William Faulkner’s art is replete with paradox at every level. He is at once America’s greatest regional artist and its greatest national artist. His major work is grounded deeper than most in a specific region—the South—and reflects its historic experience of isolation, exploitation, racism, defeat, poverty, and their consequences for the human spirit, or sense of self. At the same time, and precisely because of the narrowness of William Faulkner’s focus on this peculiar region, his work explores more deeply than most what appear increasingly to be the essential qualities of the American experience. For what characterizes the Southern experience is, finally, what characterizes the American experience—the isolation from cultural roots, the exploitation of the land, the racist assault on Indians and on other settlers not of WASP backgrounds, the defeat at the hands of the wilderness or the economy, the essential emotional and economic poverty of the majority of Americans. What characterizes Southerners is, perhaps, the fact that their great defeat came earlier than it did for the rest of the nation; forced to live with shattered dreams, with the national guilt over slavery, with grinding poverty, at least some Southerners came to find in narrative, in the telling of stories, at least a way to endure if not to understand their history and their character.
Such were Faulkner’s roots. In his chronicles of his “little postage stamp of earth,” the fictional world of Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, Faulkner created in the Compsons and the Sartorises images of the failed Southern planter aristocracy, and in the Snopses images of the new American humanity. In the one, readers see the exhaustion of European culture in the new world as it sought to duplicate itself but had to rely on slave labor to tear space for itself out of the wilderness. In the other, readers find the new American, amoral, individualistic, acquisitive, willing to sacrifice everything to make another step up the ladder toward its definition of success. In all these families there is hardly a success story, a true hero in any traditional sense; Faulkner’s theme is, finally, the nature of failure, the nature of human limitations. The only moments of “success” are those small victories of compassion and love and caring which at least leaven the time. All there is to hold on to in Faulkner’s world is the telling of stories, the very use of language to narrate, the struggle through narrative to find meaning, that in ways necessarily imprecise and unclear give history and context and the ability to go on with life.
Although David Minter’s work does not evoke this larger context for Faulkner’s writing, it does explore more deeply than any other recent study the complex network of interactions between Faulkner’s life and personality and his fictional world. Unlike Joseph Blotner’s recent two-volume Faulkner (1974), which relates in elaborate and lengthy detail all the events of Faulkner’s life, Minter’s William Faulkner notes only the events relevant, in his view, to a coherent and complex and finally very satisfying overview of Faulkner’s literary career. Blotner’s work is, as Minter points out, “a storehouse of facts,” but little more. What makes Minter’s work so distinctive and important is his ability to make a whole piece out of the facts, a myth about Faulkner that, finally, has the ring of authenticity to it. He does not slight the...
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