Saturday, November 5, 2011

One Matchless Time

When I taught American Literature to gifted and honors level sophomores for the last seventeen years of my teaching career, I usually ended the year with William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.  With a little introduction about the writer but less about the work itself, I threw that book at my students [because I wished to see their reactions after they had read the first nine sections] and said, “Stay with it. It’s worth it.”

They'd come to me the next day and make all kinds of great comments.

One student said, "Mrs. Gillham? Those people ain't right." 

And, I'll never forget one girl who quipped, "Who needs LSD? I've read Faulkner."

Some of them totally enjoyed the work for its comedic effect [I could do a mean white trash dialect], others refused to “get it” and lazily avoided reading it [and actually missed out when we discussed parts that the readers and I doubled over in gales of laughter], and the others [the ones I considered the brightest] told me that it was “the most memorable book they had ever read.”

Well, that last comment maybe doesn’t mean much since its from a bunch of fifteen and sixteen year olds who might have only read four books in their life ---  all of them assigned by me.

Just kidding. Sort of.

One Matchless Time by Jay Parini, a biography of William Faulkner, chronicles the life of this famous writer from Oxford, Mississippi, with the skill and insight of someone who has studied, researched, and devoted a majority of his waking hours to his subject. Parini knows Faulkner so well that this work not only follows Faulkner's life year by year but highlights each published work by Faulkner and carefully places it into the complex and very populated world of Faulkner’s fictional characters of Yoknapatawpha County [a daunting and prodigious project to say the least].

In fact -- it's truly what Parini does in this biography --  he painstakingly tells the life story of Faulkner, a southern gentleman with “impeccable manners” who had the burden of providing for an extended family [by his own choosing], had a serious drinking problem, and an unhappy marriage. As Parini tells the story of this enigmatic writer, he covers all the novels in his canon as well as most of his sixty plus short stories. 

Remarkable. Seriously.

Parini concludes that Faulkner was a “short story writer but twice has written great long fiction [ The Sound and the Fury and Light in August].”  I liked that he considers As I Lay Dying [*wipes brow*] and Absalom, Absalom as the next two greatest works by Faulkner.

Parini draws the title of this biography from a comment by Faulkner about the writing binge he was on between 1928 and 1942, a time of “wild inspiration when characters and stories came to him mysteriously and in abundance.” During this time, Faulkner published six novels including his greatest works[according to Parini and other literary scholars], and to Faulkner, this was “his one matchless time.”


I learned a lot about Faulkner I didn’t know in spite of having read extensively his canon in a graduate course titled Faulkner and taught by an esteemed professor, Dr. Edwards at West Georgia College. Dr. Edwards, the epitome of a southern gentleman himself, came to every class in jacket and tie, and once asked his graduate students, a question addressed to “the ladies,” if “would [we] mind if he removed his jacket?”

I loved that professor -- he was the last of a dying breed of "old school" English professors.

I love Faulkner, a writer that many found unreadable and one that my mother called “scandalous.” I love that about my mother -- she was genuinely concerned that I was teaching Faulkner to impressionable young people. :)

Yes, I have a Faulkner fan card, and this biography reminded me again as to why.

ETA: Faulkner made quite an impression on some of my students -- not the last bunch I taught who seemed to have little interest in reading at all, much less appreciating it or enjoying it  -- but some in what I have termed my “halcyon” days of teaching. {I won’t mention what time period this was -- so that all of my former students who read my blog will think they were a part.]   ----- *smiles* --- These former students when they run into me or drop me notes would ultimately remind me that as much as they enjoyed other things we read that they would never forget our study of As I Lay Dying.

“Free Darl.”

“My mother is a fish.’


ETA 2: In my humble, but accurate, opinion, I always thought that the AP Literature teacher at the school[s] where I taught, who had her students read The Sound and the Fury in preparation for that test, did her students a great service. After reading that novel, a student can read anything with confidence including James Joyce and any organic chemistry textbook. :)

ETA 3: OMG -- when I went to get an image of the book cover for AILD, I had to scroll through a whole page of a heavy metal [grunge? Black Sabbath looking?] band with that name.


*runs and hides*


  1. Ooh, must have been when I was your student...right, right??? ;)

  2. Stephanie: Totally, but you already knew that. *smooch*

  3. oh what good times those were! I am proud to admit that I snuck back into your class as a senior to hear you teach AILD again. Your white trash performances were LEGENDARY.

  4. I love Faulkner, and I am so excited that next semester UGA is offering a Southern Lit class. This is the first time it has been offered since I have been here. Shocking, right? But I will have to read this book. It sounds wonderful. And I will forever remember those impressions - tub of guts, looking past the food, Anse rubbing his knees. So. great.

  5. i wish you could teach me.

    well, in a way, you have, through this post, and for that i am so grateful... now off to order "as i lay dying" from my library. i'm ashamed i haven't read it yet. love to you friend...