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William Faulkner’s Tragic Vision

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William Faulkner’s Tragic Vision

In Yoknapatawpha County, the past never speaks with a single voice. Winter 2022
Arts and Culture

In November 1952, the Ford Foundation sent a documentary crew to Oxford, Mississippi, to create a brief portrait of William Faulkner (1897–1962), two years after he received the Nobel Prize for Literature. The resulting film, William Faulkner on His Native Soil, belongs to the unfortunate category of official culture—neither distinguished as a documentary nor penetrating in its portrayal of the setting for much of Faulkner’s work. It holds a certain fascination, however, for its apparent desire, somewhat at the cost of authenticity, to present a man whom the audience can accept.

The film’s scenes seem mostly scripted or re-created from previous events. Faulkner chats affably with black neighbors; he walks the grounds of his home, Rowan Oak; he visits with childhood friends; he is plainspoken and humble. The film is not an argument for Faulkner’s genius but for his common humanity—that is, for a Faulkner who might be our neighbor or someone we meet in the town square. The entire enterprise is as wooden as an eighth-grade production of Our Town, and the folksy Faulkner of the film is an illusion. Or rather: he might be the man who lived, but he is not the man who created. That William Faulkner was as uncompromising, disillusioning, and discomfiting a literary artist as America has ever produced.

Faulkner was always ambivalent about the attention paid to him personally. He told The Paris Review in 1956 that if he could start over, he would write under a pseudonym. Time has borne out his suspicion of publicity. Faulkner’s major period was 1929–42, in which he produced the work that would eventually bring him the Nobel, including The Sound and the Fury, Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom, his most fully realized presentations of the legacy of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction in the South. It is some of Faulkner’s later public statements, when his fame drew him into the fraught public discourse over civil rights, that have haunted his reputation. The novels and stories that were his life’s purpose are now increasingly obscured behind a latticework of grievances—about Faulkner’s relation to the myths of the antebellum South, about Lost Cause revisionism, and about his inconsistent and occasionally offensive statements on race.

Michael Gorra’s The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War argues for Faulkner’s genius and his continuing salience as a chronicler of the region of the Deep South known as the Black Belt. A Smith College professor and frequent reviewer in The New York Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, and elsewhere, Gorra is an astute Faulkner reader. His book may generate renewed interest in his subject’s notoriously difficult fiction. Even so, in seeking to preserve Faulkner’s reputation, he concedes too much to the writer’s most motivated critics.

Gorra argues that traditional methods of reading Faulkner, which emphasize “his representations of consciousness or the intricacies of his prose,” are “no longer adequate.” He compares Faulkner’s current position with that of Joseph Conrad, whose legacy was called into question by Chinua Achebe’s 1975 lecture “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” Achebe argued that Conrad’s work recapitulates the very colonialist assumptions that it seemed, on first reading, to criticize. Achebe found in Conrad a “residue of antipathy to black people,” which motivated him to invoke Africa as “a place of negation,” that is, a “darkness,” compared with the civilized “light” of Europe. Achebe’s essay wasn’t the last word on Conrad, who still has many admirers, but it shifted the critical center of gravity.

Likewise, Gorra claims, Toni Morrison, along with a cadre of professors steeped in critical race theory and postcolonial perspectives, has made it impossible to read Faulkner in the old ways. Morrison was an insightful but hostile reader of Faulkner, and she resented the implication that his example had influenced her work. She believed that Faulkner’s writing was often ingeniously evasive on the issue of race. Morrison claimed that early Faulkner critics were eager to “universalize” his work—in effect, declining to linger over the race question. The Saddest Words is Gorra’s effort to read Faulkner in light of Mississippi’s long history of racial violence.

Faulkner’s correspondence and interviews on civil rights from the 1950s are sometimes moving, sometimes disingenuous, and occasionally indefensible. He wrote to the Memphis Commercial Appeal in 1950 to protest the lynching of a black sharecropper, and again in 1955, when Emmett Till was murdered, and he protested: “If we in America have reached the point in our desperate culture when we must murder children, no matter for what reason or what color, we don’t deserve to survive, and probably won’t.” A year later, in an interview with a British newspaper, he drunkenly invoked the specter of a race war if the South were forced to integrate—averring that in such an event, he was prepared to shoot blacks—and then disingenuously denied having made the quoted statements. And in 1957, in an unfinished letter, he invoked an especially lame defense of segregation: “All the laws in the world will not make white and non-white people mix if one of the parties doesn’t want to. . . . I still don’t believe the Negro wants to ‘mix’ with white people.” Faulkner’s record on civil rights is such that you can read it just about any way you like.

Gorra allows, as too few do, that a person can hold contradictory views and that someone at the cusp of old age might see the necessity of social change and yet also be unable fully to embrace it.

At the height of his career in the 1930s and ’40s, Faulkner was seen as a moderate on the South’s racial questions, and many white Mississippians viewed him with suspicion. He thought World War II would bring a long overdue shift in the country’s social structure by forcing “the politicians . . . to make good the shibboleth they glibly talk about freedom, liberty, human rights.” Nevertheless he remained a white man of the Jim Crow South and did not always rise above it.

As an account of Faulkner’s basic attitudes, this summary is more than fair. Missing, perhaps, is due recognition of the personal anguish of a man who had suffered obscurity and ridicule in his youth, patiently built a celebrated body of work, and then found himself overtaken by events and once again the object of derision among his people. Perhaps more importantly, taking sides would have put Faulkner in conflict with his own project, which required him to extend imaginative sympathy even to characters rendered grotesque by hatred and obsession.

Also missing from The Saddest Words is any consideration of the risks of judging long-deceased artists by how comfortably their attitudes fit the now-prevailing consensus. Even Faulkner’s gentler interlocutors often refer to his “limitations” as a man born in 1897 in New Albany, Mississippi, failing to recognize the self-satisfaction implicit in this formulation. I do not mean that there are two ways to see slavery, or that there is any basis to admire the Confederate cause, or that those resisting integration in the South had any case to make. What should be evident, though, is that Faulkner’s “limitations” are our own. We no more stand outside history than he did. We can only hope that future generations show us more consideration than we have lately taken to showing our predecessors.

Faulkner’s writing was radical in form, but his vision was fundamentally conservative. He valued the past as a source of meaning and identity. He also viewed the past, at least potentially, as a source of ultimate values. He saw that Mississippi’s own past was full of iniquity and terror, and yet he could not finally repudiate it, simply because it was the past. If “was” and “again” are for Faulkner “the two saddest words,” they are also two of the most richly evocative, giving life its tragic dimension. As he writes in Absalom, Absalom:

[W]e exhume from old trunks and boxes and drawers letters without salutation or signature, in which men and women who once lived and breathed are now merely initials or nicknames. . . . [W]e see dimly people, the people in whose living blood and seed we ourselves lay dormant and waiting . . . the paper old and faded and falling to pieces, the writing faded, almost indecipherable, yet meaningful, familiar in shape and sense.

Faulkner’s entire body of work is an effort to satisfy competing historical impulses, to find a usable past in the history of Lafayette County, in and around which his family had lived for generations, and yet to acknowledge the blood—black and white—that was mixed into the dirt beneath his feet. This ambivalence prevented him from being a consistent friend to the civil rights movement, whose ultimate ends he supported. It is also what gave his stories their tension and urgency.

Some part of antebellum Mississippi spoke to Faulkner as an ideal. With their first small cache of money, Faulkner and his wife, Estelle, bought a crumbling mansion outside Oxford. The house was to become a source of seigneurial pride, a money pit, and finally, as Faulkner’s and Estelle’s alcoholism advanced, something of a prison. Faulkner the freeholder was also the Faulkner whose signature novel, Absalom, Absalom, tells the history of “Sutpen’s Hundred,” a slave plantation “founded upon injustice and erected by ruthless rapacity.” At the end of the story, Thomas Sutpen’s mentally retarded daughter, a product of her father’s relationship with one of his slaves, burns the main house to the ground. Their sins follow the residents of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha like afternoon shadows. Even Toni Morrison admired what she called Faulkner’s “refusal-to-look-away” approach to Mississippi’s history.

What Faulkner sought for the South was not absolution but redemption, and here is where he found trouble. He believed that the imposition of integration by the federal government would doom both whites and blacks because it would leave their society stripped of moral agency and therefore of dignity and purpose. Faulkner was a gradualist on integration not because he was ambivalent about the rights of blacks but because he understood that the new South would necessarily have to be written over the old South, a place inseparable from his personal identity. The renunciation of the past that Faulkner felt was being asked of Southerners was impossible for him, given all that he had staked on it.

Faulkner saw that Mississippi’s blacks were its most loyal subjects even as they were denied the status of citizens. This is not to say that Faulkner’s imaginative project was for them—it was for white Southerners, a blueprint for their moral renewal. Of course, as Faulkner himself well understood, there is no “white South” and there is no “black South.” There was only ever a “white + black South.” Segregation was simultaneously a hard legal fact, enforced by state violence, and a cultural fiction. Faulkner wanted to convince white Southerners that they shared a common destiny with their black neighbors and always had. He hoped, against the grain of his experience, that if they accepted this fact, their opposition to civil rights would fade away.

The collective past—the solemn, marmoreal past that was not just Pickett’s Charge and Confederate burial grounds but also bygone manners and social relations—carried extra weight for Faulkner because he struggled with core questions of personal identity, especially as a young man. He was uncertain how to carry his own family’s history. His great-grandfather, William Clark Faulkner, had been a man of considerable reputation in Mississippi, serving as a Confederate officer and then building a successful railroad business during Reconstruction. But the Falkners, as the family was known, had come down in the world since then, neither planter aristocracy nor poor whites, but part of a slender, precarious middle class. Murry Falkner, William’s father, had shuffled through various occupations before landing a modest sinecure at the University of Mississippi as a kind of genteel failure.

An etching of Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg (THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY / ART RESOURCE, NY)

As a young man, William seems to have lacked a stable sense of self, as evidenced by his changing his name on enlisting in the Canadian Royal Air Force to “Faulkner,” which he believed looked more “English.” He trained as a pilot but didn’t make it to Europe before Armistice Day. When he returned to Oxford, he bought himself a bogus uniform, complete with a cape, and lied about his war record. Thus did one of America’s greatest novelists enter into a career as the town fool, “Count No ’Count,” as he was known during his brief time as a student at the University of Mississippi. (Faulkner’s first published novel, Soldier’s Pay, revolves around the return of an aviator disfigured on the Western Front to the small town of his birth—for Faulkner, a typically odd form of wish fulfillment.) Faulkner’s behavior was not as inexplicable as it might seem, given the moral prestige of combat service in that period. Hemingway served honorably in the Italian ambulance corps but embellished his experience considerably when he got home. Fitzgerald didn’t lie about his war—like Faulkner, he never “made it over”—but was motivated all his life by a sense of having missed out.

Like his father, Faulkner could not settle down to a vocation, even as it was not yet clear that his literary ambitions would be realized. He was for several years the campus postmaster, a job he performed with studied indifference; he spent more time writing than selling stamps. And so this gifted but rootless young man (“It’s terrible to be young. . . . Terrible”) turned to the past as a source of identity and stable values, becoming both a trenchant critic of his society and someone unusually invested in both its singularity and its universality—“To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.” This tension runs through his fiction, giving rise to many misreadings.

Faulkner’s plea that the federal government allow the former Confederate states to pursue integration on their own timetable now seems obviously wrong. His gradualism was the result of two basic errors. The first was that he placed the self-respect of his fellow white Southerners on equal footing with the morally superior claim of black Southerners to equality before the law. Faulkner was right that the South’s process of reconciliation would have to consider the dignity of Southern whites if it were to succeed. But he was wrong to ask black Southerners to wait; they had already waited too long. Faulkner’s second error was that, in his visceral dislike of modernity, he drew a false equivalence between the moral and spiritual violence of industrialization in the South and the murderous racial violence of the Reconstruction period. Even granting Faulkner his point of view about industrialization, these are not commensurate evils.

Even so, Faulkner should not need apologists. There is no doubt that, in a long public life in which he was often drawn into civil rights issues, he sometimes spoke foolishly. These errors are forgivable in context, however, and our refusal to forgive them 60 years later is self-righteous.

In declining to embrace immediate integration of the Jim Crow South, Faulkner was no different from the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, which, preoccupied with the Cold War, offered little support to civil rights activists under mortal threat. Faulkner’s advice to the NAACP, that it should “go slow” after Brown v. Board of Education, was echoed by Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s plea to the Freedom Riders seven years later that they “show restraint” and cease their campaign after they were beaten in Birmingham. Faulkner and Kennedy were wrong, but they were wrong in the spirit of their times. That must lessen their culpability, to some extent.

On the core questions, however, Faulkner was right. He did not fail to appreciate the injury done to black Americans by slavery and Reconstruction. He did not believe that whites were racially superior. He did have doubts about the capacity of black Americans to participate in the democratic process, but he regarded their incapacity not as the product of innate frailty but of the sustained denial of their personhood by whites. He believed, to use a current phrase for an old idea, that they had suffered an intergenerational trauma that would take time to heal.

Faulkner knew that black Southerners were moral creditors and their white neighbors moral debtors. He had the somewhat quixotic aim of seeing this debt repaid on terms to which both sides would agree. For Faulkner to have found in black Mississippians, beaten and cowed by Jim Crow and often illiterate, the same basic human material of which his white neighbors were made required both innate decency and independence of thought. It is well to remember that many of his fellow white Mississippians hated and ridiculed Faulkner for these opinions.

We should neither read Faulkner, based on some offensive statements he made to journalists, as an unredeemed white supremacist, nor regard his work, in the words of his excellent biographer Carl Rollyson, as “a stunning rebuke to a society built on segregation and on the ideology of white supremacy.” Formulations like these are too sure of themselves, as Faulkner himself never was. What we want from writers is not certitude but moral imagination. Viewed in that light, Faulkner’s achievement has not been equaled by any Southern writer, white or black.

Somewhat counterintuitively for a famously difficult writer, much of the best Faulkner criticism appeared while he was still alive. Cleanth Brooks’s several volumes of essays about Faulkner, published before the rise of postmodernism in American literary scholarship, return us to an almost Edenic period in our understanding of the uses of literature. A Kentuckian by birth, a Rhodes Scholar, and later a professor at Louisiana State and Vanderbilt, Brooks was by background and temperament perhaps Faulkner’s ideal reader. Ostensibly a formalist, Brooks, author of one of the founding texts of the New Criticism, The Well-Wrought Urn, was nonetheless direct in style and a gifted expositor.

Brooks’s founding motive in William Faulkner: First Encounters is to commend you to the work itself: “Any sensible advice would insist that a reader start by encountering the fiction at first hand, undistracted by too much critical apparatus. . . . This little book limits itself to such considerations as theme, character, and plot, with some attention to the historical and fictional world in which the actions narrated take place.” Here is a critic interested foremost in what the writer committed to the page (“theme, character, and plot”) and only secondarily with the critic’s own interpretive mechanics (“too much critical apparatus”). That such humility is now considered exceptional tells us much about the direction of literary studies in the United States since the 1980s.

Irving Howe, a Jewish New Yorker of revolutionary bent, would seem at first an unlikely Faulknerian. It is wonderful to be reminded that critics are sometimes capable of seeing beyond the tips of their ideological noses. Howe found in Faulkner not a fellow traveler but a writer of rare imaginative power:

In his best work Faulkner has striven with themes of a depth and consequence seldom approached by his American contemporaries. He has grappled with the inherited biases of his tradition, breaking through to a tragic realization that, at least in part, they are inadequate and wrong. He has dramatized, as have few other American novelists, the problem of living in a historical moment suspended between a dead past and an unavailable future; dramatized it in his own terms, as a clash between historical mores no longer valued or relevant and a time of moral uncertainty and opportunism.

By contrast, much of the academic Faulkner criticism today is impressive only in its obtuseness. Here is a selection of essay titles in The New Cambridge Companion to William Faulkner (2015): “A New Region of the World: Faulkner, Glissant, and the Caribbean”; “Faulkner and Biopolitics”; “New Media Ecology”; and “Queer Faulkner: Whores, Queers, and the Transgressive South.” The critical impulse here is not to promote greater understanding of Faulkner’s work but to demonstrate a particular analytical skill set derived from literary values that Brooks and his peers would scarcely have recognized. The collection obscures not only Faulkner’s particular value but also why anyone not deranged by intellectual vanity would want to study American literature at all. The contributors to The New Cambridge Faulkner are well-credentialed graduates of Ph.D. programs with daunting admissions standards—but this is literary criticism as practiced by apparatchiks.

Faulkner knew that he made great demands on readers. He would not have conceded, however, that those readers needed the ministrations of a specialist to understand him. Asked by The Paris Review what a would-be Faulknerian should do who found his work impenetrable even after several readings, Faulkner replied haughtily, “Read it again.” Accessibility was not high on his list of literary values. He believed that what was required to confront his defamiliarizing and frequently unconsoling novels was not specialized training but sustained spiritual effort. Even as he was determinedly innovative in form and technique, Faulkner insisted that his work be understood in elemental terms, as that of a man confronting the difficulties of the “soul divided against itself.” This understanding is precisely what graduate study in the humanities no longer even purports to seek.

Faulkner wrote as a modernist but lived in a pointedly traditional style. (MARIO DE BIASI/MONDADORI PORTFOLIO/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES)

Though many still regard Faulkner as the greatest American novelist, a countercurrent of complaint has always existed, sometimes having to do with his difficulty and sometimes with his gloominess. Faulkner’s syntax is frequently disorienting. His stories are often told out of chronological order and through the voices of multiple narrators. His worldview is broadly pessimistic, and even admired characters often come to bad ends. The pleasure we take in him is the bittersweet one of recognition, of seeing human nature represented without illusion or favor.

It is a truism that the modernist novel abjures much of what gave its Victorian predecessor meaning. In Faulkner, however, the distance from bourgeois values is extreme. Consider all that is missing in his writing. He rarely represents the ordinary world of work. There is little conventional social life. Courtship is mostly absent, and sex is pathological. Faulkner simply was not greatly interested in the mean of human behavior, or in social convention, and so he was not invested in many of the traditional purposes of the novel, whose gregariousness and gossip have been so essential to its durability. Faulkner’s world is alien in its manners and assumptions, as those of his contemporaries, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, are not.

In a 1945 letter to Malcolm Cowley, the critic who a year later would consolidate the Mississippian’s reputation with A Portable Faulkner, Hemingway wrote: “[Faulkner] has the most talent of anybody and he just needs a sort of conscience that isn’t there.” Hemingway’s complaint is not about Faulkner’s personal morality but his artistic coldness. What was often missing from Faulkner’s conception of authorship was the audience itself. Faulkner may hector us, bore us, test our resolve, but what he will never do—even in Sanctuary, a sexually explicit novel that he claimed to have written for money—is gratify us. Like James Joyce, Faulkner might have had as his aesthetic credo: “The reader be damned.”

Contemporary Mississippi writer Jesmyn Ward has said that Faulkner’s achievement was initially an obstacle to her own writing but that his failure to create completely realized black characters finally gave her an opening. It is true that Faulkner did not say all that could possibly be said about black Mississippians—but then, he did not claim to do so. Faulkner understood the risks of “writing from the outside,” as he put it; “the only terms [the writer] does know are within his experience.” He did it anyway—“there should be no limits to what he attempts.” Even so, he was not quite as “outside” as the race-essentialist vision of human identity might suppose. He spoke with black Oxfordians nearly every day of his life. He did not stint in giving them a substantial place in Yoknapatawpha, sometimes even a place of honor. For him, they were both distinct as individuals and collectively keepers of a flame.

The 1952 Ford Foundation documentary ends with the restaging of a speech that Faulkner had given the year before at the high school graduation of his daughter, Jill. We don’t know what Faulkner actually told Jill and her classmates, but the documentary version is a reprise of his Nobel address. Despite his suspicion of personal publicity, there is no question that he was greatly moved by the Swedish Academy’s honor, which he considered “was not made to me as a man, but to my work.” Somewhat uncharacteristically, he struck a note of hardiness and resilience:

I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.

Top Photo: Novelist William Faulkner in his Oxford, Mississippi, home (BETTMANN/GETTY IMAGES)

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