There’s little truth behind the myth I recount about why I went to graduate school. I tell people I enrolled so that I could better understand William Faulkner’s The Hamlet. Of course, nothing is that simple—and it’s not a story I told until years after I completed my doctorate. From the first, I knew it was a better story than it was history.
It occurs to me that my comprehensive areas, American Literature to 1914, The American Short Story, and The British and American Novel, 1914 to 1945, all directly relate to my mission, later identified, of preparing myself for Faulkner. By 1983, when I sat for them, I had completely forgotten (if it had ever really been there) my earlier reasoning.
When I first read The Hamlet, in the spring or summer of 1977, I was four years out of undergraduate school, living in Chicago, working in the parts department of an auto dealership, drinking extremely heavily, and alone. I would roll out of bed, determine the degree of my hangover, dress, and walk down to the parking lot to see if I could get one of my two junkers started. If not, I’d take the el from the Morse St. station up to Chicago Ave. in Evanston where I would go to the garage, pour a cup of coffee, and wait until it was time to clock in, helping jockey cars around when needed. The parts manager, a 5-pack-a-day Kent man, and I would spend much of our time in competitive smoking, sitting before our microfiche machines and identifying numbers for needed parts. One of us would collect them from the bins—or note that we needed to get a piece from the regional depot where I would drive once a day.
In the evenings, I would sit at home and read—and drink—or seek out a local bar where I would squeeze myself into a dark corner until I was inebriated enough to start a conversation with someone, anyone. Then I would go home and, if the room wasn’t spinning, would read until I fell asleep. The writers I turned to were fine, Elmore Leonard, John D. MacDonald, Ross Macdonald, Stanley Ellin and the older suspense masters Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. I also consumer a lot of science fiction, my favorite being Philip K. Dick, but Norman Spinrad, Thomas Disch, Samuel K Delaney and any number of others also attracted my attention.
All good writers but, at some point, I realized I was mired in the pulps, not only in my reading but in my life. I was dying. I didn’t have the survival skills that kept the Continental op and Philip Marlowe going. And I certainly lacked appeal to the opposite sex. On the skids, I was beginning to recognize my frightening place, pathetic, in my twenties.
Needing a change, I went into a used bookstore, intent on moving my reading, at least, in a different direction. Walking out, I had a number of volumes under my arm, including The Hamlet and Balzac’s Père Goriot. I don’t remember the rest, but none of them related to the genres that had been dominating my reading. I liked the Balzac enough to find and read more of his Human Comedy; Faulkner, though, made me feel ignorant. Ike Snopes fascinated me, but I couldn’t figure out the presentation or the ‘why’ of him. The entire Snopes clan seemed terribly familiar, but I made no sense of them or of the way Faulkner wrote about them.
The totality of my ambition was to have a companion and to drink and to read. I was failing miserably at the first, succeeding spectacularly at the second, and discovering I was inadequate for the third. Though I had read broadly, I had never read well. Half of Shakespeare had passed through my fingers, but none of Chaucer or Beowulf. I had loved Sterne and Tom Jones, but had little sense of the rest of their era. Add a little Dickens and less Joyce. Pynchon’s V. and Catch-22 I had returned to often, along with much Orwell. Random bits, almost. Glitter that had happened to catch my eye.
Now, I wanted something more. For the first time.
But I didn’t know how to get it.
I went to graduate school, then, to learn how to read. I wanted Faulkner for my own, so never took classes in his work—the most I ever “studied” of him was in a short-story course—concentrating, instead, on providing myself with a background in the breadth of literature in English. I struggled through the Old and Middle English sequence, completely out of my depth but slogging to the end. The 17th century shocked me—that is, I could make sense of its plays and poetry. Pretending that I already knew something of early American literature (everyone else seemed to), I nearly drowned in it, but I did come up swimming, though with awkward strokes.
Eventually, I did return to Faulkner, but on my own. Though now more confident in my reading, I also realized I had spiraled back, as a reader, to where I had been. Recently, in writing about As I Lay Dying for high-school students, I claimed that it portrays “an attempt to complete a task (or attempts to complete tasks, as the reader discovers through the progress of the narration).” I went on, describing one of Faulkner’s points: “There’s not much new discovered in the novel; the road taken is also the road bringing the world to the door. Nothing one does makes much difference.”
There, Faulkner was wrong.