The Biographer

By Lisa Montanarelli

In a long and distinguished career in academia, Joseph Blotner became known as the authority on the life of his friend William Faulkner. This spring his alma mater will recognize Blotner’s contribution to American letters with an honorary degree.

March 16, 1945. German voices sputtered from the loudspeakers. The prisoners threw open the blackout shutters. British warplanes dropped flares—first yellow, then green, giving the go-ahead. Imprisoned in a Nazi POW camp, Joseph Blotner C’47 scrambled for cover as the British Royal Air Force raided nearby Nuremberg. “From bomb-bay doors streams of explosives were falling,” Blotner later recalled in his memoir, An Unexpected Life. “The yellow beams of crisscrossing searchlights knifed into the dark skies as bright splashes of flak shells sought the range of the rumbling bombers. Then enormous reverberations began to shake the camp as the first salvos pushed waves of sound toward us. Plaster fell as crockery smashed on the floor.”

A bombardier on leave from Drew, Blotner had been captured after his B-17 Flying Fortress was shot down on his sixth mission. After six and a half months as a POW, he was finally freed when General George Patton’s forces liberated the camp on April 29, 1945. As he sought refuge from bomb blasts, Blotner couldn’t have imagined that 14 years later his experience would be retold in William Faulkner’s novel The Mansion. Faulkner lifted the story directly from Blotner after they became friends at the University of Virginia, when Blotner was a young professor and Faulkner a visiting writer-in-residence.

After graduating Drew, Blotner embarked on what became an illustrious career as a professor, author and Faulkner’s pre-eminent biographer. His works on Faulkner, published in 1974 and 1984, are deemed the consummate accounts of the literary giant’s life. Now 84 and retired in Berkeley, Calif., Blotner will receive an honorary degree from Drew in May. The recognition is particularly meaningful for President Robert Weisbuch: He and Blotner were colleagues for 26 years in the University of Michigan’s English department. Weisbuch calls him “Drew’s most distinguished graduate in the field of letters.”

When approached for this article, Blotner begged off an extensive interview, suggesting instead that Drew Magazine draw from his memoir, published in 2005 by Louisiana State University Press. He did, however, make clear his affection for the four years he spent in Madison. “I got my start at Drew,” Blotner says, “and I’m very grateful.”

In 1956, as a new assistant professor in the University of Virginia’s English department, Blotner served on a committee to choose an author for its writer-in-residence program.

Even though Faulkner had won the Nobel Prize just six years earlier, he seemed an unlikely candidate for the job. He was known to shy away from public appearances, which could trigger his infamous drinking binges.

He had, in fact, succumbed to one of these bouts at a Southern Writers’ Conference on the University of Virginia’s campus in Charlottesville in 1931. “Bill Faulkner arrived and got drunk,” the writer Sherwood Anderson later wrote in a letter. “From time to time he appeared, got drunk again immediately and disappeared. He kept asking everyone for drinks. If they didn’t give him any, he drank his own.” Fortunately, the writer-in -residence committee didn’t know about the novelist’s craggy history with the university, and Faulkner accepted the invitation with a few stipulations, including “a place to live and a servant to clean it.”

Blotner had to struggle to compose himself the first time he had coffee with Faulkner in his colleague Fred Gwynn’s office. The novelist, Blotner later wrote, “had an extraordinary presence. He radiated power. It was the kind of effect attributed to great tenors and bullfighters. This effect sprang … from knowing I was with the creator of so many works of art, a man blessed with a profusion of gifts, and from knowing, despite his aura of calm and silence, how withdrawn and sometimes irascible he was said to be.”

When they met, Blotner wrote, Faulkner clasped his hand with “the hard, firm grip of a man used to training horses and using hand tools and said, ‘Morning, Gin’ral.’” Gwynn later explained this odd greeting. During World War I, Faulkner served in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). Both Gwynn and Blotner had flown in WWII, and Gwynn mentioned this to the Nobel laureate to make conversation.

Faulkner spoke often and proudly of his own air force background. He and his wife, Estelle, invited Blotner and Gwynn to “squadron dinners” on their terrace in Charlottesville. “We started referring to ourselves as a hangar-flying squadron, with Faulkner being the Chief,” Blotner wrote. Ironically, their bond rested on a false pretense. Blotner later learned that Faulkner “had flown little if at all in the RCAF, but it was interesting to see how real some probably imaginary experiences were.”

Faulkner was known to fabricate events in his life, often to enhance his own stature. When he registered for the RCAF, he falsified his birth date and birthplace, added the u to his name (originally spelled Falkner) and claimed he was English, even though he spoke with a Mississippi drawl. When he returned from Canada with his uniform and wings, Blotner wrote, he confided in a pilot he knew: “Everybody thinks I can fly, but I can’t. Will you give me lessons?”

Perhaps, as one of Blotner’s colleagues suggested years later, the novelist saw him as someone who had lived out his dream. In his early poem “The Lilacs,” Faulkner wrote of an aviator whose plane is shot down in a briefly glorious night raid over Mannheim.

We had been
Raiding over Mannheim.
The place? Then you know
How one hangs just beneath the stars and sees
The quiet darkness burst and shatter against them.

While Faulkner romanticized military aviation, Blotner, who experienced both ends of bombing raids, looks back on his service with mixed feelings. In An Unexpected Life, he remembers his first mission, bombing Nuremberg, the city that produced half the engines for German tanks, planes and submarines:

I knew that after 1933, Hitler had turned Nuremberg into
a national shrine where Nazi party congresses soon enacted
laws depriving Jews of civil rights and much else … I was
not worried about the moral implications of the actions I
was about to perform. The rationale was clear: I was
going to bomb … not people but things, the materials that
had permitted the Wehrmacht, the SS and the Luftwaffe
to carry out their atrocities against enormous numbers of
innocent people. I simply didn’t think about the possibility
that some of our bombs would hit people and homes. And
there was a remoteness about what we were doing. By the
time the bombs detonated, we would be miles away.

Though Blotner’s military background might have drawn Faulkner’s attention at first, their friendship soon blossomed. A few years after they met, Faulkner, laboring on The Mansion, the 18th of his 19 novels, entrusted Blotner with his only copy to take home and read. That night Blotner read the manuscript, then nervously placed it on top of his highest bookcase, where his three small daughters couldn’t assail it with crayons. Once, when he visited Faulkner in the hospital, the staff asked if they were father and son. “He’s my spiritual son,” the patient replied.

There can be no doubt that Blotner viewed Faulkner as a friend and respected him enormously. (In his autobiography, he writes that he was fortunate to like both his subjects—Faulkner and Robert Penn Warren.) Yet for the most part Blotner deftly skirts around his own emotions. When asked how he felt about Faulkner’s habit of distorting the facts of his life, Blotner replied that his famous friend “had a good imagination.” One senses that Blotner never lost his reverence for him. In his foreword to the Faulkner biography, he writes, “I cannot hope to look upon his like again.”

After Faulkner died in July 1962, Blotner continued to make regular trips to the family’s house in Charlottesville, where he’d visit with Faulkner’s widow, Estelle, his daughter, Jill Summers, and Jill’s husband, Paul. When Blotner one day told them about new books coming out on Faulkner, they worried aloud about how he might be represented. Finally, Paul Summers said, “Joe, you knew him. Why don’t you write a book about him as he really was?” The idea took Blotner by surprise. He told his wife, Yvonne (Wright) C’48, about Summers’ suggestion. “Of course you want to write Mr. Faulkner’s biography,” she said.

The 2,000-page, two-volume Faulkner: A Biography was published by Random House in 1974. The Chronicle of Higher Educationcalled it an “exhaustive, magnificent biography.” Ten years later, Blotner produced a second, one-volume Faulkner bio, which he considered “a new and different book,” rather than a condensed version. Finding himself “Faulknered-out,” he shifted his focus to another major Southern writer: the poet, novelist and critic Robert Penn Warren. Blotner and Warren had become friends while Blotner was researching the Faulkner books. In 1997, Random House published Robert Penn Warren: A Biography. It was a decade in the making.

What impresses most about Blotner’s biographies is the sheer wealth of material, the exhaustive attention to detail and his compassion for his subjects’ all-too human foibles. He presents an unflinching account of Faulkner’s inconsistent—and controversial—stance on civil rights. Some of Faulkner’s works, such as Go Down, Moses (1942), show rare insight into the suffering that white people blindly inflicted on blacks. Yet Faulkner urged the North to “go slow” in 1956, as the University of Alabama broke out in riots over the admission of Autherine Lucy, a black woman. Blotner catalogs it all, from Faulkner’s inflammatory comments, some which barely distinguished him from his segregationist opponents, to his backpedaling and emotional turmoil over the issue.

Blotner entered Drew in 1941, when the college was all male, commuting from his home in Scotch Plains, N.J. By the time he returned from the war, the tiny college had gone coed. He met his wife, Yvonne, when they were both performing in a variety show, the All-Campus Capers. They were married in August 1946, when both were still students at Drew. Although Blotner majored in English, he had a strong interest in psychology. “My major professor was Earl Aldrich,” he says. “But the teacher I liked most was James A. McClintock, who was a psychologist.” McClintock founded Drew’s psychology department and died in 2003 at the age of 100.

After teaching at the University of Idaho, the University of Virginia and the University of North Carolina, Blotner concluded his academic career at Michigan, where he met a 26-year-old assistant professor fresh out of grad school. “Joe was assigned to be my mentor,” Weisbuch recalls, “which meant that he would advise me on teaching and scholarship and everything else.” Although he worked with Blotner for more than a quarter-century, Weisbuch says he never knew where his former colleague earned his undergraduate degree. “When I became president of Drew,” Weisbuch says, “I got a surprise phone call from Joe, and he said, ‘That’s my alma mater.’”

Lisa Montanarelli is a freelance writer based in Manhattan.

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