William Faulkner: The Making of a Modernist Summary

Daniel J. Singal


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 35)

As Daniel J. Singal notes early in this important study of William Faulkner, more critical work has been done on the Mississippi writer than on any author working in English, save William Shakespeare. There would appear to be little room for still another critical study in this crowded library, but Faulkner is clearly the greatest novelist to emerge in the United States in the twentieth century, perhaps ever, and the breadth and depth of his fiction leave plenty of room for more work, especially such a valuable critical study as this one.

The key question that Singal answers is this: How did Faulkner—born in 1897, with no formal education and from the small town of Oxford, Mississippi, in what is arguably the most culturally backward area in the country—produce The Sound and the Fury (1929) and Absalom, Absalom!(1936), two of the most intellectually complex and significant works of twentieth century American literature? The answer gets to the heart of this study. Singal’s focus is on the nature and extent of Faulkner’s thought, and he describes in great detail the ideas—from early Freudian psychology to a progressive reading of Southern history—that were to grow in Faulkner’s fertile mind. The mystery of Faulkner’s breadth and intelligence, Singal shows, lies in the structure of that thought, for Faulkner was torn throughout his career between two major historical cultures,

the Victorian one into which he had been born in late- nineteenth-century Mississippi, and the Modernist one he discovered and absorbed through his extensive readings. . . . It is this very conflict of cultures within him, never entirely resolved even late in his life, that provides the crucial key to making sense of Faulkner.

The Victorian culture that Faulkner inherited in rural Mississippi still carried the cavalier tradition, an image of the South “as an aristocratic society organized in quasi-feudal fashion and blessed with remarkable stability and cohesion.” Such a culture, carrying as it did a number of distorted notions (about women and black people, for example) was to be a terrible burden on many of its twentieth century heirs.

Early in his writing career, however—first in New Orleans with Sherwood Anderson, then in Paris viewing the multiple experiments in the arts, and finally back in Oxford with his Harvard-educated friend and mentor Phil Stone—Faulkner was learning the most important lessons of Modernism. As in the fiction of James Joyce, whom Faulkner admired immensely, Modernist thought represented “an attempt to restore a sense of order to human experience under the often chaotic conditions of contemporary existence” and “to combat the allegedly dishonest conception of existence that the Victorians had introduced.” Modernism reflected the notion of a universe where nothing was ever predictable and where moral values would be in a constant state of flux, and insisted “on confronting the ugly, the sordid, and the terrible, for that is where the most important lessons are to be found.” In stark contrast to Victorianism, Modernism rejected the idea of some innocent past and demanded instead that writers confront “reality” fully, no matter how painful that process might turn out to be.

All his life Faulkner would struggle to reconcile these two divergent approaches to selfhood—the Victorian urge toward unity and stability he had inherited as a child of the southern rural gentry, and the Modernist drive for multiplicity and change that he absorbed very early in his career as a self-identifying member of the international artistic avant-garde.

Put simply, as Singal so convincingly does, there would be two William Faulkners throughout his career, two central selves: the old-fashioned country gentleman and the contemporary writer. The first would live most of his adult life in shabby splendor in “Rowan Oak,” the southern mansion he bought and refurbished, but the second would shock his conservative neighbors in book after book. Part of the power of Faulkner’s fiction came from this bipolarity, the tension between these two writing selves as they struggled for control of the man and of the writer.

Two immediate examples jump to mind from the many in Singal’s pages. Faulkner’s most memorable characters are in a constant search for self, struggling between the demands of competing ways of life. Quentin Compson in The Sound and the Fury, for example, is unable to reconcile his nineteenth century Southern heritage to the modern world, and he ends up drowning himself in Cambridge. Thomas Sutpen, the central character in Absalom,...

(The entire section is 1893 words.)