Jack Sacco book unearths a treasure of fresh insight on William Faulkner
By Michael Harrelson, editor, HottyToddy.com
There’s certainly no shortage of books about the life and work of William Faulkner.
In addition to the novels and short stories by the author himself, works by Joseph Blotner (Faulkner, A Biography), Willie Morris (Faulkner’s Mississippi) his niece Dean Faulkner Wells (Every Day By the Sun: A Memoir of the Faulkners of Mississippi) and even his mistress, Meta Carpenter Wilde (A Loving Gentleman), and many others make for enough reading to keep the casual reader and the serious student of Faulkner busy for quite a while.
So why write yet another volume on the subject? A better question might be, ‘Is there anything about the Nobel-Prize-winning literary genius that has not been fully exhausted in print already?’
Birmingham native Jack Sacco answers the question unequivocally in his Above the Treetops: The True Story of William Faulkner and Bobby Little, the Son He Never Had. The bestselling author of Where the Birds Never Sing has unearthed a treasure of fresh new insight on Faulkner in the remembrances of a young boy who grew up two blocks away from Oxford’s most famous citizen and thus enjoyed virtually unlimited access to him, from his youth to age 32, when the author passed away in 1962.
From start to finish, the book soars in relating the story of Bobby Little, the five-year-old that the aloof author taught to fly, long before the son of prominent Oxford physician Ashford Little was old enough to drive a car. Though Mr. Faulkner managed to keep literary critics, college professors, wannabe writers, rubbernecking tourists, other authors and the media largely at a distance in his lifetime, his life was an open book to Little and his pint-sized Oxford pals, who found in Mr. Bill the adult friend who always had time to teach them to ride a horse, sail a boat or tell them a good ghost story.
In the book’s 268 pages, Little, now an 82-year-old retired ophthalmologist, is revealed as a genuine member of Faulkner’s tight inner circle of friends –– a group that included Bobby Little’s parents, Ashford and Minnie Ruth Little, who kept the “best bar” in all of Lafayette County, Col. Hugh Evans and wife, Mary, Dr. Billy Guyton, Oxford Mayor Bob Williams and University of Mississippi photographer Jack Cofield.
Often accompanied by his beloved collie, Dandy, Little’s frequent visits to Rowan Oak provided a privileged vantage point from which to view Faulkner that no other book, no matter how well researched, has thus far been able to match. We see Faulkner, not as a literary giant on his marble pedestal, but as a man with all of the frailties and limitations of a mortal, as he takes the neighborhood kids on hay rides, conjures a ghost to entertain them on Halloween and pitches in to help build the famous party boat, the Minmagary, the whereabouts of which remain a mystery to this day.
There is indeed congruence, a poetic convergence, in this vivid account of Faulkner’s intimate personal life that only serves to amplify the themes and the verities of his fictional legacy. Whether it’s Mr. Faulkner spatting with his wife, exposing the fallacies of a Baptist preacher’s argument against beer sales or wresting with the inner conflict that erupts when he must decide between pleasing his proud Aunt Bama or staying away from the world premiere of the movie, Intruder in the Dust, Faulkner himself is the central character, symbolizing the human heart in conflict with itself.
The real-life characters that people the book –– the rotund and wily Mayor Bob Williams, Sadie and Clayence, the black servants in the Little household, the cursing Col. Evans, the dour and bitter Estelle –– are themselves as worthy and as entertaining as any fictional figure who ever found his or her way into one of Mr. Faulkner’s novels. In one comic scene, Estelle confronts her husband over the fact that he has named two of his mules after her and her father:
Word of the mules’ monikers had leaked back to Estelle, and she had angrily confronted her husband on the matter.
“I’ve had that mule for years, since before I met you,” he maintained. The claim was mathematically impossible since he’d known Estelle since their childhood and the mule was only eight years old.
“Well, then change it!” she demanded.
“You can’t change a mule’s name,” he countered. “First off, it’s bad luck. And second off, if the mule ain’t offended, then why are you.”
“What about the other one … Mr. Lemuel … is that what you call him?”
“Well I suppose you gonna claim that’s a coincidence too!” she shrieked.
“Nah,” he answered calmly. “I reckon I flat out named that one after your daddy.”
Although Faulkner did indeed teach Bobby Little to fly in his red Waco C cabin cruiser, the Sunday flights and lessons that took the two of them soaring just over the treetops, with Mr. Bill waxing philosophical all the while teaching the boy how to hold the flight stick, are somewhat metaphorical. The greater adventure that takes flight in Above the Treetops is that of watching Bobby as he grows to manhood and slowly begins to comprehend his friend, Mr. Bill, in all of his complex glory.
Editor’s Note: Above the Treetops: The True Story of William Faulkner and Bobby Little, the Son He Never Had is available at the University of Mississippi Museum. The cost of the book is $25. Museum members receive a 10 percent discount. Fifty percent of the profits from sales go to the University of Mississippi Museum and Historic Houses.