Saturday, November 22, 2014


Friend and Foe of An American Literary Legend

Emily Whitehurst married the love of her life.  Her husband's best friend was a man she deeply admired.  When her idol slighted her husband's influence on his celebrated writings, her admiration turned to scorn.  But in her own right, she was a woman ahead of her time, a time in the South when her stands on social rights were scorned by many and admired by the very few.  

Emily Whitehurst was born in 1909 in Dublin, Georgia.  Her father, Zollicoffer, or just plain "Z." Whitehurst was a pharmacist, who later became the Superintendent of Laurens County schools.  Her mother was the former Miss Minnie Edge.  Emily graduated from Dublin High School in 1926.   After her graduation, Emily studied at Georgia State Teacher's College and Tulane University, where she obtained a degree in education. 

Emily loved literature, especially classical Greek literature.  She began to read "The Sound and the Fury," by Mississippi novelist William Faulkner.   She took a friend and set out for Oxford, Mississippi to meet her new favorite author.  She said, "here is a real live writer.  I had never seen one.  He was short, but had a great presence."  Emily stayed in Oxford, where she taught school.  She began to write her own novel.  The new single, blond, blue-eyed school teacher was the object of the town's matchmakers.  Emily's friends were all talking about a young man, a Yale-educated handsome lawyer  named Phil Stone.  "He was the most romantic person, all the girls in town were in love with him," Emily remembered.   After all, Phil Stone was the best friend of William Faulkner, the man who's writing "set her on fire."

A mutual friend took Emily's unfinished manuscript to Phil for his review.  There was something in her words that peeked the young lawyer's attention, or maybe there was something in her smile.  Phil sent a letter to Emily inviting her to come by his office.  Emily  was flattered.  "I just primped myself to pieces," said Emily, who married Phil Stone in a New Orleans church, despite the fact that she had disavowed her staunch Methodist upbringing and was generally regarded as somewhat of an atheist.  

It was about this time when Emily's admiration for Faulkner evolved into disdain. Faulkner would come by the Stone home and sit in their parlor while he read his new stories to the Stones, who acted as critics and counselors as well.  Mrs. Stone was intimidated by Faulkner.  Particularly disturbing was his opinion about women.  Emily believed Faulkner saw women as good for housework only and as parasites, who live off the men they marry.  Many times Emily bit her tongue when it came to Faulkner's faults.  She realized the importance of her husband's friendship with Faulkner and learned to respect it.

Faulkner's reputation among his critics and multitude of readers began to soar.  Many people in Oxford thought the highly respected author's work were in reality, written or at least inspired by Phil Stone.  It was generally known and accepted by almost everyone, except Emily, that Gavin Stevens, the southern lawyer protagonist of Faulkner's widely acclaimed mystery novels, was based on Faulkner's best friend Phil.  Emily hated the comparison.  "I got mad.  Phil was not," Emily remembered.  "Gavin was so garrulous and Phil was not," she said as she remembered her fury when everyone thought the lawyer in Faulkner's novels was actually her real life husband.  Emily did admit the similarity between Gavin Stevens and her husband's propensity for telling stories.  

Phil never took any credit, except for giving Faulkner a sense of humor and keeping him in Mississippi and away from New York.  When William Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, he took all of the credit and gave his best friend Phil absolutely no praise for his friendship and inspiration.  This was the last straw.  Emily believed with all of her heart that it was Phil Stone who transformed William Faulkner into a writer, or at least into the writer he became.  Phil and William, a high school dropout, were inseparable.  The highly educated Stone exposed William to a diverse group of classic literary works.  Stone purchased a thousand copies of Faulkner's first book, a volume of poetry, to boost his friend's ego and fatten his wallet.  After tolerating his faults for too many years, Emily Stone no longer had any use for the once beloved icon and forever demigod Faulkner. 

Emily simply adored and idolized Phil. She and "Mr. God," as she referred to him had two children, Phillip, Jr. and Araminta.  Early in their marriage, the Stones suffered an irreparable loss.  Their elegant home was destroyed by fire.  Most devastating was Phil's vast library, which included a fifty- foot long, more than a head tall, line of literary works.  Among the treasures lost or severely damaged were some of Faulkner's earliest works, many of which were personally inscribed by the author.  The loss of her and her husband's priceless possessions was compounded by the loss of her most prized possession, her husband.  First he lost his mind and then he died, leaving her to face a new world alone. Emily turned back to her childhood faith and found solace in her new life.  She moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi and then to Montgomery, Alabama and then to Charlotte, North Carolina. 

During the violent racial upheavals of the 1950s and 1960s, Emily Stone saw the absurdity of the cataclysms erupting in Mississippi and throughout the office.   When James Meredith became the first black student to integrate Ole Miss, Emily refused to join in the effort to deny him his rights, but instead took the offensive.  With the courage of a literary hero, Mrs. Stone chastised and condemned their barbaric behavior.  Her pleas went ignored.
Ralph Wood, a professor of religion at Wake Forest, said of Emily, "she was a woman ahead of her time.  She could have been content being a perfect Southern lady - keeping her china sparkling, her silver polished and belonging to book clubs where people didn't read books.  But she wasn't."  Emily did write, but none of her short stories and essays ever garnered any fame, except among her inner circle of friends and colleagues.  As Professor Stone, Emily was a highly respected teacher of English literature at Huntingdon College.

Emily Whitehurst Stone died on June 24, 1992 at Wesley Nursing Center in Charlotte.  In his eulogy of Emily Stone, Professor Wood described her an oxymoron,  "she was a saint without a halo.  She may have thought herself an unbeliever but to paraphrase Tennyson, there lived more faith in her honest doubt than in half our creeds."  

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