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Faulkner, William 1897–1962
See also William Faulkner Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 6, 8, 9, 11, 14, 18, 28.
Faulkner, a Southern American novelist and Nobel Laureate, wrote experimental novels of great technical complexity. His work, prototypical for an entire generation, is regarded...
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Faulkner, William 1897–1962
See also William Faulkner Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 6, 8, 9, 11, 14, 18, 28.
Faulkner, a Southern American novelist and Nobel Laureate, wrote experimental novels of great technical complexity. His work, prototypical for an entire generation, is regarded as among the most important ever produced in America.
It has taken me ten years of wary reading to distinguish the actual writer of The Sound and the Fury from a synthetic Faulkner, compounded of sub-Marxian stereotypes (Negrohater, nostalgic and pessimistic proto-Fascist, etc.); and I am aware that there is yet another pseudo-Faulkner, a more elaborate and chaotic Erskine Caldwell, revealing a world of barnyard sex and violence through a fog of highbrow rhetoric. The grain of regrettable truth in both these views is lost in their misleading emphases; and equally confusing are the less hysterical academic partial glimpses which make Faulkner primarily a historian of Southern culture, or a canny technician whose evocations of terror are secondary to Jamesian experiments with "point of view." Faulkner, also distorting Faulkner, once told a class of young writers that he never considers form at all….
If Faulkner's stories were the work of his left hand, their appearance in popular magazines would be of little consequence (a man has to live!), but Faulkner is essentially a short-story writer. He has no special talent for sustained narrative, though at least twice he has brought off a tour de force in long fiction….
Faulkner as a storyteller is apparently short-breathed by nature, and his years of writing for the stringent space limits of the magazines have confirmed his tendency to write in gasps. What look like novels at first glimpse, The Hamlet or The Unvanquished, for instance, come apart into loosely linked short narratives; Light in August achieves substance by intertwining two separate stories and Sanctuary, slim enough in finished form, consists of various subplots out of the Sartoris-Snopes background, tacked onto the original money-making shocker. Only in Absalom, Absalom! and The Sound and the Fury has Faulkner worked out genuine full-length narratives by extension rather than patchwork; and even in these two books, he attains novelistic thickness not by inventing a long, complex fable, but by revealing in a series of strict "point of view" accounts of the same experience the amount of narrative material proper to a short story. It is this experiment with "point of view," a virtue made of a short-breathed necessity, that has concealed somewhat the essentially popular nature of Faulkner's work, and has suggested to his critics comparisons with Proust or Joyce or James, rather than Dickens, whom he so strikingly resembles. The inventor of Popeye and the creator of Quilp have a great deal in common besides an obsession with the grotesque, and especially they have a demonic richness of invention (typified by their equal skill at evoking names that are already myths before the characters are drawn) and a contempt for the platitudes of everyday experience.
Like Dickens, Faulkner is primarily, despite his intellectual obiter dicta, a sentimental writer; not a writer with the occasional vice of sentimentality, but one whose basic mode of experience is sentimental, in an age when the serious "alienated" writer emblazons anti-sentimentality on his coat of arms. In a writer whose very method is self-indulgence, that sentimentality becomes sometimes downright embarrassing, as in the stories of World War II in the present collection, "Tall Men," "Two Soldiers," etc., in which the soupiest clichés of self-sacrifice and endurance are shamelessly worked….
Always in Faulkner there has been a counterimpulse to his basic sentimentality, a rage at the world for baffling his dream of nobility, a black violence bred of his nausea before what culture makes of man's primitive strength and loyalty; and in such a book as Sanctuary, or even The Hamlet, nausea, violence and rage drive out before them the last vestiges of sentiment, transform all into horror, grotesquerie and the mad humor which so oddly consorts with these when Faulkner is most himself. It is only when he leaves the world of the Snopeses and the Sartorises for the countryside that he reveals himself as a Rousseauist in an age when most serious writers learn to mock the Noble Savage even as they learn their letters….
The subject matter par excellence of the modern novel, the alienation of the artist—and the hero par excellence, that artist wandering the city in a vain search for his citizen father—these are foreign to Faulkner….
The detective story is the inevitable crown of Faulkner's work; in it (the stories in Knight's Gambit, for instance, and Intruder in the Dust) many strains of his writing find fulfillment, not least his commitment to the "switcheroo" and the surprise ending. Such devices are regarded in highbrow quarters these days as old-fashioned and factitious, but Faulkner has always shared with the mass public a sneaking fondness for them….
Stereotypically … Dickens is thought of as a comedian, while Faulkner is read as terror-ridden and even "morbid." But Dickens has more recently come to be recognized as an obsessed manipulator of irrational images of evil, while Faulkner is seen to have been all along a humorist. There are various kinds of humor in Faulkner, the most obvious form being connected with the standard folk-tale type of the trickster tricked. Just as in Dickens, however, his humor scarcely ever remains pure; there is no clear line in his fiction between the horrible and the funny, both verging toward that disconcertingly ambiguous blending called these days "the Absurd."
The cast of most of Faulkner's comic stories is drawn from the Snopeses, the perpetrators of his most revolting horrors and the symbol in his work of all that is most nauseating and terrible about the rising bourgeoisie….
The art of the grotesque, however, whether Dickensian or Faulknerian, has always a popular appeal; for it transforms as it exaggerates, turning every man into his own Archetype, and thus making possible the playing out of moral conflicts as melodrama or farce.
There are, of course, obstacles between Faulkner and complete popular acceptance. His monstrously involved "point of view" is a lion in the path, but it poses a problem in only three or four of his more than twenty books, and is not troublesome at all in the short stories. Then, there is his prose style, whose sheer pretentious ineptitude often puts off all readers, popular or highbrow; but pseudo-poetry is rather an attraction really for the common reader with his dim sense of rhetoric as desirable….
In general, the subject matter of Faulkner is congenial to popular taste, but he suffers in two respects, by an omission and an emphasis. His concern with sex at its most lurid, his monotonously nymphomaniac women, his lovers of beasts, his rapists and dreamers of incest put off the ordinary reader, who tends to prefer his pornography pure….
More important, I think, is Faulkner's avoidance of young love…. The purest passionate relations in Faulkner are between men in love with the same woman, who is usually quite unworthy of either; the tenderest feeling he evokes (barring the almost sickly-sweet idyll of Ike and the cow) are between brother and sister, or a boy and an old man, whether a white hophead, an Indian hunter or a proud Negro….
Why he is such a supereminently good "bad" writer, surmounting excesses of maudlin feeling and absurd indulgences in overripe rhetoric alike, is a mystery. We can only cite the astonishing richness of invention and specification, the ability to realize characters and tensions with a power to coerce our credence that has nothing to do with a resemblance to "real" life or the technical standards we had fondly supposed would be demanded of any first-rate fiction in our time. It is only the just and delightful final turn of the screw that so baffling a writer has pleased over twenty-five years two audiences, each unaware of the fact, much less the grounds, of the other's appreciation.
Leslie Fiedler, "William Faulkner, An American Dickens" (reprinted from Commentary by permission; © 1950 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, October, 1950.
When [Faulkner's] admirers tell us that he is a novelist of genius, the one authentic man of genius in contemporary American fiction, they are quite right. But they do not add that he lacks talent, which would also be true. He has genius because he is able, as few writers are, to force the barrier between consciousness and the unconscious, and so release into his work, as if it were a huge narrated dream, the contents of the unconscious. His novels are at once so powerful and so confused because in them his outer and inner worlds are so inextricably mingled. We are impressed but bewildered because we do not know whether we are being offered Mississippi or mythology. Talent, which the very greatest writers possess in addition to genius, would bring order into this confusion. Faulkner's style, which has the pell-mell richness of genius, pouring out in an unchecked flood of language, would gain enormously if there had been talent to work on it, civilising it. When a writer is overmastered and swept along by unconscious elements, he achieves power and intensity, as Faulkner does, but without great conscious discipline his work will be unequal, tasteless, without proportion, any steady vision, as Faulkner's is. So a novel of his, say, Light in August, can begin wonderfully, so that we feel we are reading a masterpiece, and yet later involve us in all manner of turgid and dubious stuff, like a dream half-remembered but grandiloquently related. Within the limits of fifts pages he can be one of the best and one of the worst novelists in the world. And again, with this unchecked rush of unconscious elements, some foul matter is swept into the novels….
The huge heaving mass of regional life, in almost every possible aspect, discovered in these Faulkner novels, as if one writhing coil after another of a serpent-like saga were being revealed, undoubtedly strengthens his claim to creative genius. The force and fertility are there. But some doubts remain. For this is a very strange region, certainly to those of us born a long way from it, and so far as it belongs to the outer world, so far as it can be disentangled from Faulkner's inner world, it is not one that throws any light on our own experience…. But Faulkner himself seems concerned only with this Deep South of his, which has its own myth, the American dream in reverse, of departed glory, defeat and decay, mysterious curses claiming their victims, men and women implacably doomed to suffer lawless passions, incest, rape and murder; all in an atmosphere, in spite of Faulkner's multitudinous and brilliant detail, oddly reminiscent of Poe's tales.
J. B. Priestley, in his Literature and Western Man (copyright © 1960 by J. B. Priestley; reprinted by permission of A. D. Peters and Company), Harper, 1960, pp. 436-37.
Through his best and most productive years the world remained unfriendly, and Faulkner stayed at home out of the world, suffered, and created a world, appointing himself its Sole Owner and Proprietor. He populated it with some of the most grotesque and memorable characters to be found outside Dostoevsky and Dickens, and he formulated it in a language which, for all its defects, remains one of the most original and autonomous modes of personal expression to be found anywhere in literature.
Its defects are of course very largely the result of its autonomy and personalness. It is irritatingly self-obsessed and often maddeningly complicated, as the method of such a work as The Sound and the Fury testifies. It is quirky, knotty, thorny, alternately hard and soft, frequently bloated by the most preposterous swellings of rhetoric, undigested clots of gummy lyricism and philosophy, heavy masses of just sludge and mumble that absolutely will not move. In short, it is the language of a man who got too used to talking to himself, too used to the sound of his own voice, to knowing too well and too easily what he meant, and, above all, to not having someone across the table to say at crucial intervals, "Hold on there. How's that again?"
This is perhaps to say not simply that Faulkner suffered from the defects of his isolation, but that he was distinctly a Southern writer, Southern in the sense that he used words and sentences in the Southern way, as a compulsive talker and spinner of yarns, a man who was only indifferently and rather accidentally an author of novels but superbly a monologist in the language of fictional discourse. Looked at in this way much of his work can be seen as one long, immensely complicated, immensely meandering tale, a tale which has been divided more or less for convenience into separate books, but which actually runs on and on almost without pause, spinning out of itself as it moves a thickly tangled fabric of events, past and present, and spreading over the full emotional range of the human condition: from tragedy to comedy, heroism to villainy, nobility to pettiness, pleasure to pain, lust to love, birth to death.
Like the Southern mind itself, it is a tale which never really distinguishes between then and now, which moves, it seems, in a timeless, dreamlike, continuous present, for all history is contained in every living moment, and the present is nothing except as it seeks and finds its meaning and vindication in the past….
[In] many respects he was the most insular and provincial of artists. Yet he had mightily the gift of imaginative conversation, a rare faculty for abstracting the commonplace into the remarkable and for finding not simply the particular truth about his region but the universal truth in his region. Working alone down there in that seemingly inpenetrable cultural wilderness of the sovereignly backward state of Mississippi, he managed to make a clearing for his mind and a garden for his art, one which he cultivated so lovingly and well that it has come in our day to feed the imagination of literate men throughout the civilized world.
John W. Aldridge, "The Death of the Lions" (1963), in his The Devil in the Fire (copyright © 1972 by John W. Aldridge; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper's Magazine Press, 1972, pp. 142-52.
Each of Faulkner's novels written during his great creative outburst—from The Sound and the Fury in 1929 to Go Down, Moses in 1942—represents an increasingly severe and fundamental criticism of the homeland. Not merely of the South alone, to be sure; for when Faulkner composed his despairing estimate of social loss in The Sound and the Fury he was also portraying some of the central disabilities of modern civilization. But the foreground subject in the Yoknapatawpha novels is the immediate present and recent past of the South: the way in which its claims to grandeur prove to be aspects of delusion; its pretensions to gentility, elements of corruption; and its compulsive racialism, a poison coursing through its whole moral life. In the novels written during this period Faulkner ranged through almost every area of Southern life, beginning with a wish for nostalgia and ending with the bleakness of accepted truth.
At every point in these novels Faulkner had available—or wrote as if there were still available—persons, places and principles to which he could look for moral support and standards. He turned back … to the hillsmen, the poor farmers, the Negroes and the children, all of whom seemed to him apart and pure, surviving in the interstices of a decadent society, unable significantly to change its course, yet vital enough to serve as figures of moral and dramatic contrast….
Now, in what is obviously a simplification, one can regard the whole development of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha saga as a gradual discovery that these figures, for all their attractions and virtues, prove less and less competent as moral guides for the contemporary world. That Faulkner clearly sees as much is suggested by the history of Ratliff, the choric figure in the Snopes trilogy who is so marvellously self-assured in The Hamlet but so fumbling in The Mansion when he must approach the modern South. Slowly, Faulkner has been exhausting the psychic and moral resources he had supposed to be present for him in the world of Yoknapatawpha; slowly, he has been emerging to the same needs and bewilderments that other writers now feel. The idea of a return to primitive simplicity retains its strength in Faulkner's books insofar as it is kept by him at a certain distance from the present, or can be recognized as metaphor rather than prescription. In his later books Faulkner still turns for moral contrast and support to the kinds of characters he had admired in the earlier ones—the back-country saints, the earthy madonnas, the Negroes, the children, the good simple men. But now it is with very little of the old conviction: you need only contrast his use of Nancy in Requiem for a Nun with Dilsey in The Sound and the Fury. He turns to such figures because he has nowhere else to go, and he turns to them not with any firm conviction as to their moral power but simply in the hope of imposing on and through them his own hopes and standards. With the figures who had once been for him the bulwarks of life he must now try to "make do," late in his career; and not very skillfully, learn to improvise a moral style.
Irving Howe, in his A World More Attractive: A View of Modern Literature and Politics (© 1963; reprinted by permission of the publisher, Horizon Press, New York), Horizon, 1963, pp. 74-6.
[Despised] Fame has taken a heavy toll of Faulkner for being of all great novelists the one least willing to prepare an audience, explain to an audience, clarify or dilute for an audience. Fielding, Dickens, Tolstoy, Stendhal, Twain—all were deeply conscious of writing for someone (one or millions); and they agonizingly adjusted their private visions, not to soothe or please but to be merely visible, audible, to that someone. And Fame's toll is the volumes of nonsense, barnacled to the huge books because Faulkner would not explain, justify, adjust, not think of readers—who after all were hardly there for the first twenty-five years.
Reynolds Price, "A Reasonable Guide Through Perilous Seas" (originally published in The Washington Post, 1964; copyright © 1964 by The Washington Post; reprinted by permission of Atheneum Publishers), in his Things Themselves: Essays & Scenes, Atheneum, 1972, pp. 109-13.
Faulkner may have written monstrous prose, but at his best it is transcended by an imagination almost Melvillean in its power and audacity. Faulkner's best work attains to greatness by the intensity of its tragicomic vision of man, and in that canon the Snopes trilogy has a place as Faulkner's fullest exploration of natural evil, what Coleridge called (in characterizing lago) "motiveless malignity."
Stanley Edgar Hyman, "Snopeslore," in his Standards: A Chronicle of Books of Our Time (© 1966; reprinted by permission of the publisher, Horizon Press, New York), Horizon, 1966, pp. 259-63.
Faulkner seems able to get into the minds of his characters and tell the inside story in a way that carries the reader into unfamiliar realms of sensation. Two examples of Faulkner's truly remarkable penetrative ability coupled with breathtaking mastery in handling background and supportive materials are "Beyond" (1933), and "Pantaloon in Black," which is part of the Go Down, Moses cycle (1942). In each of the two tales Faulkner deals with the psychological effects of bereavement and with the efforts of the bereaved to come to terms with an impossible existence. Dealing as they do with white and black, Christian and atheist, these stories make it abundantly clear that any pedantic discussion on whether or not Faulkner was a religious man, a Christian, a white supremist, or a white liberal, is irrelevant and impertinent. Whatever his inner beliefs, Faulkner shows himself in "Beyond" and "Pantaloon in Black" the supreme artist, and therefore a man of sterling worth who has succeeded in expressing what is practically inexpressible. In short, Faulkner, even when he is not dealing with momentous events such as the War Between the States, is often able to invest human tragedy and defeat with everwidening circles of meaning. He is capable of developing such a degree of intensity, of throbbing sensitivity, that our normal barriers of sense, time, space, and restricted outlook simply break down.
Samuel I. Bellman, in The Southern Review, Vol. IV, No. 3, Summer, 1968, p. 836.
The agreement to insist upon Faulkner as a unique king, a national monument, a regionalist, and of course a non-reading American novelist in good standing obscures his importance in the continuity of literature. More important, these universals underestimate his power of penetrating to the center of issues immediately at stake. By the time he began to write well, the first generation abroad had substantially filled in its vision of the fractured self. In the interest of richness it had chosen to kaleidoscope consciousness and in the process had come upon disturbing signs of self-division. The logic of its elected hopes made experience into meaningful moments with waste sad times stretching before and after. But every age is an age of transition and even Faulkner links something and something. He has, as a matter of fact, unusual capacity for looking forward and backward at once: he stands between an overextended and increasingly out-of-touch affection for the fractured self and a succeeding desperation to pull the pieces back together and redirect them, between a leisurely be-still-and-wait and an anxious go-get'-em.
Faulkner transforms the fractured self into fractured structure. More accurately, he clarifies the picture by representing the one in terms of the other. [He] is not a complex dynamic novelist. He is first of all a radical simplifier, the perfect compartmental mind. He makes literature locally dramatic, ultimately contemplative. His characteristic structure—The Sound and the Fury, The Wild Palms, Light in August, The Hamlet—lays out parallel examples walled off from each other's activity and producing their effect by juxtaposition in the reader's mind. Impulse has this aspect, that, and the other one. Though The Hamlet presses toward an organized clarity which The Sound and the Fury does not visualize at all, both comprehend complexities by fencing off three areas of private property. Faulkner locates and reproduces sides of human nature, but these exist in separate realms of discourse and have little to say to each other. "Spatial form" creates a passive irony about the human condition….
Faulkner's people are less like real ones than like forces in the mind, provided with an incredibly complete set of objective correlatives. Thus every character is himself to the hilt—at all times and places. Old Varner, secure in achieved command, always sits in his barrel chair before the Frenchman's Place or rocks on the porch or lies in his hammock. Ratliff is forever planning, playing, being sympathetic. Eula is always Object. Labove does nothing but hunger for her for five years. Flem is always Flem, and Dickens-style, Faulkner invents a new Snopes for every minute variation. With everyone except Mink, he abandons the standard ambivalence of modern character to intensify a single drive….
But if Faulkner wants to make the sun sit still for photographs to be enlarged later, he can also make his characters run. Once having laid out the mind and world according to plan, he makes his characters collide within their fenced-off frames of reference. Conflict within each depends on agreement about the most hopeful line of self-assertion—championship games, sex, direct act. The major separations represent unintegratable impulses. And form follows function. Since for Faulkner and his characters man has a natural right to abundance—in energy, emotion, sex, intelligence, life plan—frustration, the normal state, means being deprived of this right and leads to aggression. So technique—the dramatically excessive quantity of biography, environment, and words—repeats moral value. But the collisions within the tripartite structure in The Hamlet make a sharp advance toward drama compared to the Joycean comedy of stasis. Stasis remains between game, sex, and revenge; within these realms pressures create active conflicts.
So, though Faulkner takes great steps toward the novel of forces, with its passion to orient and direct, he stops short and creates a unique double effect of stillness and motion. However much the framework may isolate drives, he surrounds his representative figures with so much poetic particularity and subjects them to so much contingency that they transcend their analytic function. And his continuous heightening-lowering language enlarges as it enlivens them….
[He] values passive sensitivity highly—sentimentally in Bayard Sartoris—yet must raise the question about its ability to prevail in the world. Depression psychology increases the credibility he can give his answer: it hasn't a prayer. But, because it is the only value modern man can feel, because it cannot abandon its attempt to establish itself minimally, at least, and because its failure in any case produces intensity, his heroes beat their heads against walls better than anyone else's. Somehow he became famous as a writer about violence, but his finest talent is for showing the verge of outbreak. He stretches the nerves as tightly as they will stretch, and keeps them that way interminably….
Faulkner's earlier critics, feeling it necessary in the interests of seriousness to deny that he is a sensationalist, made him a moralist, historian, and political scientist. But he is a sensationalist—the finest of them all—and his moral contribution comes directly from the fact. He carries passivity, sensitivity, and intensity to the end of the line at Terror. He gives a dramatic force no one else had provided to the bewilderment which half a century of attempting to create values out of "sincerity" had arrived at. And he could no more live with the results than the civilization itself could.
James Hall, "Play, The Fractured Self, and American Angry Comedy: From Faulkner to Salinger," in his The Lunatic Giant in the Drawing Room: The British and American Novel Since 1930, Indiana University Press, 1968, pp. 56-75.
[It] would seem that in order to experience epiphanies in Faulkner's world one must, above all, have some sort of orientation toward the past; although one may try to escape from it, like Thomas Sutpen, or perhaps even transcend it, like Dilsey, he cannot simply ignore it, like Jason. Usually, a Faulkner character will either live in the past, as Benjy Compson and Gail Hightower do, or in some other way be passionately concerned with it and the passage of time: characters like Bayard Sartoris, Quentin Compson, Joe Christmas, Rosa Coldfield, Harry Wilbourne, and Ike McCaslin live in the element of time rather than—almost as opposed to—that of space. On the other hand, those who seem to live primarily in space cannot experience any epiphanies involving the past, and perhaps none at all: Jason, constantly and frantically in motion; the wasted young wanderers of Pylon; all the Bundrens except Darl and Addie; above all Lena Grove, who combines a consciousness almost solely in the realm of space with what seems a complete incapacity for illumination….
Readers of Faulkner's earlier novels must have felt unprepared for his huge leap forward in The Sound and the Fury. Little in his previous work could have led them to expect such boldness in attempt or such success in achievement; his new experiments with epiphany were only one example of his departures from traditional form and technique. Yet, with the twenty-twenty vision of hindsight, we can see that the few epiphanies which did appear in his early work were precisely the kind stressed in The Sound and the Fury: those that involve the recollection or recapture of the past.
Morris Beja, "William Faulkner: A Flash, a Glare," in his Epiphany in the Modern Novel, University of Washington Press, 1971, pp. 182-210.
Sartoris, The Sound and the Fury, and As I Lay Dying … are all considerations of the family as a weakening institution. Sanctuary exposes a similar failure in various public institutions, especially the judicial process. In his next novel, Light in August …, Faulkner turns to a consideration of religion as a force capable of reinvesting meaning and dignity in modern anomic life—individual, family, and communal. His strategy is to portray a variety of individuals, each of whom has adopted a somewhat different mode of religious behavior….
In Light in August Faulkner had presented individuals who were victimized by history largely without knowing it. But in Absalom, Absalom!… he advances to a much more complex presentation of history. Before, history had been treated as a static, simple, essentially known quality which finally weighted down its unalert human vehicle. Now, however, history becomes a dynamic, highly volatile quality that presents first an aspect of startling clarity, then an aspect of shadowed obscurity, teasing and confusing the mind it penetrates while at the same time demanding that the mind subdue it….
A Fable has generally been regarded as much inferior to Faulkner's work of the thirties, precisely because he imposed abstract concepts upon his material rather than seeking living values within the material. The result is allegory, a forced fable in service of predetermined goals.
The irony is that Faulkner's supreme political achievement, the extraction of values from chaos, fatally destroyed what he must have hoped would be the crowning artistic and political statement of his career. Moreover, he expended so much of his energy in attempting to reverse the creative habits of an entire career that the other works written during the composition of A Fable, almost all of it concerned with tidy resolutions to problems raised in his early, questing fiction, are much inferior to those works in which he had no answers.
Still, in all, the end is not sad. Faulkner had written the fiction that would insure his fame as a writer. And through the writing he had developed his own code of values, so that he could not only see the three responses available to man but also understand that he himself must advance to the third stage. In a sense the most important character he created in the forties and fifties was his own. Thus he sacrificed the privacy that he had always cherished in order to step forward, "inside the lines," to testify. His testimony is given in the speeches, essays, and interviews of those last years; cumulatively they present a man professing. It is, of course, in his Nobel Prize speech, offered to millions who would never read his fiction, that he revealed most profoundly what he had discovered in the "truth so mazed":
I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.
Lewis A. Lawson, "William Faulkner (1897–1962)," in The Politics of Twentieth-Century Novelists, edited by George A. Panichas (reprinted by permission of Hawthorn Books, Inc.; copyright © 1971 by The University of Maryland; all rights reserved), Hawthorn, 1971, pp. 278-95.
[With] very few exceptions, indeed, the Faulknerian characters think in terms of sexual desire and aphrodisia, but not love. Of the dozens of important characters moving through Yoknapatawpha county, few love in the true, rich, meaningful sense of the word. It is simply astounding that a large number of Faulkner's characters are concerned and preoccupied with eroticism, carnality, and lechery. The most important women in Faulkner's novels indulge in carnality illicitly and shamelessly, while at the same time they lack sympathy, understanding, warmth, and decency. There is an astonishing degree of lack of love among men and women alike which makes the Yoknapatawpha county appear to be a barren, Gothic, and desolate locale in the Second Circle of Dante's Inferno. The terrible realization overcoming one is that if Yoknapatawpha reflects any segment of our modern society, then we may live in a barren and loveless world, indeed….
There almost can scarcely be any question then that from all appearances the mythical Yoknapatawpha county in Mississippi is an ugly, miserable, and godforsaken land, occupied by loveless and lecherous people; that Faulkner either derided social morality on sex matters, as conceived by our western culture today, or—as he has confessed—he lacked the ability to imbue and inspire his characters with rectitude, uprightness, and common morality; and that the word "love" has been freely and variously interpreted by Faulknerian women to mean anything from the natural satisfaction of sex drives to aphrodisia, carnality, and lechery. Yet the dreadful thought occurs to the reader of the Yoknapatawpha saga that the Yoknapatawphans may not be mythical creatures, after all; we know, for example, that not only this "imaginary" piece of real estate is patterned after Oxford, Mississippi, and its surroundings, but also that Faulkner had in mind certain people he knew when he gave life to many of his characters. Furthermore, no one considers Faulkner a regionalist anymore; on the contrary, his work is highly praised for its universality. The question which may very well be asked then is this: Is our world as devoid of love, as lecherous, and as aphrodisiac, as Faulkner describes it?
Lewis A. Richards, "Sex Under The Wild Palms and a Moral Question," in Arizona Quarterly, Winter, 1972, pp. 326-32.
The influence of the Southern oral tradition on William Faulkner can be seen not only in the content of his work but also in the development of his fictional style. The impulse that led Faulkner into patterning some of his fiction upon the forms of Southwestern tales is the same impulse that led him into developing a prose style that seems to create for the reader an illusion of "voice," i.e., the illusion of an oral storyteller. Since Robert Penn Warren first referred to Faulkner's "voice" as the "index to sensibility," many writers have noted its presence. But the pervasiveness of "voice" throughout Faulkner's fiction—the various devices that he uses to achieve that oral quality—indicate that his style, in fact, is basically rooted in the spoken word. He constantly attempts to recreate in the novelist-reader relationship the experience that exists between storyteller and listener. Analysis of his rhetoric reveals his attempt to exploit certain stylistic devices which would adapt this form of oral art (rhythmic and intonational patterns—the essence of sound) to the spatial demands of a written text….
One of the most obvious characteristics of his style is the long sentence that rolls onward without stops or pauses and that rolls the reader forward with it. The involutions, the repetitions, the word series rush over the reader as an overpowering inundation, relentlessly sweeping him along in its forward rush. Such sentences dominate Faulkner's fiction….
Not only are his sentences long and involved, but they are often obscure. The frequent use of unresolved or dislocated syntax prevents the reader from using his normal ways of understanding. The syntax may be fractured by the doubling back technique in which one train of thought is dropped to pick up an earlier one or by the dizzy spinout of parenthetical material placed within parenthetical material. The result is that Faulkner seems to be deliberately with-holding his meaning from the reader…. The effect of this suspended meaning is to intensify the emotional experience. A reader has no conscious realization of an orderly arrangement of syntactical parts in the sentence but knows merely that certain images have been conveyed, and most important, that some feeling has been evoked within himself as he has encountered them. The reader is brought to knowledge through feeling rather than through thinking….
Readers have complained frequently that Faulkner is unreadable because of his vague pronoun references. Critics may not be quieted by the revelation that oral stories reveal an abundance of such references, for they would point out the obvious difference—that oral references can be made clear by voice inflection, and written references cannot…. The inflected voice made the identification of the character clear so that constant repetition of the name was therefore unnecessary. The free use of pronouns in place of names appears throughout Faulkner's fiction, yet the difficulty of carrying over this device to the printed page is an obvious one. With all voice filtered out Faulkner must often resort to the use of parenthetical material to identify the character which he keeps referring to only by pronoun.
Helen Swink, "William Faulkner: The Novelist As Oral Narrator," in The Georgia Review, Summer, 1972, pp. 183-209.
All [Faulkner's] writings together build one larger work, a single imaginary world, and the references of his imagination criss-cross back from one book to the other…. Faulkner himself remarked that The Sound and the Fury was the favorite of his novels, in the way in which a mother may favor the most delicate of her children. This is the most high-strung, avant-garde, and anguished of his works; the healing and reconciling element had to come from an older and riper Faulkner….
From the concentrated power and the formal control of The Sound and the Fury we would guess that there must be some further spiritual fuel that feeds the flame. This novel seems to close all doors behind it, but some vision beyond it must sustain and contain a writer who can stare so unwaveringly at the blank face of idiocy and despair.
From this work we might guess this is so, but from it alone we could not tell what that saving vision might be. For that we have to turn to the whole body of his work, the rambling series of stories and novels that build and dovetail upon one another to make up a single work, the Faulkner Saga. The word "saga" is a little overworked nowadays, but it is exactly the right word here since it conveys the dimension of the legendary and the mythical into which Faulkner takes us beyond the petty niceties of realistic fiction. And here it is the power of myth that restores and sustains life beyond the closed world of Nihilism.
This saga seems to be as unplanned as life itself. It buds and grows organically from work to work, altering a character here and changing a perspective there, but always returning to the soil from which it grows. The unity of Faulkner's vision—the vision that takes us beyond the closed world of the Compsons—is the unity of this saga. But what is the unity of this vast and ramblimg body of stories? Its center is the land itself—the land that sustains and contains the destinies of all those odd souls that people Faulkner's imaginary kingdom of Yoknapatawpha County….
In the beginning was the land…. Everything that has happened within the South is grist for the mill of Faulkner's imagination, which is as wide and embracing as the land itself. But the truth at which a saga, as poetry, aims, as Aristotle pointed out long ago, is more serious and "more philosophical" than that of history. And indeed Faulkner's vision is far more philosophically significant than social-minded critics realize. In the first place, his attitude toward the old Southern aristocracy is quite ambiguous. They were doomed, not through the impersonal forces of economics, but through the original sin of their relationship to the land. The first settlers sought to wrest family empires for themselves from the land. They set themselves up as conquerors of the wilderness…. The wilderness recedes but does not vanish. If it were to vanish altogether, man would become an arrogant robot. Instead of laying claim to the land he must learn to let himself be claimed by it….
[The] land, as Faulkner understands it, is not an object, not a parcel of real estate, or of certain measurable square miles of geography; it is not so much a fact as a region of possibility—the region of Being in which man may learn once again the virtues of "humility and patience." In answering to this call of the land, man becomes—in the words of Heidegger—the shepherd of Being and not the master of beings….
Faulkner's world opens backward behind historic time into the immemorial time of the saga. He is fond of this word "immemorial," and sometimes indeed seems to overwork it; but its strict sense is appropriate here, since the immemorial is what is antecedent to historic dates.
It is not, however, the unremembered, though it is unrecorded; it is imprinted on the memory more indelibly than any dated record because it is the background we carry with us against which all specific dates are to be set…. [Clocks] and dates … are devices of human calculation, and if man in the Faulknerian world is to find his meaning he must go back beyond them to that peculiar fullness of time that is found in myth…. The time of the saga, then, is the time of the land itself—of the rhythm of the seasons, death and renewal, sowing and reaping. Out of the gift of this time man once had meaning and was able to construct his clocks. Returning to this gift, he may once again acquire a meaning that the clocks of his civilization no longer provide him. Such is the sense of time that emerges from the Faulknerian saga.
William Barrett, "Backward Toward Earth," in his Time of Need: Forms of Imagination in the Twentieth Century (copyright © 1972 by William Barrett; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1972, pp. 96-129.
Ultimately, Sartre rejects Faulkner's metaphysics, if not his art, with the charge that the novelist has tampered with time. [Ms. Tobin, in this essay, is referring to Sartre's essays "Sartoris" and "On The Sound and the Fury: Time in the Work of Faulkner," both in Sartre's Literary and Philosophical Essays, 1955.] The temporal reality that reveals itself to existential man centers upon a future that surges with hopeful possibilities for defining human freedom through decisive acts; if Faulknerian man, to the contrary, views time as his greatest misfortune, it is precisely because his creator has "decapitated time," cutting off the thrust from the future and overwhelming the present with a past that is always "super-present" (sur-present). Cursed with "an excess of memories" which he converts into stories, Faulknerian man reconstructs a "hard and clear, unchangeable" past that transforms the indeterminate present into a determined fatality. Having been deprived of the future and "the silent force of the possible," this reduced man experiences time as a "sinking in" (l'enfoncement). If everything has already happened—if all that is heroic and poetic in human potentiality has been reserved to a time that is not one's own, the past—then there remains only the knowing of the "frozen speed at the heart of things" (vitesse glacée). In Faulkner, time has become the dimension of knowledge, not life—of fact, not action; and it is this reversal that the philosopher of man-in-process cannot condone.
At first glance, the temporal realities of Absalom, Absalom! seem to confirm Sartre's explication of Faulknerian time. The characters in the fictional present are all storytellers obsessed with the figure of Thomas Sutpen which dominates them from the past. Frozen into temporal immobility by their own incantations of the past, they are "backwards-looking ghosts," who use their time to ascertain the facts about Sutpen and his descendants. Nevertheless, Faulkner's narrators do aspire to a Sartrean sense of time. In their common compulsion to make a story, they are expressing the human need for an ordered and meaningful linearity of beginning, middle, and end. The "plot line," in which possibility becomes probability becomes necessity, is a rhythmic parallel to the flow of the future into the present into the past. As in their stories, so in their lives do Faulkner's characters seek a unity between the three panels of time. They chafe against the imbalance created by the overpowering past, and strive to situate that past within a consecutive history that will be continuous with their own lived present. Both within a human life and between human lives, they wish to embrace time as a significant succession within duration, as a continuity. It is true that these narrators do not finally make the connections which would guarantee the sense of continuity, but the various strategies which they employ indicate that Faulkner was far more sophisticated about the temporal complexities of life and literature than Sartre was willing to acknowledge.
Patricia Tobin, "The Time of Myth and History in Absalom, Absalom!," in American Literature (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright © 1973, Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), May, 1973, pp. 252-70.
Despite the fact that we have come into a time when (thanks to European formalism) nothing so fascinates the young critic as the poem or story about making a poem or a story, "Artist at Home" is another of Faulkner's little fables that remains almost entirely unremarked. As I have already implied, the subject of this fiction is indicated clearly in its title: the artist as artist, set over against the artist as man. Between the two there is a clear conflict; and it is the latter which is compelled to give way. Anyone who has examined Faulkner's numerous comments on the nature and obligations of his craft should be surprised at none of this. The tale would be significant as a rendering of his aesthetic in relation to his ethics, if for no other reason. However, in its piquant, between-the-wars manner, "Artist at Home" has its intrinsic claims upon our attention. Full of fashionable irony and understatement, it is interesting enough both as an illustration of Faulkner's connection with the period and as a piece of fiction in its own right. Furthermore, through its deepest implications, it has a real bearing on the theme of endurance and thus opens another way into the heart of Faulkner's vision.
As I have argued previously in essays on Faulkner, what signifies in his reiterative use (in fiction and elsewhere) of such general terms as "endure" and "cope" can be employed to organize his work into a thematically coherent unit. Of course, the Yoknapatawpha materials submit to this calculus more readily than the "other" Faulkner. But in most cases the systematic reading of any Faulkner production will find in its unfolding, reinforced by its texture, a preoccupation with "man's struggle" in the given "human dilemma"—with the intractable reality of what is "just there," within and without the self. Almost invariably, the question asked by the formed whole is whether his characters are willing and able to convert their nature and place into a point of departure for some humanly fruitful enterprise, into an enactment of the role biology, history, and the mysterious hidden resources of identity have prepared for them….
Assuredly "Artist at Home" is not one of Faulkner's more powerful stories. Yet it is well formed and also well controlled. Furthermore, it does point back to the center of the Faulkner canon. And it amuses. But it is too "intellectual," too much written from the idea we have been examining within its fabric to capture and lift the heart as his Yoknapatawpha stories often do. Though charming in their interaction, these characters almost exist for the sake of their aesthetic implications. Perhaps that is inevitable with a story rendering an aesthetic? Perhaps that is why Faulkner wrote nothing else exclusively on this theme?
M. E. Bradford, "An Aesthetic Parable: Faulkner's Artist at Home," in The Georgia Review, Summer, 1973, pp. 175-81.
Sanctuary (1931) is the novel which occasioned André Malraux's famous quip that in Faulkner we witness the intrusion of Greek tragedy into the detective story. Actually, just as the term "Greek tragedy" seems slightly off target so, applied to Sanctuary, does "detective story." Sanctuary is not, strictly speaking, a detective tale. It is rather a crime story; the action and meaning of the novel centre on the crimes committed by Popeye: the murder of Tommy "the feeb" and the unnatural rape of Temple Drake. And it is on this level, as a crime tale, that Sanctuary has inspired, or partially inspired, at least two other famous crime novels. At the lowest level of common interest, as George Orwell noticed long ago, Faulkner's work lies behind No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1939) by James Hadley Chase. (We may note here that Faulkner, unlike Hemingway, has perhaps not been granted his full due as a formative influence on the development of the so-called "hard-boiled" school of writers.)
On a considerably higher plane Sanctuary, I suspect, had some effect on Graham Greene's Brighton Rock (1938). I refer generally to the mood of the book and particularly to the creation of the boy gangster, Pinkie. Pinkie, if not impotent like Popeye, hates and fears what he calls "the game," sexual love. He is a petty but violent criminal with black-suited narrow shoulders and eyes as devoid of humanity as Popeye's. It is relevant to this conjecture—although providing no outright evidence to support it—that Greene's lukewarm review of Absalom, Absalom! (1936) does single out Popeye as a "memorable figure" from the range of Faulkner's pre-1936 characters.
Julian Symons has written that the task of the serious modern crime novel is to "investigate … the springs of violence." Sanctuary, of course, performs this task with, it might be said, deadly effect. What has less often been realized—except as ammunition for the charge of "decadence"—is that many others of Faulkner's major works have crime, frequently violent crime, at their core. Let me summarily list several of the more notable: Joe Christmas' murder of Joanna Burden in Light in August (1932)—and, in turn, his own "crucifixion" at the hands of Percy Grimm and the lynch mob; the shooting of Charles Bon at the gates of Sutpen's Hundred and, also in Absalom, Absalom!, the death of the chief protagonist himself, Thomas Sutpen, under the driving scythe of Wash Jones; in The Wild Palms (1939) Harry Wilbourne is incarcerated for the manslaughter of his mistress, Charlotte Rittenmeyer; Mink Snopes kills Houston in The Hamlet (1940)—and in The Mansion (1959) he returns from Parchman to avenge himself on Flem Snopes, the kinsman who had refused him aid at his earlier trial; lastly, in Requiem for a Nun (1951) the process of retribution and atonement is set in motion by the murder of Temple's child by Nancy Mannigoe. Moreover, moving onwards from the impending murder related through "That Evening Sun" or the lynching at the heart of "Dry September" (both from These 13, 1931), a similar mosaic of crime could be put together from the central events of many of Faulkner's most memorable short stories….
Of primary concern in this essay are the ways in which the overt detective tales amongst Faulkner's work—such as the stories in Knight's Gambit (1949)—may illuminate the structure and meaning of some of his major novels. If we consider for a moment a generally recognized tendency of these major novels, analogies with detective fiction may be brought into focus. In his seminal essay of 1939, "The Novel as Form," Conrad Aiken noted that one of the principal characteristics of the style and structure of Faulkner's best work is the ability to deliberately withhold meaning. Likewise, the skill of the detective author lies to a large extent exactly in the ability to conceal meaning—in the form of clues, motives, etc.—until he has prepared the reader to receive it….
Faulkner understood the basic intentions of detective fiction, and the effects it should achieve. And, of course, as is more to the point, he demonstrated that he could create these effects in his own medium when he collected the tales—written at various times during the previous decade—published as Knight's Gambit (1949)….
[When] we consider Faulkner's own detective stories and his employment of several of the genre's resources in his basically non-detective works we are presented with a paradox. Some of the tales in Knight's Gambit and facets of Intruder demonstrate that he harboured the potential to carve himself a respectable niche as a detective author; moreover, we have seen that when subservient to the full force of his tragic vision—for example in Absalom—his quasi-detective story techniques are an immeasurably important factor in the creation of tragedy. Yet these same methods, when employed for their own sake (as in "Smoke"), or when allowed to militate against anguish and tragedy (as in Intruder), result in what must be regarded, quite simply, as works of a lower imaginative order.
In other words, it is to Faulkner's credit that none of his works achieves actuality as a totally satisfactory pure detective story. In such works … practically everything should fall logically into place … [In] Ike's search through the ledgers, we witness a man who—albeit behaving analogously to the sleuth—investigates nothing less than the cause of the curse on his head, on the land, on the South. And he traces it back to enforced incest, which is to say, to where he began, to man's inhumanity, to an aspect of his abiding nature everywhere: his capacity for evil. Books born of such knowledge cannot be cleanly resolved. Faulkner shows at the end of The Sound and the Fury that reality only composes itself happily into a logical sequence in the mind of an idiot. We judge him great, I think, precisely because he habitually drove his fiction through this spurious order, this mask of order, to record—in ways sometimes difficult to understand and/or replete with contradictions, hysteria and, even, madness—a little of the ultimate mystery of man.
Mark Gidley, "Elements of the Detective Story in William Faulkner's Fiction," in Journal of Popular Culture, Summer, 1973, pp. 97-123.
The spectrum of critical interpretation of Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! is polarized by two diametrically opposed views of the way in which racial attitudes are embodied in the novel…. Clearly every reader of Absalom, Absalom! must somehow come to terms with the race issue; perhaps the most useful approach is to enquire: (1) which of the principal characters are racists and which are not? (2) does the action of the novel as a whole confirm or condemn a racist ideology?…
[Sutpen's] anti-Negro behavior seems motivated by a need to conform to the mores of the society in which he seeks to achieve status and respectability rather than to be an expression of his own personal values. Of course, from the perspective of a modern liberal like Seiden, it is reprehensible that anyone for whatever motive should adhere to the Southern racial code. But Sutpen's motives are crucially important, and a careful examination of his character and behavior shows that he does not, "nonchalantly" or otherwise, betray a racist psychology….
It is true that during the Civil War Sutpen's Negroes were among the first to desert and follow the Yankee troops, but in this matter Faulkner implicitly expresses the theory that among oppressed people it is the most privileged who are likely to rebel whereas those who are most abject in their sense of inferiority and defeat are most likely to accept their fate and conform….
Rosa Coldfield and Henry Sutpen are the only two genuine Southern racists among the principal characters in Absalom, Absalom!—and neither is quite secure about that racial code….
[Even] if taken as merely a projection of Mr. Compson's own values, it is significant that the most learned and urbane character in the novel [Charles Bon] holds such enlightened racial attitudes….
There are in this novel and in other works by Faulkner so many decent human beings who are the products of miscegenation that it would be perverse to assume that idiocy is the necessary ultimate result of racial intermixture….
The total action of the story that Quentin and Shreve finally reconstruct shows the tragic consequences of racism rather than affirms or unconsciously assumes it. The traumatic affront to his own humanity at the plantation door prompted Sutpen to adopt a code which was antithetical to his own nature and background; and it became his nemesis, ruining his grand design. Jim Bond is a grotesque mockery of the dynasty he had envisioned. If anything Faulkner's message is that such is inevitably the consequence when a man deliberately repudiates his innate sense of humanity in an ambitious drive for power and status. The novel as a whole clearly repudiates Southern racism.
John V. Hagopian, "Absalom, Absalom! and the Negro Question," in Modern Fiction Studies (© 1973, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Summer, 1973, pp. 207-11.
In the broadest sense, the theme of Light in August is the theme of all of Faulkner's most impressive fiction—"the human heart in conflict with itself"—and its purpose that of all art—"to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before." Underlying these resonant platitudes was Faulkner's conviction that the human "spirit" or "heart" did not change in its ultimate potentiality; man was, as Isaac McCaslin understood, "shaped out of that primal Absolute which contained all" and was therefore "capable of anything, any height or depth remembered in mazed incomprehension out of heaven where hell was created too." Given this view of an unchanging potentiality in man, history ultimately changes nothing; the historical circumstance both reflects the human spirit that has created it and demands from that spirit a new manifestation of its resourcefulness. "Man's environment is the only thing that changes. He must change with it. He will cope with it. The problems he faces today are the same ones he faced when he came out of the mud and first stood on two legs." The theology of such statements is essentially unchristian. It does not view history as a progression toward a Truth that lies beyond human experience; rather, it identifies Truth with the resources of the human spirit, which do not change. Man's nature is his only Providence.
When questioned about the Christian imagery of this and other novels, Faulkner resorted to his favorite analogy and insisted that the Christian myth was only one of the materials in his shop, and that he used it as the carpenter might use a corner brace, joist, or stud. Further, he held to something like a belief in archetypes: all fiction and indeed all human experience involved only a few plots, and the "same plot [is] repeated time after time with different people motivated by it or trying to cope with it." Thus, "sooner or later any writer is going to use something that has been used …"….
The old heroic religion did not provide any particular role for women. As represented by Faulkner, it is entirely patriarchal, descending from father to son with only the absolute minimum of maternal participation….
That wives and mothers figure so minimally in the Burden and Hightower chronicles simply emphasizes the heroic character of the early civilization. In both genealogies, there is something of the pervasively masculine atmosphere of the sagas or Homeric epic, or, for that matter, of much of the Old Testament. The sterm discipline of the father was exalted because it was a necessity; maternal sympathy and encouragement were luxuries not to be indulged. Women themselves, and the domesticated stability of which they were the center, had no intrinsic dignity, no symbolic value, in the prevailing conception of life, or in the religion that embodied it. The warrior's virtues of fortitude, self-denial, and zeal prevented the recognition of other virtues, and pleasure and happiness were secondary, if not positively inimical, to them….
Fostered by the violence and hardship of the past, the old religion has survived to foster the savage frustrations of the present. The civilization has failed to make the transition to peace; it can express its fidelity to its heritage only through acts of violence. To relax the old heroic discipline would require greater courage and greater energy than to maintain it. It has become the new threat to life, causing a civilization which lacks external enemies to turn upon itself….
From Faulkner's view of man it followed logically that "nothing is extinct in any race, only dormant." In Light in August, we sense that every individual, regardless of the role he plays, or the identity he has acquired through the interaction of his will and his environment, carries within him an opposite self which, however vigorously suppressed, never entirely vanishes….
In the society as a whole, women and Negroes must accept the role of the opposite self. As such, they are subject to scorn and persecution by the official self, the collective superego as it is represented by men like McEachern, Hines, and Grimm. The duality of the society is also the duality of the individual, but while the society, through its courts and churches, sanctifies the duality, the individual, because he cannot do otherwise, seeks to overcome it. His efforts may, as with Lena and Byron, be comic in their resolution, or they may, as with Joanna, Joe, and Hightower, be tragically frustrated. Either resolution legitimately expresses the heart's conflict with itself, and with the laws and creeds it has fostered.
Franklin G. Burroughs, Jr., "God the Father and Motherless Children: Light in August," in Twentieth Century Literature, July, 1973, pp. 189-202.
Faulkner's microcosm was "my own little postage stamp of native soil," a county in Mississippi which he called Yoknapatawpha; which had a county seat called Jefferson and an outlying settlement called Frenchman's Bend; which was populated by, among others, fading aristocrats, predatory white trash, omniscient Negroes, a rising middle class, spotted horses, hound dogs and mules.
By the time of Faulkner's death in 1962 it had become an enormous world, no matter how small the space it occupied. The saga of Yoknapatawpha encompasses 15 novels and four collections of short stories, published between 1929 and 1962. There is no orderly way to arrange the saga; it has no beginning, middle or end, and one cannot say to a reader approaching it for the first time, "start here." It is a tapestry of incomparable intricacy, past and present woven together in a design that can be comprehended through one book but that gains astonishing richness when seen as a whole.
No less astonishing than the richness of the design is that Faulkner had it all in mind when he began, in 1926, to write a novel that he titled Flags in the Dust….
He wrote Flags in the Dust, but the finished manuscript was rejected left and right. Finally Harcourt Brace agreed to publish it on the condition that it be severely cut, a task Faulkner could not bring himself to do; the cuts were made by his agent, Ben Wasson, and the novel was published as Sartoris. Faulkner's affection for the original never faded, however, and he preserved the manuscript and typescript; we have it now in an edition edited by Douglas Day….
Flags in the Dust, because it is much more intricate than Sartoris, makes clear that everything that would engage Faulkner for three and a half decades had formed in his imagination at the outset.
Whether the original version is "better" than Sartoris is open to question and, no matter what Faulkner may have thought, of relatively little moment. Indisputably it is a quite different book.
Jonathan Yardley, "Where It First Happened," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1973 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), September 8, 1973, pp. 32-3.