Dean Faulkner Wells never knew her father, Dean Swift Faulkner, who died in an airshow accident in 1935 four months before her birth. Feeling very much responsible for his death because he urged his younger brother to fly and even bought him the plane, author William Faulkner promised Dean's mother that he would always provide for his niece. It was a promise he kept, according to Wells in her memoir Every Day by the Sun: A Memoir of the Faulkners of Mississippi.
Keeping the promise was not easy. William Faulkner had published several well-regarded novels before Dean was born, but sales were poor for the cerebral Southern writer. He and his wife regularly overspent their income, much of it for clothing, furniture, horses, alcohol, and special pipe tobacco. To make ends meet, he accepted a job writing movie scripts for MGM in Hollywood, so he was often gone from the family's Oxford, Mississippi home. Dean's mother soon remarried, apparently relieving William Faulkner of responsibility for Dean. Her stepfather, however, quickly proved to be a violent alcoholic who could not hold a job. He took the family to Memphis and then Chicago, where they lived in poverty. William Faulkner had to rescue Dean and her mother at least twice. Her stepfather eventually died drunk on a sidewalk in Chicago.
Dean grew up living with various relatives, including her paternal grandmother, maternal grandparents, and her mother, when her mother had the means. Occasionally, she resided at William Faulkner's family at Rowan Oak, the mansion that he had purchased in Oxford, Mississippi. Even when she was not there, the author was providing her with money for school or a trip to Europe. Dean's early years were an odd mixture of poverty and privilege.
Of course, in her memoir, Wells is sympathetic in her description of her famous uncle, but she is not blind. She tells about his alcoholism, infidelities, depression, and anger, but these failings are offset by his care for his mother, his brothers, his daughter, and all the nephews and nieces. She describes the games he devised for the children and the silly tricks that he played on them. She also admired his sense of racial justice and concern for the poor and mentally ill. He was also a gracious and generous host who threw lavish holiday parties.
Wells' Every Day by the Sun is an easy introduction to one of the most complicated of Southern writers. It will also be appreciated by Faulkner's devoted readers.
Wells, Dean Faulkner. Every Day by the Sun: A Memoir of the Faulkners of Mississippi. Crown, 2011. 271p. ISBN 9780307591043.