William Faulkner Faulkner, William (Vol. 6)

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Faulkner, William (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Faulkner, William 1897–1962

See also William Faulkner Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 8, 9, 11, 14, 18, 28.

Faulkner, a Southern American, was one of this century's most influential and highly regarded novelists. Derived from the Southern oral tradition and existing somewhere between storyteller and listener, Faulkner's novels together form one larger work, the saga of a single imaginary world in which the characters are both sustained and contained by the region—more philosophical than geographical—that is Faulkner's deep South. Time, remembered but unrecorded, merges with what William Barrett calls "that peculiar fullness of time that is found in myth …, the time of the land itself—of the rhythm of the seasons, death and renewal, sowing and reaping," at the center of Faulkner's saga.

"Was" [the first tale of Go Down, Moses] is a tale without grief or sorrow, for the humor banishes these. An idyllic prologue to the sexual and social traumas of Faulkner's modern world, its virtuosity and richness place it with his finest shorter fiction. Overshadowed by "The Bear," the story has been taken as background or comic relief, and has never received justice in the criticism.

Through the folklore he cherishes Faulkner reaches back to the Southern frontier, subverting the official legend of the old South. Like Mark Twain he debunks genteel affections out of Sir Walter Scott, and his image of carefree boyhood and bachelor days is worthy of Twain, a slapstick Eden in the best traditions of American male nostalgia. Cass, the narrator, has the innocent eye of a younger Huck; while Tomey's Turl, both a McCaslin and a slave, controls the action like the successfully manipulative servant of eighteenth-century plays. Theophilus and Amodeus McCaslin, familiarly Uncle Buck and Uncle Buddy, are "humors" characters like those of Smollett, as Cleanth Brooks has remarked, and so are their antagonists Mr. Hubert and Miss Sophonsiba. All are joined in the circular routine set by the burlesque fox hunts of the overture and coda. The dogs chase the fox, the men chase the slave, the woman chases her man, men pursue gain and rescue other men. The story is a ritual affirmation of life, and an assertion of the capacity of art to transcend time. (pp. 736-37)

[Conspicuous is] Faulkner's debt to Keats, whose "Grecian Urn" gave him an enduring image of arrested motion. The lines made much of in "The Bear" apply to the comic pursuits in "Was"—"She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss./Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair." Where the Lena/Lucas/Byron triangle of Light in August is a slow motion version of Keats, and Lena walks through the opening pages of the novel "like something moving forever and without progress across an urn," "Was" is wilder than a Keystone cop chase. But the story, too, attains the effect of a frieze, via tall tale, vaudeville, and the funnies as well as the techniques of film.

The subjects of slavery and sex are significantly intertwined, with sex a greater issue than race…. Blacks may object that Faulkner treats the pursuit of a slave in comic terms (even though it is the masters who are made fools of) and … Women's Lib would not enjoy Miss Sophonsiba, while making much of the fact that she is traded off like the Negroes at the poker table. "Was" may, indeed, be seen as a document of white male chauvinism if one will admit it also shows the weaknesses of Buck and Buddy's position, their distance from the feudal world which Faulkner parodies. His humor, lacking any desperation here, exorcises and heals. He gives us heroes the reverse of chauvinists, who do not want the responsibility of either the woman or the slaves, and have their own vision of freedom and community. (pp. 737-38)

The ambience of male solidarity shapes Faulkner's work, conspicuously his female characterizations. In The Hamlet and "Old Man" one can hear the chorus on the porch of the store or in their bunks in prison, talking up the remarkable nature of the other sex....

(The entire section is 7,568 words.)