What Faulkner recognized was the ubiquity of such struggles over identity and their centrality to the American experience—the way that the question “Who am I?” is always connected to the question “Who are we?” — Casey Cep, review of Michael Gorra, The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War, The New Yorker, Nov. 23, 2020

I may regret putting this up online before I’ve read more about Michael Gorra’s new book, The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War. But it’s important — and Faulker had a perspective I think we all could benefit from, even though he was a creature of his time and place. Maybe he’s important precisely because the racial attitudes of Faulkner’s time and place are still with us, and so is the struggle that came to life in his novels — in all of its complexity.

As a grad student in English at a Southern flagship university in the 1960s, I read a lot of Faulkner. We all did. Not just the English majors, either. (In fact, I started reading him before I changed majors from history to English.) The history of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County was our history. And its original sin — from the time the land was stolen from the Chickasaw Indians through the tragedy of chattel slavery and its legacy of white supremacy — was our original sin.

That was before I moved up north, of course, and came to realize the sins — and I use the word advisedly — of Yoknapatawpha County are the sins of all of us.

So I was fascinated to see Casey Cep’s review on the New Yorker website of a new book about Faulkner. I thought she hit all the right notes, and before I was finished with the review, I had ordered a copy from an online bookseller. (Full disclosure: I have a short attention span, and I try to dignify it by claiming I’m good at multitasking. In my defense, I did go back and finish the review.) Cep is a staff writer at the New Yorker, and she seems to know the South — at least she’s written a well received book about Harper Lee. She seems to know her way around literary criticism, too. After majoring in English at Harvard, Cep was a Rhodes Scholar and earned an M.Phil in theology from Oxford. According to a publisher’s blurb quoted on her Wikipedia profile, she says she:

… grew up in the Lutheran Church, and I often say that Sunday services were my first book club, because week after week very thoughtful, very loving people gathered around the same book and tried to figure out what it meant. I was steeped in scripture as a kid, and I’ve devoted quite a lot of my adult life to studying religion and theology, so I find it is one of the great themes that interests me — not only as a writer, but as a person in the world, trying to figure out how to be a good partner and community member and citizen of the cosmos. I end up writing about it so much because I think about it so much.

This makes me want to look up Cep’s other articles.

More directly to the point, perhaps, she makes a crucial distinction her review between Faulkner and his work — or, in terms that my generation of English majors insisted on, she avoids what we called the “biographical fallacy.” That’s something I still think you have to do with most writers, no matter how much I enjoy Googling them on Wikipedia.

Cep’s main idea — and judging from her review, Gorra’s main idea too — is that Faulkner’s public statements at times reflected the pervasive racism of his society, the Mississippi of the early to mid-20th century, but his art fully exposed the evil — I would say sinfulness — at its core. “Faulkner,” Cep says, “was unwilling in his own life to adequately acknowledge the evils of slavery and segregation, but he did so with savage thoroughness in his fiction.” If there is any redemption in Faulkner, and I think there is, I think it largely resides in his African American characters.

In other words, I think Cep and Gorra are saying Faulkner’s art rises or falls on its own. And art must be evaluated on its own, without regard to the artist who created it. I couldn’t agree more wholeheartedly, both esthetically and in terms of our understanding of American culture — past and present.

The esthetic case is easiest to make. Faulkner was arguably the leading modernist writer in mid-20th-century America (unless you count T.S. Eliot as American), and the New Criticism, which held that “a work of literature function[s] as a self-contained, self-referential aesthetic object,” was the leading school of modernist literary criticism.

The New Criticism also happens to be the critical school I was steeped in as a grad student at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. It originated not far away, at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn. (which wasn’t too far from Faulkner’s home in Oxford, Miss., come to think of it.) Reading the review and thinking about Faulkner today, I was surprised how much of the theory came back to me and how much of it I still agreed with.

Like I said, on the strength of Casey Cep’s review, I immediately ordered a copy of The Saddest Words. My only quibble would be that I don’t think Faulkner’s themes of sin and redemption apply to the South alone. Faulkner’s story of Yoknapawtha County is the story of America, and its sins — again I’m using the word advisedly — are our sins. Whatever redemption is available to us, we still have to forge for ourselves.

[Published Nov. 28, 2020]

Excerpts:

A new book by Michael Gorra, “The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War” (Liveright), traces Faulkner’s literary depictions of the military conflict in the nineteenth century and his personal engagement with the racial conflict of the twentieth. The latter struggle, within the novelist himself, is the real war of Gorra’s subtitle. In “The Saddest Words,” Faulkner emerges as a character as tragic as any he invented: a writer who brilliantly portrayed the way that the South’s refusal to accept its defeat led to cultural decay, but a Southerner whose private letters and public statements were riddled with the very racism that his books so pointedly damned.

***

The remarks were not well received, and the denials convinced no one who was not already intent on defending Faulkner. James Baldwin excoriated him in the pages of Partisan Review, writing that Faulkner was exactly like “the bulk of relatively articulate white Southerners of good-will,” in that his arguments “have no value whatever as arguments, being almost entirely and helplessly dishonest, when not, indeed, insane.” Baldwin understood that there was no middle ground between segregationists and integrationists, and no reconciling the equal rights and freedoms articulated in the Constitution with the discrimination and oppression of Jim Crow. With regard to Faulkner, he asked, “Where is the evidence of the struggle he has been carrying on there on behalf of the Negro? Why, if he and his enlightened confreres in the South have been boring from within to destroy segregation, do they react with such panic when the walls show any signs of falling?”

Gorra has no direct answer to Baldwin’s question, and he acknowledges that some readers may find in these biographical facts reason enough to banish Faulkner from syllabi, if not from shelves. But Baldwin’s essay is a condemnation of the writer’s personal politics, not his work; it never mentions Faulkner’s fiction. Gorra’s argument, however, depends on close readings of everything from individual sentences to symbols and characters and themes across the author’s novels, which collectively make the case that a racist person can be a radical writer. “Faulkner the man shared many of the closed society’s opinions and values,” Gorra writes. “But when the novelist could inhabit a character—when he slipped inside another mind and put those opinions into a different voice—he was almost always able to stand outside them, to place and to judge them.”

***

Faulkner’s fiction does not have influences so much as analogues. He burned down houses with the gothic zeal of Edgar Allan Poe, staged moral crises as dramatically as Dostoyevsky, and fashioned fanatics who would have pleased Herman Melville. He created characters who migrated from one novel to another, and he wrote stream-of-consciousness narration that featured broken syntax and typographical experiments. A single, almost thirteen-hundred-word sentence in “Absalom, Absalom!” includes parentheses, question marks, granddaughters, spinsters, demons, dragons, chickens, coffins, Washington, Lincoln, and Faustus.

Faulkner was unwilling in his own life to adequately acknowledge the evils of slavery and segregation, but he did so with savage thoroughness in his fiction. He was a Hieronymus Bosch of prose: his tortured imagination filled story after story with sins of every form and with characters turned grotesque by committing them. Though much historical fiction is escapist, Faulkner’s is brutalizing, depicting a South debased first by degeneracy and then by the refusal to atone for it, even in the face of defeat. In 1936, the same year that Margaret Mitchell offered the world a romance between the roguish Rhett Butler and the Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara, Faulkner published a story of rape and incest and racist terror. It was the seventy-fifth anniversary of the start of the Civil War, and Americans made clear which version of events they wanted to remember: “Absalom, Absalom!” sold around ten thousand copies; “Gone with the Wind” sold more than a million and won the Pulitzer Prize.

***

In “The Saddest Words,” Gorra posits that Quentin represents Faulkner’s view of tragedy as recurrence. “Again” was the saddest word for the character and the author alike because it “suggests that what was has simply gone on happening, a cycle of repetition that replays itself, forever.” Both the real and the fictional Southerner were trapped in that cycle, aware that the fall of the Confederacy was right and just but unable to shed their sympathy for the antebellum South. “What was is never over,” Gorra writes, pointing out that the racism that ensnared Faulkner in the last century persists in this one: “There have been moments in our history, brief ones, when the meaning of the Civil War has seemed settled. This isn’t one of them, not when the illusion that this country might become a postracial society lies in tatters. Again. That’s precisely why Faulkner remains so valuable—that very recurrence makes him necessary.”

***

While Baldwin excluded these characters from his consideration of Faulkner’s politics, other Black writers have drawn inspiration from them. The novelist Toni Morrison wrote her master’s thesis partly on Faulkner and his depictions of what she called “alienated” individuals, including Quentin. The scholar James A. Snead observed in his study of Faulkner, “Figures of Division,” that, in a society of polarity, where people were divided into strict categories of male or female, rich or poor, white or Black, the writer saw through such dichotomies: “Faulkner’s genealogical research discovers not purity but rather merging and chaos, states against which the traditions of social classification and division vainly struggle.” What Faulkner recognized was the ubiquity of such struggles over identity and their centrality to the American experience—the way that the question “Who am I?” is always connected to the question “Who are we?”

Casey Cep. “William Faulkner’s Demons,” New Yorker, Nov. 23, 2020 https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/11/30/william-faulkners-demons.

One thought on “Notes on a review of an important new book about Faulkner, the Civil War and race (with a tangent on grad school in English at UT-Knoxville in the ’60s)

  1. It took me a long time to recover from my training in New Criticism which seemed to regard literary works as having sprung fully formed from the writer’s self-contained brain. It is no wonder that I now gobble up writer biographies which stress the surrounding history and geography of the writer.

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