Among the shining experiences of my doctoral work was a genuinely transformational course: “Seminar in William Faulkner,” shepherded by Dr. Noel Polk, one of the world’s pre-eminent scholars, who passed away this past weekend.
Non-Mississippians cannot fully understand how my home state feels about its writers. It’s hard to swing a dead cat in most places without hitting a writer of some repute, which means there is a neighborliness toward local writers that does not exist in many other places. Before her death, it was hardly newsworthy to stand behind Eudora Welty in line at the Jitney-Jungle (a grocery chain). I was in line at the local dry cleaners once and realized that I was sandwiched between two bestselling mystery writers, Nevada Barr and Terri Blackstock; between the three of us, we had sold something like 10.001 million books. ;-)
Noel was a fellow Mississippian, from the town of Picayune, where he had been raised in the local Baptist church and had believed that God was calling him to be a preacher. He attended the flagship Baptist college in the state and soon discovered the siren call of literature. One of his classmates was Barry Hannah, another prominent Mississippi writer whom I eulogized on this site a few years ago.
Noel once told me that he started his walk away from Christianity in that context; graduate school finalized that journey and when I came to know him, he was a massively articulate, Bible-steeped skeptic with little taste for the cultural Christianity that characterized all too much of the deep South. I highly recommend his memoir about growing up in Picayune, “Outside the Southern Myth” (Mississippi University Press) for those who wish to understand the unresolved nature of the era that “The Help” explored in an overly slick way. For those of us from the deep South, it is easy to read Polk’s memoir and wonder how anyone from that era was able to stomach remaining in the faith after witnessing so much hatred and ignorance.
As a scholar, Polk had gained access to Faulkner’s carbon typescripts for the major works; these were, effectively, keystroke logs of the author’s original manuscripts, and Polk compared these with the published texts to return the prose to Faulkner’s original intentions (these are the “corrected text editions” published by Vintage). As you can imagine, Polk’s attention to detail was a dominant characteristic of his work; this is ironic, given that the word “picayune” (his birthplace) means “tiny” or “trivial.”
The seminar was breathtaking; we read only two novels the entire term: The Sound and the Fury and Absalom! Absalom! Yes, you read that correctly, two novels in an entire doctoral seminar. But it was brutal. Faulkner is dense with allusions and his language is among the most challenging of that period, as his mastery of minutia and regionalism combined to provide the text with pivotal moments that centered upon words that were obscure or ambiguous. One day, Noel dragged in a two-volume Compact Oxford English Dictionary and forced us to look up words after shaming us for not having done so in the first place. His former life as a youth revivalist had prepared him for close readings of text in ways that are rare among those who were not trained in exegesis.
We wrote two seminar papers that had to be pristine. By pristine, I mean utterly perfect. He read the papers in his office with us sitting in a hard chair next to him, shredding our prose, our word choices, and attention to details. While he was silent, I sat in that chair praying that I would not cry. He delighted in making doctoral students cry; I did not want to delight him. At the end of the term he congratulated me on my final revisions (after umpteen sleepless nights) and told me to get them published. Both papers were published in the next few years, one as a book chapter. This is, to say the least, highly unusual for seminar papers, but I had been blessed with an unusual professor who was an incredible editor.
Students either adored him or despised him; it was a bi-modal distribution, with an utter vacuum in the middle range. By the end of my graduate work, I dearly loved the man, sort of in a Stockholm Syndrome way (where hostages empathize with their captors) but also because despite his vibrant cynicism, he was such an incredibly encouraging person who had clearly learned something from his time in church, or perhaps in spite of it, if his memoir is to be considered.
I do not wish to overstate my relationship with Dr. Polk (after I graduated we exchanged emails every few years) but his influence over me, a fellow Mississippi Baptist by birth and a devotee of literature by choice, was significant. One of my fondest memories of doctoral work was the day he ended our conference by saying, “Let’s go drive around, you drive,” and we drove around town and just shot the breeze on a particularly sunny day. It was a pleasant, easy way to spend an afternoon.
On more than one occasion, Noel said to me, “You are too bright to remain a Christian, Gene.” He meant this as a compliment, I was sure, even with the backhanded swipe at my faith, and I was glad to accept it as such. I’ve thought about that a lot since I heard about his death. All too often when we hear such things, we are without a ready response. This morning I thought of the response I wish I had uttered back then: “And you, Dr. Polk, are too encouraging to remain a skeptic.”