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John Faulkner’s Vanishing South

July 2024
3min read

John Faulkner, like his more famous brother William, was a novelist, but he was also a painter. During the decade before his death in 1963 he painted a series of oils and water colors that he called “Scenes of the Vanishing South,” portraying his home town of Oxford, and Lafayette County, Mississippi. Some were painted from his memory of his boyhood, and others from the daily life of Beat Two, the hilly northeast sector of the county that is the scene also of most of his fiction. (A Mississippi county is composed of autonomous “beats,” each under its elective supervisor of roads.) Having come upon hard times as a commercial airline pilot in Memphis, John moved to Beat Two in 1938 as manager of a farm William bought. It was a short-lived venture, being devoted to producing mules at a time when mules were already obsolete; but John began to write then and produced in time eight books of fiction as well as a number of short stories and a posthumously published book of reminiscences about William.

John Faulkner is affectionately remembered as a talented teller of tales, the best of which were likely to be about the densely idiosyncratic natives of Beat Two, and his paintings, like his novels, are anecdotal. He never sold the originals, which are in his wife’s possession, but took orders for copies at exhibitions held in various Mississippi towns and in Memphis. (He liked to explain to customers that he got better with each effort.) He used the paintings as points of departure for his tales of the people and the history of Lafayette County, and he wrote, as people who heard him insist, just as naturally as he talked—though there was evidently more art in both the talking and the writing than they realized. The interplay of talk, writing, and painting was emphasized by his custom of posting explanatory “legends” with the paintings at exhibitions. He typed the legends, single-spaced, and tacked them beside the paintings, which he framed in unpainted pine.

Born in 1901, he was christened John Wesley Thompson Falkner in but adopted the spelling of the patronymic made famous by his brother, whose first book was published, through typographical error, as “by William Faulkner.” John was educated at the University of Mississippi as a civil engineer and was employed for a time by the state highway department before becoming, like brothers William and Dean, a pilot. During the two years he managed the farm in Beat Two, he was also a supervisor for the Work Projects Administration. In this job he had to cope with the hillmen on the WPA rolls who, though no longer independent small farmers and hunters, still claimed as a masculine prerogative the right not to work. Out of this experience came John Faulkner’s first published novel, Men Working (1941), a memorable blend of realism and macabre humor in which he broached what was to prove his major theme as a writer: the confrontation between the unreconstructed hill types he knew in Beat Two and the welfare state. After serving as a Navy officer in World War n, he returned to Oxford to live in his wife’s family house—a pleasantly porched and roomy white frame building dating from 1838 and designed in what he described as bastard colonial. There he wrote and painted for the rest of his life.

Although overshadowed by his Nobel-laureate brother, John Faulkner produced a respectable body of fiction. Men Working was followed by Dollar Cotton (1942), a naturalistic novel about a hillman who makes and loses millions as a planter in the Delta, and by Chooky (1950), a book of loosely related tales for and about boys. Unfortunately, after that John began to publish his books as paperback originals that were not reviewed, although it can be argued that they are his mature and most distinctive works. Beginning with Cabin Road in 1951, he published in this way a series of five humorous novels about Beat Two characters, the other four being Uncle Good’s Girls (1952), The Sin Shouter of Cabin Road (1955), Ain’t Gonna Ram No More (1959), and Uncle Good’s Week-End Party (1960). According to his publisher, more than two million copies of these books were sold. In them the predominant tone is one of hearty relish for the eccentric characters, their language—Faulkner was an accomplished speaker and writer of dialect—and their outlandish doings.


In his novels as well as his paintings John Faulkner does not sentimentalize the hillman, but idealizes him as historically a small subsistence farmer immune to the evils of money, the most immediate of which are seen in the speculative cotton farming that ruined land and man alike, with the consequent “blue government checks” of the WPA and later federal doles. In his heyday the hillman did not work for a living, but simply lived, raising the food and fiber needed for his family, supplementing his table by hunting and fishing, and cherishing his independence in a healthy, half-ritualistic relationship with the land and with nature. According to Faulkner, the hillman was devoted to values that were specifically “not for sale”; but with the triumph of industrialism after the Civil War, the boom in cotton prices toward the end of the century, and the opening up of the hills by railroad and highway the values of the metropolitan civilization proved irresistible.

Believing, as he said in a letter to his publisher in 1951, that human nature is essentially the same everywhere, while character or identity is a function of place and local conditions, Faulkner prized the vanishing peculiarities of his own region. In his paintings and his novels he attempted to record accurately, and to honor, a mode of human identity that was disappearing into the homogeneity of American life in the mid-twentieth century.

A truly “primitive” painter, Faulkner exhibits the qualities of primitive painting the world over—the flattened perspectives; the enlarged figure, used as a means of emphasis, such as that of the “Man in the Blue Suede Shoes” in Little Chicago : the rather crude but evocative delineation of human figures and faces. But he was duly modest about his painting, more concerned with the subject matter than with painting as such, and the charm of the results is no doubt in large part a reflection of his fascination with the distinctive humanity of Lafayette County and especially Beat Two.


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