June 13, 2013
Forget the Nobel medal, buy more pomade
by Dustin Kurtz
Fans of William Faulkner, Nobel laureate and one of the great voices in the history of American literature proved themselves shockingly sane this week.
In a Tuesday auction hyped by Sotheby’s as the greatest single sale of Faulkner memorabilia, only smaller items sold, and those usually at prices below the auction house’s estimate. The most notable lots from the Faulkner estate included letters from the author to his mother, manuscripts for stories, proofs of books and, most notably, handwritten and mimeographed drafts of Faulkner’s legendary Nobel acceptance speech, a gorgeous Nobel diploma with a custom illustration of a scene from Absalom, Absalom!, and his very Nobel medal itself. That last lot was valued at Sotheby’s between half to a full million dollars. It did not sell.
And perhaps that’s for the best. Faulkner would surely have been disgusted by those prices. For half a million dollars potential buyers could buy their own land in the South, build a farmstead, and play at being Faulkner for the rest of their lives. Half a million dollars won’t make you one of the single most important authors this nation has produced, but it’ll buy you enough leisure that maybe you wouldn’t care. Hell, wait a few years and a million dollars will get you a drunken surly clone of Faulkner himself. Besides which, the Faulkner estate are notoriously litigious bullies and it’s nice to think they’ve missed out on cashing in.
As Michael Orthofer notes, fans of David Foster Wallace showed less restraint. (Or perhaps, sadly, Faulkner is simply in narrower favor. Or, more to Orthofer’s point, the initial lot pricing was much less accurate here.) A bundle of Wallace’s manuscripts from the 80s sold for $125,000.
Faulkner didn’t even want that medal. As told in his biographies and in the auction notes themselves, at first Faulkner declined the prize and the necessary trip to Sweden. When finally cajoled to attend, he delivered his speech so hurriedly it was barely understood by those in attendance (though please, read it, it will beat you about the head like sudden summer rains; it will, as it has to me even now, raise up each hair on your arms, please read it). Before leaving, it was discovered that his medal was missing. A British valet named Geoffrey Button (I’m not making that up) found it buried in a potted plant.
I say to hell with Button and to hell with the medal. The man buried it in black earth. So what if he was drunk at the time? Faulkner himself, in his speech, said “It will not be difficult to find a dedication for the money part of [the prize] commensurate with the purpose and significance of its origin.” I do not suppose, nor can any reader of Faulkner with devotion enough to desire this lot think, that a shrine to the man as constituted by these objects is so commensurate. I hope they spent it, any who might have been considering buying the lot, on some nice mustache wax. I hope they bought a silly pipe and waved it around. I’m glad they, as Faulkner tried to do in Sweden and of course eventually succeeded in doing here in the world more generally, left it behind.
Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.