U.Va. Profiles: Joseph Blotner and the 'Unexpected Life'

November 06, 2007

Nov. 6, 2007 — When poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren heard of the death of his friend John Crowe Ransom, he said that Ransom's life was in the end his chief work of art. The same can be said of Warren biographer Joseph Blotner, the former University of Virginia faculty member who made a career of turning lives into art.

Blotner is best known as the biographer of two of America's greatest writers, Warren and William Faulkner. He also wrote indispensable scholarly works, including the "Modern American Political Novel" and the "Fiction of J.D. Salinger." Blotner edited the Library of America editions of Faulkner's novels and short stories, and received accolades that ranged from Guggenheim fellowships to membership in the French Legion of Honor for his work in Southern literature and in particular his Faulkner scholarship.

Blotner, along with English professor Frederick Gwynn and English department chairman Floyd Stovall, persuaded then-University President Colgate Darden to hire Faulkner as U.Va.'s writer-in-residence in 1957.

Once Faulkner was on board, Blotner and Gwynn coordinated thousands of requests for the writer's time, and Blotner and Faulkner became friends in the course of the author's two residencies, in 1957 and 1958. A result of their friendship was one of the greatest literary biographies in American letters about one of the most inscrutable subjects imaginable.

A prisoner of war

Blotner took a somewhat circuitous route to academic stardom. Born in Scotch Plains, N.J., in 1923, he was an only child who attended public schools and then Drew University as an undergraduate.

World War II interrupted the young Blotner's studies. He served as a bombardier aboard a B-17 Flying Fortress. On his sixth bombing mission over Frankfurt, Germany, his plane was shot down. Blotner was held in a German prisoner-of-war camp for 6 1/2 months until Gen. George S. Patton's Third Army liberated the camp on April 29, 1945.

Blotner's account of the POW camps was bleak. "We didn't have enough to eat," he recalled. "We made three different forced marches from one camp to another, which was pretty arduous in a tough winter that winter in Germany. There was always an uncertainty about what was going to happen to us at the end of the war."

Some popular movies about German POW camps, like "Stalag 17," are fairly accurate in the physical description of the camps, Blotner said, but "there were no comic Germans that I was aware of."

Blotner completed his studies on the GI Bill, earning his M.A. in English at Northwestern University and a Ph.D. in English at the University of Pennsylvania in 1951. By the time he completed his graduate work, another conflict, the Korean War, interrupted his career, but in a different way. "Because of the Korean War, which drained a large percentage of the students out of academia, it was a while before I could get a job as a teacher," Blotner said. His first job in academia was at the University of Idaho.

Faulkner and the University

Blotner later came to the University of Virginia, where he helped arrange Faulkner's residencies. During Faulkner's time on Grounds, he taught courses and held his now-famous question-and-answer sessions, giving University students an unprecedented look into one of America's great literary minds. Blotner and Gwynn published edited transcripts of these sessions in "Faulkner in the University."

Faulkner was comfortable teaching, according to Blotner, having had similar classroom experiences at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. When he stood before students at U.Va., he was remarkably forthcoming about the writing process. Blotner recalled, "Although Faulkner said he was nervous about it, it was something with which he was familiar, which he did brilliantly. He once said, ‘I just say whatever I think will sound good,' which was in part true and in part not true."

First-tier literary biographies

Out of his friendship with Faulkner came Blotner's greatest academic achievement, "Faulkner: a Biography." The product of a 10-year effort, the biography was published in 1974 to rave reviews and immediate acceptance as the canonical work on the life of Faulkner. The Chicago Tribune called it "an overwhelming book, indispensable for anyone interested in the life and works of our greatest contemporary novelist." A one-volume edition was published in 1991.

Joseph Flora, Atlanta Professor of Southern Culture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a friend and colleague of Blotner's, said, "When I read a graduate student paper, the paper will invariably cite Blotner. His Faulkner work remains essential. Blotner is in the first tier of literary biographers."

Blotner credits the example of Richard Ellman's biographies of James Joyce and William Butler Yeats, as well as advice from Hemingway biographer Carlos Baker, as major influences on his own biographical projects. Accuracy and interest are the essential elements to writing a great biography, he said.

"You have to represent your subject as truly as you can but without making it a New York Daily News operation," Blotner said. "Unless you're interested in your subject, I imagine it would be very difficult and very painful and boring. And other things figure in, [including] having the cooperation of the subject's family and having access to data of different kinds."              

Writer George Garrett, retired U.Va. English professor, and a friend of Blotner's since 1962, described the writing of a biography about a subject as elusive as Faulkner. "Faulkner left a lot of false traces. Blotner had to clear away a lot of debris to find what was true and what was fun and games."

By "false traces," Garrett is referring to a Life magazine interview in 1953 by writer Robert Coughlan. The immensely private Faulkner had fabricated nearly every answer in the interview. "So, Joe had to tiptoe through a minefield of major responsibilities," said Garrett, who sees Blotner's biography of Faulkner as an example of what a great literary biography should be. "[Blotner's] absolute fidelity to facts and the ability to find those facts are exemplary."

In 1997, Blotner published his next great biography — that of Robert Penn Warren. "I was fortunate to know both of my subjects and liked them a lot," he said. "Getting to know somebody who has that gift and who is open and generous as Warren certainly was — and as Faulkner in his own quiet way was — that became part of a whole process that I could not have foreseen, and that was the definitive thing in my professional life."

Blotner was honored in 1998 at Western Kentucky University when his notes on Robert Penn Warren were collected into the Joseph Blotner Archives at the Robert Penn Warren Library at WKU. The archive includes Blotner's notes on Robert Penn Warren, Saul Bellow, Cleanth Brooks, William Styron, Eudora Welty and John Crowe Ransom.

Mary Ellen Miller, coordinator of the Warren Center, said, "Professor Blotner's time on our advisory board and his papers, which are in our library here, have contributed to the study of Robert Penn Warren in ways that nothing else could have. In addition to his unmatched scholarship, Professor Blotner's integrity and his personal charisma charm and inspire us in our mission to promote the study of Mr. Warren."

A Faulknerian at heart

So how did a son of New Jersey become one of the leading scholars of Southern literature? "Sheer luck," Blotner said. "In the Army I had been stationed in the South and had many Southern friends. But teaching here at the University of Virginia, everything changed for me when Faulkner came as writer-in-residence. Once that million-to-one shot came to pass, I would have been something less than human if I had not pursued that. So luck has played an enormous part in my experience."

Blotner claims he is "that typical American phenomenon, an assimilator and a polyglot. No matter where I lived, I would remain a Faulknerian, a resident of Yoknapatawpha County in the heart."

In the 1990s, Blotner turned his biographer's skills onto himself and wrote "An Unexpected Life." Editors at The Virginia Quarterly Review said of the book, "Lucky for us, Blotner is equally adept at telling his own story in his brisk and engaging memoir."

The book provides a candid account of Blotner's career from Idaho to U.Va. to UNC-Chapel Hill to the University of Michigan and finally to retirement in Charlottesville in 1998. (Since the death of his second wife, Marnie, in 2006, Blotner lives in California). The book recounts his experiences as a bombardier and a POW, his first wife Yvonne's devastating illness and death, his second marriage to Marnie and his long friendship with William Faulkner.

The life recounted in Blotner's autobiography reveals the author's sense of gratitude for the fulfilling, "unexpected life" he has lived.

Written by Tim Arnold