The Portable Faulkner
Creating Faulkner’s Reputation: The Politics of Modern Literary Criticism
William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country
On the Prejudices, Predilections, and Firm Beliefs of William Faulkner
Faulkner’s Country Matters: Folklore and Fable in Yoknapatawpha
Doubling and Incest/Repetition and Revenge: A Speculative Reading of Faulkner
Faulkner’s Marginal Couple: Invisible, Outlaw, and Unspeakable Communities
Faulkner and Modernism: Rereading and Rewriting
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 …
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Faulkner’s Strange Fate October 24, 1991