Sunday, August 18, 2013

Hunting "The Bear" with William Faulkner

My introduction to William Faulkner took place over a short story in high school, and we did not make friends.  His writing was dense, and felt labored and 'writerly' to me.  I vaguely recall watching an adaptation of one of his stories, wherein Tommy Lee Jones played a redneck arsonist. 

My introduction to hunting stories was far different.  I read about bear hunts in Alaska, safaris in Africa, and friendships formed in freezing duck blinds in the colorful pages of Outdoor Life magazine.  Authors like Robert Ruark, Jack O'Connor and Ernest Hemingway wrote about the woods, the hunt, and the lessons learned with authenticity and humility, and often humor.

Years back, a friend urged me to read Faulkner's long short story "The Bear."  I didn't get around to it until last week, when something made me search out Faulkner in the public library, where I found an old edition of "Big Woods:  The Hunting Stories of William Faulkner," with excellent illustrations by Edward Shenton. 

"The Bear" is dense--long sentences in long paragraphs, broken only by a few lines of dialogue and the barking of dogs on the scent, and the roar of a shotgun, and the sound of a great bear running through deep leaves.  It is epic, and sad and beautiful, and I take back everything negative I ever said about William Faulkner.

I don't know much about Faulkner's life, but I know that no one could write a story like "The Bear" unless they'd walked those deep Mississippi woods.  Suffered in the heat, endured in the cold, pulled their boots free of the mud one hard step at a time.  "The Bear" isn't just about Old Ben, the near mythical, giant black bear.  Or Lion, the only dog brave enough to chase Old Ben.  Or even the boy and his friends, who are white, black, red and mixed.  But it is about recognizing our place in the world, appreciating the quiet moments, accepting the things beyond our control, and respecting the land and the creatures that inhabit it.

You need not hunt to appreciate the woods, or recognize courage, or mourn the passage of time and friends dead but not forgotten.  These things, and more, make "The Bear" worth your time and consideration.

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Note:  Fellow writer Lynn Wallace first told me I should read "The Bear."  What spurred me to finally go find and read it was a reference to Faulkner's mythical Yoknapatawpha County on author Nick May's website.     

1 comment:

  1. I have managed to avoid Faulkner for forty-five years. I attempted Hemingway once about twenty years ago – ugh. For some reason I always lumped Faulkner with Hemingway (as did you), so Faulkner never got the chance; until now.

    I started “The Bear” with arms crossed determined not to appreciate it. The first few paragraphs contained the run-on sentences that you mentioned and had to be read several times to comprehend; not very enjoyable to a reader. But like any good story, soon the reader is immersed and is transported to the writer’s world. The cadence of the initially interminable sentences eases into enjoyable reading. Soon you are this boy, you become wise to the ways of the wilderness, and you trek miles upon miles into the woods noting every log, ridge, broken branch, and tracks. Mid story, the reader may feel a bit despondent and wonders if he is sentenced to chase this bear his entire life like his father and like the spectral hunters of the Wild Hunt. These are all attributes of a great story.

    “The Bear” is an excellent read. There is a poetry reference that I vaguely recognized from high school. After some online investigation I found it was from “Ode to a Grecian Urn” by Keats – ugh. Faulkner’s use of this reference admittedly adds to the pensive and mystical tone of the story though using the last line of Keats poem would have sufficed for me, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all.” Thanks for introducing me to Faulkner.