The Last Living Faulkner

In her insightful new memoir, Dean Faulkner Wells gives us a rare, human glimpse of a sometimes-impenetrable Southern literary icon—William Faulkner. Here, in an exclusive interview, she describes what it was like to be raised by a man she knew simply as "Pappy."
Kim Cross
Dean Faulkner Wells
Dean Faulkner Wells, 75, is the sole mortal link to the greatest novelist of the 20th century.
Photo: Robbie Caponetto

It’s a Southern rite of passage, the moment you decide you are ready to read Faulkner. For me, it happened a few months ago when I found my late father’s yellowed copy of As I Lay Dying. In my hand, the brittle volume seemed slender yet substantial, as if the words inside had a specific gravity far beyond their 288 pages. As I read myself into the mind of a different character with each chapter, the book unlocked a door into Faulkner’s Mississippi.

A month later, I was on my way to Oxford on a literary pilgrimage that might be cliché if my personal guide were not the last living Faulkner.

Dean Faulkner Wells, 75, is the sole mortal link to the greatest novelist of the 20th century. To the world, her uncle was a literary giant, winner of the Pulitzer and the Nobel Prize, three parts genius to two parts eccentric and one part deliberate drunk. But to Dean, he was “Pappy,” the closest thing she would ever know to a father. Her own father, William’s youngest brother, Dean, was killed in a plane crash four months before her birth, on wings that William had given him. And so the author, then a struggling writer, vowed to raise his unborn niece in a way that would have pleased his baby brother. He told her ghost stories, put her through college, sent her abroad, and walked her down the aisle.

“I had a hand-me-down dress and a hand-me-down daddy,” Dean says, showing me a photo taken just before her wedding at Rowan Oak. Wearing a gown that belonged to her cousin Jill, Faulkner’s only child, who died in 2008, Dean stands slightly swayback, trying in her 1-inch heels to look shorter than Pappy, who was just 5'6". I ask Dean if she remembers what they were saying at that moment.

“I couldn’t think of anything else to say, so I said, ‘Pappy, was Judith real?’ ” Judith was the star of the ghost stories Faulkner told to the children in his life, a lovesick girl who leapt to her death from the balcony above the entrance to Rowan Oak. “ ‘No, I made her up for you and all the other children,’ he said. ‘But I believe in her. Don’t you?’ ”

Dean’s family is not a simple one, and enough water has passed under the Faulkner bridge to drown a team of mules. But she has captured their world in a brave and poignant memoir, an intimate portrait of a fiercely private clan, told from the inside out. It is a book that only Dean could write, and only now, when all the others are gone. In wonderfully accessible prose, she shows William Faulkner as an uncle, a husband, a brother, a father. A man underneath all the mythos. Every Day by the Sun is a book that every Southerner should read, perhaps even before they read Faulkner himself.

What is it like to write a book with a last name like Faulkner?” I ask Dean.“It takes an incredible amount of either courage or madness,” she replies, with a textured voice and gravelly laugh that punctuates each story. “You have this huge shadow that is going to cast itself over every word you put down.”

We’re sipping coffee in her living room, a two-bedroom cottage she shares with husband Larry and dogs named Shakespeare and Lizzie. This was her Nannie’s house, built in 1931 for William’s mother, Maud. It has the look and creak of a house inhabited by generations of Faulkners. The walls are lined with books and portraits Maud painted of her sons. The house is haunted with history.

“The ghosts—and all Faulkners believe in ghosts—came back and helped me write,” Dean says. “I’d be dead asleep in the middle of the night, and suddenly I’d be wide awake, and this voice, Pappy’s voice, would be saying, ‘Don’t forget the part about…’ ”  Pappy’s presence was so strong she could smell it. “The scent was of pipe smoke, horses and leather, tweed and bourbon. But mostly of pipe smoke.”