William (Cuthbert) Faulkner 1897–1962
(Born William Cuthbert Falkner) American novelist, short story writer, poet, scriptwriter, and essayist. See also William Faulkner Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 6, 8, 11, 14, 18.
Faulkner is a seminal figure in modern American literature. Specifically, his works reflect the distinct heritage of the American South. The northern region of Mississippi where Faulkner lived all his life provided the geographical and cultural background for the Yoknapatawpha County of his novels and short stories. But only in a superficial sense can Faulkner be considered a regional writer: through their radical stylistic innovations and moral depth his works achieve a universality which places him among the major figures of world literature. Faulkner received the Nobel Prize in literature for 1949. In his acceptance speech, Faulkner stated that his basic theme was "the human heart in conflict with itself," and his exploration of this theme resulted in a variety of highly original, often difficult literary techniques expressing the full spectrum of human experience.
While Faulkner's importance rests almost solely on his fiction, his first ambition was to be a poet. His poems were published in various periodicals and collected in The Marble Faun (1924), Faulkner's earliest full-length book. Although the collection drew scant notice at the time, it is now considered of interest as an early display of the stylistic qualities Faulkner later developed in his fiction. For example, pastoral imagery and frequent use of symbol and image are characteristic of both his poetry and his prose. The Marble Faun was followed by the publication of Faulkner's first two novels, Soldier's Pay (1926) and Mosquitoes (1927), neither of which received much critical response. Soldier's Pay is categorized as a "lost generation" novel because it centers on a physically and emotionally scarred young soldier who returns home from war and finds only further trauma and disillusionment. Mosquitoes features a character type that reappears throughout Faulkner's work—the individual who lives a life of unfulfilled hope but strives to endure, even in grief. The necessity to struggle and to endure is central to Faulkner's view of human existence. In his famous Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he stated: "I believe that man will not only endure: he will prevail."
With the publication of his third novel, Sartoris (1929), Faulkner won greater critical attention. Sartoris is considered by many to be the first "typical Faulkner novel," primarily because it is set in Yoknapatawpha County and displays a full array of storytelling techniques, but also for the tragic fate of its protagonist, Bayard Sartoris. Many of Faulkner's later works develop stories that he touched upon in Sartoris. In 1929, Faulkner also published The Sound and the Fury, a novel about the disintegration of the Compson family. The story is told through four separate points of view in a seemingly disjointed narrative that gradually reveals its meaning. Critics were impressed by the complicated structure of the novel, especially the opening section told from the viewpoint of the idiot man-child Benjy. However, the difficulty of fathoming Faulkner's narrative tactics turned many readers away. Through characters like Benjy, whose memories of past events mingle with present experiences with no distinction between the two, Faulkner was able to give a more complex rendering of char-acters and events. This technique was further developed and refined in subsequent works.
With critical recognition established, Faulkner sought greater financial rewards from his writing. With an eye on the commercial market, he began composing what he called "the most horrific tale I could imagine." The result was Sanctuary (1931), a novel which had to...
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be revised before final publication due to its graphic violence and the extravagant depravity of its characters. An objective study of human evil,Sanctuary, even in its revised form, caused a minor uproar. While it became Faulkner's best-selling novel, a number of critics disparaged the work for its sensationalistic depictions of violence. Critical studies of Sanctuary often focus on the character Popeye, particularly because he embodies the philosopher Henri Bergson's theory of humor—that we laugh at people who act rigidly and mechanically rather than at those capable of expressing diverse emotions. Faulkner himself acknowledged an interest in Bergson's ideas, including his theory of the fluidity of time. Faulkner stated: "There is only the present moment, in which I include both the past and the future, and that is eternity."
Faulkner's work grew increasingly complex during the 1930s, making even greater demands upon readers and eliciting mixed critical response. As I Lay Dying (1930), for example, is a novel composed of fifty-nine interior monologues: by this use of constantly shifting, contrasting points of view, Faulkner gradually and methodically reveals his themes and characters. In Light in August (1932), Faulkner examines the origins of personal identity and the roots of racial conflicts. Light in August begins by introducing a few characters and then turns to the plight of Joe Christmas, who is trying to uncover his true identity by piecing together bits of hearsay information. Because this story is told in an extended flashback, many critics felt that the novel suffered from faulty structure. However, defenders of the novel claim that this structure is intentional and serves to enhance the thematic scope of the narrative.
Faulkner's next major novel, Absalom! Absalom! (1936), has been called the work in which he is most in control of his experimental narrative techniques. At the center of this novel is the story of Thomas Sutpen, a tragic character with a monomaniacal passion for creating and controlling a self-contained world. Many of the "facts" regarding Sutpen, as well as other characters and events in the novel, are based on unreliable information, and the novel thus questions the human capacity to know the truth about anyone or anything. Upon publication of Absalom! Absalom!, many critics hailed Faulkner as a great artist, while others felt that his abstruse method of storytelling was confusing and ultimately ineffective. After publishing two subsequent novels that received lukewarm critical response, The Unvanquished (1938) and The Wild Palms (1939), and following a brief stint in Hollywood as a scriptwriter, Faulkner published The Hamlet (1940). According to some critics, this novel concludes Faulkner's "major period." The Hamlet, along with two later novels, The Town (1957) and The Mansion (1959), are collectively known as the "Snopes Trilogy." These novels center on Flem Snopes, whose single ambition in life is to acquire more and more property, and are a blend of tragedy and comedy. While some critics view the tragedy in these novels as both heightened and made more tolerable by its juxtaposition with comedy, others feel that the humor is detrimental to a basically tragic theme. The Snopes trilogy also highlights another prominent theme in Faulkner's work—exploitation of land and people as a source of human misery.
In the opinion of some critics, Faulkner is most effective as a short story writer. He often used short stories to fill gaps in the historical development of Yoknapatawpha County as depicted in his novels. Many characters who appear in the novels also appear in the short stories, while new characters are also introduced. Even in isolation from his novels, Faulkner's short fiction provides the complete chronological development of Yoknapatawpha from the coming of white men, who introduced the concept of private property, up to the twentieth century, when the automobile becomes a common fixture in American society. Go Down, Moses (1942) is a short story collection that can also be considered as a novel, with a thematic unity binding the separate sections of the work. Though Faulkner himself referred to this collection as a novel, many critics view "episodes" such as "The Bear" as fully realized short stories which are more concise and complete than many of Faulkner's novels.
During the 1950s, Faulkner spent much time traveling and lecturing both abroad and at American colleges. His novel A Fable (1954) won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction and the National Book Award, but received mixed reviews because of its rigidly structured prose. After completing the Snopes trilogy, Faulkner wrote his final novel, The Reivers (1962), which was published shortly before his death. The Reivers provides a final glance at Yoknapatawpha County. Although written as a tall tale in the manner of the nineteenth-century Southwestern humorists, this work, like most of Faulkner's fiction, can also be read symbolically as a moral tale. Since his death, Faulkner's work has been extensively analyzed and is now more fully appreciated. Faulkner created a body of work that is distinctly American yet reflects, on a grander scale, the universal values of human life.
Faulkner, unlike Hemingway, is a novelist of the old school—the actual texture of his prose-narrative is not at all 'revolutionary' or unusual. Just occasionally (as in the opening page or two of Sartoris and here and there in Sanctuary and Light in August) a spurious savour of "newness' is obtained by a pretended incompetence as a narrator or from a confused distraction—a 'lack of concentration' it would popularly be called if it occurred in the narrative of a police-court witness. There is, very occasionally, a clumsy slyness of this sort, of the faux-naif variety, but it is quite a minor thing. Just now and then—only for a page or two—he will Joyce for a bit, but merely to the extent of innocently portmanteauing a few words just to show he is on the right side, such as 'shadowdappled' or 'down-speaking': but he has not much luck with this, as he is apt to arrive at such a result as the following: "the rank manodor of his sedentary … flesh"—which looks too like escupidor to be a happy conjugation. For the most part his books might have been written by a contemporary of Trollope or the early Wells. (p. 43)
There is no reason whatever why a novelist today should not use the most 'straightforward' methods of narrative—the code napoléon was good enough for Stendhal, and we might do far worse than model ourselves upon it—I am not at all … [damning] Mr. Faulkner for being 'old-fashioned': my object is to place him technically. More than half of his text belongs, as far as the genre of the writing is concerned, to the 'psychological' method of Conrad (or the translations of the great nineteenth-century Russian authors). (p. 44)
[There] is a lot of poetry in Faulkner. It is not at all good. And it has an in the end rather comic way of occurring at a point where, apparently, he considers that the atmosphere has run out, or is getting thin, by the passage of time become exhausted and requiring renewal, like the water in a zoological-garden tank for specimens of fish. So he pumps in this necessary medium, for anything from half a dozen to two dozen lines, according to the needs of the case. (p. 45)
His characters demand, in order to endure for more than ten pages, apparently, an opaque atmosphere of whip-poor-wills, cicadas, lilac, 'seeping' moonlight, water-oaks and jasmine—and of course the 'dimensionless' sky, from which the moonlight 'seeps." The wherewithal to supply them with this indispensable medium is as it were stored in a whip-poor-will tank, as it might be called: and he pumps the stuff into his book in generous flushes at the slightest sign of fatigue or deflationary listlessness, as he thinks, upon the part of one of his characters.
To compare him with Ernest Hemingway as an artist would indeed be absurd: but actually he betrays such a deep unconsciousness in that respect as to be a little surprising…. If in reading a book of his you came across [the word 'sourceless']—say upon the first page of Sanctuary where it occurs ("a thick growth of cane and brier, of cypress and gum in which broken sunlight lay sourceless") and said to yourself "sourceless—what for mercy's sake is that!" you would soon find out. For a dozen pages farther on (where more poetic atmosphere was being pumped in, in due course) you would probably come across it again: and after you had encountered it half a dozen times or so you would see what he meant. (pp. 45-6)
[There] are other words (apart from such hackneyed ones common to all American books as frustration) which he uses so repeatedly that it would be a game for an idle person to count them—'timbrous,' 'viscid,' 'shard,' 'sibilant,' etc. No one ever had less care for the mot juste. (p. 46)
There is no question here of conscious repetition. It reveals the character of this slipshod and redundant artistic machine. (p. 48)
Faulkner is as full of 'passion'—of sound and fury—as Hemingway is austerely without it. He is as hot and sticky as Hemingway is dry and without undue heat. He works up and up, in a torrent of ill-selected words, to his stormy climaxes. With Hemingway the climaxes are registered by a few discreet touches here and there. The characters in Faulkner's books are as heavily energized as the most energetic could wish. And if they are all futilely energized and worked-up to no purpose—all 'signifying nothing'—if each and all of his stories is 'a tale told by an idiot'—that does not make his Sartorises, Popeyes, Christmases, the priest in Mistral or Temple Drake, any the less an impressive company, in their hysterical way. All are demented: his novels are, strictly speaking, clinics. Destiny weighs heavily upon every figure which has its being in this suffocating atmosphere of whip-poor-wills, magnolias, fireflies and water-oaks (not to mention the emanations of the dark and invariably viscid earth). And the particular form that that destiny takes is race. Whether it is Christmas or Sartoris, it is a matter of a fatality residing in the blood. They are driven on in a crazy and headlong career by the compulsion of their ancestry. (pp. 48-9)
Violent death … is a matter of such importance in Faulkner's universe, it has such a baleful attraction, for his most ordinary puppets, in expectation or in memory, that it is able, two generations away, to so paralyze the imagination of one of them as to turn him into a dream of death-on-horseback!
The Civil War, and that apparently central problem of the American soul, the Black and White (for it is rather an important issue, all said and done, whether you shall give the negro equality and a century hence have a mulatto America, or on the other hand lynch him as soon as look at him) are the shadows over every life dealt with by Faulkner. The Sartoris family is literally rotten with fatality—there the doom becomes deliberately comic…. (p. 50)
A flash, a glare—that is what Faulkner's books are intended to be—a very long flash, and a chronic glare, illuminating a 'doomed,' a symbolical landscape—centred in that township of the Old Dominion symbolically named Jefferson.
The longest flash and glare of all is Light in August—and that, I think, is a flash in the pan. It is full of wearisome repetitions and is long-winded to the last degree: it is hysterical and salvationist more than is necessary, and it is comical where it is not meant to be. It contains, however, a great deal of good observation and passages of considerable power. Christmas, the half-negro, supplies us with all of these. He is a quite empty little figure, like 'Popeye' in Sanctuary: but he carries round a big 'doom' with him all right, and he makes it sound. His doom is of course his blood—or rather his two bloods, the white and the black. (p. 52)
But the 'doom' in the case of Joe Christmas is complicated by a new factor, namely, the presence of a personal fate referred to as 'the Player.' This personage only turns up quite at the end of this long trail, and I am bound to say does not behave at all nicely. Here he is—moving Percy Grimm, who has tracked down the fugitive negro, and run him to earth behind the kitchentable in the disgraced pastor's house….
"It was as though he had been merely waiting for the Player to move him again, because with that unfailing certitude he ran straight to the kitchen and into the doorway, already firing, almost before he could have seen the table overturned and standing on its edge across the corner of the room, and the bright and glittering hands of the man who crouched behind it, resting upon the upper edge…." (p. 53)
With this sinister Player (spelled with a capital p) we reach a further complication of Faulkner's studied amateur fatalism. We first hear of the presence of the Player while Grimm is in pursuit of Christmas before the latter reaches the shelter of the house. "He (Grimm) was moving again almost before he had stopped, with that lean, swift, blind obedience to whatever Player moved him on the Board…. He seemed indefatigable, not flesh and blood, as if the Player who moved him for pawn likewise found him breath."
The belief of W. B. Yeats that human life is a game of chess, in which beings of a supernatural intelligence, in another dimension, are engaged, lending us sometimes their wisdom and their strength, seems to be implied in this. But I should doubt if Faulkner is the master of any systematic notion of fatality. Evidently he took a great fancy at some time to the conception of a rigid destiny controlling human life, as exemplified in the Greek Drama: and it supplies the melodramatic backbone of his books. That is all, I think.
There can be nothing harder to define than melodrama in distinction to tragedy. But a too great addiction to a notion of 'fate,' and a consequent loosening and slackening of the 'realistic' web of 'chance' or 'accident,' will undoubtedly lead a writer more surely than by any other path—especially if his purposes are sensational, and mainly directed to excite and to entertain—to what would probably be described as the melodramatic. Faulkner seems to me to be melodramatic, distinctly. All his skies are inky black. He deals in horror as in a cherished material. Coincidence, what he would call 'fate,' does not stand on ceremony, or seek to cover itself in any fussy 'realistic' plausability, with him. When the doomed man, at long last, is to be run to earth, there is every probability (according to the law of these improbable narratives) that after wandering all over the world, he will be run to earth at the very door of the cottage in which dwells, quite unknown to him, his old grandmother, who, however, has never set eyes on him until that day, and who has no idea whether such a person as he exists or not until she finds him with the rope round his neck. In short, there is no coincidence that this robust fatalism is not prepared to admit. This certainly makes novel-writing easier.
Of course, the intellectual morale of a destiny-crank, on the grand model, is sorely tried in any case. It is enervating for him in that respect, even as it is for men at large, in its influence upon their general outlook. The conception of an all-embracing destiny has its concomitant in an obviousness of association, and imposes at once a mechanical form upon existence: as it is pre-eminently the philosophy of the pure determinist.
A man like William Faulkner discovers fatalism, or whatever you like to call it: it at once gives him something to live for, or rather gives his characters something to live for—namely a great deal of undeserved tribulation culminating in a violent death. That simplifies the plot enormously—it is, in fact, the great 'classical' simplification, banishing expectation. No one who knows Faulkner's work is in any doubt, in picking up a book of his, as to what will happen to the principal character; he will unquestionably die a violent death, there is no occasion to turn to the last page. He is, in fact, as dead already upon the first page, to all intents and purposes, and bloodily dead, as is the corpse at the opening of a Van Dine crime-novel. And it takes a more powerful and subtle intelligence than Faulkner's to cope with this essentially mechanical situation in such a manner as not to make it appear over-mechanical to the reader—or to prevent it from degenerating into a flabby and artificial structure, with eventually the necessary pawns practically emerging from a trap-door, or being telepathically spirited to the spot desired, blantantly in the nick of time. And where everyone knows what is going to happen the temptation merely to moralize the mechanism into such a preordained pattern that the march of events is a purely ad hoc progression, highly unreal and unconvincing, is very great. In fact, increasingly, there will be little incentive to do anything else, for such a story-teller. His attitude will tend to become like that of the doomed man himself. Why worry? A supernatural agency is at work. Miracles are the stock in trade of a supernatural agency.—Indeed, once you have admitted the existence of a supernatural agency, the unlikely and fortuitous are more 'natural' than the reverse. Indeed, it only remains a question of what quantity, if any, of non-fatalist, non-miraculous, constituents you shall include.
Since the climax is from the start in full view of everybody, including the figure who is destined to suffer it, the tendency must be at least to slacken the tension and conventionalize all that comes in between. And in Light in August that last of this fatal series and the best example of its working—that is just what we find. A great deal of prosy melodramatic talk does intervene, in an interminable, sultry, marking time, until the Player shall produce the carving-knife, and balefully point at the root of all the 'abomination and bitchery,' namely the sexual organs of the half-caste hero. (pp. 54-6)
I have said (not in disparagement) that Faulkner is an 'old-fashioned' writer compared with Hemingway, and this accounts for a good deal. He has gone back to the old conception of 'the novel,' or he has never emerged from it would, I suppose, be more exact. He is artistically a contemporary of Conrad or Trollope (his Hightower, for instance, is an American Mr. Crawley of Hogglestock). He is a bold and bustling romantic writer, of the 'psychological' school. That is the main thing to grasp about him. It is, in short, except for a mere handful of shadowdappleds and manodors, as if Joyce had never jingled: except for one little shamefaced flourish, it is as if Miss Stein had never stuttered…. (pp. 57-8)
All this is to say that he has to be judged according to conventional standards of romantic novel-making: the question of his success or ill-success must be subordinated to the framework of a conventional and unreal pattern. Whereas Hemingway, reporter of genius that he is, fails or succeeds largely upon whether you decide he has got the facts dead-right, or, on the other hand, has ever so slightly shifted and conventionalized them in the process of reporting them, Faulkner neglects or ignores that criterion of 'realistic' method. He must be judged according to romantic standards only—as, for that matter, is the case with most novelists. There are few people, who are professional novelists, able to do anything else, if they are to 'make good,' than to conform to the more conventional and romantic standards of this rather slovenly, undisciplined art. And of course it remains an open question whether such an art deserves the more exacting approach at all. (p. 58)
Wyndham Lewis, "William Faulkner (The Moralist with a Corn Cob)," in his Men without Art (©; reprinted by permission of The Wyndham Lewis Memorial Trust), Cassell & Company, Limited, 1934 (and reprinted by Russell & Russell, Inc., 1964), pp. 42-64.
The problem that faces every student of Faulkner's writing is its lack of a center, the gap between his power and its source, that curious abstract magnificence (not only a magnificence of verbal resources alone) which holds his books together, yet seems to arise from debasement or perplexity or a calculating terror. It is the gap between the deliberation of his effects, the intensity of his every conception, and the besetting and depressing looseness, the almost sick passivity, of his basic meaning and purpose. No writer, least of all a novelist so remarkably inventive and robust of imagination, works in problems of pure technique alone; and though it is possible to see in his books, as Conrad Aiken has shown [see CLC, Vol. 8], the marks of a writer devoted to elaboration and wizardry of form, who has deliberately sought to delay and obscure his readers so that the work may have a final and devastating effect, Faulkner's "persistent offering of obstacles, a calculated system of screens and obtrusions, of confusions and ambiguous interpolations and delays," seems to spring from an obscure and profligate confusion, a manifest absence of purpose, rather than from an elaborate but coherent aim.
For while Faulkner has brought back into the modern American novel a density of perception and elaboration of means unparalleled since Henry James, his passion for form has not been, like James's, the tortuous expression of an unusual and subtle point of view; it has been a register of too many points of view, and in its way a substitute for one. It is precisely because his technical energy and what must be called a tonal suggestiveness are so profound, precisely because Faulkner's rhetoric is so portentous, that it has been possible to read every point of view into his work and to prove them all. To a certain type of social or moralist critic, his work seems at once the product of some ineffable decadence and a reluctant commentary upon it. (pp. 457-58)
By identifying all life with the South, by giving himself so completely to it, Faulkner showed why he could see all things in it and at the same time draw no clear design from it. His absorption was too complete; it was almost a form of abnegation. Accepting the South, hating it, memorializing it, losing himself in it, Faulkner was forced into a series of improvisations; and his need for pyrotechnics and a swollen Elizabethanism of rhetoric, his delight in difficulty and random inventiveness, became the expression of his need to impose some external intensity, an almost synthetic unity, upon his novels. The nerve-jangled harshness and self-conscious grandeur of his work show only one elaboration of that inner confusion, that compulsion to brood always at polar extremes. More significant has been his need to present almost all his characters at the unwavering pitch of absolute desperation and damnation, to expand everything to a size larger than life and ambiguously more tragic, to represent everything—every life, every thought, every action—as something unutterably lost and doomed.
There is a pillar of darkness that moves between the Faulkner characters and the world—blotting out the sun, blotting out our simple and confident knowledge of their qualities and relations to each other, blotting out their normality. But if this darkness is in one sense the equivalent atmosphere of Faulkner's misanthropy and bitterness, it is also a mechanism, a stage apparatus, that provides an artificial medium within which his people move, and it suggests some secret and harried compensation for his failure. For what one always feels in even Faulkner's greatest moments is not a lack or falsity of achievement; it is a power almost grotesque in its lack of relation to the situation or characters; it is a greatness moving in a void. From this point of view the mechanical damnation of his characters is not a valid projection of some conception of damnation which must include everything that draws breath in the South; it is a simple lack of flexibility, some cardinal stiffness or agony of imagination. It is significant to note that while Faulkner's ability to create character has always been superb, his characters are not so much a succession of individuals freshly, directly visualized and created, as molds into which the same fantastic qualities have been poured. They live, they live copiously and brilliantly; but they live by the violence with which Faulkner sustains them, by the sullen, screaming intensity which he breathes into them (often with all of Faulkner's own gestures, fury, and raging confusion of pronouns), by the atmospheric terror that encloses them. They live because they are incredibilities in action, because they have been scoured by death before they reach the grave, so that one sees them always in the posture of some fantastic relinquishment and irrevocable agony, the body taut and the soul quivering with death. And if they seem forever to be watching and waiting in their own stupor, to be accumulated sensations rather than people having sensations, to be even the same extreme sensations (the doctor in The Wild Palms, Quentin Compson and old Mr. Coldfield in Absalom! Absalom!, young Bayard in The Unvanquished, the young teacher in The Hamlet, Joe Christmas and almost everyone else in Light in August), is it not because they are personifications rather than human beings, and is not their astounding capacity for unhappiness and perdition a confession of some final awkwardness in Faulkner—his need to write and think in monotones?
Nervously alive, his characters are fundamentally not alive at all, not acting out individual parts, but seem rather to be pure fantastic aggregates. They are multiform qualities acting out, participating in, that general myth of Faulkner's creation, the jungle South, and it is significant that the darkness in which they live, the darkness through which they must always be grasped and pieced together, makes them appear curiously distant, refractions of refractions. In the end we seem always to be reading the same story, following through the familiar formula of damnation, conscious of the same mysterious submission—extraordinarily abject—to perdition. Yet though the energy that drives them along is torrential, we do not see them intensely; we see everything under conditions of intensity. It is precisely because Faulkner's characters are charged with a vitality not their own that he is able to do everything with them except make us believe instinctively and absolutely in them. And it is precisely because Faulkner does not know too much about them himself, does not believe in them with sufficient consciousness of purpose, that he is forced into those leaping improvisations of language and incident, that nervous magnificence, which invests everything with epic grandeur that is suspiciously grandiose, that plots and strains and leaves us all too often with the mere fact of tumultuous exaggeration. (pp. 459-61)
In the end one must always return to Faulkner's language and his conception of style, for his every character and observation are lost in the spool of his rhetoric, and no more than they can be ever wind himself free. That rhetoric—perhaps the most elaborate, intermittently incoherent and ungrammatical, thunderous, polyphonic rhetoric in all American writing—explains why he always plays as great a role in his novels as any of his characters to the point of acting out their characters in himself; why he has so often appeared to be a Laocoön writhing in all the outrageous confusions of the ineffable; why he has been able, correlating the South with every imagined principle and criticism of existence, writing in many styles, to project every possible point of view, every shade or extremity of character, and to persuade us of none. In one sense, of course, Faulkner has sought to express the inexpressible, to attain that which is basically incoherent in the novel and analogous only to the most intense mysticism in poetry, where sensations contract and expand like tropical flowers. Yet his novels are not poetry or even "poetic"; they are linked together by a sensational lyricism, itself forever in extremis and gasping for breath, that, as Yeats said of rhetoric, "is an attempt of the will to do the work of the imagination." For what one sees always in Faulkner's mountainous rhetoric, with its fantastic pseudo-classical epithets and invertebrate grandeur, its merely verbal intensity and inherent motor violence, is the effort of a writer to impose himself upon that which he cannot create simply and evocatingly. It is the articulation of confusion rather than an evasion of it; force passing for directed energy. With all its occasional felicity and stabbing appropriateness of phrase, Faulkner's style is a discursive fog, and it is not strange—so clever and ready is his style the advantage taken over confusion itself—that his extremities should seem intimations of grandeur and the darkness within which his characters move an atmosphere of genuine tragedy. (pp. 462-63)
[Why] must everything in Faulkner's novels be raised to its tenth power?… Why is it that the Faulkner country must always appear as "a shadowy miasmic region," "amoral evil's undeviating absolute," a "quicksand of nightmare," "the seething and anonymous miasmal mass which in all the years of time has taught itself no boon of death"? For the same reason, as it must appear, that despite his extraordinary talents no writer has ever seemed so ambitious and so purposeless, so overwhelming in imaginative energy and so thwarted in his application of it. A fanatic, as Santayana once said, is a man who redoubles his effort when he has lost sight of his aim; and even if it be admitted that Faulkner's effort has been to express the inexpressible, to write the history of the unconscious, to convey some final and terrifying conception of a South that seems always to exist below water, the impression one always carries away from his novels is of some fantastic exertion of will, of that exaggeration which springs from a need to raise everything in Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, to its tenth (or its hundredth) power because there is not sufficient belief, or power, or ease in his conception of Yoknapatawpha County, or the South, or human existence in general.
It is not strange, then, that his scene should always be some swamp of the spirit, or that his subject should always be murder, rape, prostitution, incest, arson, idiocy (with an occasional interpolation of broad country humor almost as violent as his tragedies); or that the country of his mind should be a Mississippi county larger than life, but not visibly related to it. Faulkner's obsession has been agony, as his art has been the voice of that agony—the agony of a culture, his culture; but it has been even more the agony of his relation to that culture, the tormenting disproportion between his immersion in the South and his flinging, tumultuous efforts to project it. It has been the agony inherent in any effort to transcend some basic confusion by force of will alone. Faulkner's corn-fed, tobacco-drooling phantoms are not the constituents of a representative American epic, protagonists in a great modern tragedy; they are the tonal expression of Faulkner's own torment, the walking phantasmagoria, sensation beating against sensation, of his perpetual tension. No writer ever made so much of his failure; in no writer of his stature is the suggestion of some cardinal failure so ambiguous and yet so penetrating. (pp. 464-65)
Alfred Kazin, "The Rhetoric and the Agony," in his On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature (copyright 1942, 1970, by Alfred Kazin; reprinted by permission of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.), Reynal & Hitchcock, 1942 (and reprinted by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1963), pp. 453-84.∗
I came to every new Faulkner opus wearily determined to see in it what my betters saw. No more than the next man do I enjoy looking like a dunce. But, no matter how hard I tried, I was licked every time. Some major defect, some incurable myopia, prevented me from seeing in him more than a dazzling, though often unsuccessful technician, passionately and sincerely creating a private world whose inhabitants would be completely unrecognizable to the natives of Oxford, Mississippi, but are apparently immediately recognizable to a host of young academics and, let us be fair, to many non-specialized, average, intelligent readers.
For them there is no disproportion between Mr. Faulkner's Gothic-horrors material and the complex means used to embody it. No gap between the noble, free-floating utterances of the Nobel Prize speech and the moral chaos of most of the novels. No impatience with the violence, the humorlessness, the portentousness of his characters. No willful and, as I see it, unrewarding deformation of our English tongue. No feeling that at the heart of all his books there is, as an English critic has put it, "an abrogation of natural law, an act of violence." Nothing of the uneasy sense I get from time to time of Charles Addams trying to be Dostoevski.
If there exist, as I believe to be the case, a few other old-fashioned reactionaries who are like myself baffled by Mr. Faulkner and even more baffled by his commentators, the putting down of this record of bewilderment may not have been entirely wasted. I claim no more for it. (pp. 124-25)
Clifton Fadiman, "William Faulkner," in his Party of One: The Selected Writings of Clifton Fadiman (copyright © 1955 by Clifton Fadiman; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), World Publishing Co., 1955, pp. 98-125.
It is necessary to emphasise that Faulkner in his best work is not concerned with ideas in any abstract sense. His preoccupations are not intellectual but moral; what he offers is not philosophy but wisdom. At the same time, his public statements are in no sense divorced from his literary achievement. The Nobel Prize Speech has sometimes been regarded as very much a post hoc statement, a deliberate effort on Faulkner's part to match with his own grandiloquence the grandeur of the occasion. It should properly be seen as a distillation, necessarily couched in abstract terms, of the kind of statements and moral judgments which had been implicit in his work from the very first. As Faulkner wrote to Warren Beck in 1941: "I have been writing all the time about honor, truth, pity, consideration, the capacity to endure well grief and misfortune and injustice and then endure again …" Like the people of Oxford, so many of Faulkner's critics have failed to understand, in the words of "Mac" Reed, that Faulkner was "their closest friend who was trying to show them in his own peculiar way that they must appreciate the good life better."
The crucial failure of much Faulkner criticism, however, and the one which underlies so many misreadings and misjudgments of his work, has been the continuing underestimation of Faulkner as an artist. The case against Faulkner was made out by Wyndham Lewis in his book, Men Without Art, published in 1934. In a chapter subtitled "The Moralist with the CornCob" [see excerpt above], Lewis attacked Faulkner for his presentation of "demented" characters and fiercely criticised his style, accusing him of injecting poetic effects to liven up listless passages of his prose, and arguing of his repeated use of such words as "myriad" and "sourceless" that such repetition was not deliberate but merely revealed "the character of this slipshod and redundant artistic machine." The various critics who have echoed Lewis's observations down the succeeding years have done so with little of his brilliance, much less of his justification, and nearly all of his misstatements, Meanwhile the small but distinguished body of serious Faulkner criticism has increasingly revealed the intricate structural and imagistic patterns which operate within the novels, and shown that the elaboration of the style, with its repetitions and rhetorical flourishes, possesses an organic relationship with the material of the novels and with their moral and emotional themes. The overall tendency of such criticism has been to establish Faulkner as a deliberate, conscientious, and highly sophisticated literary artist, who, though not always successful, was always fully aware of what he was doing and always absolutely in control of material, characterisation, structure, and style.
That these conclusions can continue to be ignored by critics who still adhere to Lewis's line of attack can perhaps be attributed to Faulkner's much-criticised and widely-misunderstood "provinciality," his isolation in a part of the United States which the rest of the nation has agreed to call backward. Nothing could be less illuminating than to think of Faulkner as a kind of American primitive, a sort of literary and less engaging Grandma Moses, a wild untutored genius of the backwoods. It is not helpful even to see him as self-educated, lacking in literary culture, cut off from literary tradition, suffering as an artist because of his isolation from a sophisticated milieu such as he might have found in New York, London, or Paris…. Faulkner was well aware of that diffusion of creative energy in talk which constitutes the seductive but fatal danger inherent in the life of literary circles, and his self-isolation in Oxford represented not a negative act of withdrawal but a positive commitment to literature, to the act of writing. That long shelf of Faulkner's books would surely have been a good deal shorter if he had not stayed at home and written with intense concentration for long periods of time: it is staggering to think, for example, that in a period of about eight years, from 1928 to 1936, Faulkner wrote four major novels (The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom!), three other novels (Sartoris, Sanctuary, and Pylon), and a large number of short stories; he may also have made considerable progress towards an early version of The Hamlet at this time.
But if Faulkner isolated himself, and with good reason, from the contemporary literary world, he did not isolate himself from historical literary tradition. Indeed, it would seem fair to say that in certain important respects Faulkner was more actively aware of American and European literary traditions than any other important American novelist of this century, Hemingway not excluded. (pp. 287-89)
The first two novels, Soldiers' Pay and Mosquitoes, show signs of influence from T. S. Eliot, Sherwood Anderson, James Branch Cabell, James Joyce, and possibly from Aldous Huxley, Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Beer. In Sartoris Faulkner first began to find a voice distinctively his own, and in The Sound and the Fury, despite the continuing presence of Joyce, he achieved it, with astounding abruptness and completeness. Following the all-important initial breakthrough represented by the brilliant technical success of The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner seems to have gone beyond the range of direct literary influences. He no longer needed to fall back on the patterns created by his contemporaries or immediate predecessors, or even to seek encouragement in their example. He moved on, with superb assurance and technical sophistication, to the multiple viewpoints of As I Lay Dying, the rhetorical splendour and intricate, deliberately unresolved narrative patterns of Absalom, Absalom!, the violent juxtapositions of The Wild Palms. the rich, varied, and precisely calculated stylistic and thematic patterning of The Hamlet, the complex interrelationships and interactions of Go Down, Moses, the play-within-a-novel of Requiem for a Nun, the austere parable of A Fable.
Of The Sound and the Fury itself it has to be said not only that it is a book of outstanding individuality which no one but Faulkner could have written, but also that Faulkner himself could not have written it if he had not been a Southerner, indeed a Mississippian, born at a particular moment in time. Yet one does not need to underrate either Faulkner's originality or his Southerness in order to see that the novel is far from what it has too often been taken to be—a series of daring and almost random experiments made in isolation from the main streams of the novel in America and in Europe. On the contrary, The Sound and the Fury is a deliberately conceived and superlatively executed work of great technical sophistication: it is set in the American South, but it stands in the direct tradition of the modern psychological and experimental novel. Once we accept Faulkner's awareness of other writers and their innovations—perhaps Dostoevsky, probably Flaubert and James, certainly Conrad, and most importantly Joyce (whether or not Faulkner had read the whole of Ulysses at the time of beginning work on his own novel)—then the experiments he makes in The Sound and the Fury take on a double significance, for they can be seen not as a series of blind leaps in the dark, the speculative adventures of an isolated genius, but as the result of definite choice. Well informed of experiments which previous novelists had made, Faulkner did not simply evolve home-made solutions for his own problems but chose particular solutions rather than others of which he was also aware. His explorations broke new ground because they were not groping forays but planned expeditions which took the achievements of others as their starting-point.
It is important that the influences which almost certainly lie behind The Sound and the Fury were primarily European, even allowing for the possibility of certain minor influences from Sherwood Anderson and John Dos Passos…. There are obvious dangers, in fact, in attempting to place Faulkner in any exclusively American tradition. His literary environment includes Melville, Hawthorne, and James, but it also includes—to name only the most significant for Faulkner himself—Dostoevsky, Balzac, Flaubert, Verlaine, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Keats, Shelley, Swinburne, Wilde, Joyce, Synge, Eliot, Conrad, and the King James Bible. Much has been written about Faulkner as a humorous writer in the tradition of the American Southwest, and certainly the tall tale figures largely in his work from the first sketches written in New Orleans to his last book, The Reivers, which might be considered as one long tall tale. Yet [we can see] in discussing The Hamlet that when Faulkner employs the tall tale he does so with precisely calculated literary objectives in view: he uses it with a full knowledge of its antecedents and with a sophisticated awareness of its contribution to the elaborate interplay of traditional and experimental features which constitutes the complex multiple presentation of his novels. He is not committed to the tall tale in any uncritical way, as an essential element in a literary tradition to which he owes and recognises allegiance, and it remains only one of many devices which he can deploy and manipulate at will. Further warning against taking a purely Southern or even purely American view of Faulkner is provided by his remark, in 1922, that Mark Twain was "a hack writer who would not have been considered fourth rate in Europe, who tricked out a few of the old proven 'sure fire' literary skeletons with sufficient local color to intrigue the superficial and the lazy." As time went on Faulkner came to rank Twain more highly, at least for Huckleberry Finn, but the early comment at least emphasises how European was Faulkner's outlook at this period. It suggests, too, that if Faulkner did later resume some of the characteristic features of Twain's work, and of the work of other American figures, he did so consciously and discriminatingly, as a viable method of treating the material offered by that corner of native earth with which he had elected to deal.
Faulkner's achievement can be adequately estimated only by our seeing him as a great novelist in the context not merely of the South, or even of the United States, but of the whole western tradition. His deep identification with his own region is one of his greatest strengths, especially as it emerges in the marvellous sense of place, whether it be the heart of the wilderness or the interior of Miss Reba's brothel, and in the rich evocation of the world of Yoknapatawpha County; and certainly the intensity of his tragic power in novels such as The Sound and the Fury, Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom! derives both from this profoundly localised sense of social reality and from a poignant awareness of the proud and shameful history of the courageous, careless, gallant and oppressive South. At the same time, to concentrate too exclusively on this aspect of his work is to be in danger of mistaking means for ends and of seeing Faulkner as a lesser figure than he really is. The solidity of Faulkner's provinciality provides the unshakable foundation for his immensely ambitious exploration of the fundamental human themes with which he is always primarily concerned, and the examples of Hardy and Emily Brontë may suggest that Faulkner is not alone among novelists in pursuing the universal in terms of the intensely local. But it is Dickens whom Faulkner most resembles, in the passionate humanity of his tragi-comic vision, in the range and vitality of his characterisation and the profusion of his social notation, in the structural complexity of his novels and their broad symbolic patterns. It is also Dickens whom Faulkner most resembles in the sheer quantity and sustained quality of his achievement, and it is alongside Dickens, the greatest of the English novelists, that Faulkner must ultimately be ranked. (pp. 290-92)
Michael Millgate, in his The Achievement of William Faulkner (copyright © 1966 Michael Millgate; reprinted by permission of A D Peters & Co Ltd), Constable, 1966, 344 p.
It was in the Spring of 1929 that John Gould Fletcher, on a visit to Oxford University, where I was a student, gave me a copy of Soldiers' Pay. I had been out of the South for a long time—in a sense, in flight from the South—and at least half of me was oriented toward Greenwich Village and the Left Bank and not toward the Cumberland Valley in Tennessee; but at the same time I was, I suppose, homesick, and was making my first serious attempt at fiction, fiction with a setting in the part of the South where I had grown up. As a novel, Soldiers' Pay is no better than it should be, but it made a profound and undefinable impression on me. Then came, in the order of my reading, The Sound and the Fury, A I Lay Dying, Sanctuary, and These Thirteen.
What happened to me was what happened to almost all the bookreading Southerners I knew. They found dramatized in Faulkner's work some truth about the South and their own Southerness that had been lying speechless in their experience. Even landscapes and objects took on a new depth of meaning, and the human face, stance, and gesture took on a new dignity.
If you, in spite of your own sometimes self-conscious and willed Southernness, had been alienated by the official Southern pieties, alibis, and daydreams, the novels of Faulkner told you that there was, if you looked a second time, an intense, tormented, and brutal, but dignified and sometimes noble, reality beyond whatever façade certain people tried to hypnotize you into seeing. With this fiction there was not only the thrill of encountering strong literature. There was the thrill of seeing how a life that you yourself observed and were part of might move into the dimension of art. There was, most personally, the thrill of discovering your own relation to time and place, to life as you were destined to live it.
Even the images of degradation and violence—by which Southern pride, as officially exemplified by the DAR and the Chamber of Commerce, was so often shocked—seemed added certification of the reality of the novels: a perverse and perhaps self-indulgent delight, which you yourself recognized, in the dark complications of Southern life, a reflexive response to an unidentified tension and a smouldering rage beneath the surface of Southern life. What, in other words, the fiction of Faulkner gave was a release into life, into the sense of a grand and disturbing meaningfulness beneath the crust of life, into a moral reality beneath the crust of history. (pp. 1-2)
Robert Penn Warren, "Introduction: Faulkner, Past and Present," in Faulkner: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Robert Penn Warren (© 1966 by Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey; reprinted by permission of Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, NJ 07632), Prentice-Hall, 1966, pp. 1-22.
Mayday is derivative in idea and technique, a product of a self-conscious affecting of Symbolist art quivering at its own fragility in a harsh and cruel world at the same time it openly parodies young passions and lusts. The setting is medieval: Sir Galwyn of Arthgyl is given a dream of death by St. Francis, and, accompanied by Pain and Hunger, he sets out on his journey of life to be united with this Little Sister. The first men who try to stop him protect Yseult whose naked bathing in a pool not only arouses Sir Galwyn but is meant to double the Little Sister Death he searches after. Naked, Yseult rises from the pool to romp and lie in the woods with her new lover until the cold darkness causes him to suggest she get dressed; at this first opportunity, as he shows Pain and Hunger, he escapes, sighing with relief. Two other princesses, representing the evening and morning stars, come to him, the first as a deer, the second carried in a chariot by dolphins, but his affairs with both are brief. In each instance the knight is lightly mocked by the vulgar colloquialism of the women he leaves behind: at the end, he welcomes not the Afterworld but Death herself. This singular journey towards embracing death obviously anticipates Quentin's section in The Sound and the Fury, especially in the closing lines of Mayday, but where the later portrait is cautious in defining Quentin's psychology and tragic in its implications, Mayday is romantic and parodic, the language enjoying its departures from a more serious French original: "'I am Gallwyn of Arthgyl, knight at the hand of the Constable du Boisgeclin,'" the knight tells Yseult upon surprising her, "'who, having heard the beauty of the Princess Yseult sung by many a minstrel in many a banquetting hall, must needs dare all things to see her; and who, now that he has gazed upon her, finds that all his life before this moment was a stale thing, and that all the beautiful faces upon which he has looked are as leaves in a wind; and that you are like honey and sunlight and young hyacinths have robbed him of peace and contentment as a gale strips the leaves from a tree; and because you are the promised bride of a king there is no help for it anywhere.'"… Even the attempts to stress themes of greater depth—"it is not the thing itself that man wants, so much as the wanting of it" …; "'I … remarked once that man is a buzzing insect blundering through a strange world, seeking something he can neither name nor recognize, and probably will not want. I think now that I shall refine this aphorism to: Man is a buzzing fly beneath the inverted glass tumbler of his illusions'"—are embarrassingly if unintentionally bald. The first is the sort of sentimental indulgence that still marks Soldiers' Pay and much of Faulkner's poetry to which it is most clearly aligned; the second anticipates the rambling and precious comments that constitute Mosquitoes. In this it is recognizably Faulkner. The thick, cloying images, too—notably of hyacinths—look forward to the imagist thoughts of Benjy and Quentin, while Sir Galwyn's opening vision, with its whirling vortex of faces, will remind readers of Hightower's vision in Light in August and the use of the pool of visions adumbrates passages in Sanctuary. Yet even these observations may press too hard what is, by any account, a slight and adolescent piece of writing, however fashionable it may have been in establishing a self-portrait of the lover as a young artist. (pp. 337-38)
Arthur F. Kinney, in a review of "Mayday," in Modern Fiction Studies (© 1980 by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana 47907, U.S.A.), Vol. 26, No. 2, Summer, 1980, pp. 337-38.
Mayday itself is not, as one might expect, a fumbling piece of apprentice-work, but a skillful and amusing exercise in a very minor literary genre which might be described as a lightly allegorical medieval pastiche. It is the story of Sir Galwyn of Arthygal, who, accompanied by Hunger and Pain, rides forth as a new knight, kills "a small dragon of an inferior and cowardly type," seduces three beautiful princesses in three consecutive days and immediately abandons each of them, and finally, with the help of St. Francis, seeks and finds little sister Death in the river. On the way he encounters various figures, including Time, with whom he has philosophical discussions; and the whole work operates in a spirit of cheerful and unportentous nihilism. The manner and style are essentially those of Cabell, and the archaic language is remarkably well handled, especially in view of the fact that Faulkner was no scholar. Much of the amusement comes from what [Carvel Collins in his introduction] calls anachronisms, though they are not really that but are deliberate juxtapositions of the tone of high romance with everyday trivial clichés, as when Yseult, standing naked in the water, replies to a highflown speech of Sir Galwyn: "Do you really think I am beautiful? You say it so convincingly that I must believe you have said it before—I am sure you have said it to other girls. Now, haven't you? But I am sorry you saw me with my hair done this way." There is nothing unmedieval about this, as Chaucer's Criseyde shows us on occasion; but it clashes engagingly with the conventions and language of high romance.
Mayday will do nothing, of course, to increase the stature of Faulkner as one of the few really great writers of our century, but it is no disgrace to Faulkner and is worth publishing for literary as well as biographical and scholarly purposes. (p. 332)
Calvin S. Brown, "Faulkner, Criticism, and High Fashion," in The Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1980 by The University of the South), Vol. LXXXVIII, No. 4, Fall, 1980, pp. 631-41.
Faulkner himself is to blame for the long critical disparagement of "Sanctuary," the fifth novel he wrote. "To me it is a cheap idea," he said in his introduction to the Modern Library edition (1932), "because it was deliberately conceived to make money…. I took a little time out, and speculated what a person in Mississippi would believe to be current trends, chose what I thought would be the right answer and invented the most horrific tale I could imagine and wrote it in about three weeks and sent it to [Harrison] Smith, who had done 'The Sound and the Fury' and who wrote me immediately, 'Good God, I can't publish this. We'd both be in jail.'"…
Being a "cheap idea" hastily executed to make money, "Sanctuary" could be brushed aside. Critics and readers didn't suspect that Faulkner mightn't be telling the complete truth about it, given his early passion for astounding the public…. It wasn't wholly invented, but was largely based on a story that Faulkner had heard from a woman in a New Orleans nightclub about her abduction by an impotent gangster. Faulkner was familiar with the various backgrounds to be presented, including the Memphis underworld (Memphis then being the murder capital of the United States). Moreover, he had on hand Horace Benbow, a character left over from "Sartoris" when that novel was shortened before publication; Horace might serve as his storyteller. With all this material, and with the help of his extraordinary imagination, he might somehow develop the cheap idea into a powerful novel.
Critics didn't consider that possibility, and for a long time they also failed to note what Faulkner had said at the end of that brief and—as regards public judgment—disastrous introduction. There he tells how Smith changed his mind, and how, more than a year later, the galley proofs of "Sanctuary" arrived in Oxford. "I saw it was so terrible," Faulkner says, "that there were but two things to do: tear it up or rewrite it…. I had to pay for the privilege of rewriting it, trying to make out of it something which would not shame 'The Sound and the Fury' and 'As I Lay Dying' too much, and I made a fair job and I hope you will buy it." He made more than a fair job; he transformed "Sanctuary" into a haunting study of evil triumphant; and the early reviewers made it a sensation. It established Faulkner as a popular (for a time) author, and the book was even sold to the movies…. What we have now, in "Sanctuary: The Original Text," capably edited by [Noel] Polk, is the manuscript that Faulkner submitted to Hal Smith…. When Faulkner tore into the galleys of "Sanctuary," he didn't change the original story, even if he had come to question it. He did not soften its horrors, nor did he delete the comic interludes; all of these survive unchanged in the novel as first published. His utter disgust with the original version was a craftsman's feeling. Obviously—to those who now read it—he rejected it as a story told awkwardly and ineffectively, one that confused the sequence of events and scamped its dreadful climax.
In the "Ur-Sanctuary"—as the critic Michael Millgate was the first to call the original version—Horace Benbow had been the central character. Much of the story had been concerned with his ineffectuality, arising from his incestuous feeling for his sister Narcissa and his stepdaughter Little Belle. The first six chapters were his stream of consciousness, with his mind leaping from one event to another without regard to chronology. Faulkner rewrote those chapters as simple but brilliant narration. He let Horace recede a little—though using him as an observer—and made the novel essentially what the 1933 movie called it, "The Story of Temple Drake." It is an appalling story, and it justifies André Malraux's often quoted remark that it "marks the intrusion of Greek tragedy into the detective story."…
Although the revised novel is vastly better, the original "Sanctuary" is not at all a contemptible book, as Faulkner tried to make us believe…. I should think that the original text will be extremely useful to Faulkner students, who can now read it without making a pilgrimage to the Alderman Library. It should be of service to apprentice writers, who will profit, if they can, from learning how a brilliant technician who happened to be a genius in other ways could work with disappointing galley proofs, save all the type that could be saved and come out with a new and more effective novel. I should hesitate, however, to recommend it as a book for the general reader.
Malcolm Cowley, "Faulkner Was Wrong about 'Sanctuary'," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 22, 1981, pp. 9, 25.
[Faulkner] was a richly gifted writer and there are times when he writes with real genius. He is keenly observant, and when he so wishes can be stereoscopically graphic. He gives us the intimate feel of an old banker's run-down bank and an easy-going little town, its age and southern heat, by referring in passing to the gold lettering on the bank's windows as 'cracked'. He evokes idle days spent sitting on the steps of a country store by letting us catch on the wing a reference to those steps as 'heel-gnawed'. A dog nosing in a cupboard has a 'barometric tail'. The dusty, hot air is 'insect-rasped'. The frost tonight will shrink the water in a pool about 'rank bayonets of dead grass in fixed glassy ripples in the brittle darkness'. On a wet day the sounds of the guns 'linger in the air like a spreading stain'. When the sun has half-set behind hedges a horseman 'rides stirrup-deep in cold air'. And so on, his eyes and ears recording automatically, his excellent memory reevoking. He seems possessed when at work by a terrific power of concentration, to have been explosively responsive to every experience, to have been courageous whether as a woodsman, a hunter after big game, a cross-country horseman, or a writer driven by penury—one cannot say poverty because he was a spendthrift with a folie de grandeur—to earn writing-time by any and every means from painting roofs in his meagre and sometimes mean little home-town of Oxford (Miss.) to hack-writing under the most humiliating circumstances in Hollywood.
Gifts he had galore: so many that had this been all he had he might be known today as one of the more highly talented of American novelists. Unhappily for him, he possessed much more than talent. He had genius, upsoaring, outpouring, exultant, eloquent, capable of so lighting up his little, local world as to turn it into a great kingdom…. At each new venture one wonders: will he be a Daedalus or an Icarus? 'Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.' Like Joyce he should have said it every day, clutching his talent to guide his genius. All too often he flew too near the sun. (p. 16)
There was no firm or constant bridge between the two sides of the man. His art oscillates between civilisation and the wilderness. The impatient would dismiss him as a schizo. His talent and his genius resided in the same set of apartments, but like jailor and jailed they did not share the same room. To adapt Cyril Connolly's famous aphorism, there was in this slim, small man a great giant roaring to get out. If his genius escaped and if his talent dashed after him to sing, drink, dance, whore, hunt, to exchange dreams and memories, above all to argue with him, then we get such superb stories as A Rose for Emily, or Go down Moses, or that splendid saga The Bear (but firmly cutting out the addenda), or that weird, haunting half-fantasy about aboriginal Indians which I do not even pretend to understand called Red Leaves, or we get his three time-outlasting novels, Light in August, As I lay dying and the frankly romantic Sartoris—if only for the sake of its clean, clear, genre sequences about the MacCallum family, a possum hunt, a fox, an encounter with a nigger (always 'niggers' in Faulkner) towards the end of the book. Talent can write alone. Genius never. It was his arrogant error not to realise it.
Why did he not always write so well? Whence this division? We need no psychologist here: we need a sociologist to mark his times, his place, his education, the financial and social structures of his Mississippi, and a few examples of his style to note his resultant grammar, syntax, phraseology and especially his vocabulary. Two sentences will show what I mean.
Here is a sentence taken at random from Absalom, Absalom! It refers to Quentin Compson's reaction after listening for some eighteen pages to the rambling memories of an old lady who takes possession of him, and of us, for the first 25 non-stop pages of the novel:
It (the talking, the telling) seemed (to him, to Quentin) to partake of that logic- and reason-flouting quality of a dream which the sleeper knows must have occurred, stillborn and complete, in a second, yet the very quality upon which it must depend to move the dreamer (verisimilitude) to credulity—horror or pleasure or amazement—depends as completely upon a formal recognition of elapsed and yet-elapsing time as music or a printed tale.
The sentence is a fair example of Faulkner's Plain Style, and it is quite intelligible, certainly at a second reading or even at a first if one has concentrated all one's attention on it. All he is saying is that for Quentin the old lady's talk has by this become like an illogical dream which lasted for no more than a second but which the sleeper, if he wants to get its full meaning, must pretend has lasted quite a while. Whether or not this notion makes sense is beside our point, which is that we can cope with Faulkner's Plain Style. I do not think, however, that anybody who reads the following sentence will deny that when the seed of obscurity in that Plain Style sprouts into his Coloured or Baroque Style, we begin to wonder whether something more ominous than just a lack of technical control is at work. The sentence comes from Intruder in the Dust:
his uncle came through the door and drew it after him, the heavy steel plunger crashing into its steel groove with a thick oily sound of irrefutable finality like that ultimate cosmolined doom itself when as his uncle said man's machines had at last effaced and obliterated him from the earth and, purposeless now to themselves with nothing left to destroy, closed the last carborundum-grooved door upon their own progenitorless apotheosis behind one clockless lock responsive only to the last stroke of eternity.
Just what is going on in Faulkner's mind when this kind of prose takes over? At this point our sociologist-historian-critic must surely wish to intervene with a self-satisfied Holmes-to-Watson smile: 'Stylus virum arguit. Style shows a fellow up. I am sure you must have noted, my dear Watson, that every writer has his own catchwords or bosswords. Take Yeats. I was reading his Wind among the Reeds last night. I found him using the word 'pale' twenty times in as many pages. 'Pale hands. Pale eyelids. Pale breasts.' They date him. The pale-end of a century. One could name his fellow writers, calculate his age, almost guess his address in London. Please hand me two or three volumes by this man Faulkner and let us glance at his vocabulary. In those two last sentences you have read for me we are held by the words 'irrefutable', 'doom', 'finality', 'obliterated', 'purposeless', 'progenitorless', 'clockless', 'eternity'. As I turn these pages my eye catches 'fatal', 'fatality', 'fated', 'irrevocable', 'ultimate', 'doom', 'doomed', 'doom'. He has lots of dooms, destiny, blind tragedy of human events, solitude, dream, nebulous, vast, impalpable, dissolution. And such awesome phrases. 'The apotheosis of his youth assumed a thousand avatars.' 'The gasoline roar of apotheosis'. 'A thunderous and silent solitude'…. This is the kind of style that might well be bred, perhaps could only be bred between the lower Ohio, the Mississippi and the Gulf by what our stylist would call irrevocable, vast, doomed, blind, final, clockless shame, guilt and total defeat. (pp. 16-17)
Stuck with the place, he looked not at it but through it, let his wild imagination rip, sublimated the actual (his biographer's excellent phrase in an excellent summary of his 'Great Discovery') and without, one feels, in the least realising what he was doing, started to create myths. Years after, Malcolm Cowley, his great admirer, defined the outcome magisterially: 'Essentially [Faulkner] is not a novelist … He is an epic or bardic poet in prose' [see CLC, Vol. 8]. As a guide to daily life in the American South at any period, his works are about as informative as Wuthering Heights would be to a Saudi Arabian contemplating a holiday in the Pennines.
If we are unsatisfied with these pointers from a sociologist-historian as to why he had to write as he did, let us turn to a philosopher. Asked once for his concept of Time, he said there isn't any. 'There is only the present moment in which I include the past and the future and that is eternity.' Sartre commented that Faulkner's work shows a man caught in a metaphysic of Time which by denying chronology denies freedom both to the present and the future: it embeds what we think of as an active present in an unending continuum that drowns it and us in timeless fate; castrates human potency; means that in our sense nothing ever happens, things merely recur. It is a view that would leave in any novel based on it small room for such wilful characters as we are familiar with in Balzac, or Stendhal, or Henry James, or Mark Twain. Malraux went so far as to say that Faulkner conceived his situations in a void without thinking of any character at all, pre-imagining 'l'écrasement des personnages inconnus'. By writing in terms of myth or saga he evaded this impasse, although in all the great myths—Danae, Atalanta, Orpheus, Midas, Eve—we appreciate the parallel human theme. In his very finest novel Faulkner wedded human theme and saga theme superbly. I refer to the saga of a white-skinned mulatto, partly hating, partly priding in his invisible black hood, who corrupts a middle-aged white woman who has come south to do good among the Blacks. He desires her, perhaps loves her, arouses desire in her chaste body, but feeling his precious hate being enfeebled by her autumnal passion, fills her with the most savage lust, transforms her into a lascivious trollop, hiding from him in cupboards, lying naked in the bushes for him to smell her out. The inevitable end comes when, either not knowing or caring that he is a Black, she tries to enrol him in a campaign to uplift his wretched likes. With his razor he all but decapitates her. Naturally he is duly lynched. Has there been any other novelist except Dostoevsky who could have conceived and written Light in August?
'A lost soul'? The view of an intellectual. Earlier, in 1945, Sartre had reported that 'pour les jeunes en France Faulker c'est un dieu'. But in that exciting hour of history, its symbol de Gaulle marching down the Champs-Elysées at the head of the victorious Allied troops, French students might have said anything in praise of America. Something in between? Perhaps a lost star wandering high among the fleets of stars, seeking, losing, finding his proper station from which to view and mark that postage stamp of earth, as he called it, that was fated to be his bit of the undefeated South.
It is only when we turn for relief from him to other American writers with more control that we think, yes, these are good but … and recall his intensity, his almost savage concentration, his almost volcanic rumblings and furious groanings, that we really feel how good and how bad he was, and again ask the gods why they had to give him so much genius and so little of the talent of the simplest craftsman. But where is the use? And why should we ask? Whatever else he did or failed to do, I have the feeling that he wrote in Light in August the first purely American novel, owing, as far as is possible in any created thing, nothing to the traditions of any other country or continent, a tree growing of its own energy out of the black earth of the Delta. If he really did that, then he is his own myth. He had heard the Furies beating their wings. (p. 17)
Sean O'Faolain, "Hate, Greed, Lust and Doom" (copyright © by Sean O'Faolain; appears here by permission of London Review of Books, Curtis Brown, Ltd. and the author), in London Review of Books, April 16 to May 6, 1981, pp. 16-17.
[Brooks, one of the most notable scholars of Faulkner, says of his William Faulkner: First Encounters: "[This book] has been written for the general reader and for the student coming to Faulkner for the first time." Brooks adds that he "limits himself" to discussions of theme, character, plot, and historical and fictional settings. The following excerpts from Brooks's introduction illustrate his main concerns throughout this lucid, informative analysis of Faulkner's major works.]
Most of us identify Faulkner with the South, and it is natural that we should do so, for his fiction is filled with references to its history, its geography, its customs; and his prose often employs its special idiom. Though there are exceptions, most of his great fiction has a Southern setting. Yet Faulkner's identification with the South can be misleading, for his value as a writer is not at all limited to what he can tell us about a particular regional culture. He was not a mere provincial in either time or space.
Thus, Faulkner differs radically from the typical Southern local colorists who preceded him by a generation. The local colorist in his crassest form is engaged in exploiting the local scene for the amused curiosity of the outsider. He stresses the differences between the "locals" and the national norm, his tacit assumption, of course, being that his reader represents the norm.
Even when the local colorist cherishes his region's differences and does not mean to hold them up to scorn, he is usually very much aware of his typical reader's assumption that the customs and attitudes depicted are different and even quaint. (p. 1)
How, then, does a writer like Faulkner, whose fiction is suffused with references to Southern history, folk ways, and attitudes, and whose characters' natural speech is the Southern idiom, whether in its cultivated or illiterate forms—how does Faulkner differ from the local colorist? The difference can be put simply: Faulkner's use of the local material is never allowed to become an end in itself. His ultimate aim, as he often tells us in his various interviews, is to talk about people—and he evidently meant by people, men and women in their universal humanity. (p. 2)
Using one's own environment ("what he knows," as Faulkner put it) in order to get at universal problems and relationships is very different from using the environment that one knows for its own sake or because it differs, interestingly or shockingly, from his reader's environment. For fiction, that difference is crucial.
True, the difference is sometimes blurred, and even when distinct it can be overlooked. A hasty or an insensitive reader will be likely to miss it altogether. Nevertheless, the ability to discern that difference will have everything to do with a reader's ability to appreciate fully a given piece of fiction and to take an accurate measure of its literary worth. It will have a great deal to do with the reader's enjoyment of Faulkner's work and it will make plain why so many critics at home and abroad regard him as one of the great novelists of our century.
Even so, it may seem odd that an introductory essay on Faulkner's work should begin by insisting on a principle that obviously applies to all fiction of genuine worth. The explanation lies in Faulkner's preoccupation with a region that is still not apprehended by the rest of the country as fully "American." Thus, the South's differences—real and imagined—from the rest of the country can prove to be a distraction.
An analogy may be useful here. Though Melville's masterpiece is entitled Moby-Dick, or the Whale, we do not read Melville primarily to learn about whales. Though Hawthorne's greatest novels are set in the Puritan New England of earlier centuries, we do not read The Scarlet Letter to learn about New England Puritanism. We read Hawthorne's novels because they set forth the human predicament in its most dramatic phases, or because, as Faulkner himself once put it with regard to his own basic aims, they show the human "heart in conflict with itself." It is true that in order to experience Melville's presentation of the human drama we may have to learn something about whaling; or with Hawthorne, to learn about the Puritan mind, but we do so in order to reach a more important goal. So also with Faulkner.
In short, Faulkner's world is worth the reader's possessing because his themes are finally universal human issues and his characters have a relevance to basic humanity. Nevertheless, Faulkner's world does have its own fascination, as even European readers have testified. Among other things, it points back to an earlier America. If Faulkner's world has lagged behind industrialized America, that very fact gives it a special interest. The family is still important, whether as a sustaining or a suffocating force. (In his novels, Faulkner does full justice to the family's blessed and its baleful aspects.)
In addition, the community is still in being. There is an almost instinctive consensus about basic issues. If the community also has its darker aspect in its tendency to suppress the rebel, it provides real resistance to the rebel who means business and is not merely posturing. His attempt to assert his individuality becomes no play-act, no mere pillow fight.
Faulkner's world is furthermore a world suffused with history. In it, history is not a series of far-off events. Battles were fought on Southern soil. (pp. 2-4)
Moreover, for the world depicted in Faulkner's fiction, evil is real and tragedy is close at hand. The South was the one part of America that had suffered defeat, and smashing defeat at that. In the South the typical American optimism had for decades been in short supply. In this regard, Faulkner's world is close to the world of Thomas Hardy's imagination or that of William Butler Yeats.
Faulkner writes, and often very sympathetically, of the older order of the antebellum plantation society. It was a society that valued honor, was capable of heroic action, and believed in courtesy and good manners. It had all the virtues and also many of the faults to which such a society was prone, and Faulkner, as the reader of this discussion of his fiction will discover, does justice to both….
Yet some of Faulkner's finest examples of heroism come from the ranks of his yeoman whites, most of whom neither owned slaves nor came from former slave-owning families. These yeomen are, by the way, as jealous of their honor as any of Faulkner's aristocrats, and some of them—V. K. Ratliff of The Hamlet, for instance—are as interesting and attractive as any characters that Faulkner ever created.
The blacks, on whose labor the older plantation system rested, are also very important in Faulkner's work. (p. 4)
Faulkner was properly cautious in trying not to impose his own ideas and sentiments on his black characters. He rarely, if ever, forgot that in describing such characters he was looking at them from the outside. But he treats them sympathetically, and fully accords them their human dignity.
Much the same might be said with regard to Faulkner's female characters. This point is worth making in view of the fact that the notion has got about that Faulkner was something of a misogynist and was really comfortable only with gray-haired matriarchs. A review of the whole of his fiction ought to dispel this illusion…. Faulkner admired such young women as Eula Varner in The Hamlet, Lena Grove in Light in August, Caddy Compson in The Sound and the Fury, and Judith Sutpen in Absalom, Absalom!.
Was there no period of development in Faulkner?… How did he learn his craft? Or did it come to him instinctively?
Faulkner possessed a great natural gift. The record shows that. His Soldiers' Pay (1926) is a remarkable first novel, and his first published short story, "A Rose for Emily" (1930), displays a brilliant fictional technique. But he definitely went through a period of growth and development which shows, among other things, a movement from a rather decadent Swinburnian romanticism to a robust acceptance of reality and a tough-minded appraisal of it. It also shows a shift from poetry, his acknowledged first love, to prose, albeit a rich and at times an even highly rhetorical prose, as his proper instrument. More than once, Faulkner called himself a "failed poet."
Yet a book which presumes to be no more than a brief introduction does not offer the possibility of providing a really useful account of Faulkner's development as a literary artist. Besides, most of us are not interested in the story of preparation and development unless we already have a lively sense of what that preparation and development came to. Hence I have limited my selections to the great achievements—what most people would regard as clearly his masterpieces. My only conscious concessions to other interests are to be found in my choice of a few of the stories, some of which I included for the sake of providing further aspects of Faulkner's world.
In limiting myself to the great works, I have been unfair to Faulkner's later career, for his career did not end in 1942 with the publication of Go Down, Moses. Novels were yet to come, novels such as The Wild Palms or The Mansion that contain some of Faulkner's most daring fictional experiments and some of his most accomplished writing. But if this book achieves its purpose in bringing new readers to Faulkner, such readers can explore for themselves both his later and his earlier fiction.
One further point ought to be made: is the reader to prepare himself to experience tragedy or comedy? He should not, of course, "prepare" himself for either. He should open his mind and imagination to what Faulkner is capable of providing him. He must not block out possibilities for either a tragic or a comic response by assuming in advance what response will be appropriate. Actually, the sensitive, open-minded reader will find both comedy and tragedy, and often both in the same novel. For Faulkner's vision of reality is broad enough to encompass both, and the presence of both is a testimony to the artist's honesty and integrity in presenting his characters. What the reader will not find is mawkish sentimentality or mere farce, nor will he find special pleading for a thesis or cause.
There is tragedy to be found in Faulkner, and his Absalom, Absalom! seems to me to approach more nearly to great tragedy than does any other twentieth-century American work. But Faulkner is also one of our great masters of comedy. The novice reader must not assume that all is somber and melancholy in Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County. There is gusto and laughter in which he is expected to join. (pp. 5-6)
Cleanth Brooks, in his William Faulkner: First Encounters (copyright © 1983 by Yale University), Yale University Press, 1983, 230 p.