The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Wm. Faulkner: “God Damn! How?s That for a” Big Read?

May 12 , 2008
Boston, MA

William Faulkner wrote a screenplay for the Joan Crawford movie of James M. Cain's novel Mildred Pierce. Other hands eventually worked it over, but a copy survives. In it there's a moment -- and by the way, if any publisher were ever fool enough to collect my book reviews, There's a Moment is the only title I ever wanted to give it -- there's a moment when Mildred's African-American housekeeper consoles her over a lover's death by singing the traditional spiritual "Steal Away." In the margin of this never-shot scene Faulkner scrawled, "God damn! How's that for a scene?"

I've always loved this story, because it gives the lie to the old canard that Faulkner hated screenwriting. Idiot producers he most assuredly despised, and he missed Mississippi something fierce, but he plainly took pride in the writing he did for the screen. He liked director Howard Hawks, for whom he co-adapted both Chandler's The Big Sleep and Hemingway's To Have and Have Not (famously, the only picture to feature the talents of two, count 'em, two Nobel-winning writers). And he loved Hawks script supervisor, Meta Carpenter, almost enough to leave his wife - - a tidbit that makes Faulkner's great infidelity story, "Golden Land," his only fiction set in Hollywood, Meta-fictional in more ways than one.

All of which would be a lot of ink to waste on a (so far, sadly) non-Big Read author, except that a) blogs don't waste anything save, on an off day, time, and b) I finally got to hear "Steal Away" at Saturday's triumphal finale to international folk-radio juggernaut WUMB's Big Read of To Kill a Mockingbird in Boston and Eastern Massachusetts. The renowned a cappella combo The LoveTones sang a whole medley of stirring, Mockingbird-appropriate spirituals. This set capped an inspiring morning that started with Janis Pryor asking me astute interview questions for WUMB's award-winning public affairs show, and then adjourned to the University of Massachusetts-Boston's large student union lounge for a morning of storytelling, Mockingbird-themed art, a short but sharp high-school theatrical adaptation of the novel, notably smart book discussions -- e.g., Is Barack Obama the son Tom Robinson and Mayella Ewell could've had in a saner world? -- more chinwagging from me, and a special guest appearance by a convalescing raven from the Audubon Society. I guess mockingbirds are too intelligent to get themselves into any scrape that warrants much in the way of rehabilitation.

But all that was only the half of it. After an already full morning, resourceful founding WUMB general manager Pat Monteith and project director Mac McLanahan led a good 170 of the 230 assembled revelers down to the university's Snowden Auditorium for the final judging round of the station's contest for outstanding Mockingbird-related song. Though professional singer-songwriter Erik Balkey wound up winning for his heartfelt "Atticus Taught Me," both Terry Kitchen's happily political "Rainbow" and Mark Stepakoff's Randy Newman-esque "String Him Up" had vocal partisans. My fellow jurors and I finally pronounced all five finalists worthy of inclusion on an upcoming CD, alongside Mockingbird-related offerings by professional troubadours including my co-judge Kate Campbell, who sang a too-short set filled with her witty, bittersweet songs of Alabam' -- especially my favorite, "The New South."

So ended a day of good music, good radio, good fellowship, and better-than-average popcorn in Boston. Beantown doesn't exactly have an illustrious history of interracial comity, but then neither does Topeka, where the first Big Read I ever saw brought the literature of Zora Neale Hurston into the very schoolhouse in which Brown v. Board of Education began. WUMB wants back in on The Big Read next year with Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, and I hope they make it in and I make it back. As the strains of WUMB's signature "auterntic music" died away, I wished pooped but proud organizers Pat and Mac good luck. Then it was my turn to steal away?