One morning in the late spring of 1962, William Faulkner rode his horse Stonewall across his property, following a bridle path through a forested area known as Bailey’s Woods. When he reached the clearing containing the ruins of the family’s abandoned ice plant, he turned back toward home. But according to the story Joseph Blotner recounts in his biography of Faulkner, Stonewall—known to be a skittish, intractable horse—was suddenly spooked by something and bucked, throwing his rider into the dirt.
As Blotner reports it, Stonewall returned to Faulkner and nuzzled him. It seems that the horse felt some remorse, albeit short-lived. Faulkner tried to grab the reins, but Stonewall moved out of reach and disappeared down the bridle path, leaving the writer to limp toward home on his own.
He found Stonewall waiting for him back at Rowan Oak, his estate in Oxford, Mississippi. Though he was in severe pain, Faulkner climbed into the saddle for the second time that day and rode over a course of jumps. When a doctor later told him that he could have killed himself getting back on the horse, Faulkner replied, “You don’t think I’d let that damned horse conquer me, do you?… I had to conquer him.”
Faulkner was no stranger to unruly horses, and he’d taken several dangerous falls in his life. But he was 64, and this fall from Stonewall left him with back pain that wouldn’t relent. By early July, the pain had become so severe that he checked into Wright’s Sanitarium, in Byhalia, Mississippi. Later that same night he awoke, sat up on the side of his bed, gave a groan and collapsed. It was shortly after midnight, July 6, 1962, and William Faulkner, one of the twentieth century’s most crucial authors, was dead.
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In commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of Faulkner’s death, the Modern Library has reissued six volumes of his fiction. The set, amounting to nearly 3,000 pages, includes a volume of short stories, along with the novels As I Lay Dying, Absalom, Absalom!, The Sound and the Fury, Light in August and the Snopes trilogy, comprising The Hamlet, The Town and The Mansion. The novels have been outfitted with new forewords written by E.L. Doctorow, Marilynne Robinson, John Jeremiah Sullivan and C.E. Morgan. An introduction to the Snopes trilogy by George Garrett is reprinted from the 1994 Modern Library edition.
These writers are in agreement that Faulkner is one of this country’s literary giants. He “uses language as brilliantly as anyone who has ever put pen to paper,” says Robinson in her foreword to The Sound and the Fury. In his foreword to As I Lay Dying, Doctorow pays tribute to Faulkner’s “supreme achievement.” Morgan argues that Light in August joins Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Moby-Dick as one of a handful of “Great American Novels.” Garrett lauds “the rich variety of Faulkner’s method, his endlessly inventive ways and means of telling stories.”
But amid all this praise for Faulkner, there are occasional hints of unease. Faulkner’s artistry is described with modifiers like “radical,” “demanding” and “overreaching.” Robinson notes that from the beginning of The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner “would seem to have deprived himself of elements of narrative that are most essential to it.” Morgan compares Light in August (along with its fellow Great American Novels) to a rich meal that “can overwhelm or even sicken the stomach.” Sullivan tells us that Faulkner breaks the rules that are taught in creative writing workshops by intervening with “descriptive terms between the reader’s imagination and the scene.”