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 …

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Letters

Faulkner’s Strange Fate October 24, 1991