Subtitled A Reminiscence, The Reivers, for which William Faulkner posthumously received the 1963 Pulitzer Prize in fiction, begins on a note of action recalled in memory. About a fourth of the way through the novel, Faulkner finally begins one of his most engaging yarns, a tall tale whose idiom and spirit is reminiscent of a Huck Finn escapade brought forward in time. Its presence in The Reivers is less a matter of imitation than it is of a common source, for there is a sense in which Faulkner stands at the end of a literary tradition rather than, as many of his admirers claim, at the beginning of a new one. Through all of his writing runs a strain of broad folk humor and comic invention going back through Mark Twain to Augustus Baldwin Longstreet’s Georgia Scenes, Characters, Incidents, Etc. in the First Half Century of the Republic (1835) and George Washington Harris’s Sut Lovingood’s Yarns (1867), and beyond them to the Davy Crockett almanacs and the anonymous masters of oral anecdote who flourished in the old Southwest.
Early Americans were by nature storytellers. The realities of frontier life and their own hard comic sense created a literature of tall men and tall deeds repeated in the trading post, the groggery, the rafters’ camp, and wherever men met on the edge of the wilderness. These stories, shaped by a common experience and imagination, had a geography, a mythology, and a lingo of their own. Some were streaked with ballad sentiment, others with bawdy humor, but mostly these tales were comic elaborations of character, of fantastic misadventures in which the frontiersman dramatized himself with shrewd appraisal and salty enjoyment. Through these tales goes a ragtag procession of hunters, peddlers, horse traders, horse thieves, eagles, prophets, backwoods swains, land speculators, and settlers, creating a picture of the country and the times.
Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County lies, after all, in the same geographical belt as the Mississippi River and the Natchez Trace, and this is a region of history, folklore, and fantasy revealed in tall-story humor. This humor came into Faulkner’s fiction as early as Mosquitoes (1927), in the account of Old Hickory’s descendant who tried raising sheep in the Louisiana swamps and came to feel so much at home in the water that he turned into a shark. It contributes to effects of grotesque outrage and exaggeration in As I Lay Dying (1930), gives Light in August (1932) a warming pastoral glow, adds three episodes of pure comedy to The Hamlet (1940), and provides illuminating...
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