Black feminism and the canon: Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! And Morrison's Beloved as Gothic Romances.
What such contradictory accounts of Faulkner's and Morrison's work show is that the cultural politics of the New Criticism, which first established Faulkner's reputation in the 1940s, and that of Black Studies, especially black feminism, which recognized Morrison's value in the 1980s, differ markedly. That is, the New Criticism supported the Southern Agrarian movement and the modernist avant-garde and condemned the "progress," industry, liberalism, science, wealth, bureaucracy, and democratic equality of the Yankee North (Jancovich 71-101), whereas black feminism describes the history of African American women, including their experience of oppression and liberation, and their neglect and misconstruction by established black and white scholars or critics. To explain the impact of this historical transformation, I will suggest that to read Morrison as a great artist is to revise or revalue Faulkner and her other precursors; at the same time, to revise her precursors is to underwrite her status as an original artist. Gothic romances like Bram Stocker's Dracula and Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights provide the intertextual conventions in terms of which I will explain the revaluation of Morrison's Beloved and Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! in particular. Although Absalom, Absalom! has been lauded as the greatest American novel (Kuyk 2), I will suggest that Beloved is a more profound romance than Absalom, Absalom! because Beloved depicts a more significant horror and because it repudiates Absalom, Absalom!'s modernist pessimism and affirms the African American community and its traditions. Traditional critics repudiate such generic interpretations on the grounds that Faulkner and Morrison transcend what Philip Weinstein calls their "distinctive racial and gender positioning" and, far from failing "their potential, ... achieve it, becoming Faulkner and Morrison" (162). My revaluation opposes such conventional notions of literature's formal autonomy and acknowledges the changing conditions of modern literary study.
The conventions of gothic romances include multiple narrators, tormented lovers, dominating figures, spiritual exorcisms, and haunted houses. More importantly, insofar as the conventions herald the triumph of good over evil or the victory of divine providence, the gothic romance assumes that history or providence, not the romantic imagination, improves social life. An epistolary novel, Dracula, which includes the diverse narratives of Lucy, Mina, Jonathan Harker, Van Helsing, and others, produces a remarkably coherent account in which the vampire finds peace, and western civilization is saved, when Lord Godalming or Quincy Morris drives a stake through a vampire's heart. In Wuthering Heights, the narrators, who include Lockwood, the London resident, and Nelly Dean, the practical servant, also produce a remarkably coherent account. In it the frustrated passion of Heathcliff and Catherine, whose death ends her torment but not Heathcliff's; the degradation and revenge of Heathcliff, who gradually comes to dominate the Grange and the Heights; and the triumphs of Cathy and Hareton, the second generation, show that in a providential sense the history of the Linton and Earnshaw families, not the romantic imagination, explains their improvement.
Absalom, Absalom! and Beloved also include multiple narrators, tormented lovers, dominating figures, and haunted houses but do not share this providential view of history. Rather, Absalom, Absalom! and Beloved adopt the Aristotelian belief that the artistic imagination characterizes social life more profoundly than the mundane study of historical fact or providential design. The conflicting multiple narratives of Absalom, Absalom! emphasize the speculative character of its history, whereas Beloved retells the true story of Margaret Garner, an escaped slave who killed her daughter rather than allow a slave owner to claim her under the fugitive slave law; however, the multiple narratives of both novels imply that the artistic imagination recreates the living reality of the dead past more profoundly than factual or providential histories do. (2)
To explain the dramatic rise and tragic fall of Sutpen and his family and heirs, the narratives of Absalom, Absalom! provide alternative visions or competing views, rather than a coherent account. Raised in a devout Protestant household, Rosa Coldfield tells a gothic horror story in which Sutpen arises from nowhere, builds Sutpen's Hundred, dominates the town, and destroys her, her sister Ellen, and her sister's children. Rosa considers Sutpen a demon because of his unknown origins, his status as an independent outsider, and his motive in marrying her sister Ellen and having children--he wished to establish a dynasty in patriarchal fashion. Moreover, Rosa never understands why Sutpen gets Henry to kill Bon, since the murder sends Henry, his only male heir, into hiding and destroys the dynasty Sutpen hoped to establish. Nor does she understand why, with his design in ruins and the South in defeat, he offers to marry her; rather, she condemns herself and her fate and excoriates his demonic character because, as Mr. Compson tells us, Sutpen stipulates that before the ceremony can take place, she must produce a male heir.
Mr. Compson retells Sutpen's story in a more realistic fashion but voices a fin-de-siecle decadence. For instance, to explain what destroys Sutpen and his family, Mr. Compson blames his fear of incest. Sutpen got Henry to destroy Bon because Sutpen could not tolerate Bon's marrying his stepsister. In a similar fashion, Mr. Compson takes Rosa's repudiation of Sutpen to show how women make an absolute ideal of virginity. Like Rosa, Mr. Compson admits, however, that the facts of Sutpen's life and family just do not add up.
Quentin/Shreve put together a liberal expose in which Southern fears of miscegenation explain Sutpen's demise and perhaps the South's as well. Recounting the story Sutpen told General Compson while they pursued Sutpen's escaping French architect, Quentin and Shreve say that Sutpen, born into a poor mountain family, turns himself into a rich, powerful plantation owner because he suffered degradation: a black slave with a "balloon" face would not allow him to enter the front door of a plantation. After debating whether or not to avenge himself on the plantation owner, Sutpen commits himself to a grand design: he travels to the Caribbean, where he acquires substantial wealth, marries and then disavows Eulalia Bon and his son, buys Indian land in Mississippi, builds Sutpen's Hundred, and marries Ellen Coldfield, daughter of the respectable and pious Goodhue Coldfield. To explain why Sutpen forces his son Henry to kill Charles Bon, Quentin and Shreve surmise that Charles Bon is the son whom Sutpen disavowed when he learned that Eulalia Bon, his first wife, was part black. They say that, even though Sutpen, who engages his slaves in hand-to-hand combat, is egalitarian, he cannot accept Eulalia Bon as his wife, admit that Charles Bon is his son or permit him to marry Judith because, if Sutpen allows the Bons' black blood to mingle with Sutpen's white blood, he would violate the Old South's code of honor. To explain why his loyal servant Wash Jones kills him with a scythe, Quentin and Shreve also blame his patriarchal design. Because of it, he enrages Jones when he rejects Wash's daughter, whom he has impregnated, after she gives birth to a baby girl.
While the second generation of Wuthering Heights overcomes the limitations of the first, Sutpen's family degenerates after the Civil War. As Quentin and Shreve also suggest, Sutpen's Hundred is haunted by Henry, who returns to live his last days in the wrecked mansion hidden like a ghost, and by Charles Etienne Bon and Jim Bond, the descendants of Charles Bon. More loving than Sutpen was, Judith and Clytie, Sutpen's black daughter, retrieve Charles Etienne Bon from New Orleans and raise him as a son, but, just as the mansion is boarded up and left to decay, so he flaunts his mixed blood and dies of disease, while his son Jim Bond degenerates into idiocy, yowling insanely when Clytie, to save Henry from Rosa, burns down the mansion.
Since Faulkner's revisions of Absalom, Absalom! emphasize the narratives of Quentin and Shreve, who have the uncanny clairvoyance of Darl in As I Lay Dying (Langford 3), readers usually credit Quentin's and Shreve's account the most--Cleanth Brooks even argues that Henry told Quentin the truth during the night in which Quentin drove Rosa to Sutpen's Hundred; still, Shreve, who comes from Canada, not Mississippi, shares enough of Quentin's narrative to remind the reader that, like Rosa's gothic and Mr. Compson's naturalistic narrative, Quentin's and Shreve's liberal narrative is also speculative.
Beloved's narrators, who recount their painful experience of plantation slavery and its aftermath, also produce indeterminate accounts, but, in keeping with the novel's theme of "rememory," the narrators try not to remember what they end up remembering most fully. For instance, Paul D kept his painful memories at the Sweet Home plantation and on a chain gang locked up in what the novel calls "a tin cup" until he got together with Sethe, who brought them out. Sethe tries unsuccessfully to forget her sexual abuse and subsequent escape from Sweet Home, her mother's neglect of her and death by hanging, the difficult birth of Denver, and her murder of her daughter; but the advent of Paul D and of Beloved moves her to remember these painful events. Beloved remembers little at first but eventually expresses traumatic feelings of abandonment and isolation. Terrified by Sethe, Denver initially goes deaf but eventually saves the family when Sethe's and Beloved's destructive relationship drives her to despair. Less one-sided than Faulkner, who does not allow Charles Bon or Clytie much of a narrative, Morrison also gives narratives to Edward Bodwin, who remembers what fun he had fighting slavery and where in 124 Bluestone he buried his toys, and School-teacher, who regrets his nephews' unscientific manner of training slaves.
Moreover, like Sutpen's Hundred, 124 Bluestone is haunted. The ghost of Beloved, the baby whom Sethe murdered when Schoolteacher came to reclaim her and her children, torments Denver and drives away her two brothers. Paul D, who arrives at 124 eighteen years after the murder of the baby, exorcizes the ghost and gives the family a future together; nonetheless, a lost teenage girl who calls herself Beloved reincarnates the ghost and dominates 124. Unlike Dracula, Heathcliff, or Sutpen, this girl owns little besides her clothes and her scars; still, she forces Paul D to have sex with her even though the sexual intercourse humiliates him and drives him away from Sethe. With Paul D gone, she moves Sethe to give up the "outside world" and to assume she reincarnates the murdered baby. Overcome with guilt, Sethe stops working and ministers to Beloved's unrestrained desires, so much so that Beloved, pregnant with Paul D's child, grows big, while Sethe gets thin and wasted.
This demonic or supernatural conception of Beloved has led some critics to call her a succubus, incubus, or vampire (Plasa 93-94; Barnett 193-94). Not only the ghost of the murdered baby but also Sethe's experience in the clearing, where unknown hands nearly strangle her, validate this view. So do the mythical footprints that people find in the forest after Beloved has run off, footprints that anticipate the wild woman of Jazz. This view is qualified, at the same time, by the male perspective of Paul D and Stamp Paid, a former slave devoted to the community. They say, as Sethe did at first, that Beloved does not reincarnate the child whom Sethe killed; rather, a slave owner kept her in his home and sexually abused her until she killed him and escaped.
The demonic conception is also qualified by Beloved's own narrative, which does not describe her murder or her return from "the other side": rather, it depicts timeless moments in which she suffered a painful isolation and separation from her people. Even though it has been many years since the Middle Passage, when captured slaves were sometimes barbarically drowned, she describes a traumatic scene of such drowning. As she says,
They are not crouching now we are they are floating on the water ... I cannot find my pretty teeth I see the dark face that is going to smile at me the iron circle is around our neck ... she goes in the water with my face ... there is no one to want me to say my name I wait on the bridge because she is under it[.] (212)
Like those already "floating on the water," her mother, whose "dark face that is going to smile" at her, stops crouching and showing her "pretty teeth" and "goes in the water." As a result, Beloved experiences a traumatic abandonment: "there is no one to want me to say my name." In general, unlike Dracula or Wuthering Heights, the multiple narratives of both Absalom, Absalom! and Beloved show diverse, indeterminate perspectives undermining the stories' providential import; still, the horror of Absalom, Absalom! stems not only from Sutpen's single-minded pursuit of his design but also from the tragedy that, if Quentin and Shreve are right, the danger of miscegenation and the defeat of Sutpen and the South represent; more profoundly, the horror of Beloved stems from Beloved's sexual abuse or murder, her traumatizing abandonment, and slavery's forgotten brutality.
Absalom, Absalom! depicts less of a horror; in addition, in undermining gothic fiction's providential import, Absalom, Absalom! dismisses the South's historical progress. As Mr. Compson points out, except for General Compson's friendship, Sutpen never overcomes his outsider status or wins the acceptance of the community, which boycotts his wedding in protest. More importantly, the South's patriarchal ideals destroy Sutpen and his family as well as plantation slavery, yet Quentin, who struggles to find some redemptive import in Sutpen's life, concludes only that he does not hate the South. More negatively, Shreve, who recounts Jim Bond's idiotic yowling, warns us about Sutpen's as well as slavery's progeny: "in time the Jim Bonds are going to conquer the western hemisphere" (AA 302).
Morrison's The Bluest Eye shares this pessimism, for the community excludes Pecola after Cholly rapes her and, despite her blue eyes, she degenerates into insanity. By contrast, in Sula the indiscriminate sexual activity of the title character changes the community for the better; similarly, Beloved's excesses force Sethe, her family, and her community to remember their experiences and to improve themselves. For example, after Sethe becomes so obsessed with Beloved that she stops working or taking care of the family, Denver, who recognizes Beloved's destructiveness, leaves home to find help. The community condemned the murder of Beloved, ostracized Sethe and her family, resented the extravagant picnic of Baby Suggs, Denver's deceased grandmother, but remains appreciative of her preaching. Thanks to the community's ensuing help, Denver gets her family food, finds employment at several houses, and may even gain a male companion and an education at Oberlin College. More importantly, Ella and other community women, who do not wish to remember that, raped by slave masters, they too killed their unwanted babies, do not want such ghosts to come back and haunt them. To exorcise Beloved, these community women go to 124 to chant. Even though Denver stops Sethe from killing Bodwin, who rides up at the same time, Sethe's attack on him frees her from Beloved, who, abandoned again, runs off in despair. Paul D and Stamp Paid laugh at Sethe's aborted attack on Bodwin, but this time she fights the oppressor, not her offspring, and frees herself. Ironically, once Beloved is gone, Paul D feels grateful to her because she took him to the "ocean-deep place he once belonged to" (264). Moreover, after Sethe retreats to her bed, Paul D comes back to reestablish their relationship and to rebuild her self-esteem: "You your best thing, Sethe. You are" (273). While Sutpen and his family succumb to the South's plantation system, whose ideals move them to destroy each other, Sethe and her family and community resist its effects and establish positive relationships.
Although Absalom, Absalom! and Beloved rework the conventions of a gothic romance, including the multiple narrators, dominating figures, tormented lovers, and troublesome ghosts, Absalom, Absalom! and Beloved present the fractured, divided perspectives making history an imaginative reinterpretation, not plain historical fact or divine providence; just the same, Beloved depicts a more profound horror and a more positive community--it overcomes evil and brings improvement, instead of degenerating into idiocy and justifying a modernist pessimism, as Sutpen and his family do.
Moreover, this revaluation of Faulkner and Morrison's novels overcomes the commonly held opposition of art and politics because it rejects the autonomous or reified character of literary texts and supports the humanities' new Black, Feminist, Gay, and Cultural Studies. By contrast, the many studies comparing Faulkner and Morrison treat them as equally profound and creative geniuses who rise above their cultural contexts and grasp the common truths of our human nature or racial and sexual contexts. (3) As Weinstein says, "questions of canon evaluation amount to nothing more than a power debate among contending subgroups' claims" (162).
Such views repudiate the intertextual generic conventions of the gothic romance and defend the autonomous or reified character of Faulkner's or Morrison's art; however, the reception of the novels reveals the cultural politics justifying the revaluation of them. For instance, in the 1930s, Faulkner's work was attacked on the grounds that it indulged sensationalist interests, neglected social justice, and fostered modernist absurdity. In the early 1940s, his major fiction was out of print, and, desperate for cash, he churned out short stories and Hollywood film scripts. As I noted, the American New Critics, who established his high reputation after WWII, supported the Southern Agrarian movement and the modernist avant-garde and condemned the "progress," industry, liberalism, science, wealth, bureaucracy, and democratic equality of the Yankee North (Jancovich 71-101). Methodologically, their influential faith in close textual analysis justified the growing specialization of literary study, which, once the model of the research university was established, divided into independent fields and opposed the classical methods of the older generalist and the public sphere and generic types of popular culture (Graff 10-12).
A founding member of the New Critics, Cleanth Brooks, who first argued that Absalom, Absalom! was Faulkner's greatest work (Parker 15), says that Sutpen is not a typical Southerner but a Yankee outsider. Ignoring the community's traditions, he pursues his private ends in the name of abstractions like his "design" but remains innocent because he never learns anything from his experiences (295-324). (4) In this way the novel does not simply depict the South alone; rather, universal in scope, the novel critiques modern rationalism, abstraction, and detachment. Moreover, Brooks claims that, far from justifying a modernist pessimism, the second generation of Henry and Judith overcomes Sutpen's failings and makes significant choices, as Catherine and Hareton do in Wuthering Heights. Brooks still maintains, however, that the work is not a gothic romance but a unique work whose intricate structure enhances its climactic moments.
Like Brooks, Irving Howe also defends the novel's formal autonomy, but he adopts the cultural politics of the New York intellectuals, who, to secure positions in the university, aligned themselves with the New Criticism, turning high modern art into what Lionel Trilling called "a polemical concept" (94). Repudiating their youthful Marxism, they condemned the ideological conformity and cultural decline imposed by academic disciplines, Stalinist intellectuals, popular culture, and, eventually, Black and Women's Studies (Leitch 109-14; Shumway 279-87).
In keeping with this cultural politics, Howe, who provided what Lawrence Schwartz terms "the sharpest definition of Faulkner's role in the 'vital center' of politics and culture" (208), grants that the novel has the conventional generic features of a gothic romance but like Brooks claims that the novel's intricate structure emphasizes its climactic moments and its moral truth. More precisely, he argues that the novel parodies the generic conventions of the gothic romance, which, rather than a structuring device expressing the novel's modernist pessimism, enables Faulkner to establish his distance and to preserve his autonomy. Howe grants that Sutpen lacks self-recognition, as Brooks says, but argues that, as a tragic hero, he "strives for large ends, actively resists his fate, and fails through an inner flaw" (74-75). Moreover, his tragic failure illustrates the novel's moral truth: in Howe's terms, "[H]is failure cannot be understood without judging the moral quality of his design. Sutpen's evil and heartlessness flow from his ambition to own and dominate men" (77).
Contrary to scholars who complain that the New Criticism established a professional, textual approach destroying literature's subversive force, (5) the overlapping interpretations of Brooks and Howe suggest that at least initially the New Criticism, along with the New York intellectuals, exposed the tragic moral flaws of the enterprising bourgeois individualist. By contrast, subsequent interpretations of Absalom, Absalom! defend the novel's formal autonomy and/or moral truth but, except for the feminists, eschew any cultural politics.
Some of these later critics say that the novel's stylistic tensions between the "static word" and "dynamic life" explain the moral truth that Quentin and Shreve discover. In Faulkner: Myth and Motion (1968), Richard P. Adams claims, for example, that it "emerges from the pervasive counterpoint of static, ideal aristocracy against the concrete dynamism of rapid, chaotic, and often violent change" (213). (6) This opposition between the "pervasive counterpoint" and the "concrete dynamism" breaks down Howe's generic distinction between gothic style and moral truth. Other critics also maintain that the novel asserts a universal moral truth but, adopting a Freudian viewpoint, argue that the novel depicts the deadly familial rivalries whereby the son struggles against his father and, upon becoming a father, opposes his son in turn. (7) Still others grant that Sutpen means to make himself his own father, as the Freudians say, but in a critical feminist manner maintain that, along with Rosa's hysteria, the textual devices of the novel reveal the irrational misogyny of the patriarchal family. (8) Still other critics grant that the novel critiques Yankee rationalism, as Brooks says; depicts Sutpen as a tragic hero, as Howe says; reveals moral truth as style, as the formal critics say; and faults Sutpen's desire to make himself his own father, as the psychoanalytic and feminist critics claim; however, to defend the novel's aesthetic autonomy, these critics argue that the novel anticipates and undermines all such interpretations of Sutpen's life. (9)
Yet other critics defend the historical objectivity of Faulkner, rather than the formal autonomy of his texts. That is, they argue that what reveals the moral truth is Faulkner's critique of the South, not the familial struggles of a patriarchal society nor the stylistic devices of the autonomous text. These historical critics argue that, contrary to Adams, Sutpen does not suffer a mythic fall from an Edenic communal life when he is not allowed to enter the front door of the plantation; rather, he grasps the plantation aristocracy's "corruptions of labor" and "idleness of character" (Railey 116; Jehlin 60-61). Moreover, these critics claim that the novel critiques what Melvin Backman calls the "post Civil war legend of a humane gentlemanly Southern aristocracy" and depicts the socio-historical divisions and conflicts of the South and even the arbitrary character of racial divisions. As Kevin Railey says, "Telling a more comprehensive tale than the one each of his narrators tells," Faulkner "accurately portrays the historical Southern world and implicitly criticizes and judges this world that came to accept the Sutpens rather than the Bons."10 Whether by critiquing Southern society, asserting a universal moral truth, or resisting interpretations of Sutpen's life, these critics show that the novel preserves its formal autonomy or historical or psychological objectivity and implicitly or explicitly resists the speculative narratives and the generic conventions of the gothic romance as well as the reader's interpretive practices.
Like Barbara Christian, who says that Morrison's work needs no validation by a "western White literary father," critics who restrict accounts of Beloved to African American historical or rhetorical contexts thereby establish an equally unstable opposition between the novel's formal autonomy or historical objectivity and its readers' cultural politics. (11) The difference is that in Morrison's case it is black feminism, not the New Criticism or the New York intellectuals, that established the high status of Morrison's work, which, in turn, legitimated the oppositional character of black feminism, including its revaluation of Faulkner's work.
In the 1960s and 1970s, when, thanks to the student rebellions and Civil Rights activists, Black Studies was established in major Anglo-American universities, African American literary criticism underwent what Houston Baker, echoing Thomas Kuhn, terms a "paradigm shift": the Black Power movement gave rise to a new Black Aesthetics, which dismissed the realist belief that African American literature adhered to common American ideals and which identified African American literature with peculiarly African American experience, culture, language, and history. Baker adds that this paradigm shift "made it possible for literary-critical and literary-theoretical investigators to ... include previously 'unfamiliar' objects in an expanded (and sharply modified) American artworld" (Baker 76-77). (12) Black feminism, not black aestheticism, first established Morrison's reputation; nonetheless, such a paradigm shift explains how Morrison's fiction came to be included "in an expanded (and sharply modified) American artworld."
As Nancy Peterson points out, the evolution of black feminist criticism enabled Morrison's novels to receive in the 1980s the attention that they so terribly lacked in the 1970s (5). Ironically, Morrison has substantially contributed to this evolution. As an editor at the influential Random House, she published the writings of Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis, Gayle Jones, and others whose work contributed markedly to the black feminist discourse producing her reputation (McKay 5). (13) Moreover, like T. S. Eliot, whose revaluation of John Donne and the Metaphysical Poets supported his modernist poetry, she has produced Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, and other collections of nonfiction essays that foster the black feminist concerns and issues justifying her work.
Baker goes on, however, to defend the new formal or figural black critics, whom he calls "reconstructionists" because they "reconstruct" pedagogy or criticism as a matter of close textual analysis. While black feminists like Barbara Christian or Barbara Smith condemned this formal criticism because it ignored or misjudged the work of black women and sought middle-class acceptance and careerist success, (14) critics have dismissed this black cultural politics and, at least in Morrison's case, defended her work's formal autonomy or historical objectivity.
For example, many critics maintain that Beloved is rightly understood as a slave narrative that voices both the male and the female sexual abuse and torment repressed by traditional slave narratives. (15) As Elizabeth Fox-Genovese points out, although Beloved is more graphic than Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, both works describe women's experiences of plantation slavery,: "[i]t is as if the example of abuse from which Jacobs had so carefully distanced Linda Brent [her narrator] had come to life" (106). Fox-Genovese admits that, unlike slave narratives, Beloved employs multiple, nonlinear narratives, but she still emphasizes the narrative's historical insight into plantation slavery. Such accounts forcefully articulate the harrowing African American experience of slavery, especially the female sexual experience that historians have been reluctant to discuss, but minimize the importance of the novel's multiple narratives and other gothic conventions because, as Molly Travis points out, they sustain "our institutional obsession with ambiguity and undecidability" (85).
By contrast, figural, literary, or psychoanalytic accounts, which emphasize the disruptive effects of the multiple narratives, preserve the novel's textual autonomy but minimize the socio-historical contexts of African American life. Catherine Kodat claims, for instance, that Absalom, Absalom! and Beloved "force us to struggle with what is most resistant to expression (the nature and purpose of Beloved herself, the ultimate ramifications of Sutpen's design) and which, in its resistance, fuels some of the novels' most breathtaking technical accomplishments" (183). She argues that these "technical accomplishments" do not preclude profound historical insight, but the history in question is mainly that of the modernist movement, whose "pure" white character Beloved violates (189). Similarly, Phillip Novak grants that Absalom, Absalom! and Beloved both "elucidate a central traumatic event--the killing of Sethe's 'crawling-already baby' mirroring, in this structural sense, the killing of Charles Bon" (208). Both novels present themselves as generic and psychological types: "a ghost story, a murder mystery, and a process of psychotherapy--perhaps even of exorcism--carried out at the cultural level" (206). Novak concludes, however, that neither novel successfully reveals the meaning of the traumatic event or depicts the historical truth: "in setting itself up as the unveiling of a mystery that it nonetheless refuses to disclose, Beloved ..., like Absalom, Absalom!, presents itself structurally as the production of an absence, as the marking of a loss" (210). Novak grants that, unlike Absalom, Absalom!, Beloved reveals the cause of this absence--the slaveowning South's drive to destroy the slave's cultural memory, but his deconstruction of the novels' techniques ultimately affirms their untranslateable autonomy, not their historical insights.
More positive figural or rhetorical accounts examine the challenging role of the reader, the historical or mythopoetic significance of mothering, or the repression of traumatic memories or of the characters' subjectivity. For example, in an essay reprinted several times, Ashraf Rushdy characterizes Beloved as what Henry Louis Gates calls a "speakerly text" in which "[t]he scenes of hearing the mother's tongue, understanding the mother's code, knowing the mother's history--these are themselves the very enactment of an ongoing generational oral transmission" (Rushdy 138). (16) This claim forcefully articulates the novel's rhetorical practices and their oral roots but says little about the novel's gothic conventions. Moreover, like Faulkner's defenders, such accounts may go on to ignore or condemn academic or cultural institutions like Black Studies or black feminist criticism. For instance, Linda Krumholz praises the novel's fragmented plot and shifting narrative voice because it produces an engaged, "healing" notion of historical memory. At the same time, Krumholz faults academic histories because they adopt the "linguistic objectivity and scientific method" of Schoolteacher in order to mask their political motivations (85). (17) Such claims ignore the institutional divisions of literary study, which include not only traditional academic methods but also the black feminist criticism that established Morrison's reputation.
In short, most accounts of Faulkner's or Morrison's art set up a debilitating opposition between textual autonomy and historical truth, on the one hand, and the reader's generic conventions and cultural politics on the other. Assuming that "questions of canon evaluation amount to nothing more than a power debate among contending subgroups' claims," as Weinstein says, they treat Faulkner and Morrison as equally profound and creative geniuses who rise above their cultural contexts and implicitly or explicitly repudiate established programs and studies. By contrast, I have argued that, while Beloved and Absalom, Absalom! both depict gothic romances, Faulkner's novel shares the modernist disillusionment with liberal notions of progress and freedom, whereas Morrison's novel forcefully suggests that the community can overcome these horrors and reintegrate its alienated members. Since Beloved proves the better romance, it justifies the black feminism supporting it even as it denies the autonomy of both African American and traditional criticism.
(1) Kolmerton, who is editor of Unflinching Gaze: Morrison and Faulkner Re-Envisioned, adds "no reader of Faulkner will ever read him in the same way after encountering the works of Morrison." See also Catherine Gunther Kodat, who claims that a large part of the new "historical" Faulkner "arises from the interaction of Faulkner's novels with works like Beloved" (196), and Philip Weinstein, who says that Faulkner and Morrison "are both major novelists of racial turmoil ... each is extraordinarily invested in imagining American racial dynamics" (xix). For an earlier discussion of Faulkner's critique of slavery, see Melvin Backman.
(2) For Morrison's account of how she means to reach the "interior life" of the slaves recorded in historical records, see Plasa, 43-47; for an account of Beloved as both a neo-slave narrative and a gothic romance, see Bernard Bell, who calls it a "womanist neo-slave narrative" (59) and "an extraordinarily effective Gothic blend of postmodernism and romance" (68).
(3) Weinstein recognizes that "Morrison ... refuses the plot of tragic impass to which modernist forms tend to lead Faulkner" (178), but considers it just another sign of their different "cultural positioning." Bloom considers "the ideologies of political correctness ... deeply embedded in Beloved" (introd. 2). Other critics assume that the similar themes or subjects of Faulkner and Morrison shows their aesthetic transcendence. For example, Carolyn Denard says that Faulkner and Morrison both depict those "other" Americans, those whom Morrison calls the "discredited." "... For Faulkner, the discredited are the defeated southern whites.... Morrison's discredited are American blacks, with slave and sharecropper pasts." The "great merit" of Faulkner and Morrison's work is that they imbue their subjects with a mythical "import and still ... question, transform, and enlarge the mythical tradition to which they believe all history is connected" (21-22). John Duvall says that Faulkner and Morrison both treat outsiders; oral, blues, and folk traditions; and miscegenation, racism, or "colorism" (9-13). Catherine Gunther Kodat says that "Absalom, Absalom! and Beloved not only represent African-American history artistically: they comment upon the history of artistically representing African-Americans" (184). Michael Hogan focuses "upon Sutpen's mansion and 124 as fictional manifestations of Lincoln's American 'house'" and reads "both houses as spaces defined by individual and communal identity as well as by gender" (168).
(4) See also Poirier.
(5) Richard Ohmann argues, for example, that, to practice a genuinely radical politics, literary critics must disavow not just the New Criticism but the whole "bourgeois" institution of literary studies as well (85-88). Similarly, Paul Bove claims that, "fundamentally conservative, even reactionary," practical criticism "cannot be the ground for an oppositional intellectual practice, because it must trivialize history if it hopes to minimize the importance of change so that it can manage and perhaps even encourage the forgetting of social and gender difference" (53-55).
(6) See also Lind and Vickery.
(7) John T. Irwin claims, for example, that Quentin finds the story of Henry, Judith, and Bon so fascinating because it parallels the story of Quentin, Caddy, and Dalton Ames. Just as Quentin's desire to kill Ames and restore the Compson family honor shows an incestuous desire for Caddy, so Henry's killing Bon and preserving the Sutpen family honor shows an incestuous desire for Judith. Quentin finds the story of Sutpen equally fascinating because Sutpen means to make himself his own father by besting the plantation owner whom he takes as a surrogate father and by besting his sons whose claims on him he denies or rejects. Similarly, Quentin means to defeat his father and remake himself by telling a better narrative than his father does (151-58). See also Bleikasten 137-40.
(8) For example, Carolyn Porter says that the traumatic incident whereby Sutpen decides to become a plantation owner illustrates the ways in which patriarchy perpetuates itself not by the son's identifying with his personal father but by his preserving the father's mastery, what Lacan calls the realm of the symbolic. Indeed, Sutpen adheres to the father's law so strictly that he makes Henry kill Bon and wreck his design (194). Moreover, the outrage of Rosa, who defends the lost pleasures of virgins and the mothers with no sons, shows that patriarchy grants women only the positions of wife and mother, virgin or prostitute (193-94) See also Gwin 63-121.
(9) James Guetti claims, for example, that the contrasting narratives show that Faulkner considers experience beyond human understanding (65; Duncan 96), while Christine de Montauzon maintains that the novel accommodates the diverse interpretive methods of diverse readers only to subvert them and reassert the openness or irreducible character that indicates Faulkner's genius (275-76).
(10) Like Brooks, Railey maintains that Sutpen fails because he is "been unable to check" his "deep-seated individualism" (122), but Railey claims that the novel's socio-historical conflict is between a Jeffersonian liberalism, whereby those individuals who, like Supten, possess "natural" virtues are free to rise in the social system, and a hierarchic Southern paternalism, which ruled poor whites and enslaved or freed blacks by making poor whites feel superior to enslaved blacks. Railey even takes the narrators' speculations about Bon's mixed blood to show how arbitrary Faulkner considers racial differences.
(11) As Barbara Christian asks Morrison, "What is the purpose of securing a link between you and William Faulkner? ... Is it that you ... must have a Western white literary father?" ("Layered" 20). Morrison herself opposes Anglo-American contexts of interpretation because she fears that they produce superficial readings (Mobley 18-19). Morrison also admits, however, that the work of Faulkner, who, along with Virginia Woolf, was the subject of her master's thesis, has influenced her (Duvall 4-5).
(12) Similarly, Barbara Herrnstein Smith says that a text may be rediscovered as an "unjustly neglected masterpiece" when "different of its properties and possible functions become foregrounded by a new set of subjects with emergent interests and purposes" (qtd. in Richter 1341).
(13) Richard Ohmann says that Random House publications were much more likely than other publications to be reviewed in The New York Times Book Review or some other prestigious review or magazine. Moreover, a novel that, thanks to Random House's extraordinary influence, has been positively reviewed is "likely to draw the attention of academic critics in more specialized academic journals ... and by this route make its way into college curricula, where the very context--course title, academic setting, methodology--gave it de facto recognition as literature" (75). Ohmann adds that the "college classroom and the academic journal have become in our society the final arbiters of literary merit, and even of survival. It is hard to think of a novel more than twenty-five years old ... that still commands a large readership outside of school and college" (75).
(14) See Barbara Christian, "The Race for Theory," 51-63; Joyce Joyce 335-44; Michele Wallace 118-31; and Barbara Smith 122-26.
(15) In a frequently reprinted essay, Marilyn Mobley also considers Beloved a modern slave narrative which "exposes the unsaid of the narratives, the psychic subtexts" (20), but she argues that "Morrison uses the trope of memory to revise the genre of the slave narrative" (19). By means of this trope, Mobley too forcefully describes the novel's historical importance, what she terms "the psychic consequences of slavery for women, who, by their very existence, were both the means and the source of production" (20); however, she goes on to equate memory and narrative. That is, memory acquires the "dialogic characteristics" which Bakhtin attributes to narrative as well as its "imaginative capacity to construct and to reconstruct the significance of the past" (20). See also Barnett 196-97, and Jill Matus 104-05.
(16) Similarly, Linda Krumholz argues that Beloved reconceptualizes the African American experience of plantation slavery as rituals promoting a "healing process for the characters, the reader, and the author" (79). The fragmented multiple narratives impel the reader to reconstruct the story and to participate in the healing, a process that, Krumholz says, "parallels Sethe's psychological recovery: Repressed fragments of the (fictionalized) personal and historical past are retrieved and reconstructed" (81). See also David Lawrence, who takes the novel to recognize that the authority governing one's body is closely tied to authority over one's language and its codes; as he says, "Woven into the dense texture of the novel, ... the interaction of language and body underlies the collective confrontation with the ghosts of memory" (46). See also Caroline Rody, who claims that "[i]n the jealous longing of the abandoned daughter, the novel figures its relationship to the unknown ancestress-muse of the African-American women's literary renaissance" (170).
(17) Similarly, Rushdy considers the resurrection and articulation of the unjustly killed Beloved Morrison's "greatest achievement" because it criticizes the traditional academic history that "excluded her and her rebellious spirit" (138). Denise Heinze also claims that, because of Morrison's double consciousness, her novels subverted middle-class values and still impressed the literary establishment even though its values "perpetuate the system" (4-5). See also Sally Keenan, who says Morrison may well be a token black feminist author whom the establishment uses to show how liberal and tolerant it is (qtd. in Plasa 118-19).
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|Publication:||The Faulkner Journal|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2004|
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