Memory Believes before Knowing Remembers: William Faulkner, John Faulkner and My Brother Bill

By Watson, James G. | The Mississippi Quarterly, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview
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Memory Believes before Knowing Remembers: William Faulkner, John Faulkner and My Brother Bill


Watson, James G., The Mississippi Quarterly


JOHN FAULKNER BEGAN WRITING MY BROTHER BILL almost immediately after William Faulkner's death on July 6, 1962, and completed the manuscript shortly before his own death in March of the following year. In the aftermath of the funeral, John writes, "memories began flooding in of Bill and our boyhood. One memory brought to life another till my life was filled anew with forgotten scenes from my years, in all sixty-one of which Bill has played his part. It was then I decided it was time for me to write about my brother Bill." (1) Those linked memories describe not only the content of the book but the form it was to take in the months following. Subtitled by the publisher "An Affectionate Reminiscence," (2) My Brother Bill draws upon individual and group memory, family legend and communal mythology. The oral quality associated with reminiscence accords with the book's anecdotal, episodic nature. A professional story teller and novelist himself, John had begun writing in the late 1930s and in the 1940s published five magazine stories and the novels Men Working (1941) and Dollar Cotton (1942). Chooky (1950), a book of stories about children, was followed by a series of five novels set in Beat Two of Lafayette County, where John lived for two years while managing his brother's Greenfield Farm. The Beat Two novels detail the comic antics of North Mississippi hill people who "made their own whiskey from their own corn and didn't see why that could be anybody else's business. They fought over elections and settled their own disputes" (MBB, p. 177). The novels are Cabin Road (1951), Uncle Good's Girls (1952), The Sin Shouter of Cabin Road (1955), Ain't Gonna Rain No More (1959), and Uncle Good's Week-End Party (1960). According to one source, John's paperback series sold between 2,000,000 and 2,500,000 copies, far out-stripping his brother's sales then. (3)

My Brother Bill retains the loose narrative form John successfully adopted in the Beat Two series. The book falls roughly into three sections. It opens with stories about the childhood of the three and then four Falkner brothers to about 1911, (4) their parents and grandparents, their relatives and their friends, townspeople and servants. The middle chapters are devoted to the years between childhood and early adulthood, when the brothers began to be separated by military service and marriage, by their occupations and professions, and then by the death of the youngest brother, Dean Swift Falkner, in 1935. With the death of Murry Falkner in 1932, his eldest son assumed the role of family patriarch, taking responsibility for his mother, his wife and her children and their families, and for a time in the late 1930s for John's family too. The concluding chapters depict him as such in the twenty-five years from about 1938, when Faulkner acquired Bailey's Woods and Greenfield Farm, until his death in 1962. He and John were more or less together in Oxford then, yet they were separated by Faulkner's relative wealth and, after 1950, by his international standing as Nobel laureate.

The first and longest stage in John's account of their sixty-one years together retains the hero worship of a younger brother for his eldest sibling. John calls him by his early childhood name, Memmie, and Memmie/Bill is represented in the opening twelve chapters as the imaginative leader of a close-knit community of children, a big brother who invents risky games, designs and pilots an airplane made of garden stakes, and devises entrepreneurial schemes for selling men's collars and bluing. The second section extends Faulkner's youthful fondness for guises and disguises to the roles of RAF veteran, Boy Scout leader, and irresponsible postmaster, but he begins to travel beyond Oxford now, and beyond John--to Canada in 1918, to Europe in 1925, and beginning in the early-1930s to Hollywood. He marries, gains a reputation as a serious writer and assumes his role as head of family. Remembering his brother as he moved beyond and then back to the community of Oxford, John portrays him in the final five chapters as a nominally alienated stranger in his home town.

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Memory Believes before Knowing Remembers: William Faulkner, John Faulkner and My Brother Bill
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