It is possible that Faulkner, in 1955, may no longer have seen himself as a writer of consequence…
When Steinbeck met the novelist William Faulkner in January 1955 it was, as Steinbeck’s biographer Jackson J. Benson describes, almost as disastrous a meeting as the one with Ernest Hemingway eleven years earlier.
John Steinbeck and his then third wife, Elaine, had arrived back in the US, from Italy, on the steamship Andrea Doria just before Christmas 1954 and, as with the Hemingway meeting, a mutual friend, the magazine editor and author Jean Stein, suggested Steinbeck might like to get together with Faulkner. Steinbeck was none too sure about the idea but went along with it, suggesting that Faulkner might like to come round to the Steinbecks New York apartment for cocktails before heading out to a restaurant for dinner.
When the Mississippi born Faulkner arrived with Stein, and his Random House editor Saxe Commins, it was clear to the Steinbecks that Faulkner had been drinking heavily beforehand, and was, as a consequence unsteady on his feet and, in Benson’s words “totally uncommunicative”. Steinbeck took his guests up to the library, offering the author of The Sound and the Fury his own favourite chair by the blazing log fire. Faulkner refused and instead sat on a hard wooden chair in a corner spending most of his time gazing out of a window.
Steinbeck and his wife tried to engage Faulkner in conversation about the Southern writer’s work, but Faulkner cut then short saying he didn’t talk about his books. A little later in the taxi heading for the restaurant Elaine Steinbeck tried to talk to Faulkner about food, especially Southern cooking, only to be told that he, Faulkner, had no interest in food and simply ate what was put in front of him.
At this point Steinbeck probably felt like belting the older writer in mouth and heading back home, but he kept his cool and endured an almost silent meal.
A few days later Steinbeck learned that Faulkner had been dreading the meeting, and had started drinking early to fortify himself for the ordeal.
It’s possible that Faulkner may have seen himself, in 1955, as a writer no longer of any consequence, whereas Steinbeck was still in the ascendancy. And in many ways Faulkner was also something of a loner in the literary field ( as was Steinbeck to an extent), and simply didn’t like socialising. There might also have been an element of misplaced rivalry on Faulkner’s part.
After that meeting Steinbeck and Faulkner did develop something of a friendship writing to each other quite frequently. In reply to one letter of 1957 Steinbeck writes and thanks Faulkner for his advice about what to do with free copies of their books, and about his, Steinbeck’s, travels in Greece and Faulkner’s intentions to travel there, something Steinbeck encourages him to do.
To find out more about John Steinbeck read Jackson J. Benson’s superb 1984 biography, The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer.