Manuscripts Etc.


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The following items are drawn from the William Faulkner Foundation Collection at the University of Virginia's Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library (
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Absalom, Absalom!

Considered by many not just Faulkner's greatest book but also the supreme achievement of American Modernist fiction, Absalom, Absalom! is at the same time typical in the way Faulkner constructed it from a number of his earlier published and unpublished texts. The most obvious of these is The Sound and the Fury, where three of Absalom's narrators - Quentin Compson, his father, and his Harvard roommate Shreve - had all appeared earlier, along with Luster, the young black servant in the Compson household. (Typical too is the way Faulkner seems to have forgotten Shreve's original last name - it is McKenzie, not McCannon - and confused Luster, who was not born until after Quentin's death, with one of his uncles, Versh or T.P.) How readers should understand the intertextual relationship between these two great novels is one of the most provocative questions in Faulkner criticism. It will not be addressed here

Here we'll look at some of the pre-texts that contributed to Absalom, though we are missing some important pieces. Faulkner's final manuscript version of the novel, for example, is in the Harry Ransome Center at the University of Texas, and unavailable to us. But that manuscript came late in the long creative process behind the novel. The documentary track of that process stretches back at least a decade, probably even before Faulkner's decision to move from New Orleans to Oxford and to start writing stories about the imaginary place he eventually decided to call Yoknapatawpha. Below are the first ten pages of the unpublished 37-page typescript of "The Big Shot," which Faulkner wrote in the mid- to late-1920s. The inserted page "4-A" indicates that this was a revised typescript, and the way he typed his name and new address on the first page tells us this typescript was prepared to submit to the magazines. All five of the periodicals Faulkner sent it to rejected the story. It has, however, several claims on our attention. Its first five pages introduce and develop a character named Popeye, who already is recognizable as the Popeye in Faulkner's fourth Yoknapatawpha novel, Sanctuary, though there Faulkner relocates him from New Orleans to Memphis. The remaining pages here, about the "big shot" himself, are part of process that led Thomas Sutpen. Like Sutpen, Dal Martin is a poor white who rises to wealth and power, and his ascent is precipitated by traumatic scene at the front door of a plantation big house that is almost identical to Sutpen's in Chapter 7 of Absalom (pages 6-9 below). The scenes are so similar that Faulkner may have been looking at this yellowing typescript when, almost a decade later, he wrote that part of the novel. But there is a very significant difference between Martin's and Sutpen's story: as you can tell from this excerpt, the trajectory of Martin's story leads him - and Faulkner's imagination - into an unmistakably modern urban underworld, rather than into the Old Southern plantation aristocracy that Faulkner is exploring in the novel. In that respect, Martin's story also points toward Flem Snopes'.

Page 1, Big Shot Ts     Page 2, Big Shot Ts     Page 3, Big Shot Ts     Page 4, Big Shot Ts     Page 4-A, Big Shot Ts

Page 5, Big Shot Ts     Page 6, Big Shot Ts     Page 7, Big Shot Ts     Page 8, Big Shot Ts     Page 9, Big Shot Ts

Thomas Sutpen himself first appears in the short story "Evangeline," which Faulkner unsuccessfully sent out to at least two magazines in July, 1931. Like "The Big Shot" and the non-Yoknapatawpha story "Mistral," the frame narration of this story involves two young 20th-century men, an unnamed narrator and Don, whom critics have seen as precursors to the role that the Quentin and Shreve pairing will play in Absalom. The story that Don discovers at the dead Colonel Sutpen's decaying plantation includes a son named Henry, a daughter named Judith, and a suitor from New Orleans named Charles Bon, whom Henry kills in the last shot fired in the Civil War. There's no suggestion of Sutpen's poor white origins or Bon's "Negro blood," and in this rehearsal for the novel Bon and Judith actually marry, but there are many other common elements: Bon is already married to a non-white woman whose photograph he substitutes for Judith's in the metal case he carries to war, Sutpen tumbles out of his coffin on the way to the graveyard, Henry hides in the big house for many years until it is destroyed by fire. The surviving manuscript of the story is in the Rowan Oak Papers at the University of Mississippi Library, and so also unavailable to us - but Joseph Blotner published "Evangeline" in William Faulkner: Uncollected Stories, so you can decide for yourself how this version of Sutpen's story does and doesn't resemble the one we find in the novel.

A couple years after "Evangeline," Faulkner wrote "Wash," the story that seems directly to have inspired him to write the novel. Faulkner sold "Wash" to Harper's Magazine at the end of 1933, and either just before or just after it was published there in February 1934 he began writing Absalom. Sutpen appears again here, along with his daughter Judith and an unnamed son who, this time, was killed in the Civil War. There's still no suggestion of Sutpen's lower-class origin, but into this version of his story Faulkner introduces Wash Jones, a poor white hanger-on at the Sutpen plantation, and Jones' grandddaughter, and the great-granddaughter whose birth results in Sutpen's death at Wash's hands almost exactly as it does in Absalom. Race is a, if not the central focus of "Evangeline"; class is the issue at the heart of "Wash." Absalom, of course, will combine these thematic concerns. The manuscripts and typescript of "Wash" is in the Brodsky Collection at the Center for Faulkner Studies at Southeast Missouri State University; the Special Collections Library at SEMO has generously given us permission to display five pages of that material; they are available at the "Manuscripts Etc." display for "Wash."  Faulkner himself published "Wash" in Collected Stories, so you can see how closely it anticipates the end of Chapter 8 in Absalom.

When Faulkner began writing the novel that February, his title for it was "The Dark House." By the summer he had a new title, "Absalom, Absalom," a great many pages of manuscript, and one chapter he said he liked. But in August he told Hal Smith, his publisher and editor, that he was probably going to put it aside: "I believe the book is not quite ripe yet; that I have not gone my nine months, you might say." In the end, his long labor on the book lasted about twenty-nine months - or ten years, if we start counting with "The Big Shot."  As Joseph Blotner notes, he "continued revising right to the end of the [final] typescript." Over that culminating two-and-a-half year gestation, he struggled with repeated cashflow crises, the death of his brother Dean (for which he felt partly responsible), and a change in publishers.

Only a part of this last act in the novel's composition is revealed by the specific Absalom materials in the Faulkner Foundation Collection: a 16-page typescript of Chapter One, the final 463-page typescript of the whole novel, and a 2-page handwritten "Chronology." None of these items are dated, but it seems likely that Faulkner prepared the two typescripts about a year apart. At the end of March, 1935, after putting Absalom aside to write a number of short stories to generate income as well as Pylon (1935), a non-Yoknapatawpha novel about airplane racers, he went back to the Sutpen story in earnest. As Blotner notes, at this point Faulkner continued to use the new "procedure he had followed in the composition of Pylon": instead of waiting until a complete manuscript had been through its last draft before typing it out, he made a typescript of each chapter as soon as he finished it - sending it to Smith one chapter at a time. Chapter One reached his publisher before the end of April. The eight pages below are probably from that earliest typescript. Most of the handwritten comments and revisions on them - including the second title, "Faulkner New Novel" - are in Smith's hand, though among them are some by Faulkner himself, responding to his editor's suggestions or complaints. These comments record a story-within-the-story that probably every reader who has struggled with the demands of the novel's style can appreciate. On page 2 below, for example, Smith notes in the margin that "Almost anyone would get lost in this sentence"; his penciled remedy includes moving part of it around and adding a number of commas. On the last page here, page 14, Smith complains that Faulkner is asking too much of his reader: "Plenty of what? You don't find out till page 24 - & that's too long for anyone to hang on." The most interesting exchange occurs on pages 8 and 9, over the moment in Chapter One where Faulkner anticipates Quentin's conversation with his father some hours after the rest of the chapter. On page 9, Smith objects that this "evening" event "couldn't" have been part of Quentin's visit in "the afternoon." In a written reply (that Smith almost certainly could not have ever seen) Faulkner defends himself, but not does really address the impossibility that Smith tried to call his attention to.

Page 1,  Absalom Chapter 1 Typescript       Page 2, Absalom  Chapter 1 Typescript       Page 3, Absalom Chapter 1 Typescript       Page 8, Absalom Chapter 1 Typescript

Page 9,  Absalom Chapter 1 Typescript       Page 10, Absalom Chapter 1 Typescript       Page 11, Absalom Chapter 1 Typescript       Page 14, Absalom Chapter 1 Typescript

On the eight pages above you can see the numerous places where Smith proposed cuts or revisions. A comparison of this typescript with the published text shows that in a few cases Faulkner simply accepted his editor's suggestions. More often, he himself made changes that were probably prompted by Smith's comments (for example, he revised his use of paragraphing and parentheses to set Quentin's conversation with Mr. Compson more clearly apart from his visit to Miss Rosa - though he never provided an explanation of how Quentin could have been aware in the afternoon of what his father wouldn't say until the evening). Most often, though, Faulkner simply ignores Smith's advice. What Blotner calls this "author-editor give-and-take" continues on the next typescript, which Faulkner prepared in the spring of 1936 and which his new publisher used as the setting copy for the printers. His new publisher was Bennett Cerf's Random House, which absorbed Smith & Haas after that firm ran out of money - in part because of the funds Smith had advanced Faulkner over the years. But Cerf hired Hal Smith to continue as Faulkner's editor, so the comments in the margins of the pages below, and many of the proposed revisions on the text itself, are Smith's.  He continued to try to convince Faulkner to make more accommodations to his reader: "This page seems very confusing" he writes on page 55; "Can't you cut some of [this]" he asks on page 59; and he exclaims "Too much!" - meaning too convoluted, latinate and difficult - next to a passage on page 100 that he crosses out.  Again, however, comparing these four pages with the published text shows that Faulkner refused to take most of the advice that Smith was giving, as is also the case elsewhere in the whole 463-page typescript. Smith seems to have realized this himself: throughout the first half of the typescript he makes frequent comments, but says almost nothing after that.

Page 25,  Absalom Typescript Setting Copy       Page 25,  Absalom Typescript Setting Copy       Page 59,  Absalom Typescript Setting Copy       Page 100,  Absalom Typescript Setting Copy

As a critic and someone who has had his own experiences with editors, I admire Faulkner's stubbornness, his faith in his own genius. (When he gave an acquaintance in Hollywood the finished manuscript to read, he called it "the best novel yet written by an American" - making him the first but not the only person to say that.) As a teacher who has asked several generations of students to read Absalom, Absalom! and watched them struggle with and often be defeated by its challenges, however, I confess that I appreciate Hal Smith's desire to make the story it tells about America and especially the South more accessible, and so available to more readers. And Faulkner wasn't indifferent to this concern. When someone at Random House, probably Smith, suggested that the published novel should provide a more explicit version of the novel's events, Faulkner willingly created the three ancillary texts that appear as appendices: the Chronology, the Genealogy and the map of Yoknapatawpha. Below, in Faulkner's handwriting, is a "Chronology." Although it differs in a few ways from the one published in 1936 (and even more from the revised Chronology that Faulkner scholar Noel Polk prepared in 1990 for the Library of America's edition of the novel, which is now the standard version), it was almost certainly created by Faulkner in 1936 as a way to help readers orient themselves among the novel's narrative ambiguities and stylistic challenges. (For a full comparison of the various manuscript and published Chronologies, see

Page 1, Faulkner's Chronology       Page 2, Faulkner's Chronology

SOURCE: Joseph Blotner, Faulkner: A Biography.

      Citing this source:
Stephen Railton, "Manuscripts &c: Absalom, Absalom!" Digital Yoknapatawpha, University of Virginia, (Date added to project: 2018)