VISTA, Calif. — Carvel Collins is widely regarded as one of the world's foremost authorities on William Faulkner. Some say Collins indisputably is the authority, in the way that Coca-Cola is the soft drink or Nikon the camera. There is one major difference in such a comparison. Those are products, with something tangible to show. The problem with Collins is he hasn't written the biography.
Collins, 74, lives a quiet life on the rural fringes of Vista, a small "bedroom community" in the northern tier of San Diego County. Vista boasts of having the best weather in the world. Collins lives with his wife in a rambling, disheveled house, not unlike the kind one might find in Faulkner's fictional Yoknapatawpha County.
It's a plain house, offering refuge--but from what? The winds of the Midwest that Collins tired of? Criticism, pressure? The memory of Faulkner himself?
It isn't just Collins and his wife who share the house. Memories and memorabilia dwell there as well. So many papers, dating back 38 years, when Collins first started writing (researching, analyzing, agonizing over?) The Book.
Scores of Articles
For some reason, he just hasn't written it. He has written scores of articles on Faulkner--one of history's least-understood literary behemoths--not to mention scores of introductions to scores of other books, all leading up, many have hoped, to The Book. His book.
There's "William Faulkner: A Life on Paper," introduction by Carvel Collins. There's "New Orleans Sketches," a book of Faulkner drawings, introduction by Carvel Collins. There's "The Unvanquished" by Faulkner, introduction by Carvel Collins. Many other books, by or about the genius, offer Collins' introduction. Wherever the name William Faulkner appears, that of Carvel Collins often is close behind.
Collins is a tall, gentle man with broad shoulders and a storehouse of memory about a literary giant. Friends consider him brilliant and gifted. He has the cunning, one says, of a river-boat gambler. If he ever played poker, he'd be a giant, another says. That friend, like others, is puzzled and saddened that Collins hasn't written the book.
"He should have written it in 1955," the friend said. "But he's been scooped over and over again by lesser scholars."
No one questions Collins' credibility. He is, they say, the definitive Faulkner scholar with impeccable credentials who has held the trust of dozens of Faulkner contemporaries, many of whom died long ago.
No one, they say, will ever duplicate those interviews. No one will provide the insights that he can.
Many worry, however, that his insights and decades of tortuous reporting may never be published, thus depriving literature and society of the kind of definitive work that a writer such as Faulkner deserves.
Collins was the first professor in the world to offer a course on Faulkner. (Today such courses are common, in this country and others.) He did so at Harvard, from 1942 to 1945, before Faulkner had captured the Nobel Prize (a 1949 award marking a turning point in critical acceptance of his work. The author won the National Book Award in 1951 and the Pulitzer Prize in 1955 and 1963). Collins also taught at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1950-67) and at the University of Notre Dame (1967-78). He left Indiana, tired of the winters and wanting to settle "someplace warm." He and his wife picked Vista.
He is under contract to do his book for Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He has been since the 1960s.
"We fully expect to publish it, when it's ready," said Helene Atwan, director of publicity for the New York firm.
What happens if the book isn't written? Has Collins provided a backup?
University of Texas
He has in the University of Texas, which owns the rights to the Collins archives. Some material has been sold already, with the balance to come after his death, according to Cathy Henderson, research librarian for the university's Humanities Research Center.
For his part, Collins vows to finish it and denies he's ever had writer's block.
"Why have I been so slow?" he asked. "A set of sequences. Faulkner never wanted his biography to be published. I promised him I wouldn't publish one during his lifetime. Then he died unexpectedly (in 1962). The widow, under immense pressure, committed to have (Joseph) Blotner do it."
Blotner's is a two-volume tome published in 1974. He was an aide during Faulkner's writer-in-residence years at the University of Virginia in the 1950s.
"In most cases the authorized biographer has a terrific inside track," Collins said. "It occurred to me that no matter how high the quality of mine, people would still say, 'Let's wait for the authorized book.' If I did go ahead, the author of that would have mine to draw on. I decided to wait until his was out.
A Wait for Revisions