The Past Is a Southern County

The Saddest Words: William Faulkner's Civil War by michael gorra. new york: liveright. 448 pages. $30.

The cover of The Saddest Words: William Faulkner's Civil War

SOONER OR LATER, every great novelist, however ornery or eremitic, is portrayed as an observer of their times. “Flaubert’s Politics” must have sounded like a joke title, a parody of revisionism, when, in 1937, an essay with that name, arguing that the supposedly rarefied author had in fact engaged extensively with public affairs, appeared under Edmund Wilson’s byline in the pages of the Partisan Review. But the expansion of universities—and the explosion of academic publishing—has long since rendered the zany-looking intervention a commonplace occurrence. During the 1980s, for instance, a period notable for its engagé critical tendencies, a group of mainly American academics sought to defend Henry James against his newly unfashionable reputation for remoteness. In other words, if James was a “Flaubertian,” type, it was Wilson’s Flaubert that he resembled. And so the ivory-tower-dwelling Master—enshrined in the annals of collective memory through the efforts of James’s disciples and biographers and a crew of midcentury exegetes—was displaced by a man of strong convictions, canny and worldly and always historicizing, a spongelike wanderer down urban streets who tussled gamely with the challenge of modernity.

Michael Gorra, a professor at Smith College, and a prominent reviewer, has taken on a different kind of task in his spectacular new book, The Saddest Words—less outwardly perverse, but not without its nuances. William Faulkner has hardly been deprived of contextual criticism. Viewed by many as the preeminent American novelist, prodigious in output and pioneering in technique, an inspiration to writers as varied as Albert Camus, Gabriel García Márquez, Eudora Welty, Toni Morrison, Peter Carey, and Graham Swift, Faulkner was a near-lifelong inhabitant of a proud Southern town, Oxford, Mississippi, and set most of his work in the “apocryphal” county he named Yoknapatawpha (pop. 15,611). No one ever branded Faulkner an aesthete or a purveyor of the purely literary, or claimed that his origins had been incidental to his personality or sensibility. But as Gorra explains in his bracingly combative opening chapter, the traditional way of locating his work in its own environment was actually a sly form of retreat. In the work of the New Critics, many of whom emerged from the movement known as the Southern Agrarians, Faulkner, who was born in 1897, was portrayed as the chronicler of an internal white community struggle. In this view, the novelist was concerned mostly with the Old South of planters that had given way to something more avowedly and vulgarly industrial and capitalistic.

The emphasis on Faulkner as a kind of dewy nostalgist for the days of rural subsistence quickly gave way to more general talk of “man” and “time.” It was a tendency seemingly encouraged by Faulkner’s own taste for symbolic structures and elemental vocabulary—his Nobel banquet speech was a string of humanist keywords—as well as for titles that trade in abstraction, allusion, and analogy, especially in the early novels on which his renown still rests: The Sound and the Fury (1929), Sanctuary (1931), Light in August (1932), and Absalom, Absalom! (1936). Scanted in the process was the story that Faulkner was eager—at least some of the time—to tell about what the South had not only suffered or endured but perpetrated. The South that the Agrarians imagined “was in essence a land without black people,” Gorra argues, with slavery as merely an “aspect of the region’s past,” and irrelevant to understanding the work of its greatest chronicler.

At a certain point, it became impossible to sustain this image of Faulkner’s fiction. Writing for a nonspecialist audience—his second time, after Portrait of a Novel, his 2012 book about Henry James—Gorra doesn’t get specific about what happened, or when. But the change can probably be pegged to the early 1980s and books like Eric J. Sundquist’s Faulkner: The House Divided and Thadious M. Davis’s Faulkner’s “Negro, a shift also reflected in the decision to choose race as the topic for the 1986 edition of the annual Faulkner conference held at the University of Mississippi. The crucial distinction between this ongoing process and the similar, roughly contemporaneous movement in James studies is that it doesn’t seek to banish one monolith in favor of another—a Faulkner indifferent to the color line with one who cared about nothing else, for instance, or a subscriber to Lost Cause sentiment with a man who hated absolutely everything about the antebellum South.

Another difference is that the Faulkner specialists weren’t driven by a desire to armor-plate a beloved writer against the vagaries of cultural fashion. While it’s possible that some critics wished to insist on Faulkner’s liberal credentials, to present this descendant of slave-owners as “one of us,” the broader aim was to present a warts-and-all portrait of Faulkner’s record on the causes, events, and legacies of the American Civil War. It wasn’t only warts, as things turned out. The Saddest Words, like its precursors, is a reckoning, not a takedown, and while Gorra admits to a “full panoply of Yankee prejudices,” he comes to more or less the same conclusion as Ralph Ellison in his 1953 essay “Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity”—that Faulkner’s attitude to African Americans was “mixed.”

Gorra reckons that Faulkner probably employed “racial epithets almost every day of his life.” He quotes his article in defense of lynching and his appalling remarks about the civil-rights movement. But he isn’t arguing that Faulkner was a genius who happened also to be a racist, or a racist who managed to overcome his attitudes when he was writing. At different points, his fiction insisted on the South’s glories—or innocence—and on its shame. In novels like The Sound and the Fury and Light in August, he recognized that Black people served as the site of pernicious white projections, and as a scapegoat for white troubles. But he could also appear soft and even censoring, as in his portrayal of John Sartoris, the respected slave-owner and eager Confederate—the first to raise a regiment to fight the Yankees—who appears in a number of the Yoknapatawpha stories. (He scoffs that Sartoris’s plantation is virtually indistinguishable from a farm.) He argues that Faulkner seemed far clearer-sighted about the war itself in his tragic saga Absalom, Absalom! than in his next—though concurrently written—book, the story sequence The Unvanquished (1938). If Gorra is reluctant to give Faulkner a free pass or easy time, he also believes that scrutinizing Faulkner’s racial politics, whatever disappointments it might bring, renders him a more enduringly relevant figure.

William Faulkner. Carl Van Vechten/Library of Congress
William Faulkner. Carl Van Vechten/Library of Congress

The resulting book is surely among the most dexterous, dynamic, and consistently surprising studies ever written about an English-language novelist. Most books on Faulkner—even the work of notable critics like Irving Howe and Michael Millgate—take the novels in turn, starting with The Sound and the Fury or Sartoris (1929) or even Soldiers’ Pay (1926), and stopping either around 1950, or in the case of some completists-cum-masochists, going all the way up to The Reivers, which was published in 1962, the year that Faulkner died. (It was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer.) Gorra treats Faulkner’s “many volumes as a single enormous text” and opts for an associative magpie approach. One minute you’re reading about the river in As I Lay Dying, the next Gorra is comparing Quentin Compson, from The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom!, to Basil Ransom, in James’s The Bostonians, who pays a visit to Memorial Hall, during a trip to Harvard. Then suddenly Gorra is reflecting on the German concept of overcoming the past, Vergangenheitsbewältigung, which, he claims, was much in use after the Second World War, and for which he says—a little more believably—there is “no single English equivalent.” This is surely the first account of Faulkner’s work that provides a systematic reading of Confederate historiography—the version that Faulkner would have imbibed growing up.

And yet The Saddest Words, for all its peculiar accents, also serves as a kind of one-stop-Faulkner-shop, offering all the traditional lore: his encounter in New Orleans with the novelist Sherwood Anderson (who told the publisher Horace Liveright he had “a hunch this man is a comer”), his three years in charge of the University of Mississippi post office, the baffled reviews of those gnarly, compact early novels, the serial construction of the Yoknapatawpha County mythology, the regretted but necessary sojourns to Hollywood, and the postwar revival following the appearance of Malcolm Cowley’s The Portable Faulkner (1946), which had been abetted by his worship in France (Sartre told Cowley he was a “god” to the young), and was capped by the Nobel Prize, in 1950, and a National Book Award, a year later, for his Collected Stories. At once diligent and path-breaking, focused and multifactorial, The Saddest Words rivals Joseph Blotner’s single-volume Faulkner and Philip Weinstein’s terser critical biography, Becoming Faulkner (2009), as the first book on this subject to which newcomers might wish to turn.

What grounds the book is the recurrent preoccupation with Absalom, Absalom!, an achievement that, in Gorra’s view, more or less equals Faulkner’s boast that it was “the best novel yet written by an American.” (Gorra is careful to note the rival claims of Moby-Dick and The Golden Bowl; it’s not a list that prioritizes ease of access.) High praise for eccentric work can seem designed to provoke annoyance or dissent. I’ve heard cinephiles of a certain vintage insist that The Tarnished Angels, the adaptation of Faulkner’s Pylon (1935), was Douglas Sirk’s greatest movie, and just as you might wander away muttering about Written on the Wind and All That Heaven Allows, at first you respond: Absalom, Absalom!—really? The one that doesn’t quite come off—the novel that, in its use of the Russian-doll structure, resembles nothing so much as Conrad on ketamine? From the author of As I Lay Dying, a book that Gorra himself recognizes as “perfect”?

But reading Absalom, Absalom! todayan exhilarating or overwhelming experience—you can see why those engaged in figuring Faulkner out have made it the subject of increased attention. For Absalom, Absalom! is Faulkner’s ultimate statement about racial prejudice and the damage wrought by the Civil War—“a stupid and bloody aberration in the high (and impossible) destiny of the United States,” in the words of one character. It unspools, over nine hefty chapters, the barely tellable story of Thomas Sutpen, a slave-owner and Confederate colonel with a mysterious provenance, and of the murder, in 1865, by Sutpen’s acknowledged son, Henry, of his disowned half-Haitian son, Charles Bon, who had been Henry’s best friend at university and fought alongside him in the war, and was engaged to Henry’s sister—therefore his own half-sister—Judith. The rumors and half-forgotten reminiscences of what befell Sutpen and his children are passed down to a local teenager Quentin Compson first by his father—who heard most of it from his own father, Sutpen’s oldest Yoknapatawpha friend—and then by an elderly neighbor, Rosa Coldfield, the much younger sister of Sutpen’s second wife, and the author, in her unofficial capacity as the county’s “poetess laureate,” of tributes to “the lost cause’s unregenerate vanquished.” It’s explicitly framed as an exercise in analysis of the South: the Sutpen story, having been told and retold, becomes in turn the subject of conjecture and fascination, in the winter of 1910, to Quentin and his Harvard roommate, Shrevlin McCannon, a Canadian who explains a burdensome past is, as he puts it, “something my people haven’t got.”

THE CHALLENGE THAT MICHAEL GORRA confronts in this book is similar to the one faced by any first-time Faulkner reader: How do you draw it all together? It’s a problem that Gorra solves by demonstrating the coherence of Faulkner’s achievement. Though he goes a little far when he says that The Sound and the Fury is an inevitable, maybe intentional failure as a novel because escaping a legacy—the novel’s theme—is itself an effort doomed to failure, he is right that the novel strains because it is trying to do difficult things, and he shows that Faulkner’s techniques and recursive language are an organic extension—or at least immaculate servant—of his themes. Faulkner specialized in a high-literary device, the stream-of-consciousness, and in a slightly hokey genre, Southern Gothic—a pair of terms to which Gorra objects—because he was always thinking about how time is experienced by the denizens of a place that no longer exists, or is at least haunted by what has been repressed. Even the somewhat uncharacteristic As I Lay Dying, which has no Black characters, and which Gorra at first seems resigned to ignoring, receives some attention late on, as a study of the forces that descend on the characters and work to constrict or determine their fate.

Towards the end, Gorra widens his investigation still further—to accommodate the idea that Faulkner was divided about more than just the Civil War. Quentin Compson, for example, the closest that Faulkner offered to a stand-in, admits to being torn about whether he hates the South; whether he understands the South; whether he is a young man or a ghost. Yet, by concluding with the claim that Faulkner’s subject was really “the human heart against itself,” Gorra risks beating a retreat into ahistorical generalities of the kind he has condemned in earlier Faulkner fans. What saves Gorra is that he was wrong to condemn them. In the book’s opening pages, during his drive-by attack on traditional Faulkner criticism, Gorra stresses the link between the New Critics’ desire to remove literature from “its social matrix” and the earlier project of Southern Agrarianism, which had been so notably quiet about “the central facts of the South’s past.” Turning to Cleanth Brooks’s 1963 study William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country, Gorra says that Brooks, the most influential of the New Critics, read for structure and symbol. If the book still contains some historical analysis, that is only because Faulkner’s writing forced Brooks to take “more account” of context than “he ever did with a seventeenth-century lyric.”

It might seem an odd thing to say about the author of Historical Evidence and the Reading of Seventeenth-Century Poetry. But then Gorra’s entire version of the New Critical project is caricatural and unduly suspicious. Brooks argued that Faulkner’s work transcended “topicalities,” but that isn’t the same as claiming the novelist ignored them: he wrote essays on Faulkner’s “treatment of the racial problem” and on the ways in which Thomas Sutpen was a typical Southern planter. In a 1959 essay, talking about “An Odor of Verbena”—one of the stories that make up The Unvanquished—Brooks was careful to warn against the dangers of overemphasizing both background and symbols. So Gorra constructs as much of a straw man of Brooks and Co. as he claims that the New Criticism did of Faulkner. (And in his haste to present a story of blinkered polemic, or Southern propaganda, he never mentions Allen Tate’s The Fathers, the best novel written by a New Critic, and a demolition of the myth that the rot only set in with the Civil War.)

More surprisingly, Gorra neglects to acknowledge that it was the New Critics who made the concept of self-division central to American literary aesthetics. When Brooks was a Rhodes Scholar in England in the early 1930s, he wasn’t just reading William Faulkner—he was also reading William Empson. And The Saddest Words, like much of Brooks’s work, is a reflection on Empson’s seventh and final type of ambiguity—the one that cannot be resolved because it denotes “a fundamental division in the author’s mind.” So Gorra’s avowedly anti–New Critical effort is really an extension of the New Critical project—studying ambiguity or paradox, or what Brooks called “plurisignation,” not just within a single poem but across a prodigious body of fiction. Perhaps it only burnishes the book’s argument that the divisions in Faulkner’s most prominent reader were actually far greater than Gorra acknowledges, and that in composing a granular portrait of his subject’s psychic agility, he has performed a master class in a mode of reading he was under the impression he despised.

Leo Robson is a contributing writer for the New Statesman.