"Uncle Willy" (Text Key 3668)

short story

Partially inspired by the life and death of a real Oxford druggist, "Uncle Willy" was probably written in the first part of 1935, during a time when Faulkner was even more desperately in need of money than usual. He wrote to his agent upon placing "That Will Be Fine" in the American Mercury magazine: "Good God yes, let them have the story and do anything they want with it, just so I get the money soon as possible. . . . I am writing two stories a week now. I don’t know how long I can keep it up." He was also finishing the novel Pylon while still struggling with Absalom, Absalom! By any standard, the mid-1930s were highly productive years for Faulkner as an artist, if not as a wage-earner; he hoped to sell his stories for as much as he could get but often had to settle for getting what he could. Such was the case with "Uncle Willy," which appeared in the October 1935 issue of American Mercury. When editor Robert Haas suggested in the late 1940s that they should publish a collection of Faulkner's short fictions, the author said of "Uncle Willy," "Yes. I like this one." Writing to Malcolm Cowley, Faulkner averred that "even in a collection of short stories, form, integration, is as important as to a novel": In Collected Stories (1950), "Uncle Willy," with its combination of comedy, social satire, moral ambiguity, and violent death, moves "The Village" section from the casualties of "Elly" to Mannie Hait’s triumph in "Mule in the Yard." Faulkner retells Willy's story in The Town (1957), where the robbery of Christian’s drug store proves the undoing of Montgomery Ward Snopes.

Dating the Story: Although the text does not specify any years, Faulkner does include two different kinds of cues to help us date it. The first is to an event from his own fiction, when the narrator refers to the time "last summer" when "they took a country man named Bundren to the asylum at Jackson" (228); this happens at the end of the novel As I Lay Dying (1930). The second is to American politics, when Uncle Willy complains about "these Republicans and Democrats" and their "XYZ's" (241), which almost certainly refers to the various new federal agencies that President Franklin Roosevelt introduced after he took office in 1933. Based on these two referents, we speculate that Uncle Willy's story begins in 1931, and covers a two-year period in the unnamed narrator’s youth. Taken unwillingly off morphine, Willy spends 1932 nurturing an addiction to alcohol and visiting Memphis prostitutes on the weekends; in 1933 he marries one of these and brings her back to Jefferson, after which he is involuntarily committed to the Keeley Institute for treatment of alcoholism. He escapes, buys a car and an airplane, and dies shortly thereafter. The narrator is recounting the story from an unspecified time after Willy's death. Strict accounting would put the present tense of the narration in 1935, the year in which the story was published; that is the date we are using, but the ambiguity of its narrator’s tone in the relation of his experience raises some questions about that choice.

References: Joseph Blotner, William Faulkner: A Biography, Blotner, ed., Selected Letters of William Faulkner.

First Publisher: 
American Mercury
First Publisher Date: 
October 1935
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Edit Copy Publisher: 
Vintage International
Edit Copy Publisher Location: 
New York
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How to cite this resource:
Railton, Stephen, and Theresa M. Towner. "Faulkner's 'Uncle Willy.'" Added to the project: 2017.  Additional editing 2020-2021: Theresa M. Towner, Jennie J. Joiner, Johannes H. Burgers. Digital Yoknapatawpha, University of Virginia, http://faulkner.iath.virginia.edu