James B. Meriwether, 1928-2007.
Apr 30, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 31 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
And there were ancillary dividends. I never heard Jim Meriwether boast, but his command of Faulkner's work was so much more exact than Faulkner's own that when the great Mississippian commenced writing the two concluding volumes of the Snopes trilogy he turned to Meriwether to straighten out the confused chronologies and inconsistencies. Imagine: It was like being adviser to the Almighty on the sixth day of creation. I should add that Meriwether was not only a great hawk of detail but also an eagle of wide horizons. Along with that first letter he sent me was a collection he had compiled (without credit) of Joyce Cary's journalism advocating African independence.
No man so attuned to the devil in the details could be without amusing quirks. I close with two characteristic Meriwether moments.
Once in Columbia, when I was writing a magazine piece on the textual wars provoked by Edmund Wilson, Jim was collating an Edith Wharton novel or story collection, of which there had been two printings for a single edition--the signal of textual trouble. A wedding scene had the parson intoning, "I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord . . . " Even meticulous Mrs. Wharton had nodded, and opened a wedding ceremony with words from the burial service! How many thousands, one wonders, had read right through it without noticing?
Ten years ago, at the time of the Faulkner centennial (when he organized several conferences), Jim came for a master class in a seminar I was teaching. His first move was to walk to the blackboard and place a small dot on it. Huh? we thought. The significance was this: Faulkner usually did not punctuate honorifics--wrote them Mr, Mrs, Dr, and so forth--with one exception: He had written "Dr. Einstein," a tribute to the great physicist.
This was the kind of thing Jim Meriwether and few others would notice or know, for he had a jeweler's eye for the telling detail. I mourn him as an enriching and faithful friend, but the world should remember him as one who made it his mission to remove treacherous barriers that create confusion between writers and their audience--faceless, thankless, invaluable work. All hail, then, the man who liberated William Faulkner from careless printers and from his own imperfect memory. It is enough for one lifetime.
Edwin M. Yoder Jr.'s novel, Lions at Lamb House, about Freud's analysis of Henry James, will be published in September.