Whisky & Culture

A nobel cause

William Faulkner may not have made many positive references to whisky in his work, but he was a great lover of Tennessee's finest. Jerrerson Chase finds out
By Jefferson Chase
William Faulkner was probably the biggest drunk ever to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, a Jack Daniels and George Dickel man who often wrote in a state of extreme intoxication. It’s surprising, then, that Faulkner’s works don’t have many good things to say about whiskey. From his cause célèbre, the 1931 novel Sanctuary:The others watched Gowan make a whiskey sour. “They taught me to drink in this way,” he said. They watched him drink. “Hasn’t got much kick, to me,” he said, filling his glass from the jar. He drank that. “You sure do drink it,” the third said. “I learned in a good school.”The college boy in question gets so drunk that he forgets to pick up his date, Temple Drake, who will be later brutally raped by a mulatto psychopath.The scene is typical Faulkner. His fictional Yoknapatawpha country is full of backwoods stills and primitive speakeasies, where desperate criminals wander half-crazed on “bust-skull white mule whiskey.” For example, Rider, the protagonist of his 1942 short story Black Pantaloon:He drank again, swallowing the chill liquid tamed of taste or heat either while the swallowing lasted, feeling it flow solid and cold with fire, past then enveloping the strong steady panting of his lungs until they too ran suddenly free as his moving body ran in the solid wall of air he breasted.Rider is on the lam after murdering a craps dealer, hardly an endorsement for the contents of the earthenware jug crooked in one of his fingers.Yet there is a subtle, positive side to whiskey in Faulkner’s works. While invariably depicting moonshine as “tasteless, cold, dead” stuff, with very unpleasant side-effects, whiskey is also a key to the subconscious. From Faulkner’s 1932 masterpiece Light in August:... with his bloody head and his empty stomach hot, savage and courageous with whiskey, he entered the street which was to run fifteen years ... I’ll know it in a minute. I have eaten it before somewhere. In a minute I will memory clicking knowing I see I see I more than see I hear I see my head bent I hear the monotonous dogmatic voice which I believe will never cease going on and on forever and peeping I see the indomitable bullet head the clean blunt beard they too bent and I thinking How can he be so not hungry and I smelling my mouth and tongue weeping the hot salt of waiting my eyes tasting the hot steam from the dish “It’s peas,” he said, aloud. “For sweet Jesus. Field peas cooked with molasses.”For Faulkner, as for his protagonist here, Joe Christmas, the horror of the binge is also a voyage of self-discovery. Without Tennessee whiskey, Faulkner would never have hit on the stream-of-consciousness techniques for which he became world-famous. He was, in the words of his contemporary Walker Percy, a whiskey ‘aesthete’ and not a ‘connoisseur’, overcoming reality in drink. A rather joyless drunk, it could be argued, but also a profound one. n