Fritz Faulkner always hoped there would be another book. At the very least, he hoped the one book he did get published would stand the test of time. Instead, he stood by and watched as it fell from the new books to the remaindered books, the remaindered books to the used books, and the used books to out-of-print. Despite garnering good reviews in The Spectator and The Saturday Review in England, and the New York Times and Kirkus Reviews in the US, when his book was released in 1936 it sold less than 750 copies. It took only a few short years for Faulkner’s only published work to fade into complete obscurity. Even though he continued to write every day until his death, finishing several more novels and dozens of short stories, he’d never get another word published again.
More than anything, Fritz Faulkner was a victim of bad timing. When he signed a contract with Hogarth Press in London to publish his first novel, Windless Sky, there was always supposed to be a second book. In fact, his original contract required it. But when Virginia Woolf was forced to relinquish her share in Hogarth due to her final descent into mental illness in 1938, Faulkner lost his first and best champion. Meanwhile, Covici Friede, the publisher who’d agreed to print the American edition of his book, declared bankruptcy the year after Windless Sky was released in the US. As a result, when Faulkner sent out his second novel, Sore Insignia, in 1939, it was turned down both at home and abroad.
Fritz Faulkner wasn’t his real name. He was born as Curtis Pelley, Jr. in 1910 in the city of Kokomo, Indiana. His mother died in childbirth, and his father died of heart failure the year after he was born, so Faulkner was raised by his aunt, Laura Whiteman, in Michigan City. He came of age during the Great Depression, and no one in the family had the money to send him to college. He didn’t even finish high school. Instead, he read every book he could get his hands on at the Michigan City Public Library, and when he stumbled upon William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying in 1932, he knew that writing novels was his calling in life. He took Faulkner as his new last name, and in an effort to maintain some semblance of a connection with his strict German Methodist upbringing, he took the first name of Fritz. He also liked the alliteration.
One could ask why an American author from small-town in Indiana would send his book to a publisher in London. In addition to admiring the work of William Faulkner, Fritz Faulkner found a kindred spirit in Virginia Woolf. In particular, he had an affinity for Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, both of which he read in 1933. Woolf’s use of stream-of-consciousness and first-person narration from multiple perspectives inspired him to try the same literary techniques in his own work. As to how a first-time author from Indiana got a writer of Virginia Woolf’s status to read his manuscript, he benefitted from the help of a mutual friend, the Chicago portrait photographer Helen Balfour Morrison, who wrote a letter of introduction to Woolf on Faulkner’s behalf.
While Woolf never set foot in America, she came close. She made plans to visit the US at least twice in her lifetime, although neither trip came to fruition. Morrison corresponded with Woolf about her writing and planned to meet her in New York to take her portrait. But Woolf’s trips to New York always remained in the future, so most of what she knew of America she learned from reading American literature. In 1925, she wrote an essay on American fiction for The Saturday Review, in which she declared that American authors, such as Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, and Willa Cather were fresher and more original than their English counterparts, who had already grown worn out and tired. It was no wonder, then, that she admired Fritz Faulkner’s book, as one of her favorite themes in American fiction seemed to be life in the Midwest.
Contrarily, when she wrote about America itself, rather than American literature, especially in her 1938 essay for Hearst’s International, “America, Which I Have Never Seen,” she wrote more about big, urban cities than she did about wide, flat prairies. She commented on the skyscrapers, highways, cars, bars, and restaurants. In this way, she echoed Faulkner’s dream of fleeing the dusty plains of the Midwest to inhabit a hustling, bustling metropolis. Woolf imagined that everyone in America owned a car and frequently traversed long ribbons of highways, zooming from one city to the next, only passing through the open prairie on the way to somewhere else entirely.
If one were to look on Helen Morrison’s bookshelves, they would find the works of the luminaries whom she had photographed or hoped to photograph. In her collection were a number of signed, first editions gifted to her from some of the greatest authors in the modern era, including Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, William Faulkner, Richard Wright, Thornton Wilder, John Steinbeck, Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, and Theodore Dreiser. Unfortunately, Helen was an artist unsure of her own talent. She either destroyed or gave away many of her most valuable photographs. If she took a photo she didn’t like, which happened to be most of them, she cut up the negatives and burned them in the bathroom sink. Had she not done this, she likely would have become more well known today.
The first time Morrison photographed Fritz Faulkner he had the aspect of a character straight out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. It wasn’t often an author from a small town in the Heartland looked like a Hollywood matinee idol. He sat perched on the edge of an Oriental ottoman, one leg crossed over the other, his arms sharply angled at the elbows. He’d parted his dark blond hair down the middle and slicked back the sides. A lit cigarette dangled between his fingers. This portrait is one of the only visual records that proves Fritz Faulkner existed at all. Like Fitzgerald once said, there are no second acts in American lives, or in this case no second novels. Once Faulkner’s first book went out of print and his second book failed to get published, it was almost as if he had never been born.
Then there were the love letters. Not all of them survived, but a few of them did—notes jotted hastily on scraps of paper. Morrison burned most of them in a bonfire in her backyard along with the other papers and letters she didn’t want to be found after her death. While she was married at the time, she wasn’t worried that her husband would be jealous if he found them. He wasn’t a man prone to fits of jealousy. In fact, he’d always encouraged his wife to take part in the bohemian artists’ community in Chicago and all it entailed. Morrison was more worried the letters would give an incorrect version of the truth. In addition to being a portrait photographer, she was also a writer of short stories, and she imagined herself to be much more of a mentor to Fritz Faulkner than a potential love interest.
To be clear, Morrison did have love affairs, just not with men. It was believed that her relationship with Robert Morrison was a “lavender marriage,” or a marriage of convenience. Before the dancer Sybil Shearer entered Morrison’s life in 1942, she’d had at least two previous relationships with women—one with the artist Carol Lou Burnham, a second cousin of Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, and another with painter Gertrude Abercrombie. When Shearer arrived, it was to the detriment of all others. Morrison broke off her remaining entanglements, with the exception of her husband, and began a lifelong personal and professional partnership with Shearer that would continue for the next several decades. Many believed the love letters from Fritz Faulkner weren’t the only ones she burned on the bonfire that day.
In many ways, the Morrisons were not unlike the Woolfs. They even had their own kind of Bloomsbury Group in suburban Chicago full of writers, dancers, painters, sculptors, and photographers. Not only was Helen Morrison a writer like Virginia Woolf, but Robert Morrison ran his own printing press like Leonard Woolf. He published his wife’s short stories in small chapbooks, and printed posters, handbills, and pamphlets for others in the group. He also overlooked his wife’s indiscretions, just like Leonard did with Virginia. A major difference between the two, however, aside from the matter of fame, was that despite her many illnesses, Helen Morrison died at home in bed at the age of eighty-four (coincidentally, the same age of Fritz Faulkner when he died) whereas Woolf’s life was cut short by suicide.
Faulkner also had indiscretions in his life. He had, for example, a relationship with an amateur pugilist he found sleeping in a Chicago alley. Faulkner, a kind and gentle soul, invited the boxer back to his apartment to spend the night, an act that ended up costing him most of his close friendships. Faulkner barely had enough money to live on himself, so he constantly needed to borrow from friends to fund the care and feeding of his new lodger. Eventually, his acquaintances had enough and cut him off. The sole exception was Faulkner’s best friend, George Ogle, a lawyer who also served as Faulkner’s literary agent. It’s speculated that George stood by him when no one else would—despite having financial difficulties of his own—because he himself had a number of relationships that were seen to be “improper” by others.
While Fritz Faulkner wilted among the crops on the dusty plains of Indiana, he fantasized about moving to the big, cosmopolitan city. He considered Chicago to be the Mecca of the Midwest, at least as far as writers were concerned. He eventually discovered, however, that it was just as difficult to ingratiate himself into the writing community there as it would’ve been if he’d moved to New York. To say that Chicago was unkind to Faulkner is an understatement. When he arrived in 1948, at the age of thirty-nine, he moved into an apartment in Lake Meadows on the south side of the city. The only job he could find (at least in a literary capacity) was as a clerk in a used bookstore. He earned just $225 in royalties from his book, and so after his failed debut as an author, Faulkner continued to live in the same cramped apartment and work in the same bookstore for the next forty years.
His failures as an artist marked the beginning of his decline. It wasn’t until he received Helen Morrison’s letter in 1949, however, in which she ceased all contact with him, that Faulkner’s heart truly broke. In the letter, Morrison quoted a poem by Emily Bronte to her older brother Branwell. “Well, some may hate and some may scorn / And some may quite forget your name / But my sad heart must ever mourn / Thy ruined hopes, thy blighted fame.” The context: Emily, the second most successful member of the Bronte family, had grown to despise her brother over time. Branwell, also a writer, never achieved the success his sisters, and drank himself to death at the age thirty-one. The parallel, perhaps, was that Morrison had grown to despise Faulkner and his ever increasing demands on her attention. She thought if only he’d been more successful in his literary endeavors, he wouldn’t have needed to rely on her so heavily for an artistic connection. In the end, it was his emotional neediness that extinguished their friendship.
If one were to walk into The Central Bookstore in the Chicago Loop of the 1970s, they would see a bookseller much older than the others pacing the aisles, his sparkling blue eyes clouded over and obscured by thick glasses. His dark blond hair turned a dull, listless gray. His proud posture stooped over and frail. Every once in a while, he’d walk down the fiction aisle and run his finger along the shelf holding the books of authors whose names began with F. When he arrived at the handful of books by his namesake, he would make a little space, just big enough for one book, where his own work would be if it was still in print. When the Central Bookstore closed for good in 1976, Fritz Faulkner was forced into retirement at the age of sixty-seven.
Fritz Faulkner died on August 26, 1993. He was so isolated at the time that a week went by before anyone found his body. George Ogle had passed away by then, so he was unable to serve as Faulkner’s literary executor. As a result, Faulkner’s letters, manuscripts, and books were all thrown straight into the trash. Over twenty years later, the Helen Morrison estate hired an archivist to sort through her portraits, papers, and books. The archivist found several of Faulkner’s manuscripts, letters, and portraits squirreled away among Helen’s office and studio. Upon further research, he discovered that Indiana University, Bloomington’s Lilly Rare Books Library owned a signed, first edition of the Hogarth Press print of Faulkner’s novel, Windless Sky.
After following due process, the archivist donated Faulkner’s remaining papers to the library’s Indiana literature collection. And so despite not having been able to finish high school or attend college, Faulkner’s manuscripts, letters, and portraits are now held in one of the best special collections in one of the best universities in the Midwest. All Fritz Faulkner had wanted was to be considered a worthwhile writer. While he failed at this during his lifetime, his work can now be read alongside other great Indiana authors such as Theodore Dreiser and Booth Tarkington. As William Faulkner himself once said, “All of us have failed to meet our dream of perfection. But I rate us on our splendid failure to do the impossible.”
Fritz Faulkner was a splendid failure indeed.
Images of Fritz Faulkner courtesy of the Morrison-Shearer Foundation. Self-portrait of Helen Balfour Morrison courtesy of the Chicago Film Archives. Inset image 1: Cover of “Windless Sky,” by Fritz Faulkner. Inset image 4: Photo of Leonard and Virginia Woolf by Vita Sackville-West.
Eric Andrew Newman currently lives in Los Angeles with his partner and their dog. He’s originally from the Chicago area. He earned his B.A. in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing from the University of San Diego and his M.S. in Library Science with an emphasis in Archives and Special Collections from Dominican University. He works as an archivist for nonprofit foundations by day and as a writer of fiction and nonfiction by night. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Gargoyle Magazine, Heavy Feather Review, Hunger Mountain, Necessary Fiction, and Quarter After Eight. He is at work on a collection of short stories.
Rachel Farrell is the Blog & Social Media Editor for Michigan Quarterly Review. Her work has appeared in Jezebel, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Ninth Letter, Pank, and Virginia Quarterly Review. She is a graduate of the Helen Zell Writers' Program at the University of Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @rachelfarrell.
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