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"Dearest Bill"

Joan Williams and William Faulkner: an affair to remember.



In August 1949, Joan Williams, a student at Bard College, just north of New York City, was back home in Memphis for the summer. Her short story "Rain Later," winner of Mademoiselle magazine's college fiction contest, appeared the same month, and she'd just read William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, a book that astonished her. Williams' good friend Kenneth Orgill Jr. had suggested she read it, and it was Orgill who also suggested they drive to Oxford to pay Faulkner a visit. Maybe Regina Moore Holley, Williams' cousin, could talk her husband, John Holley, into making the introductions.

John Holley grew up in Oxford. He'd known Faulkner and his wife, Estelle, since he was a child. But Regina Holley's aunt in Senatobia knew Faulkner too. "Irresponsible, a drinker, and someone to avoid" is how Ethel Moore described the famous author. "I really don't care to have company" is how John Holley interpreted Faulkner's excuse for the afternoon: Going to the lake (meaning Sardis), to sail, is what Faulkner said.

But Faulkner didn't go to Sardis that day. He was, in fact, at home -- at Rowan Oak, in a pasture with his horses -- when Williams, Orgill, and the Holleys disregarded the "No Trespassing" sign at the head of Rowan Oak's tree-lined drive. Surprised to find Faulkner, Holley said a few words to him, and Faulkner agreed to say a few words to those waiting in the car.

Williams was mortified, and she wrote Faulkner a letter of apology. Faulkner re-sponded kindly -- more than kindly. He was drawn by the talent displayed in the letter, and he was drawn to the letter writer, a young writer down from Memphis -- an attractive woman with red hair and brown-green eyes. Letters between them continued. A relationship -- Joan Williams, age 20; William Faulkner, age 51 -- evolved. It would last for four years. Lisa C. Hickman, in her study of that relationship, William Faulkner and Joan Williams (McFarland & Co.), subtitles it "The Romance of Two Writers."

A romance. Faulkner saw it that way or hoped to see it come to that -- he who was in the midst of an unhappy but ongoing marriage; he who was at a career low in the late 1940s, his literary achievements, he feared, unrecognized, and his best writing, he more than feared, behind him. He was also at this time a repeat patient at Memphis' Gartly-Ramsay Hospital, described in The Commercial Appeal in 1937 as "a place for the care and rest of nervous patients and those chronically ill." The problems that brought him there: drinking, depression, back pain, and a Seconal habit. Was Joan Williams a symptom to add to that list or part of a cure? Could Faulkner, Hickman writes (and Faulkner apparently believed), be Pygmalion to Williams' Galatea?

He could serve as suitor, lover, mentor, and father figure, and she could be, in his own words, "maid" and "maiden," in addition to muse and object of desire -- someone to write not only to but for. And she, who writes in one letter to Faulkner, "I don't want to play bridge, go to the Peabody, swim at somebody's club, and [go] to the movies!!!," could learn what it takes to become a writer of substance.

He would answer but not with lessons in literary technique. Shed your provincialism, escape the middle-class norms, he repeatedly advised, and he extended those freedoms to include sexual generosity. Face the uncertainty of what you're writing and write anyway. Perseverance is all. Loneliness, though unacceptable, is unconquerable, unless it's loneliness you can share -- a conclusion that Williams, in an interview with Hickman when the author was herself past middle age, reached as well:

"Now . . . I understand his feelings of loneliness; that he chose solitariness over being with the 'wrong people.' I was someone with whom he felt comfortable."

The question is whether Williams was entirely comfortable with Faulkner the man and his married status, his sexual advances (never reciprocated by Williams to the degree Faulkner longed for), and his pressure on her to write as he would have her write. But after she ended their affair in 1951, she did write: five novels -- one of them, The Morning and the Evening, a National Book Award finalist in 1961 -- a short-story collection, and several pieces of nonfiction. She also married, in Memphis in 1954, Ezra Bowen, a writer for a startup magazine called Sports Illustrated, and gave birth to two sons.

Williams died in 2004, but during the last 11 years of Williams' life, Lisa Hickman, a Faulkner scholar and teacher at Christian Brothers University, got to know not only the work of Williams as well as anyone, she got to know the woman herself. In 1993, Hickman was preparing an article for Memphis magazine on Faulkner's medical treatment at the Gartly-Ramsay Hospital. She contacted Williams, who invited Hickman to Oxford, where she was living.

"I wouldn't describe Joan as guarded during that first meeting," Hickman says, "but she was fairly focused on the subject at hand: Faulkner's mental state. She wanted me to convey her opinion that Faulkner was not an alcoholic -- a 'shambling drunk.' She felt he increasingly was being portrayed as such, and that bothered her. When I asked her questions about her relationship with Faulkner, however, she was not forthcoming. I had my son James, who was 12 at the time, with me, and I said to him, 'James, do you see where all my great questions get me?' Joan really laughed at that, and the ice was broken."

A door was also open to some primary, unpublished source material. It led to William Faulkner and Joan Williams.

"I know Joan gave me an enormous gift when she trusted me with her letters to Faulkner, with her copies of Faulkner's letters to her, but mostly with her time," Hickman says. "My book wouldn't have been possible, or wouldn't have been the same book, if we hadn't developed a strong friendship. We spent time together outside of the interview process. We enjoyed each other's company. Joan understood the life of a writer from every possible aspect, and I learned so much about writing -- the difficulty, the uncertainty, and the rejection that goes with it. She, conversely, expected me to accomplish what I set out to do with this book. She could be a real taskmaster."

The public can be taskmasters too when it comes to interest in the Faulkner-Williams affair, an affair that has too often overshadowed Williams' work. Hickman understands the public's interest, but patience has its limits:

"It's tiring to point out over and over Joan's literary legacy and then have someone reduce it to 'Didn't she have an affair with William Faulkner?' It's that sexism that I find extremely trying, and it's past time for Joan to assume her rightful place in the distinguished roster of Southern women writers.

"And yet self-confidence eluded her," continues Hickman. "Joan once said, 'No one is interested in my 'quiet' little stories.' But it's that quiet that evokes an emotional depth often untapped by writers.

"William Faulkner and Joan Williams has been a long journey. I just wish Joan were here to share in it all."

I, who met Joan Williams through Lisa Hickman, wish it too.

Shelf Life

In 1992, nationally recognized novelist, short-story writer, and University of Memphis professor Richard Bausch made his own pilgrimage to Oxford to view Rowan Oak and to visit his editor Seymour Lawrence. Lawrence had a house in Oxford, which he shared with his companion of 10 years, Joan Williams. In the foreword to William Faulkner and Joan Williams, Bausch writes of that visit, of his admiration for Williams and her work, and of a friend, novelist and short-story writer Richard Ford, who lived in Oxford too at the time.

Will coincidences never cease? Apparently no, because Bausch's most recent novel, Thanksgiving Night, follows a family over the four months in 1999 leading up to that holiday, and Richard Ford's latest novel, The Lay of the Land (Knopf), follows a man over a matter of days leading up to the same holiday. That man is Frank Bascombe. You remember him from Ford's The Sportswriter (1986) and Independence Day (1996), winner of the Pulitzer Prize. You also remember him as a sportswriter turned real estate agent, but in this update, you'll know him as a 55-year-old being treated for prostate cancer but still selling houses in New Jersey and still grappling with the lay of the land -- the "land" being Bascombe's life and American life a month before the millennium. At nearly 500 pages, that's a lot of grappling. But you'll recognize and appreciate every stab at understanding Bascombe makes. Or could Ford have used an editor to trim things a bit? Someone, say, along the lines of the late Seymour Lawrence? 

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