William Faulkner: Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond Analysis

Cleanth Brooks

William Faulkner: Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

William Faulkner and the “postage stamp of native soil” that he called Yoknapatawpha County are normally thought of as being inseparable. Ever since Malcolm Cowley initiated serious study of Faulkner over forty years ago, he has appeared primarily in his guise of “Sole Owner and Proprietor” of 2,400 square miles of mythical real estate in northern Mississippi. It can be inferred that, like one of the many obsessed characters in his books, he broods effectively on only the landscape of his birth. Even upon the works he set elsewhere, we tend to superimpose the hill-and-gully terrain that surrounds “Jefferson.” When Faulkner transports the reader to Europe or to California, he suffers literary jet lag. The dislocation is too jarring, just as it must have been for Faulkner’s imagination to be exiled from the roots of its neurosis and its genius.

Nevertheless, Faulkner did write “those other books”: Soldiers’ Pay, his first novel, set in an early approximation to Jefferson called Charlestown, Georgia; Mosquitoes, a feeble satire aimed at the New Orleans literary set; Pylon, an extended anecdote about aviators; The Wild Palms, whose characters are driven as far away as Utah by floods both natural and psychological; and A Fable, Faulkner’s final attempt to imagine himself onto the Western Front in World War I. These, along with a fair number of short stories, a play, and virtually all of his verse, constitute a sizable non-Yoknapatawpha corpus, to which a secondary status is ordinarily assigned. However, these works are important for two reasons: they include all of the writing of Faulkner’s apprenticeship; and some few of them are, at least arguably, masterpieces. But there is no persuasive critical reason for treating them as a coherent body. Cleanth Brooks’s study of these works illustrates both the value and the danger of considering them collectively.

No one could be better qualified than Cleanth Brooks to write about William Faulkner. As an associate of the “Fugitives” during the 1920’s and of the “Agrarians” during the 1930’s, he has been a bona fide participant in the illustrious Southern Renaissance, for which Faulkner produced the climactic achievement. As one of the most important “New Critics” of the 1940’s and 1950’s, Brooks helped to create the critical atmosphere in which Faulkner’s reputation could flourish. With the publication of William Faulkner: Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond, he has now devoted two large books to his countryman, with most salutary results.

When Brooks published William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country in 1963, soon after Faulkner’s death, its title described the limits of its scope. He treated only those books that Faulkner had set in his fictional backyard. His chapters on Light in August, Absalom, Absalom!, The Sound and the Fury, and Faulkner’s other home-rooted novels provided sensible and informative guides to extremely difficult texts. This earlier volume remains one of the best general introductions to America’s foremost novelist of the twentieth century. Brooks encouraged the bias against Faulkner’s non-Yoknapatawpha works, however, by postponing consideration of them to a later date. In his preface, he referred to plans he had already made for a second volume, which would “concentrate on Faulkner’s development as an artist—his beginnings, the forging of his style, and the working out of the special fictional techniques associated with his name.”

Fifteen years later, Brooks has fulfilled this promise. His new book closes most of the gaps he left previously and extends many of the earlier themes into new territory. It opens with discussions of Faulkner’s poetry and early prose sketches. It then treats an unpublished novel and play, the first two published novels, and Faulkner’s “first forays” into Yoknapatawpha County. After three chapters on Pylon, The Wild Palms, and A Fable, Brooks devotes his last chapter to “Faulkner on Time and History,” largely an effort to judge the influence of Henri Bergson on Faulkner. Finally, the book contains more than 150 pages of appendices and notes, in which Brooks corrects some misreadings of Absalom, Absalom! and pursues in detail a number of technical and documentary matters peripheral to his main text. The final postscript conflates the tables of contents of Brooks’s two books into a unified, chronological master list, signaling his conception of the more recent book purely as a complement to the earlier one. Like most sequels, it is the creature of its predecessor, enjoying both the virtues and the defects of its status as a companion volume.

For the specialist, Brooks’s contribution is even more valuable now than before. His goal in the first book was simply to provide intelligent readings of the novels by emphasizing the Southern sense of community that he shared with their author and by disencumbering them, when necessary, of assorted academic tomfooleries. In his more recent book, the “New” critic has subordinated his explicative instinct to various scholarly motives: source studies, biographical...

(The entire section is 2136 words.)