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The Best Part Of The Hunt

June 2024
3min read

In the fall of 1961 I was an English major at the University of Virginia and William Faulkner was writer-in-residence there.

Mr. Faulkner was at that time finishing The Reivers , his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that would be published the following spring. I was doing some rudimentary research into Shakespeare’s Richard III for a paper that would never be published.

One day an announcement appeared on the English Department bulletin board stating that for the next six Thursday evenings Mr. William Faulkner would be pleased to hold a small symposium, open only to English majors and graduate students. The number of attendees would be strictly limited to the first twenty who signed on.

I had studied Faulkner the previous year under Joseph BIotner, one of the foremost Faulkner scholars, and had found Faulkner’s work incomprehensible. However, many considered him America’s greatest living writer, and the chance to learn from such a figure proved decisive. I signed on.

The next Thursday at the appointed hour, the small band of disciples and curious gathered in a room in Cabell Hall to hear the great man. Faulkner was a shy person with unremarkable speaking abilities, and it soon became apparent that this evening symposium had clearly not been his idea.

The sessions were scheduled to last an hour but Faulkner’s routine was to amble up to the lectern about ten minutes late, make a few desultory remarks, and then throw the floor open to questions. About the fourth session, when the speaker asked for questions, a dedicated young graduate student deep in a thesis on Faulkner, who always sat in the front row taking copious notes, raised his hand. “Mr. Faulkner, in paragraph (such and such) of section (thus and so) of your short story The Bear,’ you make reference to (such and such). There has long been debate among scholars whether or not you were referring to the betrayal of Christ in that passage. Would you be so kind as to edify us on that point?”

Faulkner stared at the earnest young man for a long moment. He then leaned on the lectern and a small smile appeared beneath his white mustache. “Young man, I regret I cannot edify you. You see, I haven’t read that story in more than twenty years, and besides, I was dead drunk when I wrote it. I haven’t the slightest idea in hell what I had in mind when 1 wrote the passage to which you refer.”

Faulkner liked riding to hounds and would frequently join the hunt at the nearby Farmington Hunt Club or Keswick Hunt Club. Now it happened that I had friends who rode with both those packs, and 1, too, enjoyed a good hunt on a fine fall day.

Not too long after the incident in his symposium, I encountered the novelist one chilly November morning at the punch bowl in the Farmington Hunt Club lodge prior to the call to horses. “Good morning, Mr. Faulkner,” I said. He nodded and then appraised me more closely over his cup of brandy milk punch. “Aren’t you in that goddamned Thursday symposium of mine?” he asked. When I replied in the affirmative, he said, "1 thought you looked familiar. You’re one of the few who never say anything. I wish there were more like that. Tell me, why did you sign up for the damned thing anyway? Are you one of those people who’re majoring in me?”

I laughed and, to gain a little time, offered him a Lucky Strike and then lit one myself. He declined, indicating his pipe. “No, sir, I’m not majoring in you. In fact, I don’t even understand most of what you write. I just thought it would be foolish not to take advantage of the opportunity.”

“I like that, son. No bullshit. What’s your name? I’m terrible with names.”

I told him, and we had another cup before the call to mount. As we walked outside, he said, “Who are you riding with today?” I told him no one in particular, and he suggested we ride together. We went to our mounts, mine a kind chestnut mare that belonged to a friend and his a big brown gelding he had borrowed. Faulkner was a small man, not more than five foot six and not the most steady horseman. He needed assistance in mounting, and the big gelding nearly un- seated him straight-away.

We were soon on our way in pursuit of the hounds and Faulkner made the first two or three jumps, but then his horse balked at a “chicken-coop” jump and its rider went flying. I was just behind and stopped to help. It was apparent that Mr. Faulkner wasn’t hurt, but neither was he too keen to continue. After sending the others onward, he turned to me: “Dick, my boy, what say you we go back to the lodge and have us a punch. That’s the only really civilized aspect of this damned sport anyway.”

I concurred, and off we went. We had a most pleasant morning drinking brandy milk punch and discussing the old South, women, and maybe a little literature. We met one or two more times fox hunting, and I went to the last two of his “goddamned symposiums.”

The following spring, when The Reivers came out, he appeared at a local bookstore signing first editions. I bought one and got in line. When it came my turn, he spoke to me cordially and even remembered my first name. He wrote in the book, “To Dick—Remember, the best part of the hunt is the punch.” He signed it “William (Bill) Faulkner.” In less than two months Mr. Faulkner was dead. I treasured that book (although I never read it) until it was destroyed in a fire in my apartment some years later. But maybe it doesn’t matter, because the memory is just as keen as ever.

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