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

Dean shows us William the scoutmaster, the D student in English, and the worst assistant postmaster in the history of Ole Miss. Before dropping out of college, he pledged Sigma Alpha Epsilon and hosted a coed water-skiing party, then charmed his way out of trouble with the Dean of Women. He played golf barefoot, and shot squirrels with a .22. As a young man, he loved flying and became a pilot, but once lost the nerve to land his plane, handing his brother the stick. He wanted so badly to fly in WWI that he enlisted in the Canadian Royal Air Force. When the war ended before he served, he came home a self-decorated veteran, feigned a limp, and wore his RAF uniform with wings he bought at a pawn shop. Locals mocked him as “Count No ’Count.”

Driven to write, he struggled for years. His first stab was a one-act play he printed, bound, and illustrated with drawings of bare-breasted women. (The six-copy first edition quickly went out of print in the frat house.) His first book, The Marble Faun, was a collection of poetry that he self-published with financial help from a local lawyer. When he finished Flags in the Dust, his first truly ambitious novel and the first one set in Yoknapatawpha, his fictional county inspired by the real Lafayette, it was rejected by his editor. “As he approached his thirtieth birthday, the fear of failure and burden of genius lay heavy upon him,” Dean writes. “Yet he was about to enter the most productive period of any writer in all of American letters.”

Pappy spent quality time with the children he loved, playing croquet in a thunderstorm, taking them sailing on Sardis Lake, playing Ping-Pong, and enduring road-trip serenades of “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” He told them elaborate ghost stories beneath the magnolias at twilight. He took them trick-or-treating, and gave them fatherly lectures. When he escorted 11-year-old Dean to her first social tea, she nervously asked for both milk and lemon, then watched her faux pas curdle in her cup. “Milk or lemon?” the hostess then asked Pappy. He said, “Thank you, ma’am. I’ll take both.”

All the while, Pappy was writing landmark fiction in a house overrun with children and dogs, and supporting an extended family of 11 on a writer’s paycheck during the Great Depression. To add electricity and a stove to primitive Rowan Oak, he wrote feverishly, submitting 37 short stories in one year—and selling only six. Just after publishing The Sound and the Fury, he took a night job at a power plant. He went to work with a roll of legal paper, and between shifts, wrote As I Lay Dying in 47 days. Dean never knew until she read his biography, as an adult, that he ever struggled financially.

She also had no idea, as a child, of what a big deal her uncle was. It dawns on her in my favorite scene from her book, when Pappy takes her to New York for a sort of coming-out trip. It’s just before he sends her off to Paris, and he uses the trip to expose her to the cosmopolitan life. He takes her to nice restaurants, buys her the right dress, and treats her like a lady. Dean writes:

As we walked down Park Avenue on our way to Pappy’s favorite restaurant...I began to notice heads turning. “This is it,” I thought. “I am the cutest thing to hit New York...” Within one block reality set in. They were staring at my distinguished escort Pappy, who continued smiling and chatting, either oblivious or accustomed to the attention. Not since the film premiere of Intruder in the Dust had I realized who he was, a world-renowned author, but this was New York...and these were complete strangers and we were a long way from home.

Dean holds that she may have been insulated from his darker side by virtue of being a stepdaughter instead of a daughter. But she was close enough to know him in a way the outside world never could, and the normal moments of her childhood are precisely what make her book worth reading.

Dean shared with me one scene that was cut from the book which forever changed my impression of Faulkner, the man. Pappy takes young Dean and her cousins for a walk deep into the Mississippi woods, and sits them down on a fallen log. “Pappy knelt in front of us, and he picked up a mound of dirt and leaves, and said, ‘Smell it,’ ” Dean says. “And then he handed it to each of us, and we smelled, and he said, ‘This is precious. This belongs to you, only for you to take care of. Treasure it.’ ”

His sense of provenance over his native soil was one of the qualities that led Faulkner to become what he was. And so his greatest legacy to Dean, and to all Southerners, is a solid sense of place and the courage to rise above it. Dean loves to quote Turner Catledge, former editor of the New York Times: “He said, ‘The greatest gift a parent can give a child is roots and wings.’ And the Faulkners gave me that.”