Critical Evaluation

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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 comment on the rise and fall of Flem Snopes. Faulkner’s habit in the past, however, was to subordinate his racier effects to the more serious concerns of human mortality and the disorder of the moral universe. Not until he wrote The Reivers did he give free play to his talent for comedy of character and situation and, like Mark Twain in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), make it the master bias of structure and theme.

The Reivers also has other parallels with Twain’s novel. One is the unmistakable flavor of a style derived from the drawled tones of reminiscence. In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, this style is shaped to reveal habits of thought and feeling in art, a truly colloquial style marvelously tuned in pulse and improvisation and including the incorrectness of folk speech in its idiom. In The Reivers , this style is made to support both a burden of feeling within a boy’s range of responses and an old man’s accumulation of a lifetime’s reflections. It is a style that can record...

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sensory impressions with poetic finality.

Like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Reivers, too, is a story of initiation, of innocence corrupted and evil exorcised. Both novels show the world through the eyes of childhood, an effective device that freshens experience and corrects judgment. Between the two novels there is this important difference, however: Huck is protected from the contamination of the shore by the earthy nonchalance of his own native shrewdness and resourcefulness; young Lucius Priest lives by the code of his class, the code of a gentleman, and he brings its values to the bordello and to the racetrack. The true test is not innocence itself but what lies behind the mask of innocence. Grandfather Priest claims that when adults speak of childish innocence, they really mean ignorance. Actually, children are neither innocent nor ignorant, in his opinion, for an eleven-year-old can envision any crime. If a child possesses innocence, it is probably lack of appetite, just as a child’s ignorance may be a lack of opportunity or ability.

Under its surface of fantastic invention and tall-story humor, The Reivers is a moral fable in the Faulknerian manner, but its effect is different from that of the author’s earlier, darker studies of manners and morals. In tragedy—and Faulkner was a great tragic artist—the human soul stands naked before a God who is not mocked. In comedy, it is not what is possible in humans that is revealed but what is probable in conduct or belief. Thus, in comedy, people are viewed in relation to some aspect of their society. In The Reivers—“reiver” is an old term for a plunderer or freebooter—a master of comedy is at work to show the testing of young Lucius Priest’s code of gentlemanly behavior in a world of evasion and deceit, where it would be easier to run from responsibilities than to stand up and face them.

The triumph of The Reivers is in the manner of its telling. The novel presents the story of a boy, but the story is told by a man grown old and wise enough through the years of accumulated experience to look back on his adventure, relish it in all its qualities, and, at the same time, pass judgment on it. This judgment is never harsh. Lucius Priest, telling the story to his grandson, is revealed as a person of tolerance and understanding of much that is deeply and irrevocably ingrained in the eternal condition of humankind, and his point of view gives the novel added depth and dimension.

Among Faulkner’s novels The Reivers is a minor work. Nevertheless, it is a good yarn in the tall-story tradition, skillfully told, comic in effect, and shrewd in its observation of manners, morals, politics, and human nature. More to the point, the novel broadens the reader’s knowledge of Faulkner’s legendary Mississippi county.