Two writers, both products of the American South, both born in the latter part of the 19th Century and both died in the middle of the 20th Century. One, however, was white and raised in a solidly middle-class environment in Mississippi. The other was black, female, born in Alabama but raised in Florida in a lower-income but stable environment. William Faulkner and Zora Neale Hurston were both skilled, respected authors, but few outside of the literary and African American communities have ever heard of Hurston, while Faulkner was a recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature and enjoys worldwide acclaim a half-century after his death. The parallels and divergences between these two authors are striking, and their respective bibliographies reflect both those parallels and differences. Faulkner’s rural, gothic tales, with their occasionally macabre themes, reflect the racism that was a deeply-embedded part of American Southern culture, and his African American characters are universally slaves or servants or laborers who exist at the pleasure of their Caucasian masters. A fine – and frequently cited – example of Faulkner at his most “gothic” is his short story A Rose for Emily, in which an aging spinster, a source of continuous mystery to her southern town’s population, is discovered to have murdered her presumed lover and kept his decomposed corpse in her bed, dutifully lying next to it. It is no accident, though, that the doomed lover is a northerner, Homer Barron, “a Yankee—a big, dark, ready man, with a big voice and eyes lighter than his face.”
No discussion of Faulkner’s southern roots is complete, however, without reference to his most universally-praised, complicated and little-read novel Absalom, Absalom. A convoluted story with a nonlinear narrative, it is considered the quintessential southern work of fiction. If one can get through it, however, one can locate the most impassioned pleas for a greater understanding among the rest of the world for this defeated, antiquated culture. In the following passage, Shreve, Quentin’s Canadian roommate – an outsider insulated from the South’s abhorrence of all things “Northern” (read: Union) by virtue of his non-American nationality – grows exasperated with the trivialities and antiquated notions that continued to define Southern culture:
“I'm not trying to be funny, smart. I just want to understand it if I can and I dont know how to say it better. Because it's something my people haven't got. Or if we have got it, it all happened long ago across the water and so now there aint anything to look at every day to remind us of it. We dont live among defeated grandfathers and freed slaves (or have I got it backward and was it your folks that are free and the niggers that lost?) and bullets in the dining room table and such, to be always reminding us to never forget. What is it? something you live and breathe in like air? a kind of vacuum filled with wraithlike and indomitable anger and pride and glory at and in happenings that occurred and ceased fifty years ago? a kind of entailed birthright father and son and father and son of never forgiving General Sherman . . .”
Faulkner, however, was a man of the American South, and his perceptions of that region, and of its relationship to the rest of the world, instilled a sense of pride that had to be defended. Zora Neale Hurston, the African American female who lived and died in the same Southern environment during the same period of time, refused to be victimized for her Southern heritage. A politically and socially conservative African American female was hardly common during the early 20th Century. If the legacies of slavery and segregation remained open wounds for the overwhelming majority of blacks, however, Hurston’s views diverged notably from those of her fellow African Americans. Among her most famous quotes was “Bitterness is the coward's revenge on the world for having been hurt.” Having spent her formative years in the African American-incorporated town of Eatonville in central Florida, her perceptions of race relations may have been slightly skewed, but her adulthood exposed her more to the injustices that were too-often associated with the culture of racism that permeated the American South.
Given Hurston’s background, then, it is unsurprising that her narratives regarding the South do diverge so much from those presented by Faulkner. Her most celebrated work, the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, reflects the author’s upbringing in Eatonville and the story’s protagonist, Janie Crawford, was her creator’s own ideal of the independent-minded African American woman who suffered the indignities of racism but would not be defined by them. And, if Twain, Faulkner and other ‘sons of the South’ refused to eschew dialects that hinted at overt racism, Hurston was no different in her depiction of her own African American characters, as in the following passage from Chapter Five of Their Eyes Were Watching God:
“Joe noted the scant dozen of shamefaced houses scattered in the sand and palmetto roots and said, ‘God, they call this a town? Why, ‘taint nothing but a raw place in de woods.’
“’It is a whole heap littler than Ah thought,’ Janie admitted her disappointment.”
Hurston’s novel is replete with dialogue reflecting local dialects that are widely perceived as racist today. For Hurston, though, it was an accurate depiction of a culture she knew better than her detractors. And, when characters discuss the possibility of a new post office being built in their community, attitudes born of a culture of racial discrimination are given full airing:
“That irritated Hicks and he didn’t know why. He was the average mortal. It troubled him to get used to the world one way and then suddenly have it turn different. He wasn’t ready to think of colored people in post offices yet. He laughed boisterously.
“‘Y’all let that stray darky tell y’all any ole lie! Uh colored man sittin’ up in a post office.’ He made an obscene sound.”
Both Faulkner and Hurston embraced their southern heritages. The considerable distinctions between these two authors, however, was bound to be reflected in their writing, and Faulkner’s was the more heavily steeped in the culture of victimization to which many white Southerners clung as a form of identity.