EVERY DAY BY THE SUN: A MEMOIR OF THE FAULKNERS OF MISSISSIPPI
By Dean Faulkner Wells
Crown, $25, 272 pages
Dean Faulkner Wells, the last survivor of her generation of the Faulkners of Mississippi, regards the worst and the best in her life as having happened four months before she was born.
In November 1935 her 28-year-old father, Dean Swift Faulkner, a pilot barnstorming over enraptured townspeople in the South and Midwest, flew his single-engine Waco biplane into the ground near Pontotoc, Miss., killing himself and three passengers who had paid him a dollar each to see their farms with the eyes of eagles.
His death deprived her of a father but placed her at the center of the creative Faulkner family: “Cherished as an extension of my father, I have had to struggle to find my own identity.” Dean Swift Faulkner, born 1907, was the youngest of the four Faulkner brothers, defying death in an open cockpit with a silk scarf blowing in the wind at his throat. He was the beloved little brother of the man who would become, arguably, the most acclaimed novelist of the 20th century.
Dean Faulkner Wells set out to write a memoir of the famous first family of American letters - her book “Every Day by the Sun” is subtitled “a memoir of the Faulkner family of Mississippi” - but in subtle and gentle ways it’s a girl’s poignant search for the first man in her life, the man bequeathed eternal earthly youth in death, the golden boy “who lived every day by the sun.”
William Faulkner, the uncle she called Pappy, took her in and became her legal guardian and surrogate father, briefly stepping aside when her widowed mother married again and little Dean, by now a teenager, briefly took her stepfather’s name. Her mother’s marriage, to an itinerant and alcoholic newspaperman, crumbled in Arkansas and Dean returned with her mother from Little Rock to Oxford to be once more a Faulkner of Mississippi. She stints none of the soap-opera details of her eccentric relatives’ own stories. Since in most Southern families given names are recycled with each generation, the reader will be grateful for the charted family tree in the front of the book, useful to keeping track of all the intertwined players.
Here are most of the stories familiar to Faulkner scholars and fans, the uncertainties of the novelist’s early literary life, the Hollywood (and Oxford) love affairs he didn’t try to keep from his suffering wife, the stuffy image he cultivated of himself as the elder man of letters.
Neither does Pappy emerge here as a particularly warm and doting surrogate father, in keeping with the cool and aloof character of his public reputation. But he was generous, kind and readily available to the fatherless girl in her difficult years. “There has never been a Poor Little Fatherless Girl as spoiled as I,” she writes. “Over the generations, my family can claim nearly every psychological aberration. Narcissism and nymphomania, alcoholism and anorexia, agoraphobia, manic depression, paranoid schizophrenia. There have been thieves, adulterers, sociopaths, killers, racists, liars and folks suffering from panic attacks and real bad tempers, though to the best of my knowledge we’ve never had a barn burner or a preacher.” (The family tree, however, records more than one namesake of John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church and one of the great evangelists of Christendom.)
Southerners rarely suppress the temptation to cultivate eccentricity; “Half of us,” a Southern editor once said, “have natural rhythm and the other half is just naturally nuts.” Inevitably, the only place the Faulkner family could find relative harmony, Dean Faulkner Wells writes, is in St. Peter’s Cemetery in Oxford. Even there there’s no agreement on how to spell the family name. It appears as Falkner, Faulkner, and family members buried next to each other sometimes sleep under conflicting headstones. There’s even one “Fa(u)lkner.” Who else gets a parenthesis on his gravestone?
But this is first and foremost a book about a girl’s search for her father - and occasionally a bitter reminiscence of her stepfather, the itinerant newspaperman whom she remembers as usually drunk and often abusive to her mother. When he died a drunk on the sidewalk in a skid row in Chicago he weighed 68 pounds. Her mother did not claim the body. He was buried in a pauper’s graveyard.
When Pappy got the telephone call on Nov. 10, 1950, telling him that he had won the Nobel Prize for literature, it was 15 years to the day that his little brother died in the crash of the Waco biplane Pappy had given him. For daughter Dean, the highlight of the story of the novelist’s trip to Stockholm to collect his prize was the flight from Memphis to New York to connect to a plane to Europe. “The captain of the flight was Pappy’s old friend and barnstormer Murry Spain,” she writes. “The last time they had been together was at [my father’s] funeral.” The two men greeted each other warmly, and the pilot asked the novelist to join him in the cockpit. The co-pilot gave up his seat, and Pappy, a pilot three decades earlier, briefly took the controls.
“It was a bittersweet moment for both men. If [my father] had lived he might have been seated in Murry’s place, a major airline captain.” The little girl he never knew, her ear ever listening for a mystic chord of memory, has done her barnstorming daddy proud with a lively account of life in a famous family circus. Pappy would be pleased, too.
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.