A few weeks ago I went to the Harry Ransom Center in Austin. They have an excellent section dedicated to new acquisitions. (And boy does it acquire.) I saw an Aubrey Beardsley piece from afar and went to look at it. But it wasn’t Beardsley’s.
It was William Faulkner’s.
I had no idea he illustrated. I enjoy his writing and even visited Rowan Oak a few months ago. Anything Southern Gothic is my cup of tea.
But these illustrations are a world away from Yoknapatawpha County. They were playful and charming. More likely to be on the cover of The Great Gatsby or some transatlantic romp than on the cover of the plight of a wayward son.
Apparently, he drew these for an Ole Miss newspaper. His simple lines, elegant figures, and use of space are interesting. It’s no wonder Faulkner’s early prose and drawings became popular in Japan. Here in the US though, they weren’t seen as “mature” and worth reprinting until the 1960s. Only after his death.
I find his illustrations utterly charming.
Sometimes there’s a preconception that genius is a flame that just appears. This glosses over an artist’s hard work. Experimenting, testing, copying, and playing often lead to creating one’s own style. Faulkner isn’t Beardsley. His pieces aren’t as confident. But that makes them fascinating in their own right.
He’s experimenting with European and Decadent culture here. Something I didn’t identify with Faulkner at all. Spanish moss and moody characters come to mind more than jazzy outfits and airplanes.
It’s a shame the public tried to hide these early endeavours. They shine a lot of light on artistic exploration as a whole. It’s also humanizing. And it makes me appreciate the rest of their work more. (For example, after reading Moments of Being by Virginia Woolf I found I enjoyed her novels more. )
You can read William Faulkner: early prose and poetry for yourself on the wonderful Archive.org. There’s a lot of essays, French translations, and one awful illustration of blackface.