Town & Country

Following in the Fa(u)lkners’ footsteps.

William Faulkner with his niece Dean at her wedding reception at Rowan Oak, 1958

Who is Dean Faulkner Wells? The short answer: co-founder, with her husband Lawrence Wells, of Oxford, Mississippi’s Yoknapatawpha Press, which since 1975 has published the work of Southern writers. The long answer to the question? That takes some doing, which is what Wells does in Every Day by the Sun: A Memoir of the Faulkners of Mississippi (Crown).

“Where did I belong? Where were my people? Who was I?” Wells writes.

The italics are hers, and those were the questions she asked herself when she ran away from home as a young girl. She may have made it all of two blocks, but Wells at least made it out the door and away from her stepfather, James Meadow, whom she describes as “a fine journalist” but “a world-class drunk.” She’d already learned what whiskey on a man’s breath could mean. But here was a first: her stepfather hitting her mother, Louise. Wells packed her things, picked up her doll, and left. But she returned. And she’s returned to those italicized questions here in this memoir after admitting that she’s had to “struggle” to find her identity even into adulthood and especially now as the oldest surviving Faulkner in the Murry Falkner branch of her family — a family that happens to include William Faulkner, who happens to have been Wells’ uncle. More than uncle. She grew up calling him “Pappy.”

That’s because, four months before Wells was born, her father, Dean Faulkner, was killed in an airplane accident. The year was 1935, and Dean, age 28, was a proven pilot for Mid-South Airways, a regional flying service with headquarters in Memphis. On November 10th of that year, however, his plane — a four-seat Waco C cabin cruiser that was William Faulkner’s gift to his brother — went down west of Pontotoc, Mississippi, killing Dean and his passengers. Louis Hale Faulkner, Dean’s wife, was suddenly a widow, and William Faulkner was suddenly the closest thing to a father Dean Faulkner Wells ever had. He was her legal guardian. He took care of her financially. He housed her at times at his home in Oxford, Rowan Oak. He paid for her education at the University of Mississippi. And he gave her away in marriage to Wells’ first husband.

How much, though, did Wells, growing up, really know of her Nobel Prize-winning uncle? And how much do we learn of him and of this intricate family history? That spelling of “Faulkner” or “Falkner” is nowhere near as confusing as the terms Wells used (and uses) to refer to those family members. Her grandparents on her mother’s side are “Mama” and “Papa.” Her grandmother on her father’s side is “Nannie.” Her mother is “Wese.” Thank goodness, then, that Wells’ book carries a Faulkner family tree. More importantly, it carries within its pages the record of in some ways a charmed life, in other ways a life — the author’s — spent inside a family notable for its guardedness, what Wells calls a “crippling shyness,” and she shares in it. As she notes, at age 22: “I was far too full of self-doubt to think I could do anything on my own — certainly not earn a living. I had all the drive and self-confidence, ambition and get-up-and-go of a marshmallow.”

But she was pretty sure she could find a husband. And she did: a first husband, whose name she does not even mention in this memoir.
She does say that it seemed to Wells that her uncle lived two lives: “reclusive, shy, distant, and difficult to know” but never unkind to her. She also admits to his being a periodic binge drinker but one whom Wells never saw drunk. (Faulkner’s wife Estelle certainly did and he, her). Wells also doesn’t overlook the fact that Faulkner looked outside his troubled marriage for companionship: in the mid-1930s, with Meta Carpenter (a native Memphian and script supervisor in Hollywood for director Howard Hawks); with Memphian and writer Joan Williams (she was 20 and Faulkner was 52 when they met in 1949); and with writer Jean Stein in the mid-’50s, the third (Wells assumes) of Faulkner’s mistresses.

This, though, is not a point to dwell on here, and Wells doesn’t in her memoir. She stays busier recalling Faulkner’s fatherliness together with his high standards of etiquette — and of Estelle’s too: In the shoe department at Goldsmith’s, the Memphis department store, Wells once complained of sore feet, and it was Estelle Faulkner who reminded her niece, “A lady’s foot hurts, Dean, perhaps from dancing the night away or turning an ankle as she is helped down from a carriage, but both of them never hurt at the same time.”

Of Faulkner’s notable work as a writer, we hear from Wells surprisingly little, but she does quote from a delicious review of Sanctuary published in the Memphis Evening Appeal, which called Faulkner’s novel “an inhuman monstrosity of a book that leaves one with the impression of having been vomited bodily from the sensual cruelty of its page.”

Of Faulkner’s daughter, who died in 2008, we learn that “with her silky blond hair, icy hazel eyes, military bearing, and clipped, near-British accent, Jill was a formidable first cousin.”

Of Wells’ stepfather, James Meadow, we learn that he died an alcoholic in Chicago in 1963 on skid row.

Of Faulkner’s television habits: No TV was at Rowan Oak. But one was at a nearby Ole Miss faculty member’s house, which is where the Nobel laureate would visit Sunday nights, in time to watch his favorite show, Car 54, Where Are You?

And finally, of Wells being last in line in her branch of the family: “Now I am, one might say, the last primary source — and I don’t like anything about it.” But she’s dealt with it, written about it honestly in Every Day by the Sun; not so lovingly of today’s Oxford. According to Wells, in a footnote:

“When USA Today listed Oxford as one of the top five retirement communities in the country, the rush was on. Developers couldn’t get their cookie-cutter subdivisions built fast enough . . . McMansions and million-dollar condos for the rich, real rich, and wannabe rich. The fine old houses that Pappy had known vanished into dust and rubble overnight, their big old trees with them. His prediction that the Snopeses would conquer was all too true.”

 (photo Jay E. Nolan)
(photo Jay E. Nolan)

For further confirmation of the conquerers, see Ace Atkins’ The Ranger (Putnam). The town in Atkins’ latest novel is Jericho in Tibbehah County in northeast Mississippi. Shady land deals are the order of the day. Backwoods mobile homes house meth labs. The Aryan Brotherhood is a matter-of-fact. The Rebel Truck Stop is crawling with parking-lot prostitutes. And the sheriff, Hampton Beckett, is up to his neck in gambling debts. Or was. When The Ranger opens, he’s already stuck a .45 in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Or has he?
Welcome home, Quinn Colson (shades of Quentin Compson in The Sound and the Fury?), Beckett’s nephew and the army ranger of the book’s title.

Colson’s back in Jericho after seeing service in Iraq and Afghanistan. Good training, then, to face lawlessness and corruption and violence, which is what Colson encounters back home when a county supervisor (descendant of an illustrious family of moonshiners and dirt farmers) tries to rob him of the land that’s been in his family more than a hundred years.

Lucky that Colson’s got an upright mother. She’s caring for her grandchild, because Colson’s sister, Caddy (the child’s mother and shades of The Sound and the Fury?) is in Memphis working at Dixie Belles off Winchester. You can’t miss it. Look for the sign: “The South’s Finest Women, Amateur Contests, and Half-Price Lap Dances.”

Colson’s father? He abandoned the family years ago to work as a stuntman in Hollywood. And Colson’s buddy, Boom? He’s a vet with a missing arm, but he’s still got a great aim. There’s a female deputy sheriff too on the right side of the law, and she’s ready for Colson’s affections. But as for the remaining cast and crew in The Ranger: They’re shining examples, top to bottom, of the New South’s latest breed of the dishonorable and money-minded.

William Faulkner wrote about them, Dean Faulkner Wells reminds us of them, and Ace Atkins, who lives outside Oxford and last wrote on Memphis’ own Machine Gun Kelly in his true-crime novel Infamous, has his eye on them: the Snopeses of this world. Good, too, that Atkins knows an honorable man when he sees one — even if he has to invent him, in a fictional Mississippi county not unlike William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha: Tibbehah.

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