Former University professor Joseph Blotner, a renowned William Faulkner biographer, passed away Nov. 16 at the age of 89. Blotner is credited for leading the effort to bring Faulkner to the University’s English department.
Blotner and Faulkner grew close in their time together at the University, a relationship that provided Blotner with the expertise needed to construct his comprehensive two-volume biography. The book is considered by many academics as essential to the study of Faulkner.
“Everyone who does work on Faulkner is indebted to Blotner’s work, whether it be writing a new biography or writing on Faulkner’s work,” English Prof. Stephen Railton said.
Blotner and fellow English Prof. Frederick Gwynn worked hard to make Faulkner the University’s first writer-in-residence in 1957, battling skeptics at the University who criticized Faulkner’s notorious drinking habits.
“There were many people at the University who did not want him here, including some in the English department,” Railton said of Faulkner. “He was a Nobel Prize winner at that point and many people regarded him as the best American novelist, but his drinking was a controversial issue.”
Blotner and Faulkner bonded over similar war experiences — Faulkner served in Canada’s Royal Air force during World War I, and Blotner served in the United States Army Air Forces during World War II. Blotner was captured in Germany and held in a prisoner-of-war camp for more than six months after his plane was shot down. His account of this experience was included in Faulkner’s novel, “The Mansion.”
“Blotner clearly liked the guy enormously and was happy to spend the rest of career helping the rest of us understand Faulkner,” Railton said.
In addition to his work on Faulkner, Blotner later published a biography of American poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren. Like with Faulkner, Blotner was fortunate enough to have a personal relationship with Warren.
In a 2007 interview Blotner openly attributed part of his success to luck.
“In the Army I had been stationed in the South and had many Southern friends,” Blotner said. “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.”
Although Blotner is most well known for his biographies, his other well-recognized work includes “The Fiction of J.D. Salinger” and “Modern American Political Novel.” His work earned him a Guggenheim fellowship and membership in the French Legion of Honor.
Blotner married twice — his first wife, Yvonne Wright, died in 1990, and his second wife, Marnie C. Allen, died in 2006. Blotner is survived by his daughters Tracy and Pamela and a granddaughter.