Sunday, October 22, 2023

Shingles for the Lord

William Faulkner (1897–1962)
From William Faulkner: Stories

A man prepares to strike a wooden froe, which is lodged into a log, with a maul, c. 1900–20. Photograph by Bruce Washburn, probably taken in Harrison County, West Virginia. Courtesy West Virginia and Regional History Center. West Virginia University.
During the early years of the Second World War, William Faulkner was at his wits’ end. He was flat broke (“I have 60¢ in my pocket, and that is literally all”), he was dissatisfied with most of the stories he had been cranking out for magazines (“that’s what having to write not because you want to write but because you are harassed to hell for money does”), and even then he couldn’t find publishers for them (“I cant sell stories. Wrote 6 since Jan., sold one”). His frequent bouts of heavy drinking didn’t help. Frustrated and depressed, he lashed out in a letter to his agent, Harold Ober, in June 1942:
I know where the trouble lies in what I write now. I have been buried here for three years now for lack of money and I am stale. Even a military job will dig me up and out for a while. If I fail at [getting a commission], and can get some money, I am going somewhere for a while, probably to California and try for something in pictures, even $100 a week until I get back on my mental feet. I have been trying for about ten years to carry a load that no artist has any business attempting: oldest son to widowed mothers and inept brothers and nephews and wives and other female connections and their children, most of whom I dont like and with none of whom I have anything in common, even to make conversation about. I am either not brave enough or not scoundrel enough to take my hat and walk out: I dont know which. But if it’s really beginning to hurt my work, I will choose pretty damn quick.
The source of his financial woes, in large part, was his home in Oxford. In 1930, the year after he married Estelle, his childhood sweetheart, he purchased a crumbling antebellum house, named it Rowan Oak, and began renovating it. The couple had come close to marrying twelve years earlier, in 1918, but Estelle’s parents intervened and ensured that she went through with her engagement to Cornell Franklin, a friend of the family practicing law in Hawaii to whom she had been promised, rather than end up with a haughty would-be poet mocked as “Count No ’Count” by his fellow undergraduates. After living for several years in Hawaii and China, however, Estelle divorced Franklin and returned to Oxford with her two young children.

During the following decade, the Faulkners enjoyed windfalls from several sources: the sales of his stories during the early 1930s to such magazines as The Saturday Evening Post and Scribner’s, his intermittent $1,000-a-week screenwriting career in Hollywood, and the movie rights to his novels and stories (particularly Sanctuary and The Unvanquished). Faulkner expanded his holdings around Rowan Oak and acquired a 320-acre farm seventeen miles away that he called Greenfield Farm, where he installed his brother John as tenant manager. As the decade progressed, the Faulkner household strained to the breaking point; when he wrote in despair to Ober, the Rowan Oak residents and dependents included his and Estelle’s daughter, Jill; his widowed mother, Maud; his two stepchildren, Malcolm and Victoria; Victoria’s husband, William Fielden, and her daughter, Vicki; his widowed sister-in-law, Louise, and her daughter, Dean; Cornell’s son from his second marriage, Corney, visiting from China; the maid, Ludidelle “Boojack” Lester, and her daughter, Estelle; and any number of occasionally visiting friends and relatives.

By 1940, taxes and debt on all his property, combined with the obligations of supporting his expanded family, had become an overwhelming burden. He wrote to Random House publisher Robert Haas that his imminent financial commitments totaled nearly $10,000:
Obviously this is too high a rate of spending for my value as a writer, unless I hit moving pictures or can write at least six commercial stories a year. I am still convinced that I can do it, despite the fact that I have not so far. But as I said before, when I become convinced I cannot, I will liquidate what I am trying to hold on to. It’s probably vanity as much as anything else which makes me want to hold onto it. I own a larger parcel of it than anybody else in town and nobody gave me any of it or loaned me a nickel to buy any of it with and all my relations and fellow townsmen, including the borrowers and frank spongers, all prophesied I’d never be more than a bum.
He managed to postpone the day of reckoning for another two years. Barely able to sell one story, much less his goal of six per year, he faced the choice of enlisting in the military or returning to Hollywood. He traveled to Washington in the spring of 1942 and tried to get a commission with the Air Force: “They turned me down on application, didn’t say why, may have been age.” So instead he accepted a five-month, $300-per-week contract from Warner Bros. in July 1942.

During the weeks before he left for California, Faulkner finished one last magazine story and mailed it to Ober. “Of the seven stories Faulkner had done thus far in 1942,” contends biographer Joseph Blotner, “‘Shingles for the Lord’ was perhaps the best”; the editors at The Saturday Evening Post must have thought so, since they accepted it almost immediately. Just two days after he arrived in California, Faulkner learned they were sending him $1,000 for the story, and he forwarded the check to Oxford to pay off his most urgent debts. It would be the last Faulkner story to appear in a major magazine for seven years.

Featuring several characters who populate the Yoknapatawpha County of Faulkner’s other novels and stories, “Shingles” comically portrays a trio of men who have volunteered their labor to split shingles for the roof of their church but who spend much of their time bickering over the value of their labor and the ownership of a hunting dog—a squabble that at times reads like a vaudeville act. Res Grier, whose ten-year-old son narrates the tale, comes up with a plan to outwit one of the other two farmers. Faulkner scholar John T. Matthews has noted how the opening scene, in which the three men argue over the number of lost “work units” when Grier shows up two hours late, echoes some of Faulkner’s letters obsessing over how his own labor might be used to pay the bills, like one he sent in 1940 to Bennett Cerf, his editor at Random House:
Harold Ober, agent, has been holding my short stories for best prices. I suggested to him that he sell them for whatever he can get. I wrote another last week, and will keep on at it. If I can get another $1,000.00 for one of them, it will carry me through Oct. 1. If I can sell two of them, I can raise mortgage I had to put on my mules, and sell some of the mules. If I can get through to Nov. 15, I will begin to collect on my cotton and tenant crops, etc, though because of excessive rain in June-July, this crop will be only 40%.
“Within his own career,” Matthews notes, “frequently in the same moment, Faulkner suffers the great divide between autonomous modernist master and cultural laborer in Hollywood and magazine marketplace.” The story’s focus on “the arbitrary valuation of labor” mirrors how Faulkner had come to think of his own work.

In 1957, Faulkner read the story to an appreciative audience at the University of Virginia. Afterwards he was asked by a member of the audience what “lumber” he used to build the story—how did he “shape it to make it different” from real life? “Well, these people that I know, they are my people, and I love them,” he answered. “They might well have—have done this. I just got to it before they did.”

Notes: The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was a New Deal agency that employed millions of Americans to work on infrastructure projects during the 1930s. A fyce (also, fice or feist) is a small dog. After Faulkner’s story was published a reader wrote to the editors to argue pedantically that anyone wielding a froe in the manner employed by Res Grier would splinter the shingle. Faulkner responded, “I just took what I thought was a minor liberty in order to tell the story. I didn’t consider the liberty important and still dont. But I regret sincerely having offended anyone’s sense of fitness, and I will be doubly careful from now on to be explicit in facts. . . . I hope you got some pleasure from the story to balance some of the irritation.”

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Pap got up a good hour before daylight and caught the mule and rid down to Killegrew’s to borrow the froe and maul. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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