William Faulkner: First Encounters
It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of Cleanth Brooks in the study and understanding of William Faulkner. In William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country (1963), he wrote the best overall introduction to Faulkner’s major novels; it has remained one of the indispensable tools of Faulkner scholarship. Brooks followed this work with a second study, William Faulkner: Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond (1978), which concentrated on the early Faulkner and those novels that lie outside the Yoknapatawpha series. Although not as cogent as the first book, it nevertheless brought a much-needed focus to this aspect of Faulkner’s writings. In both cases, Brooks applied unfailing perception and common sense: He refused to be bogged down in minutiae or swayed by fanciful theorizing or symbol hunting. His third book on Faulkner, William Faulkner: First Encounters, adds little to the two works that preceded it, nor does it intend to do so. The “first encounters” of the title refer not to Brooks’s own initial readings of Faulknebut to those general readers or hesitant students who come to Faulkner’s masterworks for the first time. This study, then, as Brooks explains in his preface, is not meant as a companion to the other two works. It offers, rather, simple readings of complex matters, concentrated largely on plot and character, generally devoid of critical reference or detailed technical analysis.
Brooks limits his study to a selection of representative short stories and what he considers Faulkner’s major novels. He does not deal with Faulkner’s early career, nor does he discuss any novel written after 1942’s Go Down, Moses. Brooks acknowledges these omissions but concludes that once introduced to Faulkner, new readers can search out these works for themselves. The novels Brooks does discuss are The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), Light in August (1932), Absalom, Absalom! (1936), The Hamlet (1940), and Go Down, Moses. All references are made to easily accessible Viking paperback editions of these works.
It is Brooks’s purpose to dispel whatever misconceptions the reader-student might have brought to his study of Faulkner. He argues that Faulkner should be seen not as a writer of primarily Southern material but as one concerned with universal truths. As he states, Faulkner’s themes “are finally universal human issues and his characters have a relevance to basic humanity.” Faulkner’s heroes come from all classes of society, not simply the aristocratic, and contrary to common opinion, he did not mythologize the lost glory of the Southern past. Brooks also emphasizes that, for Faulkner, the major conflicts were internal ones—in Faulkner’s words, the “human heart in conflict with itself.” Such observations are clearly worth making, for Faulkner is still one of the most misunderstood of America’s great writers.
Brooks first turns to Faulkner’s short stories as illustrations of these themes. One might immediately quibble with his selections. In addition to such often-anthologized works as “A Rose for Emily,” “Barn Burning,” and “That Evening Sun,” he includes the less often read “There Was a Queen,” “A Justice,” “Old Man,” “Pantaloon in Black,” and “An Odor of Verbena.” “Old Man” is not a short story as such but half of Faulkner’s contrapuntal narrative in The Wild Palms (1939), while “Pantaloon in Black” is a chapter from Go Down, Moses, and “An Odor of Verbena” acts as conclusion to The Unvanquished (1938). In each case, it is preferable to see the work in terms of the book in which it is found rather than discuss it as a story complete in itself. Given the number and variety of Faulkner stories available, Brooks’s points could have been made with other works.
If the chapter on the short stories seems somewhat perfunctory, Brooks is rewarding in his discussion of the novels. Here, he draws on his earlier, more detailed and complex readings and distills them into introductory essays of admirable clarity. It is to his credit that he intends the book as a supplement to, not a replacement for, the novels themselves. Brooks sends his readers to Faulkner for the experiences...
(The entire section is 1767 words.)