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The Strange Fate of William Faulkner

The Portable Faulkner

edited by Malcolm Cowley
Penguin, 724 pp., $9.95

Creating Faulkner’s Reputation: The Politics of Modern Literary Criticism

by Lawrence H. Schwartz
University of Tennessee Press, 286 pp., $14.95 (paper)

William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country

by Cleanth Brooks
Yale University Press, (out of print)

On the Prejudices, Predilections, and Firm Beliefs of William Faulkner

by Cleanth Brooks
Louisiana State University Press, 162 pp., $16.95

Faulkner’s Country Matters: Folklore and Fable in Yoknapatawpha

by Daniel Hoffman
Louisiana State University Press, 181 pp., $19.95

Doubling and Incest/Repetition and Revenge: A Speculative Reading of Faulkner

by John T. Irwin
Johns Hopkins University Press, 183 pp., $8.95 (paper)

Faulkner’s Marginal Couple: Invisible, Outlaw, and Unspeakable Communities

by John N. Duvall
University of Texas Press, 159 pp., $22.50

Reading Faulkner

by Wesley Morris, by Barbara AlversonWtwith Morris
University of Wisconsin Press, 259 pp., $24.95

Faulkner and Modernism: Rereading and Rewriting

by Richard C. Moreland
University of Wisconsin Press, 252 pp., $14.75 (paper)


Once upon a time, a great American novelist—indeed, the greatest of his century—was languishing in public neglect, critical disdain, and near poverty, reduced to splicing and patching the scripts of other Hollywood screenwriters (“schmucks with typewriters,” as one of their employers famously defined them) to make ends meet. Those who knew the writer’s novels, all but one of which were out of print, saw in him only a minor regionalist, an obscurantist, and a macabre sensationalist. One day, however, a discerning critic, awakening to the music of the writer’s language and the profundity of his insight, volunteered to assemble a generous sampler that would guide new readers through his admittedly intricate fictional world—a world he had been constructing in stoic isolation for twenty years. And so it came to pass that a major injustice was rectified. Thanks to the critic’s efforts, everyone soon perceived the artist in his real stature—a titan of modernism, a Balzacian chronicler of the life and history of his birthplace, and a tragic, compassionate ironist who had affirmed the values of family and community by showing what happens when those values are weakened by callous outsiders.

A fairy tale, this, as flattering to the magic savior as to the secret prince whom everyone had taken for a lackey. All is classically one-dimensional here. The writer’s greatness looms as a palpable, indivisible thing that will dazzle all eyes as soon as they are bidden to look on it, and the critic’s motive is as unclouded as a mountain spring: aesthetic power must be given its due. Only a child, one supposes, could mistake the story for a narrative of real events.

But when the names William Faulkner, Malcolm Cowley, and The Portable Faulkner are filled in, most people who know those names at all, even forty years and more after the fabled deeds, would have to be counted as believers. The legend has appealed to them not just because some of its constituent parts are factual but, more bindingly, precisely because of its mythic reverberation. In America, we like to think that true genius is always ahead of its time and that a season in purgatory therefore counts as one of its validating tests. And those of us who practice literary criticism, whatever our differences of emphasis and method, are all susceptible to the rescue fantasy at the heart of the idealized Cowley-Faulkner linkage. What wouldn’t we give to spot a down-and-out master and single-handedly shepherd him to a Nobel Prize?

Reality, however, must have its say. Though Cowley, along with Robert Penn Warren, was indeed Faulkner’s leading apologist in the mid-Forties, in no sense could he be said to have discovered him. Faulkner had already had many distinguished admirers, among them Conrad Aiken, Katherine Anne Porter, John Crowe Ransom, Eudora Welty, Jean-Paul Sartre, and André Malraux. Cowley’s view of him as an idealist and a moralist, pitting the animalistic Snopeses of the New South against the aristocratic Sartorises of the Old, was scarcely original; it drew liberally upon a 1939 essay by the American critic George Marion O’Donnell. Moreover, The Portable Faulkner, while it lastingly established Faulkner as having written a fond and harmonious “saga” about such categories as “The Last Wilderness,” “The Peasants,” and “The End of an Order,” by no means effected his rehabilitation all by itself. Between 1946 and the 1950 Nobel Prize the book sold a modest 20,000 copies. The novelist’s lean period ended only in 1948 with Random House’s publication of the ballyhooed Intruder in the Dust and with Faulkner’s signing of a well-publicized MGM contract, negotiated by Bennett Cerf, for the movie rights.

It was indeed Cowley who had chiefly prepared the ground for that fresh start by raising Faulkner’s standing with critics and common readers. But had he done so for objective aesthetic reasons? During the 1930s, in his proletarianizing days, Cowley had scoffed at Absalom, Absalom!, falling in with the left’s almost unanimous condemnation of Faulkner as a politically retrograde narcissist and nihilist. His change of heart in the Forties had everything to do with his ideological somersault in the same period. As he sloughed off the withered skin of his Stalinism, Cowley experienced what he called “a rebirth of faith in the old values, in love, in friendship, in heroism, in man himself, and a hatred of every social institution that perverts them.” And in his search for an American paragon of that Rousseauistic wholesomeness, Cowley thought at once of Faulkner, whose virtual abstention from political involvement in the Thirties and whose reluctance to arouse the masses or even to make himself intelligible to them suddenly took on a Jamesian splendor in his eyes.

Faulkner, moreover, could be shown to be steeped in Western masters from Cervantes and Shakespeare through Flaubert and Conrad, and he also bore demonstrable affinities with classic American predecessors from Poe and Hawthorne to Mark Twain and T.S. Eliot. In short, he was ideally ready to be appropriated to the twin causes of universal (not class-based) artistic standards and of American celebration. And so eager was Cowley to align himself with that celebration that he made a partial exception, in Faulkner’s case, to his new enmity toward institutions that pervert the human spirit. In his hands the guilt-drenched, slavery-haunted Jim Crow South of Faulkner’s imagination underwent a noteworthy pastoral makeover. “He dwells with affection,” Cowley wrote of Faulkner’s Mississippi in 1944, “on its memories of a great past, on its habits of speech, on its warmth of family feeling; and when he turns from the people to the land itself, he tells how it was blessed….”1

One wonders how those Muzak strains sounded to Faulkner himself. The writer needed Cowley’s assistance and was grateful for it, but he could not have helped resenting the sweetening of his themes for mass consumption. Indeed, there are signs that he took a dim view of The Portable Faulkner, mocking and subtly sabotaging Cowley’s attempt to present his work as an organic, affectionate portrait of southern life.2 When Cowley, for example, wrote asking if it would be fair to call his work a “myth or legend of the South,” Faulkner testily replied that the South “is not very important to me,” adding, in a gratuitous discharge of bile, that in his opinion human life is “the same frantic steeplechase toward nothing everywhere and man stinks the same stink no matter where in time.” He must have sensed that the incurably superficial Cowley would be only momentarily deterred by such an outburst.

But why, if Faulkner was already respected by a good number of critics and fellow writers, did his promotion to world-class fame have to wait until the late Forties? This is the issue addressed by Lawrence H. Schwartz in a recent book that has received less attention than it deserves, Creating Faulkner’s Reputation: The Politics of Modern Literary Criticism. Schwartz, as a believer in “a materialist interpretation of culture” and “underlying political criteria” for the proper evaluation of literature, evidently feels that Faulkner’s elevation at the expense of “social novelists” such as Richard Wright, Erskine Caldwell, and John Steinbeck constituted an ideologically motivated injustice. Few readers will share that grievance, and some will wonder why Schwartz accepts Faulkner’s apparent indifference to “the social” at face value. Nevertheless, Creating Faulkner’s Reputation casts a revealing light on the forces that conjoined not only to repair the novelist’s fortunes but also to induce nearly everyone—including, eventually, even Faulkner himself—to misinterpret his writings as expressions of benevolent humanism mingled with southern pride.

As Schwartz insists, Cowley’s belated self-baptism in the American mainstream was not an isolated therapeutic act. It anticipated a wider convergence, on the part of literary intellectuals and academics, toward the political and cultural center as revisionary thoughts about the Soviet Union were given more urgent impetus by the cold war and its penalties for deviation. In the Forties and Fifties, Schwartz argues, ex-Communists from the left and southern traditionalists from the right joined hands on a safe common ground of high art and diffuse moral seriousness, thus transforming not just our understanding of Faulkner but the entire ethos of American criticism.

Part of this record is by now thoroughly familiar—namely, the cultural left’s retreat into a no-fault, non-denominational “radicalism” emphasizing modernist aesthetic difficulty and dark pronouncements about the existential dilemmas and Freudian anxieties of “modern man.” Less well known, but equally significant, is the path that led from the candidly reactionary Agrarian manifesto of 1930, I’ll Take My Stand, to the institutional ascendancy of critical formalism, which was to play a major role in devising a Faulkner to suit a quietistic age.

Unlike their opposite numbers on the left, the twelve founding Agrarians—among them Allen Tate, Donald Davidson, Andrew Lytle, John Crowe Ransom, and Robert Penn Warren—had no need to trim their ideological sails in the Forties. Their original muddled platform, spurning the vulgar industrial world, calling for renewed social hierarchy and paternalism, and clinging to a white-yeomanly, airbrushed picture of the Old South, had collapsed of its own absurdity shortly after it was announced. But this is not to say that the Agrarian and, a little later, the New Critical vision of literature lacked a sociopolitical cast. “All great, or really good writers,” as Tate put it in a letter to Davidson, “must have a simple homogeneous sense of values, which incidentally are the kind of values we wish to restore.” The whole notion of treating art as a higher realm of knowledge and self-referential order was intended as a slap at modern “materialism,” a capacious term stigmatizing all departures from what Tate called “classical Christian culture.”

Significantly, the original Agrarians were in no rush to claim Faulkner for their cause. It is true, as Cleanth Brooks has recently shown, that not only Warren but Ransom and Davidson as well had generously reviewed some of the early novels. Yet the Faulkner whom the Agrarians had encountered in person—moody, uncommunicative, openly adulterous, and, according to Tate’s wife Caroline Gordon, invariably drunk—hardly seemed the model chalice bearer for “classical Christian culture.” Nor could they feel comfortable with the only novel of his that other American readers could be counted upon to know, Sanctuary—a classic not of the library but of the drugstore rack, remembered chiefly for a bloody corn cob that lacked any trace of sacramental portent. Before George Marion O’Donnell and later Cowley succeeded in universalizing and prettifying his themes, then, most of the Agrarians were unwilling to stake much of their credit on his greatness.

By the postwar era, as Schwartz recounts, the points of irreconcilable conflict between Agrarian/New Critics and ex-Marxist intellectuals had narrowed to an extraordinary degree. All were congregating in the academy, none were pressing activist causes, and for varying reasons they all could make their peace with both literary nationalism and international modernism as it was personified, however fastidiously, in “Mr. Eliot.” Since there was much in Faulkner’s work that could have caused unreconstructed Agrarians and Marxists alike to accuse him of political way-wardness, this blurring of old antagonisms was crucial for the coming Faulkner boom. By the 1950s, moreover, a widespread revulsion against Soviet artistic regimentation had given Faulkner’s stock still another lift, creating greater sympathy for his eccentric stylistic flights, his distrust of utopian agitators, and his individualistic probing of (formerly characterized as his morbid wallowing in) private regressions and fixations.

  1. 1

    Malcolm Cowley, “William Faulkner’s Human Comedy,” New York Times Book Review (October 29, 1944), p. 4.

  2. 2

    See Cheryl Lester, “To Market, to Market: The Portable Faulkner,” Criticism, 29 (Summer 1987), pp. 371-392.

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