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 and 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.

Vast in scope, morally engaged without being propagandistic, studded with complex image patterns, and intractable to ready explanation, Faulkner’s newly republished writings beckoned as an inexhaustible-looking supply of raw material for what John Crowe Ransom, without derogatory intent, called Criticism, Inc. Thus Faulkner was destined to become the object of “an outpouring of critical attention,” as one observer has noted, “such as no other writer, it may be, in the whole history of letters has received so near the time of his work, and such as only a few writers have received at any time.”3

The main image of Faulkner to emerge from all that early attention, however, would necessarily reflect both the dominant critical style of the universities and the specific politics of the southern-born professors who largely shaped that style. For many years, and with surprisingly few exceptions, the academy contented itself with a formalist-Agrarian Faulkner—formalist, because his works were assumed to possess a unifying “moral vision,” and Agrarian, because the alleged content of that vision flattered southern traditionalism without counting its cost in misery. The result was a body of criticism that occluded Faulkner’s improvisation and interior debate, reduced his often daring characterizations to illustrated moral lessons, and subtly adulterated and softened his anguish over southern history.


The leading book in this vein also happens to have been, thus far, the most influential, as well as the most widely assailed, of all Faulkner studies: Cleanth Brooks’s William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country (1963). Teachers still pull it from the shelf when they need to sort out Faulkner’s bewildering social world, and even today one can discern its residual effect on critics who resent the main drift of contemporary criticism. To them, Brooks is not an ideologue but merely an affectionately objective critic who happens to know Faulkner’s South at first hand. What Brooks actually gave us, however—and what became the leading strain of Faulkner criticism for a whole generation of teachers and students—was in effect the Agrarian party line.

For Brooks, Faulkner is primarily a spinner of instructive tales about the Old South and the New as they are typified in a single northern Mississippi county. In characteristic Agrarian style, the critic holds that the admittedly exploitative plantation system coexisted with a nobler, poorer South made up of independent white farmers whose values—courage, honor, perseverance, loyalty to family and village and religion—derived from a life of working the soil that their hardy forefathers had cleared from the wilderness. The chief offenses against those values, Brooks believes, can be found not in slavery, which was at least partially redeemed by its paternalism, but in secular northern materialism, especially as it corrupted the helpless South after 1865.

According to Brooks, Faulkner’s novels relate the lingering consequences of that incursion while nevertheless showing how local solidarity has managed to survive as both a fact and a standard. “Community” thus becomes the central Faulknerian value in Brooks’s hands, and “fanaticism” the error that inevitably brings about misfortune. In his view, for example, Light in August teaches us to beware the self-destructiveness of outsiders, like Joe Christmas and Joanna Burden, who lack a stable local identity and so cannot temper their extremism with mundane and humanizing involvements. And Absalom, Absalom! purportedly depicts a similar tragic flaw in Thomas Sutpen, whose fierce disregard of his neighbors leads to his eventual fall and, what seems almost worse, reveals him to be not a southerner at all but a generic American innocent driven by abstract (i.e., northern) notions.

As many recent critics have shown, these are highly dubious interpretations. The main reason for Brooks’s dwindling appeal, however, lies not in this or that misreading but in the high price we must pay for assenting to his notion of community. Brooks would have us see an absolute opposition between Faulkner’s criminals and zealots on one side and, on the other, the solidly rooted burghers and farmers of the town of Jefferson and its surrounding acres. But that provincial enclave as Faulkner depicts it looks like anything but a showcase of southern virtue. It is rather a bastion of segregation, chicanery, night-riding, lynching, and the routine oppression of women; and its antebellum record, in Faulkner’s rendering, is no better, beginning with the theft of the land from gullible Indians and culminating in the incestuous union of Carothers McCaslin with his own half-white slave daughter and his racist spurning of the resultant child/grandchild. Brooks quite gratuitously assumes, and asks that we, too, assume, that all those crimes and vices are outweighed in Faulkner’s scale of values by the bare fact of social cohesion among the conforming whites.

For a long while now, William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country has been an object of faint praise and increasingly fierce denunciation. Brooks, however, has continued to fill out his original picture of Faulkner, serenely addressing himself to various works and problems that had found no place in his first study. After William Faulkner: Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond (1978), came William Faulkner: First Encounters (1983), and then On the Prejudices, Predilections, and Firm Beliefs of William Faulkner (1987). Those books show an understandable decline of critical energy but no retreat from a position that now appears indefensible.

It would be pointless, then, to dwell on the shortcomings of Brooks’s most recent collection of talks and essays. Suffice it to say that he remains determined to regard Faulkner’s novels as the fictionalized illustration of holistic ideas, especially those that show off southern virtue to best advantage. “A great literary artist such as Faulkner,” as he puts it, “helps the rest of the country and the rest of the world to understand us better.” Some of the values thus paraded appear to unravel in the very act of being named—for example, “the feminine principle,” which Faulkner is said to have treasured because male energies “require being checked and channeled into fruitful enterprises.” Brooks’s deeper liability, however, remains what it always was, the formalist’s overeagerness to sift homilies from texts that could otherwise yield any number of disruptive implications.

By today, the formalist standpoint is upheld chiefly by critics who think of it as a last stand against the deliberate subordination of Faulkner’s meaning to leftist ends. Take, for instance, Daniel Hoffman’s new Faulkner’s Country Matters: Folklore and Fable in Yoknapatawpha. Hoffman’s findings are mostly recycled commonplaces about “intertwined themes” that supposedly unify even the most heterogeneous of Faulkner’s works.4 His tone becomes truculent, however, when he looks up from his desk to observe what is bearing down on him: a tidal wave of theory, as he sees it, issuing from “a contemporary sense of grievance, perceived injustice in the treatment of race or sex, to be assuaged at the expense of the integrity of fiction.”

Hoffman fails to notice that his version of “the integrity of fiction” is no less permeated with theory (a theory, however, now half a century old) than the critical tendencies he opposes. So anxious is he, moreover, to avoid the excesses of ethnic and feminist victimology that he ends by ascribing to Faulkner an unquestioning attachment to the ideals of the antebellum planter class. “Noblesse oblige is expected of the aristocrat,” he says, applauding Colonel Sartoris’s supposedly altruistic rebuilding of his railroad after the war, “a courtesy toward those whom Providence has decreed he should lead.” And again: “This aristocracy had, in the nature of things, certain high and undeviating obligations toward those it owned or led.”

Such magnolia-scented declarations make Hoffman sound like more of a southern chauvinist than Brooks himself. Methodologically, however, he is not departing from Brooks’s precedent but merely instancing its bankruptcy. Both critics attempt to pacify the unruly Faulknerian world by extracting certain favored opinions from it and investing them with an imagined power of aesthetic unification. That strategy seemed natural thirty years ago, when nearly all American critics still looked to literature for transcendent order and wisdom. Providence and “the nature of things” notwithstanding, however, the formalist image of Faulkner has lost all persuasiveness.


It has taken remarkably long. For whatever reasons, Faulkner critics waited until the mid-1970s to mount a significant assault on the formalist-Agrarian account of their subject—and this despite the general radicalization of academic consciousness from the mid-Sixties onward. Even today, Daniel Hoffman is by no means alone among Faulknerians in resisting the idea that literature is a site of struggle whose primary conflicts, both intrapsychic and social, deserve to be brought to light rather than homogenized into notions of fixed authorial “values.” But for more than a decade now, the most innovative as well as the most overreaching Faulkner studies have pointed in that direction.

As one might have expected after so many years of acquiescence to an intellectually numbing paradigm, not every early effort to throw off the formalist yoke was well considered. Faulknerian antiformalism began boldly, but also perversely, with the 1975 publication of John T. Irwin’s Doubling and Incest/Repetition and Revenge: A Speculative Reading of Faulkner. That book ambitiously set out to trace certain features of Faulkner’s plots to his sense of psychological and historical disorientation, but it ended by reducing everything it touched to the trite determinism of the Oedipus complex. After declaring at the outset that the truth of Freud’s writings is open to question, Irwin embraced every psychoanalytic notion from the castration complex through the death instinct as universally valid and explanatory not just of Faulkner but of virtually all cultural expression.5 The result was a tautological argument that withdrew from the tangible, if partisan, social reference of Agrarianism into an ahistorical and fatalistic hall of mirrors.

A more promising start toward a nontranscendent account of Faulkner was made in the late Seventies and early Eighties by ideologically aware academics such as Myra Jehlen, Carolyn Porter, and Eric J. Sundquist.6 These critics parted company with the mainstream tradition by showing less interest in Faulkner’s early “modernist masterpieces,” The Sound and the Fury (1929) and As I Lay Dying (1930), than in the works that address the race question most directly: Light in August (1932), Absalom, Absalom! (1936), and Go Down, Moses (1942). Those latter novels, they saw, deal centrally not with “community,” as Brooks had maintained, but with racism, miscegenation, and the crippling effects of Lost Cause nostalgia. Faulkner, in short, could be shown to have come to grips with both the torment and the hypocrisy of the modern white South, attempting as it did to cope with its heritage of guilt and bitterness while continuing to stifle an increasingly restive black underclass.

Not surprisingly, then, the most theoretically self-conscious of the newest Faulkner studies—represented, in the books at hand, by John N. Duvall’s Faulkner’s Marginal Couple, Wesley Morris’s (and Barbara Alverson Morris’s) Reading Faulkner, and Richard C. Moreland’s Faulkner and Modernism—are militantly committed to uncovering Faulkner’s sympathies with the blacks, women, and other subaltern figures who were “marginalized” by the racist and patriarchal southern order. And two of those works, at least, make a substantial contribution to that end.

Yet readers who are not already steeped in the idiom of current vanguard criticism will find much that is puzzling and forbidding in these volumes. For, in the first place, instead of eschewing the vacuous Freudian gnosticism of John Irwin, Professors Duvall, Morris, and Moreland replicate and embellish it with imprudent zeal.7 And second, they seem at times to be more bent upon breathing the rarefied theoretical atmosphere of such “human scientists” as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Pierre Macherey, Jacques Lacan, and Julia Kristeva than upon following the contours of Faulkner’s art. All three critics take us “beyond text and intention,” as Morris puts it, stripping the authorial mind of its once presumed wholeness and autonomy and thus freeing themselves to explain the fiction by reference to various deterministic schemes.

In one sense, we could say that the motive for such maneuvers is simply fashion: this is how things are done in the most prestigious English departments these days. But in another sense, Moreland, Morris, and Duvall can be seen as taking extreme precautions against any backsliding into formalism. As Duvall, justifying his recourse to abstruse terminology such as “destinator” and “destinatee,” remarks:

I would say that these words (and the models they imply) usefully estrange the act of reading; when the text is made strange, the critical context can no longer seem natural. And in the gap between that which used to seem natural and the new perception that commonsense opinions may not be sense at all but the determined products of discursive formations, the critic can begin to understand his or her insertion into ideology.

In plainer English, Duvall is saying that you should welcome every means of thwarting naive identification with Faulkner or any other writer; the proper business of criticism is not empathetic commentary but a demonstration of the ways in which both literature and the critical tradition itself have been “determined” by hidden interests.

The trouble is, however, that this goal collides absolutely with the critic’s other aim of making the writer out to be a friend of the oppressed. Under the old formalist dispensation, the occasionally reactionary attitudes of a writer like Faulkner could be acknowledged but neatly quarantined as “extrinsic” to the ennobling vision that supposedly inspired a given work. But for a poststructuralist, no element of discourse is ever out of bounds. Moreover, such a critic’s relentlessly reductive techniques of analysis tend inherently to discount the writer’s humanity while exaggerating his thralldom to the appalling prejudices of his contemporaries. To forestall revulsion against a monster of their own creation, then, some critics now resort to a saving counterstrategy: they will endow the orphaned text with an insurrectionary unconscious of its own, and thus—just like their formalist adversaries, but with far more methodological fanfare—they will find it amenable to their politics after all.

Consider an especially delicate problem, Faulkner’s treatment of women, which unfriendly observers have characterized as consisting of open misogyny punctuated by occasional homage to dimwitted earth mothers. It is hard to disagree; most present-day readers will find the egregiousness of Faulkner’s sexism hard to overlook. Through much of his career, he showed himself largely unable to conceive of women except in relation to their “purity.” That value, already placed in doubt at adolescence by the outcropping of “mammalian ludicrosities” such as Dewey Dell Bundren’s in As I Lay Dying, and by what both Quentin Compson in The Sound and the Fury and Joe Christmas in Light in August think of as “periodic filth,” is variously doomed (like Caddy Compson’s) to be squandered on the wrong man, or grotesquely embalmed within Rosa Coldfield in Absalom, Absalom! or Emily Grierson in “A Rose for Emily,” or undervalued by the rapeprone Temple Drake in Sanctuary, or comically trampled by the pneumatic and oblivious Eula Varner in The Hamlet. Like Addie Bundren’s corpse, the female body—as the narrator of Light in August puts it, “the lightless hot wet primogenitive Female”—is less a thing in itself than a source of big trouble for men. The final line of The Wild Palms—“ ‘Women, shit,’ the tall convict said”—though meant to be droll, conveys something of the author’s own chronic exasperation.

Just a decade or so ago, feminist critics, in deference to Faulkner’s widely acknowledged genius, were still inclined to be diplomatic about this awkward record.8 By today, however, as John Duvall relates in Faulkner’s Marginal Couple: Invisible, Outlaw, and Unspeakable Communities, “new wave feminist theory” of a more drastic stripe has pervaded our thinking. According to Duvall, “writers of the earlier part of this century seem hopelessly backward in their sense of women and men, so much so that calls for moratoriums on reading their texts almost seem correct.” Now Faulkner’s works must yield distinctly liberating implications, not just neutral or sympathetic ones, if they are to avoid being dismissed as valueless.

But in this more inquisitorial climate, the author is not the only one for whom apologies may need to be made. A critic, too, can feel that he has already damaged his credibility by having entered the world as a male. Duvall, for instance, hesitates to cloak himself in the name of feminist, since, as he feels obliged to disclose, he “will never have a baby.” He compensates for this handicap, however, by professing his faith that all gender differences beyond the minimum “sexual hardware”—even hormones, one supposes—are culturally constructed and by making the following pledge:

I resolutely oppose thinking that tells me I have a more primordial bond with my male dog than with a human female because my dog and I both have testicles or that my wife’s behavior can be compared to a cow’s because each has a uterus.

Duvall does not tell us which Faulkner critics subscribe to such cross-species masculinism—and of course none of them do. In its very crudity, however, the statement conveys a sense of the trend-conscious male academic’s anxiety to be considered politically unstained.

Someone in Duvall’s predicament, if he is to write about Faulkner’s women at all, stands in need of a straw man to topple. Given the polarized history of Faulkner criticism, his choice is inevitable: the eighty-four-year-old but ever-serviceable Cleanth Brooks. He therefore begins not by building on the considerable body of extant feminist insights into Faulkner but by resuscitating and challenging Brooks’s version of the proper Faulknerian family, whereby “man makes the choices and lives up to the choices” while woman is “characteristically fostering and sustaining.”

It is easy, then, for Duvall to muster indignation about the failure of Brooks’s model to match what one actually finds in the fiction: a significant number of soft-spoken, passive men like Ernest Talliaferro, Horace Benbow, Byron Bunch, and Henry Stribling, and plenty of decisive, forceful women such as Margaret Powers, Drusilla Hawk, Joanna Burden, Charlotte Rittenmeyer, and Laverne Shumann. Especially in “the ideologically disruptive non-Yoknapatawpha material,” Duvall adds, Faulkner’s plots often conjoin two such “deviants” in a successfully functioning “counterhegemonic” pair. Hence his thesis: that “although Faulkner’s texts operate in a horizon of misogyny, the alternative communities created by marginal couples in those texts provide alternate [sic] narratives for rethinking hegemonic myths of love and bourgeois marriage.”

There are indeed numerous unions between strong women and weak men in Faulkner’s work. The pattern is so common as to suggest an oblique confession of sexual inadequacy on the part of the shy, diminutive, much-rejected, unhappily married, incest-haunted, and alcoholic novelist. Just what can be considered emancipatory about those quirky fictional relationships, however, is harder to establish. When Faulkner’s women behave “mannishly,” they would appear to represent for him not a model for general liberation but innate female unruliness and a sign that lamentable emasculating forces have been set loose in the social world.

To keep this dismal realization at bay, Duvall idealizes every “outlaw” relationship insofar as possible and then ascribes any residue of negative elements to warping patriarchal influence. This allocation of blame seems at least partly appropriate to the tensions between Joe Christmas and Joanna Burden in Light in August, a novel which is “about” the transmission of zealotry and hatred from generation to generation, but it is largely gratuitous in the cases of Charlotte Rittenmeyer and Harry Wilbourne in The Wild Palms and of Temple Drake and Popeye in Sanctuary. Granted, Duvall has perceptive things to say about the stifling, incestuous possessiveness of Judge Drake and of Popeye’s briefly glimpsed mother. But Sanctuary generates little sympathy for any of its characters, and Temple is hardly an exception. Though Duvall is quite right to charge Faulkner critics with typical eagerness to blame the rape victim for her rape, he won’t admit how much encouragement they receive from the sardonic roman noir itself.

What Faulkner’s Marginal Couple finally offers us is a mirror image of the much-refuted Brooksian moralism that its author holds up to scorn. Ideological fashions aside, there is nothing to choose between strip-mining Faulkner’s works for wholesome communities and for incipiently revolutionary ones. Both tasks obey an arcadian impulse; each seeks a haven from the novelist’s chronic gloom and often merciless humor. Duvall, no less than Brooks, would have done better to bear in mind what Faulkner wrote to Else Jonsson in 1955: “But human beings are terrible. One must believe well in man to endure him, wait out his folly and savagery and inhumanity.”9


At first glance, the jargon-filled studies by Wesley Morris and Richard Moreland may appear to be as remote from Faulkner’s sensibility as Duvall’s Faulkner’s Marginal Couple. Yet Morris and Moreland do set themselves apart from Duvall in one redeeming way. Instead of turning Faulkner’s texts into a semiotic machine for dispensing congenial implications, they keep in mind a sobering biographical reference point: the writer’s motives and preoccupations as a man of his time and place. There is a human Faulkner—fallible, biased, but also surprisingly capable of growth—to be discovered at the end of these critics’ twisting paths. And this simple fact, which no one would have thought worthy of remark in a critical study until quite recently, enables Morris and Moreland to pass beyond ideological shadow-boxing and reach some conclusions of general interest.

As their titles imply—Morris’s is Reading Faulkner, Moreland’s is Faulkner and Modernism: Rereading and Rewriting—the emphasis of these books falls not on meaning in the usual sense but on the experience of immersion in Faulkner’s unstable world. The essence of that experience is a cognitive and emotional jostling produced by Faulkner’s refusal to provide us with an “omniscient” perspective outside the characters’ and narrators’ own struggles. What these critics see, in contrast to the school of Brooks, is that in struggling to arrive at an adequately complex account of the modern white southern mind, Faulkner was plunging into the thicket of his own confusions.

But Morris insists on a crucial difference between the novelist and such similarly troubled characters as Quentin Compson and Ike McCaslin: temperamentally, Faulkner always felt himself to be an outsider and a rebel who despised half-truths. Though he was no more capable than Quentin of straight-forwardly rejecting the South or of siding unambiguously with the victims of southern laws and customs, his sense of alienation goaded him not only into indicting his ancestors for their misdeeds but also into sniffing out and exposing all the mental tricks that safeguarded his townsmen’s complacency.

Throughout the misery-stricken Thirties, moreover, Faulkner did progressively emerge from the familial bell jar and awaken to the claims of the defenseless. Once he had fully realized that miscegenation was the key not only to his predecessors’ hypocrisy but also to the deepest fears of his contemporaries, he found himself drawn to characters like Joe Christmas, Clytie Sutpen, and Charles Bon—liminal figures whose ostracism highlights a general pathology in white southern culture. And in Go Down, Moses, with the wrenching portraits of Lucas and Mollie Beauchamp and of the unnamed near-white woman of “Delta Autumn” who grandly refuses to renounce her doomed love for Edmonds McCaslin, he seemed to put all his prejudices in abeyance and, however briefly, to feel the full humanity of the despised other.

In the same period, correspondingly, Faulkner hardened his resistance to romantic nostalgia, whether of the Lost Cause or the Agrarian variety. As he explicitly proclaimed while working on Absalom, a comprehensive irony toward the fallen present is a form of sentimentality no less contemptible than flight into costume drama. The opportunism of the Snopeses, he saw, was akin not only to Thomas Sutpen’s but also to that of the Sartorises, Compsons, and McCaslins; the Old South and the New formed a continuum that could be examined without special pleading for any class, family, or epoch. By the end of the Depression, Morris and Moreland both show, Faulkner had achieved a formidable maturity, objectivity, and breadth of social and historical understanding.

Though Morris discusses this development trenchantly, some of its nuances seem to escape his notice. Too often, he appears content merely to insist that the academy’s favorite themes of race, class, and gender can be found in even the most apolitical-looking of Faulkner’s works. The result is a certain redundancy, a loss of discrimination between very different texts, and a hard-edged “materialism” of emphasis that sometimes ignores what is distinctively southern about those texts. Morris’s contention, for example, that Thomas Sutpen “is nothing more than a businessman ruthlessly obsessed with the trappings of success” dismisses the specific force of the plantation myth in Absalom, Absalom!, collapsing the distance—still important to Faulkner—between northern and southern forms of inhumanity.10

Richard Moreland does better, partly by attending more closely to Faulkner’s language and partly by allowing his emotions as well as his intellect to stay fully engaged. A criticism that goes no further than indicting real and fictional white oppressors, Moreland sees, will stall at the phase of consciousness represented in Go Down, Moses by Ike McCaslin’s neurotic and horror-stricken renunciation of his patrimony. Faulkner himself came to understand that merely “facing the facts” of collective guilt is no solution, since it perpetuates the depersonalization of the underclass. As Moreland perceives, the power of Go Down, Moses derives not merely from its grim unearthing of Carothers McCaslin’s abominations but also from its disarming tenderness. The theme it finally broaches—implicit in earlier works, but never directly approachable—is interracial love, founded in a lifelong southern intimacy that racist customs cannot altogether transmute into hatred and fear.


What should we say, however, about the books that came after Go Down, Moses—especially those in which Faulkner, precisely because he had outgrown his obsessiveness, was free to cultivate the liberal sentiments that his newfound northern admirers expected of him? Those works constitute a test for critics like moreland and Morris: will they be able to acknowledge a possible divergence between political correctness and literary power? It is not reassuring to find Morris warming, however warily, to the garrulous Intrude in the Dust (1948), which earns his admiration for its “alternative community consisting of blacks, women, and children.” And most readers will want to think twice before accepting Moreland’s high estimation of the labored Requiem for a Nun (1951), which implausibly rehabilitates Temple Drake as a born-again feminist and scourge of racism.

But politically driven evaluations are hardly confined to Faulkner’s last phase. Consider the near consensus of advanced academic opinion, since about 1980, whereby the preeminently “social” Absalom, Absalom! is more highly regarded than the merely “private” and “oedipal” Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying. Surely it ought to matter, however, that Absalom is a book more easily studied than read. Its characters, as its first reviewers saw quite clearly, are at best half-realized sketches of the people they purport to be; its plot is riddled not just with mysteries but with uncontrolled absurdities; and its prose, in which, to quote Rosa Coldfield, “the prisoner soul, miasmal-distillant, wroils ever upward sunward,” reverts to the logorrhea of Faulkner’s apprentice period. Such Swinburnian bloat might justifiably cause one to pine for the cutting language of Jason Compson or the bleeding language of Benjy.

American formalists and most of their adversaries are united, it seems, in a determination to equate artistic success with thematic “maturity,” “historical seriousness,” and so forth. Yet Faulkner is often at his most memorable when not being public-spirited—as, for example, when he is pitilessly recounting the antics of those surreal yokels, the Bundrens, or when he explores the mind of a young neurotic who is fixated on nothing more exalted than his sister’s muddy drawers. If Faulkner is to be given his full due, such critics as Morris and Moreland (to say nothing of John Duvall) need to be supplemented by others who won’t flinch from the literary sparks given off by sheer willfulness and compulsion.

In fact, Faulkner has always had such critics, though few of them have been Americans. As early as the 1930s, well before Malcolm Cowley’s campaign to monumentalize the genial chronicler of Yoknapatawpha County, commentators in France had been drawn to him for just the qualities that Cowley and later Brooks sought to minimize: his pessimism, his wild experimentation, and his unflinching treatment of sex, whiskey, bigotry, and violence as staples of American life. And since the early 1970s another French critic, André Bleikasten of the University of Strasbourg, has been publishing remarkably intuitive and free-ranging analyses of certain novels, uninhibited by either an Agrarian or an anti-Agrarian program, but informed by comprehensive knowledge of the Faulknerian critical tradition on both sides of the Atlantic.11

Now Bleikasten has revised, consolidated, and doubled the range of those studies in a large book, The Ink of Melancholy: Faulkner’s Novels from ‘The Sound and the Fury’ to ‘Light in August’. It is, I believe, unsurpassed as an act of sustained engagement with Faulkner’s language. In addition, it can serve as a bracing antidote to an American criticism that, in Bleikasten’s words, habitually “confuse[s] the merits of a literary work with the tangible magnitude of its themes.”

This is not to say that we could turn to Bleikasten, if we wished, for a theory-free impressionism. Though he claims to stand outside all systems and schools, he has drawn upon every trend in the French “human sciences” from phenomenology through Althusserian Marxism to Lacanian psychoanalysis.12 For the most part, however, Bleikasten keeps to what he calls “a lighter, more mobile and more alert reading” than we have grown resigned to, a critical style adapted to the fact that

Faulkner’s texts are not deposits of fixed and final meaning for us to decipher; they are discharges of mental energy, fields of turbulence, records of battles won and lost….

Reading Bleikasten, we become aware that in their understandable reaction against both the bromides of Agrarian formalism and the social disdain of T.S. Eliot’s modernism, recent American commentators have oversold the socially conscious Faulkner. Despite Wesley Morris’s account of it, for example, As I Lay Dying is not finally a story about the economic predicament of Depression-era poor whites. It is closer to being what Bleikasten calls “an almost timeless fable” about “the naked scandal of existence”—a scandal which it confronts with an irreducible, farcically tinged astonishment that leaves little room for sociological diagnosis or sympathy for the downtrodden.

As for modernism, Bleikasten’s distance from the squabbles of the American academy allows him to see that, whether or not Faulkner ever completely outgrew his early infatuation with The Waste Land, he long remained a participant in the broader experimentalism that runs from Mallarmé and Rimbaud to Rilke, Stein, and Beckett. Faulkner shared with those writers a belief that the meanings to which the human race clings “are little more than the precarious fictions of our desires and the erratic impositions of our wills.” Hence, Bleikasten senses, his practice of hinting at inexpressible realities while allowing the engine of rhetoric to jump its mimetic rails.

Bleikasten misses no chance to show how Faulkner, at least in his most inventive mode, continually defies his readers’ complacency. The final leap to either Christianity or nihilism in The Sound and the Fury, he admonishes, “is never made, nor should it be attempted by the reader.” The master trope of Light in August, the circle, “absorbs everything it touches into its enigmatic, apparently meaningful, yet ultimately purposeless patterns of repetition and deferment and threatens us with the empty perfection of the cipher.” And again, the alarming, yet patently calculated, breaches of plausibility in As I Lay Dying suggest a typically modernist intent “to weave a text and to tear it to pieces, to build a fiction and to ruin its pretensions.”

As for Sanctuary, the language of liquefaction and exudation that runs like an open sewer through its pages leads to the following stark inferences on Bleikasten’s part:

Bodies are not sanctuaries. No presence, no mystery dwells in them—unless it be that of their generation and death. What dignity could one find in these leaking sacks of skin? Bodies do not know how to contain and control themselves. Everything urges them to spill their slimy little secrets. Sweat, spittle, vomit, blood—through all these oozings and flowings and outpourings flesh bespeaks its incontinence and inconsistency, announces its carrion future. In the last resort, the language of the body comes down to this reiterated admission of its shame and misery—a nauseous epiphany, aptly epitomized by “that black stuff that ran out of Bovary’s mouth.”

Though it quotes Faulkner, such a phenomenological tour de force is less an act of analysis than one of parallel creation in Faulkner’s honor. Yet after receiving assurance from Cleanth Brooks that the novelist was never cynical or nihilistic, and after hearing from John Duvall that Sanctuary “illustrates how all males become implicated in a sexist ideology that makes possible violence against women,” we can appreciate Bleikasten’s wish to part company with the prim American tradition. Here is one critic who has digested Faulkner’s uniqueness without having to regurgitate a sermon.

Between Morris and Moreland on one side and Bleikasten on the other, we have two incompatible-looking cases for the importance of Faulkner’s achievement. Yet each case is persuasive in its own terms. Need we choose, then, between seeing Faulkner as an elliptical, allusive, alienated modernist and, alternatively, as a reflective teller of local tales, circling about a core of morally charged themes as he rethinks his relation to southern defeat, persecution, and suffering?

There can be no doubt that the novelist shifted toward the latter self-conception during his sustained creative burst between 1929 and 1942. But he did so gradually and incompletely, meanwhile creating radically hybrid works that are somehow both confiding and contrived, voluble and sly, vertiginously poised between the realistic and the weird. This is the Faulkner who keeps us continually off balance, as he will fail to do in later novels like The Town and The Mansion. “It is a unique role that the reader must play,” as Hugh Kenner has remarked, “seeing folk material imitated, synthesized, by the devices of the twentieth-century avant-garde, being aware that that is what is going on and yet responding as if he were what he cannot be, a sympathetic member of a vanished community.”13

When Kenner spoke those words at a conference in 1978, he offended career Faulknerians, who saw that he was implicitly chiding the writer for failing to match the thoroughgoing experimentalism of the master modernist, Joyce. The resentment was warranted; avantgardism is hardly a touchstone of novelistic excellence, and there are ways in which Faulkner makes Joyce look petty and cold. Still, Kenner was right about the experience of reading. Faulkner often flew blind, juxtaposing wildly different sets of conventions to see what might result. And that, surely, has helped to keep him fresh even for academics as the Faulkner industry enters its fifth decade of all-out production. It will never be said of Faulkner, as Faulkner said of Hemingway, that “he stayed within what he knew. He did it fine, but he didn’t try for the impossible.”14


Faulkner’s Strange Fate October 24, 1991

  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.

  3. 3

    See Richard H. Brodhead’s introduction to Faulkner: New Perspectives, Brodhead, editor (Prentice-Hall, 1983), p. 2.

  4. 4

    Thus Hoffman purports to find that Go Down, Moses is unified by “the Quest and Initiation of Isaac McCaslin”—as if that “Quest” could somehow be extended to cover such disparate chapters as “Pantaloon in Black” and “Go Down, Moses,” in which Ike figures not at all.

  5. 5

    Irwin maintained, for example, that the ram in Abraham’s sacrifice is really the penis, the birth of Jesus is incestuous, and the Crucifixion, likewise, is “a sexual act that, because Jesus is both the priest and the victim, is incestuous.”

  6. 6

    See Myra Jehlen, Class and Character in Faulkner’s South (Columbia University Press, 1976); Carolyn Porter, Seeing and Being: The Plight of the Participant Observer in Emerson, James, Adams, and Faulkner (Wesleyan University Press, 1981); and Eric J. Sundquist, Faulkner: The House Divided (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983).

  7. 7

    Morris, citing Irwin, solemnly invokes the death instinct to account for Quentin Compson’s obsessive repetitions. Moreland correlates Faulkner’s historical sense with Julia Kristeva’s theory of “the infant’s primary repression or abjection of the mother and the attendant oedipal investment of the abjected maternal with its psychological and historical ‘powers of horror.”’ Duvall associates Joanna Burden’s false pregnancy with the Virgin’s supposed “impregnation by the fart,” thus revealing poor Joanna to be in effect “a male homosexual.” And when Lena Grove’s search for Lucas Burch instead yields Byron Bunch as a surrogate father for her unborn child, Duvall reasons that “in this minimal difference of the signifier—r/n—Lucas may be seen as the self-castrating male (for what is the r but a castrated n?)—who denies both patronymic and paternity.”

  8. 8

    Perhaps overgenerously, for example, Judith Bryant Wittenberg ascribed much of Faulkner’s apparent sexism to that of the rural society he faithfully depicted; she concluded that on balance he was “neither pro- nor anti-female, but rather an absorbed student of the endlessly variegated human scene.” And Judith Fetterley showed how a feminist could discount Faulkner’s surface values, note his insight into the structural and psychological roots of gender prejudice, and redistribute sympathy without regard for the preservation of southern chivalry. See Wittenberg, “William Faulkner: A Feminist Consideration,” in American Novelists Revisited: Essays in Feminist Criticism, edited by Fritz Fleischmann (G. K. Hall, 1982), pp. 325–338; the quotation is from p. 327; and Fetterley, The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction (Indiana University Press, 1978), pp. 34–45.

  9. 9

    Quoted by Michel Gresset and Patrick Samway in their introduction to Faulkner and Idealism: Perspectives from Paris (University of Mississippi Press, 1983), p. 8.

  10. 10

    An opposite error is committed by Dirk Kuyk, Jr., in another new book, Sutpen’s Design: Interpreting Faulkner’s ‘Absalom, Absalom!‘ (University of Virginia Press, 1990). Kuyk’s stubbornly literalistic argument condones the brutalities of the “tragic hero” Sutpen, failing to register that Sutpen’s incapacity to accommodate the subjectivity of others was already implicit in his original, supposedly noble, “design.” For a richer discussion, see Moreland, pp. 23–121.

  11. 11

    English translations of Bleikasten’s first two books appeared as Faulkner’s ‘As I Lay Dying’ (University of Indiana Press, 1973) and The Most Splendid Failure: Faulkner’s ‘The Sound and the Fury’ (University of Indiana Press, 1976).

  12. 12

    Indeed, Bleikasten evidences much the same credulousness toward psychoanalysis as we have seen in Duvall, Morris, and Moreland. Thus he finds Sanctuary illuminated by Freud’s equation feces=baby=penis; he takes seriously Joel Kovel’s stale proposal that the white racist is at once “castrating the father” and “identifying with the father by castrating the son”; and he frequently bolsters his readings with citations of questionable dogma by Melanie Klein, Sandor Ferenczi, Geza Róheim, and other Freudians and Lacanians of a visionary penchant.

  13. 13

    Hugh Kenner, “Faulkner and the Avant-Garde,” in Brodhead, Faulkner: New Perspectives, p. 73.

  14. 14

    Lion in the Garden: Interviews with William Faulkner, 1926–1962, edited by James B. Meriwether and Michael Millgate (University of Nebraska Press, 1968), p. 81.