Editor and scholar Noel Polk was born in Picayune, Mississippi, on 23 February 1943. He graduated from Picayune High School in 1961, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Mississippi College, and then went on to receive a doctorate from the University of South Carolina in 1970. For more than twenty-five years Polk taught English at the University of Southern Mississippi and edited the Southern Quarterly. From 2004 to 2008 he taught English at Mississippi State University before retiring and becoming professor emeritus. Polk declared that his proudest accomplishment was working with Aubrey Lucas to create the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters, which, in his words, gives “actual cash money to Mississippi writers, musicians, photographers, painters, and sculptors.”
Polk became one of the authoritative textual critics of the works of William Faulkner. Working from Faulkner’s original and revised typescripts, Polk established the corrected texts of Faulkner’s works. Polk figured out the nearly impossible—how Faulkner intended his works to be punctuated, phrased, and worded. Polk also published concordances of Faulkner’s novels, wrote several book-length critical studies of Faulkner’s prose, and coedited several others.
Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun: A Critical Study (1981) was Polk’s earliest volume of Faulkner scholarship. In it, Polk argued that Temple Drake, rather than Nancy Mannigoe, stands at the moral center of the novel, that Mannigoe’s infanticide is not morally justified, and that Gavin Stevens crucifies rather than saves Temple. Polk achieved his analysis by closely reading characters’ actions, speech, and internal dialogue. Moreover, Polk explicated the chapters pertaining to the mythical and real history of Mississippi.
In 1996 Polk returned to Faulkner criticism with Children of the Dark House: Text and Context in Faulkner. This collection compiled ten of Polk’s previously published essays, five of which had been presented at the annual Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference at the University of Mississippi. Addressing works from the beginning, middle, and end of Faulkner’s career, the collection was thorough, provocative, and firmly grounded in both text and context.
Beyond his Faulkner criticism, Polk published and edited work on a variety of southern authors, including Eudora Welty: A Bibliography of Her Work (1994). He also edited or coedited An Anthology of Mississippi Writers (1979), Mississippi’s Piney Woods: A Human Perspective (1986), Natchez before 1930 (1989), and Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men: Restored Edition (2001). In a 1997 autobiography, Outside the Southern Myth, Polk detailed how his Piney Woods upbringing did not conform to any of the southern myths he analyzed in his fiction—neither planter nor sharecropper, not tormented by the past nor given to the telling of stories. In 2008 Polk published Faulkner and Welty and the Southern Literary Tradition, a collection of essays from throughout his career.
Polk’s scholarship earned him international recognition, though he is perhaps best remembered by the generations of students he mentored over his decades of teaching. He died in Jackson on 21 August 2012.
- Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters website, www.ms-arts-letters.org
- Noel Polk, Outside the Southern Myth (1997)
- Stephen M. Ross and Noel Polk, eds., Reading Faulkner: The Sound and the Fury (1996)
- John Ray Skates and Noel Polk, Turning Points (1986)