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William Faulkner’s wife and daughters were great at pranks.

Jessie Gaynor

May 21, 2020, 10:33am

A few years ago, I was in Oxford, MS, home of the University of Mississippi, the great Square Books, and (formerly) William Faulkner. I went to visit Rowan Oak, the Faulkner family home-turned-museum, which was a lovely place to spend an afternoon, and where I learned that the women in Faulkner’s family were absolutely amazing at pranks—like the time they signed him up for the Famous Writers School (after he had already won at least one of his Pulitzers).

The Famous Writers School was a correspondence course founded in 1961 by Bennett Cerf, co-founder of Random House (which published all of Faulkner’s books from Absalom! Absalom! on). “If you want to write, my colleagues and I would like to test your writing aptitude. We’ll help you find out whether you can be trained to become a successful writer,” Cerf promised in ads for the school. Of course, much like with the Barbizon Modeling and Acting School of my youth, everyone was found apt.

(J.D. Ratcliff, a freelance writer and a member of the school’s “Guiding Faculty” wrote, “I can’t understand why more beginners don’t take the short road to publication by writing articles for magazines and newspapers. It’s a wonderful life.” Read the room, J.D.)

There’s a great article in The Atlantic from 1970 about the whole scammy business, but for the purposes of our story, suffice it to say that at the point in his career when his family pulled this classic prank, Faulkner probably didn’t need Bennett Cerf to tell him if his writing aptitude was worth developing.

To be fair, Faulkner’s wife Estelle, his daughter Jill, and his stepdaughter Victoria didn’t actually pay the $900(!) to enroll him in the course—they just signed him up to receive the aptitude test, under the following address: Mr. W Faulkner, Humdrum Mansion, Oxford, MS.

This is a good prank! It’s silly and fun and it probably didn’t hurt anyone’s feelings! I support the Faulkner women. Bennett Cerf, maybe not so much.

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