Chapter One "Go Slow" On a waning afternoon in late January 1953, some five hundred writers, editors, reviewers, reporters, literary agents, and booksellers seated themselves in rows of chairs in a Manhattan hotel. It was time for Harper's editor Frederick Lewis Allen to introduce the winners of the 1952 National Book Awards--among them, Ralph Ellison's first novel, Invisible Man . Not since Richard Wright's Native Son had a novel by a Negro writer so captured the interest of the white publishing world. Reviewers fixed their attention on Ellison's unflattering treatment of the Communist Party, although they noted, too, his unconventional narrative approach. Accepting the ten-carat gold medal at the awards ceremony, Ellison, a formal man on such public occasions, himself touched on his experimental approach, and the political point he had hoped to make with it: "I was to dream of a prose which was flexible, and swift as American change is swift, confronting the inequalities and brutalities of our society forthrightly...." As Ellison spoke, the Supreme Court had before it a set of appeals that did confront the very inequalities most on Ellison's mind: the inequalities of race. One of the Supreme Court justices considering the appeals in Brown v. Board of Education , William O. Douglas, followed Ellison as the main speaker at the awards program. Ellison's allotted five minutes over, Douglas delivered a twenty-minute speech on the need for unity in Asia to withstand the power of the Soviet Union. After that, as The New Yorker lightly noted in its account of the occasion, "the audience applauded, and in a trice the chairs we had been sitting on were whisked away, two bars were going like blast furnaces on either side of the room, and what is known in literary circles as a reception was under way." In the milling about that followed, Ralph Ellison got lost in the crowd. There were so many more celebrated to attend to, including Justice Douglas himself, who told his listeners how much easier it was to write accounts of his travels than Supreme Court decisions. He described a Malayan shadow play he had come across: "There's this puppet, you see, and a light behind the screen...." The "lion of the afternoon," The New Yorker said, was the great southern writer William Faulkner, "who, very small and very handsome, with a voice that never rose above a whisper, stood with his back to the wall and gamely took on all comers." No southern novelist had done more to shape literate Americans' impression of the South than William Faulkner. Since the 1920s, from his home in Oxford, Mississippi, Faulkner had poured out a stream of narrative--novels differently titled but all of a piece: the patch of South that Faulkner called Yoknapatawpha County. "If you want to know something about the dynamics of the South," Ellison himself once said, "of interpersonal relationships in the South from, roughly, 1874 until today, you don't go to historians; not even to Negro historians. You go to William Faulkner and Robert Penn Warren." Both Warren and Ellison had abandoned the South, departing for the more cosmopolitan North. Faulkner stayed on, living at the edge of Oxford in an antebellum house, too small and plainly built to be rightly called a mansion, although it could pass for one at a distance. Faulkner called the house Rowan Oak, after a mythical tree, but lanky cedars actually lined the narrow drive up to his door. The house's first owner had hired a landscaper to lay out hedges in formal, concentric circles in the front yard. The place must have had grandeur then, but it had something else in the 1950s: a lived-in quality so worn that Faulkner felt free to write out the chronology of his newest novel, A Fable , on the walls of his study. Faulkner imagined Mississippi in his novels with more passion than most places have bestowed upon them. His Mississippi had a supernal glow, like a paradise lit by the fires of hell. Slavery loomed large as the region's original sin. Again and again, Faulkner raised the question of race. His novels were, however, convoluted and hard to read, although Intruder in the Dust was straightforward enough even for Hollywood, which made it into a movie filmed on Oxford's own streets. Outside of fiction Faulkner put Mississippi's flaws down even more plainly, telling readers of Holiday magazine (speaking of himself in the third person), "But most of all he hated the intolerance and injustice: the lynching of Negroes not for the crimes they committed but because their skins were black ...; the inequality: the poor schools they had then when they had any, the hovels they had to live in unless they wanted to live outdoors...." If this comment was more direct than white southerners were accustomed to, so were the letters Faulkner wrote to the nearest big-city newspaper, the Memphis Commercial Appeal , in the spring of 1955, the year after the Supreme Court ruled school desegregation unconstitutional. As white officials in Mississippi struggled for ways to evade the ruling, Faulkner wrote that Mississippi schools were "not even good enough for white people." Why, then, did Mississippians imagine they could afford two school systems good enough for whites and Negroes? So unexpected was Faulkner's stand that it traveled all the way to New York. The New Leader , a New York magazine on the right wing of the Socialist Party, reprinted it, while Masses & Mainstream --a communist magazine--ran an account of it that had been sent in from Memphis: That William Faulkner has shown willingness to carry on this verbal battle in the public forum of as influential a paper as the Memphis Commercial Appeal is noteworthy in itself--that he has taken a stronger position each week and has been able to win adherents amongst white Mississippians is outstanding. A few years ago no one would have dared to come to his defense. That the Commercial Appeal has been willing to print as many letters on the subject is also newsworthy and indicates a significant change. The writer expressed surprise at the lack of Red-baiting in the letters. Had the Brown decision made advocating desegregation respectable? "The South's most famous author, William Faulkner, has taken a step forward in the fight for humanity. The rest of our American intellectuals could well follow in his path." What a strange phrase that would seem in later years--"our American intellectuals." Their ranks included novelists, literary critics, even academic historians--all writing for readers outside the academy and beyond the narrow circles of the avant-garde. They held forums and conferences; they published books through commercial presses. Their names might not be quite household words, but they appeared in household magazines--in Life, Look, Time --as well as little intellectual and political magazines like Partisan Review and Commentary . They constituted a leadership class, not known to everyone but known widely enough to make their opinions felt. How would they respond to the challenge the Supreme Court had thrown down to the country? As one of the first to respond, William Faulkner soon learned the price of courage. After his letters to the Memphis newspaper, anonymous phone calls and critical letters, signed and unsigned, flooded in to Rowan Oak. "Since none of us agreed with Bill's views," Faulkner's brother later observed, "we said, `It serves him right.'" Life became so difficult that before Faulkner left on a trip to Japan, he worried he might have to abandon Mississippi for good. In Japan, Faulkner was freed for a while from confronting Mississippi's racial problem close at hand. Another problem pressed harder: the challenge of getting through all the appearances scheduled for him. An intensely private man, Faulkner found public speaking difficult. Only a few years earlier, most of his books were out of print and there was no demand for them, but winning the Nobel Prize in 1950 had made of him a public figure, internationally known and traveling abroad as a representative of his country. Like the jazz bands that the State Department sent around to show that Negroes did have a place in American culture, Faulkner was sent around to show that all white southerners were not bigoted; some could even write. He did not wear the statesman's robes comfortably. At this point in his life--he was in his late fifties--the South's most famous novelist was an unabashed alcoholic. He could barely set foot in a crowded room without alcohol to hold him up. Even then he sometimes collapsed, pulled down by that which was meant to support him. His Japanese tour was almost cut short near the start: he was drinking so hard that the U.S. ambassador was ready to ship him home. His State Department managers, unwilling to give up so easily, took him in hand, and Faulkner, seeing the difficulties he was causing them, drew himself up and performed honorably and well. Still, the racial problem remained on his mind. It reemerged in late-night talks with the State Department official accompanying him. He talked of it as they sat on the balcony of their hotel listening to water drip in the garden. Meeting with a group of Japanese professors, he read to them a manuscript, "On Fear," from a book he had begun on the American Dream. Economic fear underlay resistance to the Supreme Court's ruling, he said--fear that the Negro would "take the white man's economy away from him." Explaining that fear, he did not justify it: Americans had to practice freedom if they were going to talk about it to everybody else. Outside of the United States, traveling under the auspices of the U.S. government, Faulkner had become a spokesman not for Mississippi but for his entire country. On his way home from Japan, another opportunity for public statement opened up. On a stop in Rome, United Press International asked him to comment on a terrible event that had occurred in Mississippi. The body of Emmett Till, a Negro teenager from Chicago who had engaged in a trivial exchange with a white woman at a country store, had been pulled from the Tallahatchie River. Although most southern white brutality passed unremarked by the world, this particular murder did not. Asked by the press to comment, Faulkner wrote out a 400-word statement that would reach a broader audience. U.S. Information Service staff in Rome looked it over; then Faulkner gave the statement to the press. Fresh from his visit to an Asian country, Faulkner pointed out, practically, the minority status of whites in the world. "The white man can no longer afford, he simply does not dare, to commit acts which the other three-fourths of the human race can challenge him for." Calling up the devastation the Japanese had wreaked on Pearl Harbor only fifteen years earlier, he raised the specter of a prospect even more dire, if all the peoples of color joined with "peoples with ideologies different from ours"--that is, with the communists. America would survive only if Americans presented to the world a united front. Perhaps the purpose of this sorry and tragic error committed in my native Mississippi by two white adults on an afflicted Negro child is to prove to us whether or not we deserve to survive. Because if we in America have reached that point in our desperate culture when we must murder children, no matter for what reason or what color, we don't deserve to survive, and probably won't. Masses & Mainstream, so pleased by Faulkner's earlier letters to the Memphis Commercial Appeal , liked his Emmett Till statement, too, and reprinted it in full. In the longer span of his life, Faulkner's political statements of the mid-1950s would appear to some of his biographers an aberration, and in a sense they were. He had not made a practice of public comment, although from time to time he did write letters to the editor, including letters on racial problems. But if it had not been for these journeys abroad under the auspices of the State Department, Faulkner's comments on Mississippi's racial scene might have stayed within the borders of his own state. They might also not have taken on the Cold War tinge they did--the hint of apocalypse: the undercurrent of final struggle between the democratic countries and the communist world. If the United States wanted to survive its battle with the communists, it needed the world's people of color on its side. According to Faulkner's Oxford friend Jim Silver, a lanky history professor at the University of Mississippi, Faulkner was a "non-Marxist egalitarian" who had picked up the "Cold War rhetoric" around him on his journeys. Making his "patriotic pilgrimages," Silver said, Faulkner "became alarmed at the powerful influence of racism in the propaganda of the Cold War." Putting himself at the service of the federal government in the international arena, speaking to foreign audiences and the foreign press, Faulkner offered at least a small measure of evidence to the critical world that one white southerner favored racial desegregation. At a time when so many white southerners considered the federal government the enemy, Faulkner's partnership with the federal government was an interesting alliance, and not one that would last. Memphis, Tennessee, a biracial river city, was just up the road from Oxford, Mississippi. Despite the ease of getting there, Faulkner had not been especially eager to speak to historians gathered at the venerable Peabody Hotel for the annual meeting of the Southern Historical Association (SHA) in the fall of 1955. The spring before the meeting, with the hope of getting Faulkner to speak, Jim Silver had paid frequent visits to Rowan Oak to persuade Faulkner to come. The two men had talked in the side yard while Faulkner worked on a sailboat he had bought, and Silver tried to wrest a commitment from him. "He wouldn't say yes and he didn't say no, so in late summer I placed his name on the program that had a printer's deadline," Silver recalled. "It seemed a good bet that he would appear, not so much out of friendship but because he had something to say to the South and Nation." In the end, Faulkner came, and the timing of his appearance could hardly have been better. White Citizens Councils formed to oppose desegregation were springing up across the South. They had originated in Mississippi but were spreading as fast as kudzu vines. Forswearing violence, the councils meant to strangle Negroes' efforts to enroll their children in white schools by retaliating economically. Parents who tried to act on the promise of Brown lost their jobs, their credit, their homes. Meanwhile, white southern liberals had proved disappointing, their support fading the moment resistance appeared. Washington had done little more. President Dwight Eisenhower, preferring to let the states work things out for themselves, had refused to throw the weight of his office and personal popularity behind the Supreme Court ruling. Congress, caught in the grip of powerful southern Democrats, predictably did no better. With so little support from other quarters, encouraging words from the South's leading novelist would be welcome. But given his eccentricity and his drinking, could he be depended on? Anticipation had run so high that Faulkner's session had been switched from the afternoon to the dinner meeting, and Faulkner arrived early. Bennett Wall, secretary treasurer of the association, invited the great man up to his hotel room and sat with him most of the day, doling out bourbon in small amounts in the hope of keeping him sober enough to speak. The change to the dinner meeting presented another difficulty. The SHA had trouble talking the hotel management into seating Faulkner's fellow speaker Benjamin E. Mays, president of Morehouse College and a Negro, at the head table in the main ballroom. The management was so worried about how racial mixing might affect the hotel's reputation that it kept photographers out of the ballroom, lest they pick up images of Mays or the thirty other Negroes present. Instead, the press met Faulkner beforehand on the balconied mezzanine above the grand lobby. As it turned out, William Faulkner was nearly a sideshow. Long a forthright leader in racial affairs, Benjamin Mays could be expected to rise to the occasion, and he did, speaking so eloquently that the audience broke in several times with applause. Addressing "the moral aspects of segregation," Mays did not mince words. Segregation was "a great evil," and if Americans did not follow the Supreme Court's lead and abolish it, then they might as well confess to the world that they did not believe the promises of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. In fact, Mays said, ratcheting up his argument, they might as well confess that they did not believe that the Old and New Testaments were meant for peoples of color. They might as well resign themselves to losing their "moral leadership in the world." Would the South "accept the challenge of the Supreme Court" and "make America and the South safe for democracy"? Mays believed so. The stakes were high in the Cold War world. "If we lose this battle for freedom for 15 million Negroes we will lose it for 145 million whites and eventually we will lose it for the world. This is indeed a time for greatness." The five hundred historians rose to their feet in thunderous applause. It was the first standing ovation Jim Silver had ever seen them give. Faulkner's "slight remarks," by contrast, were a letdown. Recycling his essay "On Fear," he, too, mounted his argument on the Cold War platform. If white people wanted to remain free, they could no longer deny equality to Negroes. He whispered his remarks so softly that Silver, sitting only a few feet away, could barely hear him. Historian C. Vann Woodward wrote a friend that Mays's remarks were better than Faulkner's. Faulkner's comments were, however, the ones featured by the New York Times from an Associated Press dispatch. In a one-paragraph article, the Times , picking up the Cold War theme, reported that "William Faulkner said last night that continued racial segregation was as great a threat to world peace as communism." The Memphis Commercial Appeal ran Faulkner's speech in full, and the governing council of the SHA voted to publish the three speeches from the session--Faulkner's, Mays's, and a third by Nashville lawyer Cecil Sims. Emory professor Bell Wiley, president of the SHA that year, contributed the introduction. This pamphlet, he said, would show that there was a "liberal South": "soft-spoken and restrained, but articulate and powerful--that is earnestly pledged to moderation and reason." "Moderation and reason"--this became the mantra of liberals, North and South. They wanted to speak out for desegregation without stirring up too much opposition. But even such a moderate and reasonable effort as the little pamphlet of speeches stirred opposition within the ranks of the SHA. Two members of the council, worried about the response from the association's more conservative members, vigorously opposed publication. In the end, the speeches did not appear under the SHA imprint, and the book's introduction noted carefully that they did not represent the association's official views. The pamphlet came out instead under the name of the Southern Regional Council (SRC), a moderate interracial organization formed in the 1940s and based in Atlanta. The SRC had been slow to speak out against segregation in its earlier days. Like most southerners, those who ran the SRC would speak out for racial justice but not against segregation outright. With its moderate, southern past, the SRC was a safe publisher for the Memphis talks. A northern organization, the Ford Foundation's Fund for the Republic, covered the cost. The fund's support was kept quiet because Faulkner feared, apparently, that if white southerners knew that northerners had paid for the pamphlet, they might pay less attention to it. Here, writ small, was the state of free speech in the South: on the racial issue, there was not much of it. Given the difficulty of opposing segregation in white southern publications, all the more important, then, was whatever might be said in the national magazines. Only in Life were most white southerners likely to hear support for desegregation. But when Faulkner asked his agent, Harold Ober, to place his essay "On Fear" in a magazine, Faulkner said he would rather it not appear in the "slick mags," since southerners assumed their reports on segregation were biased, and "doubt as propaganda anything they print." He particularly did not want Life to have the piece. Against his wishes, Life had published a long feature on him that had delved into his private affairs. Anything in Life would seem to him "automatically befouled and not credible." The Saturday Evening Post might have it, if the Post would present it "simply and without fanfare or headlines, pictures, etc. as an editorial." Faulkner wanted "On Fear" to be taken seriously. He hoped it would help the South "in a dilemma whose seriousness the rest of the country seems incapable not only of understanding but even of believing that to us it is serious." Not a man who had made a career out of political punditry, or a man who needed to write essays to enhance his career, Faulkner sought publication out of that rarest of motivations: he had something to say that he wanted to be heard. At his suggestion, the piece went to Harper's , where he had published before, and Harper's , a magazine for a more intellectual and smaller audience than Life 's, accepted it. But Harper's , a monthly, had a lead time of several months. Before the issue carrying "On Fear" appeared on the stands in June 1956, Faulkner's public position on race had begun to cloud over. In public arenas, Faulkner had couched his plea for racial equality in the political terms of the Cold War. Privately, writing to Mississippians, Faulkner cut his cloth differently, to fit his correspondent. "Since there is so much pressure today from outside our country to advance the Negro," he wrote to the president of the Lions Club in Glendora, "let us here give the Negro a chance to prove whether he is or is not competent for educational and economic and political equality, before the Federal Government crams it down ours and the Negro's throat too." Faulkner took an even cruder line to a white segregationist named W. C. Neill, who was corresponding with Faulkner in the hope that the great man ("the prime literary figure of our generation") might swing over to his side. "If you will excuse the symbolism," Faulkner wrote Neill on January 23, 1956, "we are like the man whose bed was infested. He has three choices: 1. Burn the bed (i.e., kill the bugs) 2. Move away. 3. Draw their teeth. We can't kill them: against the law. We can't move: we live here. We can draw the teeth: give them such schools that they wont [ sic ] want to enter ours." It was an ugly argument. The ambivalence that underlay Faulkner's support for desegregation spilled into his public statements when a series of violent events at the start of 1956 touched off his fear that things were moving too fast for white southerners to adapt. The Brown decision itself had left the speed of change open to question; so had the implementation decision that followed a year later. The Supreme Court ordered the South to desegregate its schools with "deliberate speed," which might have meant anything, especially as interpreted by white southern judges. When Negro parents began filing suits and judges actually ruled in their favor, resistance erupted. In Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott leaders' homes were bombed. At the University of Alabama campus in Tuscaloosa, a riot blocked the entry of Negro student Autherine Lucy. Preventing racial violence had long served as an excuse for the race barrier. Remove it, South Carolina attorney John W. Davis had said in argument before the Supreme Court, and reap an outcome "one cannot contemplate with any equanimity." That prediction appeared to be coming unpleasantly true. (Continues...) Copyright (c) 2001 Carol Polsgrove. All rights reserved.