Last spring, after the world saw the video of the murder of George Floyd, few Americans could turn an oblivious eye to the racism and violence that are part of the brutal, inhuman legacy of slavery. Coincidentally, as protesters demanding justice packed the streets, William Faulkner rode into town, the subject of two major studies: Carl Rollyson’s massive, well-researched two-volume biography and Michael Gorra’s eloquent analysis of how the Civil War ricochets throughout his best-known novels.
Of course, Faulkner hasn’t been neglected: there are at least a dozen major biographies and countless scholarly studies, essays, and dissertations. He’s a veritable cottage industry. But these new books remind us that we seem always to be trying to solve Faulkner, as if he were a riddle. For there are competing and not always compatible Faulkners: the modernist Faulkner is an experimentalist respected internationally by filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard and writers like Gabriel García Márquez and Edouard Glissant who admire his lush, long sentences, accumulating modifiers and self-correcting syntax—all the ways he conveys consciousness in dialogue with itself. In 1945 Jean-Paul Sartre said that for young people in France, “Faulkner c’est un dieu.”
Then there’s the humanistic Faulkner who declared, when accepting the Nobel Prize in literature in 1950, that we possess “a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance,” that we will not and cannot perish because of that spirit, and that “the poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things.” Critics nodded approvingly, calling him an American Balzac who created a human comedy out of the hamlets and backwoods of Mississippi, the American who had absorbed John Donne and Dickens as well as Cervantes and Conrad and the Bible. “With Faulkner, the big picture is everything,” Edmund Wilson praised him. “He went out on every limb,” Eudora Welty said, “that he knew was there.”
There’s also the compromised, morally suspect Faulkner who, in 1956, announced he was as opposed to compulsory integration as he had been to compulsory segregation. The occasion was the attempt of Autherine Lucy, a young Black woman, to enroll at the University of Alabama. Riots broke out and she was asked to leave the school; later she was expelled. But Faulkner said that on the matter of integration he would advise the NAACP, which had taken up Lucy’s case, to “go slow now.” As he further explained to Russell Warren Howe of the London Sunday Times, “as long as there’s a middle road, all right, I’ll be on it.” But if troops were sent to the South to integrate the schools and “it came to fighting,” he continued, “I’d fight for Mississippi against the United States even if it meant going out into the street and shooting Negroes.”
His remarks stunned his admirers. “Faulkner has delusions of grandeur,” Ralph Ellison wrote to Albert Murray. “Sad, pitiful and stupid thing for a writer like that to do,” Murray replied. Langston Hughes sardonically wondered if the great white writer would soon have his passport confiscated; after all, Paul Robeson had lost his for remarks far less treasonous. The noted Black journalist Ethel Payne reported that Martin Luther King Jr. had warned Faulkner that “the cancer of segregation cannot be cured with the vaseline of gradualism.” Faulkner quickly backpedaled, claiming he’d been drunk when he’d made his remarks, “statements,” he claimed, “which no sober man would make and, it seems to me, no sane man believe.”
The eighty-eight-year-old W.E.B. Du Bois challenged Faulkner to a public debate to be held on the steps of the Tallahatchie County Courthouse, where the men who had killed the fourteen-year-old Emmett Till in 1955 had been immediately acquitted by an all-white jury. Faulkner declined. “We both agree in advance that the position you will take is right morally legally and ethically,” he wired Du Bois. He insisted he was just being practical; he was concerned for Autherine Lucy’s life. “If we in America have reached that point in our desperate culture when we must murder children,” he had declared after Till was murdered, “no matter for what reason or what color, we don’t deserve to survive, and probably won’t.” In a letter to the Memphis Commercial Appeal, he was mocked as “Weeping Willie.”
The Faulkner chronicler, then, has to tackle the novelist’s various and often unpleasant, if not downright repellent, political positions in light of the extraordinary meditations on race, racism, violence, and cruelty in his fiction. How to separate the dancer from the dance; how to understand a high modernist writer who said that he hoped his epitaph would simply read, “He made the books, and he died”? He told Malcolm Cowley, “It is my ambition to be, as a private individual, abolished and voided from history, leaving it markless, no refuse save the printed books.” No such luck.
For a good reason. He shirked nothing. He set his infuriating gradualism and his belief that the South should work out its own salvation alongside his scorching denunciation of the white South, of slavery, of snobbery, and of greed. He severely judged those white people who, he wrote in Absalom, Absalom! (1936), “erected its economic edifice not on the rock of stern morality but on the shifting sands of opportunism and moral brigandage.” He exposed the provincialism, sentimentality, paternalism—and nostalgia—that to him represented the shame and failure and, yes, even the so-called dignity of the white South. It’s not too hard to see him in the apparently mixed-race character Joe Christmas of Light in August (1932): “He carried his knowledge with him always as though it were a banner, with a quality ruthless, lonely, and almost proud.”
Famously, Faulkner had also said in his Nobel speech that “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself…alone can make good writing.” Certainly he was ambivalent and oppositional, even with himself, about the South, which is to say about white supremacy, racial injustice, the planter culture, and women, both Black and white. Ambivalence endowed his inventive prose with its haunting resonance: the iteration and reiteration of points of view, perspectives, and restive narrative voices that push his novels forward and inward at the same time.
Early on, Faulkner converted disorientation and uncertainty into tools of inquiry, for he didn’t intend to write a foursquare novel verité or protest literature. Instead, he reconstructed history from the perspectives of those living in it and trying, like him, to puzzle out its meaning. “Memory believes before knowing remembers,” he observed in Light in August, one of his greatest novels. There, the Reverend Gail Hightower, whose life “had already ceased before it began,” cannot relinquish the life before him, hearing over and over “the troops galloping past toward the rallying bugles.” Four years later, in the dazzling Absalom, Absalom!, through overlapping narrators who speak in long, sinuous sentences about the near and faraway past, Faulkner replies to the question he posed to himself: “Tell about the South,” a college student from Canada asks his southern roommate. “What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all.”
Carl Rollyson, professor emeritus of journalism at Baruch College, takes up these questions, introducing himself as an unabashed Faulkner enthusiast: “I believe he is a great writer, and all of his work fascinates me and has done so for more than fifty years.” A self-proclaimed “serial biographer” whose subjects have included Amy Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Walter Brennan, Dana Andrews, Marilyn Monroe, and Norman Mailer—to name just a few—Rollyson wrote his first book on Faulkner in 1984 and now returns to his first love, having burrowed through 105 boxes of research materials in the Carvel Collins collection at the University of Texas that Collins, a prospective Faulkner biographer, began to amass as early as the 1940s.
Although these materials, particularly the interviews, provide Rollyson’s volumes with texture, or what he calls “the minute particulars that Boswell and Johnson extolled in their conception of biography,” they do not add anything startling to what’s already known. Rather, Rollyson’s signal contribution to Faulkner studies is his claim that Faulkner didn’t entirely spurn the Hollywood screenplays he worked on in the 1930s and then again in the 1940s when he needed cash. (Chief among them are To Have and Have Not, Mildred Pierce, and The Big Sleep, as well as many uncredited ones, which Rollyson examines at length.) For by 1944, Faulkner’s reputation in America was in shambles, and most of his books were out of print; no one much cared what he said, if indeed he said anything at all. He owed back taxes, he owed his publishers, and he was the sole support of a large extended family.
A native Mississippian, William Cuthbert Falkner (he added the “u” around 19181) was born in 1897 in New Albany, not far from Oxford, where he lived most of his life and which he would recreate as the town of Jefferson in the fictional county of Yoknapatawpha, his “little postage stamp of native soil,” as he called it. The year before his birth, in Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court legalized racial segregation; in 1962, the year he died, James Meredith desegregated the all-white University of Mississippi in Faulkner’s hometown, though federal troops had to ensure his safety. When Faulkner was almost eleven, a mob broke into the local jail and dragged out Nelse Patton, a Black man accused of killing a white woman. The former US senator William Van Amberg Sullivan boasted the next day to a reporter, “I led the mob which lynched Nelse Patton, and I’m proud of it.” Between 1889 and 1909, “at least 293 blacks were lynched [in Mississippi], more than in any other state in the nation,” Rollyson notes, and another Faulkner biographer points out that Faulkner “spent the formative years of his life in the very midst of the radical racist hysteria.”
Faulkner’s great-grandfather William Clark Falkner, a slave owner and an officer in the Confederate Army, was fatally shot in the street by a former business partner; Rollyson hints that the reason may have been a Black slave woman with whom the Old Colonel, as he was affectionately known, may have fathered at least one child. This and the fact that the Old Colonel had written several novels loom over Faulkner’s life, for stories about him were the stuff of family legend, handed down by J.W.T. Falkner, the novelist’s loquacious grandfather, a banker who reread Dumas every year and said he wanted no artists in the family.
Faulkner’s father, far less successful than his forebears, ran a livery stable and a hardware store before becoming business manager at the University of Mississippi. Maud (Butler) Falkner, Faulkner’s mother, was an amateur painter whom he visited almost every day, even after he married. And despite his parents’ urging, Faulkner never finished high school, though he briefly attended the University of Mississippi at Oxford and, after World War I, was able to enroll as a veteran. Fascinated by aviation, he had enlisted in the British air force in 1918, presumably because he thought he’d quickly be in the cockpit, but within months the war was over, and he’d never left camp in Toronto. Back in Oxford Faulkner liked to parade around town in his uniform; a dandy with what Rollyson calls a “performative personality,” he walked with a limp, pretending he’d been wounded in the war. He composed overheated poetry and a verse play, drew and designed booklets containing his own artwork, and soon dropped out of school again. His classmates called him “Count No ’Count.”
In New Orleans, where he had gone to write, Faulkner met Sherwood Anderson and members of what Rollyson calls an “Algonquin Round Table South.” Abandoning poetry for fiction and encouraged by Anderson, in 1925 he sent a copy of his first novel, Soldiers’ Pay (1926), to Anderson’s publisher Horace Liveright, who brought it out along with Faulkner’s second novel, Mosquitoes (1927); neither was particularly successful, and both dealt with the disillusion that the war dealt to the postwar “lost generation.”
When Liveright rejected his third novel, Flags in the Dust (reworked, cut, and published as Sartoris by Harcourt, Brace), Rollyson contends that he “made a colossal mistake,” and that with this book, “the subversion in white hegemony in Faulkner’s fiction has just begun.” In his next novel, The Sound and the Fury (1929), Rollyson argues, characters such as Dilsey, the Black woman employed by the white Compson family, embodies “a stunning rebuke to a society built on segregation and on the ideology of white supremacy.”
Back in Oxford, Faulkner wed Estelle Oldham, the sweetheart of his youth. Recently divorced, she’d returned to Oxford with her two young children. It was a tumultuous marriage: both of them were alcoholics, their firstborn died at just nine days old, Faulkner had long affairs with younger women, and he went on drinking binges painful to read about and indulged by long-suffering editors like Saxe Commins, who often sat by his bedside until he sobered up. But the couple prized the run-down antebellum mansion they bought in 1930. Built in the 1840s by a wealthy Tennessee slaveholder, it had no electricity or plumbing or central heating, but over the years they refurbished Rowan Oak, as Faulkner renamed it. On the outskirts of town, it stood at the end of a cedar-lined driveway that Faulkner, it was said, kept in disrepair to discourage visitors. Or he would urinate in the bushes to repel nosy tourists.
At Rowan Oak Faulkner entered an enormously prolific period, publishing the brilliant As I Lay Dying in 1930, which he claimed he’d written in six weeks while working the night shift in the university’s power plant. The next year, the potboiler Sanctuary appeared, and though its description of a horrific rape shocked readers, Faulkner was hailed as the “Dostoevsky of the South.”
That meant he’d have to answer questions about the South (What’s it like there?), which he did—quite controversially. He said that Blacks were probably better off under slavery and that he envisioned “a kind of ‘benevolent autocracy’ as the ideal condition for the Negroes.” As Rollyson says, he remained an unreconstructed southerner. Still, two decades later, when the somewhat but not wholly changed Faulkner again answered questions, this time about civil rights, and said “go slow,” Rollyson generously characterizes him as a white southern moderate who
saw the civil rights struggle in conservative terms, as did some black people, who wrote to him fearing for themselves because of the militancy of civil rights organizations like the NAACP, and many white people, who wrote to vilify him for supporting integration.
Yet as Thurgood Marshall reportedly said of Faulkner’s advice, “go slow” usually means “don’t go.”
Although Michael Gorra’s graceful The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War is also a labor of love, it’s of a far more troubled and penetrating kind. The Mary Augusta Jordan Professor of English at Smith College and the author of the richly layered Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece (2012), Gorra asks just how we should read the vexing novelist in 2020. The answer lies in a nimble hybrid that blends literary analyses with history, biography, and personal narrative.
Focusing his considerable critical acumen on the way Faulkner imagines the past, particularly the Civil War, whose meaning remained unsettled, resonant, and painful for Faulkner—as it is for us—Gorra takes the title of his book from an episode in The Sound and the Fury. Quentin Compson’s father, whose own father was a Confederate general, tells his son that “was” is the saddest word of all: or as Gorra says, “something that was is fixed and unchangeable, forever in the past, an event—a mistake—that can be neither altered nor redressed.” But in Absalom, Absalom! Quentin decides that again is even sadder: “Maybe happen is never once.” “That’s how it is in Faulkner’s South,” Gorra writes, “a land where the dead past walks.”
And Gorra treads cautiously there. Faulkner’s world is complicated, heart-wrenching, often galling. To give it literary and historical berth, Gorra considers Ambrose Bierce’s bitter account of the Battle of Shiloh. He reads Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore and the graphic Civil War diary that the patrician and Confederate Mary Chesnut kept and that the historian C. Vann Woodward trimmed. Having introduced himself to the reader as a New England Yankee, he visits Natchez and the battlefield at Gettysburg. He recalls sitting as a boy in a small single-screen theater where he first watched Victor Fleming’s Gone with the Wind. He deftly swerves to a discussion of regionalism in Sarah Orne Jewett’s Country of the Pointed Firs, distinguishing it from Faulkner’s brand of regional writing and telling the reader, “I want to pause over it.” And he movingly narrates the debacles at Bull Run and Gettysburg and effortlessly slides from astute analyses of Faulkner’s best stories, like “Mountain Victory,” to such novels as The Sound and the Fury, The Unvanquished (1938), and Go Down, Moses (1942)—the latter “never quite the novel one wants it to be,” Gorra writes, “yet much of it also brings me to tears.”
He gently counsels the reader on Faulkner’s use of dialect: “The question isn’t whether or not Faulkner has a right to this material. It’s one of execution. Just how does he present these characters?” No Faulkner apologist, he also notes that Faulkner used racial epithets almost every day, regressing or reverting to the Jim Crow South of his youth; then again, “in fiction,” Gorra writes, “he was able to stand outside his Oxford, his Jefferson, and see the behavior his people take for granted, the things they don’t even question.” But to grasp what Faulkner may have heard or believed about Reconstruction, he explains the prejudices of the academic historian William Dunning, who claimed that the Reconstruction amendments were a tragic mistake. Dunning produced several histories and launched the careers of graduate students who helped celebrate the so-called Lost Cause, which, for white southerners, came to mean that they were a chosen people and their society divinely ordered, with white men at its apex.
Gorra also turns briefly to Freud’s Moses and Monotheism and a definition of trauma; Faulkner’s characters frequently reel from losses they haven’t experienced firsthand. He then recounts walking with his wife and daughter in Hamburg, Germany, where they came across Gunter Demnig’s “stumble stones”—Stolpersteine—that mark the place where a victim of the Nazis once lived. These stones supposedly assist Germans in “the process of working through or overcoming through the past.”2 To Gorra, the American South’s confrontation with its own past didn’t take public form until Selma or Birmingham—or, as Faulkner might have added, until Autherine Lucy courageously enrolled at the University of Alabama.
Faulkner, in Gorra’s view, possessed a different kind of courage: “The pen made him honest, and from the beginning he skinned his eyes at the racial hierarchy in which a part of him never stopped believing.” And so he inhabited his universe of fictional characters, some of whom were far braver than he: “It made him better than he was; it made the books better than the man.”
In Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, the southern belle Scarlett O’Hara mourns the loss of Tara, her plantation home. To her, it symbolizes beauty and grace, moonlight and magnolias. Faulkner, though, had no such illusions. In Absalom, Absalom!, Thomas Sutpen bought or swindled land from the old Chickasaw chief Ikkemotubbe even though the land was not his to sell, and on that land he built his plantation, Sutpen’s Hundred, which is synonymous with slavery, which is synonymous with America: “That whole edifice intricate and complex,” as Faulkner writes in the story “The Bear,” “and founded upon injustice and erected by ruthless rapacity and carried on even yet with at times downright savagery not only to the human beings but the valuable animals too, yet solvent and efficient.” At the end of Absalom, Absalom! Sutpen’s Hundred is a dry husk that represents greed and moral failure. And Sutpen’s daughter Clytemnestra, whose mother had been a slave, burns the place to the ground.
Gone with the Wind won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Had there been a category for truth, Absalom, Absalom!, published the same year, would have won it, hands down.