round tin of tobacco and told me to give it a trial. He said that Bill had asked him to stock it, several university students were also buying it. The name of the tobacco was Balkan Sobranie; it was, as I remember, an imported English mixture. At another time when I was visiting Malcolm and we were talking to Bill in his study — I think he referred to it as his office — he had a piece of newspaper spread on the table and was blending his own mixture.
William Faulkner of Oxford, 1965
Herman E. Taylor remembers instruction in pipe smoking from Faulkner in his book, Faulkner's Oxford: Recollections and Reflections,. Upon learning that Taylor had taken up pipes, Faulkner told him a story:
Mr. Billy said, "Once I knew an old man who smoked a pipe. He took great care in stuffing his pipe. The old man would start loading his pipe by putting just a pinch of tobacco in the bottom of the bowl. Then he would carefully smooth the tobacco around the bottom. Then he would put a little more tobacco in and do the same thing, almost as if he were laying shingle on a roof. He would keep this up just a little bit of tobacco each time, carefully spreading and leveling it around the bowl. After doing this as many times as necessary to fill the bowl up to about a quarter of an inch below the top of the bowl he would put his little finger in the bowl and gently tamp it down about another quarter of an inch.
"Finally, he would light a match and wait until it had burned away the smells and color of sulfur and the flame was exactly right and smelling only of burning wood, then he would move the match, now half-burned, around the bowl clockwise two or three times to be sure that the flame had lighted the tobacco evenly at every point in the bowl; and, as he circled the bowl with the match, he began to inhale just a little bit. He seemed to be merely breathing the smoke in and out instead of puffing and blowing. Puffing and blowing like a blacksmith's bellows would have made a ball of fire and overheated the pipe. The way he did it, the entire surface of the bowl let an even flow of smoke drift upward, and the fire could scarcely be seen. He kept on just sort of breathing the smoke in and out slowly and gently. After he got the pipe loaded and fired up, he could smoke that pipe on that load for four hours."
Faulkner's Oxford: recollections and reflections, 1990
Faulkner's brother John remembers that Faulkner smoked all his life. In his book, My Brother Bill: An Affectionate Reminiscence (1963) John says that Faulkner enjoyed blending his own tobacco. It's unusual for details about a famous person's smoking to be included in biographies, but John was a pipe smoker himself and took notice of those things: "He bought good pipes, like Dunhills, which were his favorite, and Ben Wades, Sasienis and the like. He was never a collector."
John reports that for some time Faulkner regularly sent his pipes off for professional cleaning and rejuvenation, but that he later stopped. "He'd buy six or eight new pipes, smoke them until they no longer tasted good to him and then give them away and buy six or eight more. He gave me several after he was through with them and I have them in my collection. I still smoke them."
Faulkner also liked variety and experimented with various combinations of tobaccos that he mixed himself, always buying several different tobaccos whenever he visited a pipe shop. "Bill smoked a heavy mixture usually, but in summer he'd cut it with Virginia bright to lighten it," writes John. "One trick he taught me was that if a mixture seems to go stale it can be brought back by crumbling up a light strength cigar in it ... Bill's pipes were all for smoking. Most of them were briers, for hard service, the kind of pipe a man smokes outdoors. I never knew him to have but one meerschaum and that was long ago when we lived on campus."
William Faulkner was imperfect, as all humans are. He was casually racist, he participated in numerous extramarital infidelities, and he couldn't handle money very well. But he did know his pipes, and he loved to share that knowledge with others; while his mark on the world of literature is indelible, his dedication to pipes is well remembered in smoke.
- "William Faulkner's Hollywood Odyssey," Garden and Gun
- K. Maxwell Graves, "Pipe-Smoking Friends," Pipes and tobaccos, summer 2002.
- Faulkner, John, My Brother Bill: An Affectionate Reminiscence, 1963
- Blotner, Joseph Leo, Faulkner: A Biography (1974)
- Taylor Herman E., Faulkner's Oxford: recollections and reflections,, 1990
- Webb, James W., William Faulkner of Oxford, 1965