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Reading like a Bureaucrat

On William Faulkner’s short turn as a Cold-War PR man

Before September 15, 1956, media-shy novelist William Faulkner had never sent a letter of solicitation to his literary friends, let alone one written at the behest of Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhower. But that Saturday morning in Oxford, Mississippi, Faulkner set aside work on his novel The Town (1957) to draft the invitation letter for Eisenhower’s new People-to-People Initiative (PTPI): an independent, private organization of Americans who would travel around the Soviet bloc to promote “friendly contact” and “person-to-person communication”—this according to a White House press release issued months before Eisenhower’s 1956 reelection campaign against Adlai Stevenson.

These writers modeled consensus-building in its most parodic and inefficient form.

Faulkner mailed a letter of invitation and a White House–issued PTPI program description to a guest list that now reads like a Who’s Who of twentieth-century American literature: Saul Bellow, John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop, John Dos Passos, Donald Hall, Robert Lowell, Marianne Moore, Katherine Anne Porter, John Steinbeck, Allen Tate, Lionel Trilling, Robert Penn Warren, E. B. White, and William Carlos Williams, to name just a few of the writers on the list. (Faulkner’s invitation list included virtually no African American or politically radical writers, who, according to Richard Wright, were often considered “counter-propaganda abroad” by the federal government.) “Dear ________,” he wrote, “The President has asked me to organize American writers to see what we can do to give a true picture of our country to other people. Will you join such an organization?”

The information Faulkner and his cochairs needed was, first and foremost, knowledge of each writer’s enthusiastic commitment to joining the organization, followed by “a sentence, a paragraph, or a page, or as many more as you like” detailing “your private idea of what might further this project.” Underneath the blank line and the request for writing, Faulkner enclosed his ideas as a sample of the kind of ideas the writers could submit:

1. Anesthetize, for one year, American vocal cords. 

2. Abolish, for one year, American passports. 

3. Commandeer every American automobile. Secrete Johnson grass seed in 
the cushions and every other available place. Fill the tanks with gasoline. 
Leave the switch key in the switch and push cars across the iron curtain. 

4. Ask the Government to establish a fund. Choose 10,000 people between 18 and 30, preferably Communists. Bring them to this country and let them see America as it is. Let them buy an automobile on the installment plan, if that’s what they want. Find them jobs in labor as we run our labor unions. Let them enjoy the right to say whatever they wish about anyone they wish, to go to the corner drugstore for ice cream and all the other privileges of this country which we take for granted. At the end of the year they must go home. Any installment plan automobiles or gadgets which they have undertaken would be impounded. They can have them again if and when they return or their equity in them will go as a down payment on a new model. This is to be done each year at the rate of 
10,000 new people.

Faulkner’s follow-up to his letter—a five-page fill-in-the-blank questionnaire that aggregated the ideas he had read in every single one of the responses he had received, even the hesitant or angry ones: “Shocked by your letter; will come to meeting out of curiosity; writers shouldn’t be organized—must be free.” “Writers should stay at home, unorganized, and work.” “FREE EZRA POUND!!” None of these dissenters could have anticipated how Faulkner would read, dissect, and reinscribe their letters in the questionnaire to implicate them in his process of organizing, even if the purposes of their missives was to deliver a simple and resounding “no” to Faulkner’s PTPI invitation. In turn, Faulkner, who instructed his respondents to rank each suggestion on a scale of one to four—“1) Excellent, 2) Good, 3) Poor, 4) No”—could not have predicted how bad writers would be at reading and following his directions. The ranking system he had instructed writers to follow did not offer a sufficiently compelling constraint on their creative activity. Blanks were ignored, list items crossed out, and long sentences substituted for numerical designations. Marianne Moore, for instance, struck a line through Foote’s suggestion that “Writers should stay at home, unorganized, and work” and wrote underneath it that “Writers should sally out as well”; Donald Hall simply wrote Faulkner a letter instead. If these were acts of minor resistance on the parts of these writers, their bad bureaucratic reading modeled consensus-building in its most parodic and inefficient form.

PTPI’s organizing processes bear a striking resemblance to The Town, the novel that Faulkner slowed his work on to assume his PTPI duties. The second book in the Snopes trilogy and one of Faulkner’s least discussed late novels, The Town takes as its subject matter the evolution of the country town—“one of the greatest American institutions; perhaps the greatest,” according to economist Thorstein Veblen. More explicitly a novel of small-scale bureaucracy and its pitfalls than the other two books in the Snopes trilogy, The Hamlet (1940) and The Mansion (1959), The Town painstakingly details how the Snopes family establishes their dominion over Jefferson, Mississippi, beginning not from scratch but from total nonexistence. (“Scratch? Scratch was euphemism indeed for where he started from,” Faulkner writes of the first Snopes to step foot into Jefferson.)

The Snopeses establish their federation through carefully crafted repertoires of double speak, false promising, insinuation, and textual inscription.

The novel’s fictional discourse is a direct violation of the Snopeses’ prohibition on narrating their history, a half-century-long narrative of fraud, chicanery, and institutional conquest that they “have sworn never to tell anybody”: how “they had all federated unanimously to remove being a Snopes from just a zoological category into a condition composed of success.” Their federated “condition” is instituted by and through Jefferson’s tight-knit and expansive network of banks, schools, power plants, restaurants, general stores, canteens, labor unions, corner drugstores, and automobile dealerships. While critics have described the Snopeses as running the gamut from unsavory to pure evil, Faulkner nevertheless depicts the family’s petty politics with a begrudging admiration. For Faulkner, the town encapsulates “the most solvent and economical” and “self-perpetuating” kind of institution, one in which consensus-building is as natural as banding together members of an animal species. When compared to the bureaucratic incompetence of Faulkner’s PTPI administration, the Snopeses’ processes of organizing offer both the ideal model for scaling representation from the individual to the social, and a vision of the gothically terrifying consequences that may result.

The novel is relayed in the first person by a rotating cast of three characters—the young Charles Mallison, his Harvard-educated uncle Gavin Stevens, and traveling salesman V. K. Ratliff—whose accounts of the town’s evolution all take place in the shadow of the U.S. government and its international communications bureaucracies. Yet what elevates The Town’s bureaucratic resonances with PTPI into more than just thematic overlap is the relationship the novel reveals between telling a fictional story about institutional formation and actually creating an institution. The Town is not as concerned with the specific policies or politics of the Snopeses’ institutions as it is with tracing the fraught and messy processes by which they come to exist in the first place. The Snopeses establish their federation through carefully crafted repertoires of double speak, false promising, insinuation, and, most important of all, textual inscription. Consider the novel’s dense documentary economy of employment records, ordinances, bank ledgers, sales tags, letters, wills, titles, and notes—written genres produced, edited, and circulated around Jefferson by Snopeses who work as “clerks and book-keepers in the stores and gins and offices” with such nationalist-consumerist names as Wallstreet Panic, Watkins Products, and I. O. (“Interest Owed”) Snopes. The narrators’ nested attempts to read the Snopeses’ bureaucratic genres of texts smooth over the rough procedural seams by which the town’s institutions are stitched together as a single, sui generis social entity.

For the three narrators, fantasized representatives of a local civic elite, the act of telling the story of the Snopeses emerges through reading the bureaucratic texts the Snopeses have written and producing detailed commentaries about these texts for the reader.“This is what Ratliff said happened up to where Uncle Gavin could see it,” begins Charles Mallison in a chapter that narrates I.O.’s attempt to cheat an illiterate widow through a mule trade, asking her to sign documents she cannot read. “No, no, no, no, no. He was wrong,” Ratliff counters at the start of the next chapter, which contests Gavin Stevens’s account of the Snopeses’ attempts to alter a will to disinherit a noncooperating member of the family/federation. The novel comes to serve as the unifying and representative mouthpiece for the unspeaking Snopeses and the gently squabbling narrators alike. Unlike PTPI’s texts, the novel’s form derives from its highly stylized consensus-building by the town’s true leaders.

The actual communicative work of bureaucratic organization, though, can rarely tolerate such stylized procedural murkiness. On November 29, 1956, after compiling the responses to all the questionnaires he had received, Faulkner hosted a cocktail hour meeting in New York to draft a “Distillate”—a document that summarized the committee’s recommendations—to send to the White House. Neither the meeting nor the resulting document was a success. At the center of the meeting’s drama was Faulkner, who Hall described that night as “a small, tidy, delicate, aloof, stern, rigid, stony, figure . . . sitting in his chair rather away from the rest of the people” issuing a series of “absurd proposals,” including the following:

1. To reduce visa requirements to a minimum and abrogate red tape for the Hungarian people and any other people who may or will suffer the same crisis.

2. To try to bring people from all over the world who do not agree with us to this country for a duration of at least two years to lead a normal American life, to see and experience what we have here that makes us like it. This will necessarily require a revision of the McCarran Act.

3. To disseminate books, plays, and moving pictures through our Government, at least to match what the Russians are doing.

Despite Faulkner’s insistence to Eisenhower that American writers were “loyal citizens and cognizant by our craft of world conditions,” the tone-deafness of the “Distillate” suggested otherwise. For many committee members, the notion that a writers’ committee could persuade the government to reduce visa requirements or repeal the McCarran Act—the piece of legislation from which McCarthyism derived its ability to detain or deport suspected Communists—revealed the mismatch between the political limitations of bureaucratic labor and the imaginative possibilities of literary craftsmanship. “Perhaps it is just as well that writers do not have political power,” wrote Steinbeck after receiving the first draft of the “Distillate” from Faulkner.

Toward the end of The Town, upon his return from a State Department stint in Europe, Gavin, who has harbored a long-standing and obsessive love for Eula Snopes, is desperate to save her daughter, Linda, from the Snopes federation. When Eula insists that Gavin marry Linda, so that he may disrupt the Snopeses from within their own federation, Gavin decides instead to “develop her mind” by tutoring her in poetry and classic literature at the corner drugstore. In a rare glimpse into the mind of one of the Snopeses—Flem Snopes, Linda’s father and patriarch of the family—via free indirect discourse, we learn that literature presents an even greater threat to the Snopeses than marriage. On the level of form, the novel’s closing chapters also wrench control away from its three narrators and abruptly shifts to a different register: Gavin’s repeated professions of truth-telling as a self-appointed and institutionally autonomous literary authority figure, which pit the truth communicated by literature against the coherence of the Snopeses’ institutionalized power. Sadly, the truth that Gavin speaks is not enough to save Eula, who will take her own life. Linda, however, will leave Jefferson and the United States to fight in the Spanish Civil War as a convert to communism. She will eventually return to the town in The Mansion and will team up with Gavin to destroy the Snopeses’ federation by preaching tolerance, plurality, equality, and individualism—the ultimate act of liberal-artistic triumph.

Faulkner’s truth-telling was an exaggerated, unproductive version of the “American ideology of freedom” that the White House wanted to communicate to audiences behind the Iron Curtain.

Gavin’s staging of poetic authority remarkably foreshadowed Faulkner’s pronouncements in the final PTPI meeting he would attend. Faulkner finished The Town just one week before he returned to New York from Oxford, Mississippi, to present the writers’ committee’s findings to the PTPI board on February 4, 1957—a week in which he did very little but send the final chapter of The Town to the Saturday Evening Post and drink to excess. He had prepared a short speech outlining the policy proposals to State Department liaisons and other subcommittee chairs, who would then pick the best proposals to forward to Eisenhower. But when Faulkner arrived at the 8:30 a.m. meeting at the Algonquin Hotel, hung over and surly from drinking an entire bottle of Jack Daniel’s Black Label the night before, he refused to present the writers’ proposals. Instead, he took a page from his own book. “Here’s what we should do,” he told Harvey Breit, a reviewer for the New York Times book review working with him on the project. “We should get two stamps, one ‘True’ and the other ‘Not True.’ And we take every book that goes out of the country and we stamp it ‘True’ or ‘Not True.’” When Breit resisted and pointed out that the committee had approved the proposals already, Faulkner replied, “That don’t make no difference. We stamp it ‘True’ or ‘Not True.’” While it may be too much of a stretch to claim that Faulkner deliberately took Gavin’s professions of truth telling as his model of testimony, the rhetorical and performative resonances between the two are undeniable. Even the timing is suspicious. And while we may read Faulkner’s performance ironically, the PTPI board did not extend to him the same generosity in evaluating his proposal for exporting truth in the form of literature. Faulkner’s testimony effectively ended his and the rest of the writers’ participation in the program, undoing the past year of bureaucratic work just as the final chapter of The Town attempted to undo the Snopeses’ and the narrators’ institution-building efforts.

In a counterintuitive sense, we could see institutional nonexistence as PTPI’s end goal all along. We could read the stylistic dimensions of Faulkner’s truth-telling as performing his commitment to individuality: an exaggerated and institutionally unproductive version of the “American ideology of freedom” that the White House imagined PTPI would communicate to audiences behind the Iron Curtain. When pressed about the dissolution of PTPI one year later, while lecturing to undergraduates at the University of Virginia in April 1958, he explained that his proposal to stamp books as “True” and “Not True” was intended to undermine “the mythology that one single individual is nothing, and can have weight and substance only when organized into the anonymity of a group.” To read the failure of PTPI is to understand how Faulkner’s specifically American notion of literary truth-telling helped him throw his weight around as a bureaucratic reader, writer, and destroyer.


Reprinted with permission from Paraliterary by Merve Emre published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2017 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.