T(homas) S(igismund) Stribling Edward J. Piacentino

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Edward J. Piacentino

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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[There are a number of] striking similarities between Stribling's [Vaiden Trilogy] and Absalom, Absalom!, which incidentally was published in 1936, two years after Unfinished Cathedral, the final novel in the trilogy. This is not so much to suggest that Faulkner deliberately patterned any of his themes, characters, or plots after Stribling's, though, of course, he may have subconsciously or even unconsciously remembered them from his reading; but to demonstrate that Faulkner treated a similar subject matter and character types from an era in southern social history that Stribling treated first, and in so doing Stribling may have provided an impetus for the author of Absalom, Absalom!

One of the chief parallels between the Stribling trilogy and Absalom, Absalom! is in the portrayal of the major characters, Miltiades Vaiden and Thomas Sutpen, both of whom, employing questionable means, rise to eminence but eventually fall because they live their lives according to a code that disregards the importance of basic human values. Both Vaiden and Sutpen are products of yeoman stock who aspire to become important plantation aristocrats, and in an effort to transcend their humble origins become overseers on plantations owned by wealthy gentlemen-aristocrats, both of whom incidentally have marriageable daughters.

In Stribling's The Forge, the first novel in the trilogy, the rich planter's daughter rejects Vaiden for a well-to-do, genteel aristocrat with political ambitions. In Absalom, Absalom!, on the other hand, the Haitian planter on whose plantation Sutpen is overseer offers Sutpen his daughter's hand because he has managed to quell a slave insurrection. Yet when Sutpen discovers his wife to be part Negro, he repudiates her and the son he has had by her as well. In both the Stribling trilogy and Absalom, Absalom!, then, the initial marriage plans of Vaiden and Sutpen do not materialize. Yet near the end of The Forge, however, Vaiden, in the process of becoming an advocate of New South mercantilism, contracts a marriage of convenience with the physically unattractive Ponny BeShears, a middleclass girl whose merchant-father's money he eventually expects to inherit. In Absalom, Absalom! when Sutpen marries again, he too marries opportunistically, choosing Ellen Coldfield, the daughter of an overly pious merchant…. (pp. 89-90)

[Another similarity is that] Thomas Sutpen, like Miltiades Vaiden, serves in the Confederate Army during the Civil War and is elected to the rank of colonel because of his aggressiveness and rugged individualism. Furthermore, after the war both men are destitute and though aware that the Old South civilization has been destroyed, the vain and egotistical Vaiden and Sutpen relentlessly strive to make their faltering designs a viable reality…. Moreover, both Colonel Vaiden and Colonel Sutpen desire to rebuild the way of life that the Civil War destroyed, begetting legitimate sons to perpetuate their family lines. (pp. 90-1)

Yet in their persistent desire to realize their designs, both before and after the Civil War, Jimmie Vaiden, the patriarch of the Vaiden clan, his son Miltiades, and Sutpen fail, at least in part, because they fail in their responsibility toward their part-Negro mistresses and wives and their offspring. In fact, each of these characters might be viewed as a representative of the Old South civilization that was firmly predicated on a social rather than a human code. (p. 91)

[Another parallel in the miscegenation theme is] that neither Miltiades Vaiden nor Thomas Sutpen after the Civil War is able to beget a legitimate son to perpetuate the family name. Hence the deaths of Vaiden and Sutpen mark the end of their respective family lines. Interestingly too, the only living male descendants of Vaiden and Sutpen are their part-Negro great grandsons….

Finally, Miltiades Vaiden and Thomas Sutpen die similarly, since they are vengefully murdered by poor whites, a frightening image of what they might have become had they not been driven by obsessive pride and ambition to be recognized as powerful and successful men. (p. 92)

As I have attempted to demonstrate, there are a number of close similarities in theme, subject matter, plot, and characterization in The Forge, The Store, and Unfinished Cathedral, a trilogy written by T. S. Stribling, and in Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! Yet, in apparently turning to these materials, one must recognize that the author of Absalom, Absalom! was a literary genius of the highest caliber, a gifted and sophisticated stylist with a penetrating insight, who worked within a mythic and symbolic framework to illuminate a range of meaning and complexity in his novel which becomes truths of universal relevance and significance. In short, Faulkner did what Stribling was unable to do: to write a novel, using materials that resemble those Stribling initially employed in his trilogy, and converting these ingredients into a work of lasting art. (p. 93)

Edward J. Piacentino, "Another Possible Source for 'Absalom, Absalom!'" in Notes on Mississippi Writers, Vol. X, No. 2, Winter, 1977, pp. 87-94.∗