William Faulkner Faulkner, William (Vol. 3)

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Faulkner, William (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 10,530 words.)