The Over-Wrought Urn

William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country

by Cleanth Brooks
Yale, 500 pp., $8.50

William Faulkner
William Faulkner; drawing by David Levine

After decades of the bowler-hat and furled-umbrella literit that made his academic reputation, Cleanth Brooks has reverted with a rebel whoop to the Confederacy. His Faulkner book is a Southern blend of vitriol, tart courtliness, regional piety, genealogies back to Adam, the stupefying trivia of life in a small town, and uninhibited hero-worship. It gives the hard back of a gloved hand to those Northerners who have presumed to elucidate Faulkner’s home country; it turns about to congratulate fellow-Southerners on their perspicacity in similar but unpresumptuous attempts; with energetic sarcasm it defends Faulkner against charges of condescension toward Negroes, contempt for poor whites, romanticism, sensationalism, restrictive provincialism, symbol-mongering, imperfections of structure and technique; it is intransigently enthusiastic about novels—Sartoris and The Unvanquished, for instance—that even devotees of Faulkner have been content to set aside as poor or minor.

The book is, like its subject, both formidable and provincially eccentric. Brooks’s thesis is that Faulkner, having had the luck to live in a society which retained “the sense of community,” had also the talent and intelligence to make use of this society and its “funded wisdom,” not only as the setting for the turbulent careers of his characters, but as the unifying ground of his fiction:

The community is at once the field for man’s action and the norm by which his action is judged and regulated. It sometimes seems that the sense of an organic community has all but disappeared from modern fiction and the disappearance accounts for the terrifying self-consciousness and subjectivity of a great deal of modern writing [observe, by the way, the slitheriness of this sentence: in Clause One, the pursemouthed reservations of “sometimes seems” and “all but disappeared”; in Clause Two, the “disappearance” magically transformed into obvious fact].

Faulkner’s “folk society that…goes on in its immemorial ways,” that “is neither sick nor tired,” that “has all the vitality of an old and very tough tree,” is sustained by a decent respect for neighbors and ancestors and family, by a saving humor; above all, “firmly supported by its religious underpinning” (“a still vital religion with its cult, creed, and basic norms of conduct”), of which Brooks gives Dilsey’s “simple religious faith” as a signal instance. In Absalom, Absalom! Thomas Sutpen’s fatal defect, according to Brooks, is “peculiarly the innocence of modern man. For like modern man. Sutpen does not believe in Jehovah”; and so Sutpen falls, in a sort of unwitting blasphemy that Brooks is at pains to explain as not Southern, as against the very grain of Southern life. (The note of tub-thumping zeal for “traditional,” Southern Protestant Christianity—counterweight to “the modern world of the lunatic irrational”—vibrates throughout the book; Brooks is proselytizing as well as describing, his lectern keeps threatening to metamorphose into a pulpit.)

Brook’s thesis is, of course, not original; it has been anticipated in most of the critical writings on Faulkner; it…

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