Brain Pickings

William Faulkner’s Little-Known Jazz Age Drawings, with a Side of Literary Derision


From the sartorial to the satiric, or how the award-winning author’s youthful pretensions earned him a helping of high-brow mockery.

The latest addition to luminaries’ secret talents in a surprising discipline — including Richard Feynman’s sketches, Dr. Seuss’s wartime propaganda, and Marilyn Monroe’s poetry — comes from none other than William Faulkner. As if it weren’t already pleasantly disorienting to learn that he penned a little-known children’s book with a kooky inception, it turns out the Nobel- and Pulitzer-winning author also had a deftness for drawing.

In 1916, as he was about to turn twenty, Faulkner began contributing poems and sketches to the Mississippian, the literary magazine at Ole Miss — the University of Mississippi, in which he would enroll three years later for a brief three-semester stint before dropping out in 1920. But Faulkner continued to draw for the magazine until 1925 — shortly before he penned the aforementioned little-known children’s book while courting his future wife — even earning small commissions for his drawings, largely inspired by Aubrey Beardsley, bearing that distinct Jazz Age swanky sensibility and reminiscent of Henry Clarke’s sensual 1919 illustrations of Edgar Allan Poe’s tales, with a twinge of Goreyana. The drawings were published only once, in William Faulkner: Early Prose and Poetry (public library; public domain), an out-of-print anthology released months after Faulkner’s death in 1962 by The Atlantic Monthly’s imprint.

But in Becoming Faulkner: The Art and Life of William Faulkner (public library), Philip Weinstein argues that the drawings were merely part of Faulkner’s budding pretensions — which included claims to have served in the British Royal Flying Corps during the First World War, which he never actually did:

During the postwar years … Faulkner remained in aggressively role-playing mode. Following the initial season of sporting his unearned war uniform — worn not only on ceremonial occasions but at dances and on golf courses as well — he settled into an equally self-conscious role as a special student at the university. He took courses in English, Spanish, and French, but he was better-remembered for his cultural and sartorial pretensions. Earlier, his expensive tailored suits had earned him the title “The Count.” Now his more elaborate costuming — replete with cane, limp, and swagger — elicited from his university peers the derisive term “Count No ’Count.” Seemingly descent from Parnassus and returned from war-torn France, Faulkner maintained his façade of imperturbability. He published poems in the university literary magazine, the Mississippian, as well as contributed elegant, Beardsley-inspired drawings.

Indeed, his drawings pushed his already irked peers over the edge and an orchestrated high-brow mockery ensued:

Annoyed classmates eventually refused to take his cultural pretensions lying down. The title of one his poems — a translation of Paul Verlaine’s “Fantoches” — was misprinted in the Mississippian as “Fantouches.” That title and the poem’s most famous line — “la lune ne garde aucune rancune” — soon generated a satiric response. There appeared in the same magazine a counter-poem — “Whotouches,” described as “Just a Parody on Count’s ‘Fantouches’ by Count Jr.” — and it ended thus: “how long the old aucune raccoon.” Journalistic ripple effects continued, and a month later the Mississippian published “Cane de Looney” written by one “Peruney Prune.”

And yet the drawings, taken in and of themselves, are undeniably lovely.

Should you be so lucky, you might be able to snag one of the few surviving copies of William Faulkner: Early Prose and Poetry still floating around. Else, there’s always a voyeuristic look back at Faulkner’s other secret talent.

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