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"The dark land talking the voiceless speech": Faulkner and "Native Soil." (Special Issue: William Faulkner)

Beginning with Sartoris I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it.

In dealing with the motif of "native soil," to which Faulkner refers in his famous interview with Jean Stein, critics have usually emphasized what is "native" or specifically Southern about the country against the background of which he portrays so many of his characters. But the "soil" in Faulkner's novels also exists outside of a specific regional context. It is evoked as "the implacable and immemorial earth" Lena Grove feels in Light in August(1), or as "the fluid and abstract earth" in The Hamlet(2); it is both "the kind land" Bayard Sartoris contemplates in Flags in the Dust(3) and the "opaque, slow and violent land" addressed by Doc Peabody in As I Lay Dying.(4) Its shape is protean, and it clearly provides more than just the setting of Faulkner's novels. just how it functions and what, beyond a Southern element, it contributes to his fiction, has yet to be established.(5)

It is important to remember that Faulkner was by no means unique when he claimed allegiance to his "native soil." In the 1930s, the Nashville Agrarians were writing about matters of the soil. Earlier, Sherwood Anderson, to whom, as he said, Faulkner owed his discovery of his native material as the proper subject of his fiction, had dealt extensively with "the fertile earth." So had Willa Cather. At the same time, writers in Germany were paying tribute to the idea of a "blood-and-soil" literature, a concept quickly seized upon and ideologically exploited by the National Socialists. Other Europeans also embraced the concept. The Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun's novel Growth of the Soil, first published in 1917, won wide acclaim and earned its author the Nobel Prize in 1920; as Henry Miller said, "everyone was reading Hamsun" in those years.(6) In France, Jean Giono made the soil the subject of his trilogy Pan (1929-32). In Scotland, Lewis Grassic Gibbon pursued similar topics in his novel Sunset Songs (1932). Looked at against this background, Faulkner's use of his "native soil" gains additional significance. What, if any, are the implications? Did Faulkner, as has sometimes been claimed, find solace in a life close to the soil and salvation from progress and the threats of industrialisation in the healing powers of the earth? For some of the writers just mentioned this would certainly be true. The extent to which Faulkner shares their ideas still needs to be defined.(7)

Although it is possible to trace a certain development in Faulkner's thinking about the land, my concern is less with the chronology of its treatment in his fiction than with the varieties of its representation, and, as well, the meanings attached to it in a number of individual novels. The following remarks address the issue of "Faulkner and the soil" in three steps. I will first deal with what the author calls "the planted land" (Hamlet, p. 132) or the "settled country,"(8) then move on to questions of land ownership and the wilderness and, finally, discuss his references to "the female earth" - "the old earth of and with and by which [Lena Grove] lives" (Light, p. 23), but which terrifies Dewey Dell and Addie Bundren in As I Lay Dying. Then I want to relate Faulkner's treatment of the land to that of some of his contemporaries both in the United States and in Europe.


Yoknapatawpha County, as we all know, has been well mapped both by the author and by numerous critics. The emphasis on spatial orientation which we find in Faulkner's maps is borne out in the novels by frequent references to directions and distances, so that we usually know in which part of the county a specific event takes place and how far away from Jefferson we are in any given situation. Extensive descriptions of a particular area of the country, on the other hand, are relatively rare. Often, indeed, Faulkner quite pointedly foregoes any attempt to render the characteristic features of a landscape through which a person or a group of persons travels; instead, he simply states the time a particular journey takes. Lena Grove's remarks, "My, my ... here I aint been on the road but four weeks, and now I'm in Jefferson. My, my. A body gets around" (Light, p. 26), are perhaps the most famous case in point, but there are many others. In The Hamlet, phrases like "An hour after that and five miles from the village. . ." (p. 12), "Two miles further on . . ." (p. 24), or "ten minutes later, he turned from a lane . . ." (p. 202) abound; in "Barn Burning" Faulkner condenses a night's travel into a brief exchange between father and son by the sentence, "Tomorrow they were there. In the afternoon . . . "(9) Such almost deliberate disregard of landscape is all the more surprising as Faulkner's novels are full of people on the move, and the journey is one of his favorite structural devices. Yet even in As I Lay dying the author - or rather his characters shows little interest in the landscape through which the Bundrens are passing.

What we do find, on the other hand, are what may perhaps be called "telescopic" passages, texts in which a large area of land is viewed as if from a vantage point outside of time and space. Again, The Hamlet offers many examples, ranging from the almost ubiquitous appearances of Ratliff's buggy all over Yoknapatawpha County to the evocation of "the mooned or unmooned sleeping land" (p. 137) across which Eula Varner's suitors return to the plows they have left in the fields. Similarly, Faulkner imagines the land as a whole in Go Down, Moses when he describes "the wagons loaded with gathered corn" moving "between field and crib, processional across the enduring land" (p. 289). As the term "processional" suggests, such movements have an almost ritual quality, as do those of the country people who regularly travel through Yoknapatawpha and "converge" upon Jefferson or the various country stores "for the Saturday's diversion" - sitting on Will Varner's porch or taking a trip to the county seat (Hamlet, p. 328). Faulkner adopts an almost "cosmic" perspective in such passages, removing the land from its immediate physical context and placing it into a more general and abstract dimension.

The "planted land," then, is often evoked as an abstract entity rather than as a specific area. This is true even of some of the instances in which Faulkner does convey a sense of the physical appearance of the country:

A mile back [Ike Snopes] had left the rich, broad, flat river-bottom country and entered the hills - a region which topographically was the final blue and dying echo of the Appalachian Mountains. Chickasaw Indians had owned it, but after the Indians it had been cleared where possible for cultivation, and after the Civil War, forgotten save by small peripatetic sawmills which had vanished too now, their sites marked only by the mounds of rotting sawdust which were not only their gravestones but the monuments of a people's heedless greed. Now it was a region of scrubby second-growth pine and oak among which dogwood bloomed until it too was cut to make cotton spindles, and old fields where not even a trace of furrow showed any more, gutted and gullied by forty years of rain and frost and heat into plateaus choked with rank sedge and briers loved of rabbits and quail coveys, and crumbling ravines striated red and white with alternate sand and clay. (Hamlet, p. 174)

The description is shot through with references to things we cannot see - the fact that the Chickasaw Indians once owned the area, that it is an "echo" of the Appalachian Mountains, that at one point it was the object of the greed of sawmill-owners - and even the former furrows are no longer visible, wiped out by "forty years of rain and frost and heat." In other words, the country is imagined as a battleground of various forces, human and natural, vying to leave their impact on it, an area with a history of its own, its existence in time at least as important as its present physical attributes. Writing about it requires an imaginative reconstruction of its past and of the uses to which it has been put, and it involves a constant switching back and forth between different categories of perception. No wonder, then, that in Faulkner's novels we almost never encounter the esthetically pleasing "frames" within which Hemingway liked to arrange his landscapes. The type of description based primarily upon the visualization of a given segment of the country is rare even in Faulkner's early novels.(10)

Faulkner's portrayal of farm-life follows similar principles. The daily chores, the plowing, planting, and harvesting, the actual "putting in the seed," as Robert Frost would have it, are not in the center of his attention, and it is perhaps noteworthy that his descriptions related to hunting the land are usually more detailed than those to planting it. He is intent upon capturing the essence of a scene, as when, in a sweeping gesture, he sees "the long broad rich flatlands lush with the fine harvest, the fired and heavy corn and the cotton-pickers still moving through the spilling rows," or when he refers to "the earth shearing dark and rich from the polished blade of the plow" (Hamlet, pp. 260, 49). The attempt to express the significance, the abstract meaning and symbolic content of the moment observed is perhaps most obvious in the famous passage in Intruder in the Dust evoking "the land's living symbol" - that "formal group of ritual almost mystical significance ... the beast the plow and the man - integrated in one foundationed into the frozen wave of their furrow" and "set against the land's immensity" (p. 147).

Fulkner's descriptions of farm-life are rarely more specific than in the passages mentioned. The elevated, ceremonial tone he occasionally adopts should not mislead us, though - nowhere in his work does Faulkner extol the life of the farmer. "Planting things in the ground and watching them grow and tending them" for a short while may have a healing influence on young Bayard Sartoris in Flags in the Dust (pp. 228 ff.), but the serenity of such scenes is called in question by others that describe the poverty and squalor of the life of those who depend on farming for a living. in The Hamlet, Faulkner leaves no doubt about the extreme hardship tilling the soil means for such poor white families as Henry Armstid's or Mink Snopes's. For them, at least, Flem Snopes's wry remark, "Aint no benefit in farming" (p. 23) is quite true. As if to drive his point home, Faulkner creates the character of the anonymous farmer to whom the land appears as man's "mortal enemy," the object of a "constant and unflagging round of nerve-and-flesh wearing labor" (p. 194), to end only

when ... he would stumble and plunge, his eyes still open and his empty hands stiffening into the shape of the plowhandles, into the furrow behind the plow, or topple into the weedy ditch, still clutching the brush-hook or the axe ... (p. 195)

The quaint and rustic charm Faulkner lends some of his rural characters cannot mitigate the horror of such visions.

The actual conditions man's physical environment imposes upon him become most obvious when the land proves to be an obstacle to his endeavors. Such is the case in As I Lay Dying when the Bundrens try to ford the river in the wagon bearing Addie's coffin, or in the long passage in The Hamlet rendering Mink Snopes's futile attempts to hide the body of Houston. We may also consider Ike Snopes's flight with the cow in this context, as well as the description of Lucas Beauchamp's struggles first with his still and later with the "divining machine" in "The Fire and the Hearth." Most of these texts share a number of qualities that can be summed up as follows: the individual is not in control of the environment in which he finds himself; the physical world - sight, sound, touch - has an almost overpowering presence from which he can barely extricate himself, he loses his sense of direction and has to go to some length to recover his bearings; he is led by a kind of intuitive knowledge which determines his movements. Often a character literally loses his foothold:

So [Mink Snopes] hurried on, stumbling and thrashing among the briers and undergrowth, one arm extended to fend himself from the trees, voiceless, panting, blind, the muscles about his eyelids strained and aching against the flat impenetrable face of the darkness, until suddenly there was no earth under his feet; he made another stride, running upon nothing, then he was falling and then he was on his back, panting. (Hamlet, p. 255)

The nightmarish quality of this and similar scenes is partly due to the fact that they often take place in the dark or, as in the case of As I Lay Dying, under water. More than once, the return to the world of stable contours is experienced like a return from the abyss. When Vernon Tull has reached the other bank of the river in As I Lay Dying, he is almost surprised to find himself back "on something tame like the hard earth again" (p. 131); for Mink Snopes, it is only when he returns to his house from the bottom that "the bizarre erst-fluid earth became fixed and stable in the old solid dimensions and juxtapositions" (Hamlet, p. 256).(11)

Texts such as these suggest an awareness of forces in man's environment which goes beyond the placid belief in the "growing power" of the earth affirmed by Ratliff or Will Varner in The Hamlet (pp. 269, 312). It is as if Faulkner were giving us a glimpse of something transcending the safety of "the planted land" seemingly so well contained in his maps and his references to directions and distances. The land is ambivalent: it is both "the kind land" and "man's mortal enemy." If it can be mapped and measured, its "solid dimensions" are nonetheless unreliable, subject to change and dissolution. It exists in peaceful suspension when apprehended in Faulkner's "cosmic" view; the momentary experience of the land, on the other hand, often reveals its threatening and unsettling aspects. As landscape, it is curiously elusive and defies simple description. Faulkner's interest, it seems, is primarily in its generic qualities, in its "essence," and he tries to see it in historical perspective. Its visual features are of secondary importance.


As early as in Flags in the Dust, Faulkner shows an interest in land as property. As Bayard Sartoris, the young farmer Hub, and Suratt sit around the spring drinking whiskey, the latter explains that

|I wouldn't never plant nothin' in the ground, soon's I could he'p myself. It's all right for folks that owns land, but folks like my folks was dont never own no land, and ever' time we made a furrow, we was scratchin' earth for somebody else.' (p. 149)

The idea of land ownership is treated ludicrously when Anse Bundren tries to win Addie by telling her that he owns "a little property" (p. 16); Faulkner returns to it in Absalom, Absalom! and The Hamlet. The social aspect which may originally have been on his mind is not really developed; what seems to preoccupy his imagination are the legal documents which codify the idea of ownership, the "land grants and patents and transfers and deeds" he refers to in Requiem for a Nun.(12) In The Hamlet, the "old faded records in the Chancery Clerk's office in the county court-house in Jefferson" defining the boundaries of the Old Frenchman's place are mentioned in the very first paragraph; later transactions between Will Varner and Flem Snopes similarly draw attention to the "deed" legalizing them (pp. 73, 147).

The issue of land ownership is most extensively dealt with in Go Down, Moses. The novel has received so much critical attention that I can be brief.(13) Again, written documents are of prime importance - the ledgers Ike McCaslin reads as a boy contain not only "the slow outward trickle of food and supplies and equipment which returned each fall as cotton ginned and sold" (p. 256), but "the entire South," "that whole edifice intricate and complex and founded upon injustice and erected by ruthless rapacity" (p. 298) - the South and its history, in others words, which Ike tries to repudiate.

Against the written, codified land, the novel posits the wilderness, an area Ike comes to know about through stories, most notably those told him by Sam Fathers, his tutor and guide. These stories, it seems, can undo history; they suspend "the facts" recorded in the ledgers, including that of Ike's "own nativity" - as he listens to Sam Fathers, "it would seem to the boy that he himself had not come into existence yet" (p. 271). Similarly, Sam Fathers' stories can set the land free. For they deny the notion of land ownership, making it as "trivial and without reality as the now faded and archaic script in the chancery book in Jefferson which allocated [the land]" to the McCaslins (p. 171). The stories thus create a realm of infinite freedom and a new - or ancient - vision of the world where "he, the boy ... was the guest here and Sam Fathers' voice the mouthpiece of the host" (p.171). This realm, unrecorded and "untracked," is that of the wilderness. Here occur the various epiphanies Ike is granted; here Sam Fathers officiates as a priest. We hear that the woods are Ike's "mistress and his wife" and that, as in the realm of the Church, in the wilderness "there was no death," but only eternal renewal:

not held fast in earth but free of earth and not in earth but of earth, myriad yet undiffused of every myriad part, leaf and twig and particle, air and sun and rain and dawn and night, acorn oak and leaf and acorn again, dark and dawn and dark and dawn again in their immutable progression and, being myriad, one ... (pp. 328-329)

Faulkner's language has the ring of liturgy; it is almost as if we were witnessing the mystery of the Eucharist, with the earth serving as the substance of the sacrament. Such a reading is borne out by the fact that according to Ike "the host" has directly revealed His will in the land, the unwritten story of which is pitted against that recorded in the plantation ledgers:

this land this South for which He had done so much with woods for game and streams for fish and deep rich soil for seed and lush springs to sprout it and long summers to mature it and serene falls to harvest it and short mild winters for men and animals. (p. 283)

By appropriating "this land," Ike argues, man has acted against His will; it is only in the wilderness that man can still encounter His spirit.

Ike McCaslin's view of the wilderness, as we find out in "Delta Autumn," if not earlier, is a kind of swan-song, an elegiac and, above all, a very personal idealization of a state in the history of the country which perhaps never existed in the first place. The freedom and timelessness the wilderness seems to offer is possible only as a literary construct, in Sam Fathers' stories or in the world of poetry, as the allusion to Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" in "The Bear" makes clear. Quite in keeping with many similar suggestions, Faulkner has the "unwritten" story of the wilderness end - prematurely, as it turns out - in Ike's vision of Valhalla:

the names, the faces of the old men he had known and for a little while outlived, moving again among the tall unaxed trees and sightless brakes where the wild strong immortal game ran forever before the tireless belling immortal hounds, falling and rising phoenix-like to the soundless guns. (p. 354)

Are we to take Ike's failure, later, when he is confronted with Roth Edmonds' mistress in "Delta Autumn" as a tacit admission on Faulkner's part that the world of "stories" (as opposed to that of deeds and documents) cannot, after all, offer a way out of the dilemmas of history? He seems to be telling us that disclaiming legal ownership, as Ike wants to have it, will not work, but neither can the act of storytelling lift the curse off the land of which both Ike and his cousin speak.(14)

Faulkner pursues these questions in the prologues to Requiem for a Nun. His attitude is even more pessimistic here: as man's records accumulate and the courthouse in Jefferson is built to hold them, the wilderness recedes; its people, the Indians, are dispossessed. The process of dispossession is an ongoing one, the pioneers and the early settlers being in turn dispossessed by those who come after them until the country has been turned into "one vast single net of commerce" (p. 91). The scale on which Faulkner imagines the land is much grander than before; it comprehends the country as a whole, at times the entire earth and its geological history. As a result, the wilderness is often presented as a concept rather than as a physical presence. Nonetheless, even in their wide sweep, the prologues dramatize the sense of loss which the settlement of the country entails. The roads that have been built appear as

the hands, the prehensile fingers clawing dragging lightward out of the disappearing wilderness year by year as up from the bottom of the recording sea, the broad rich fecund burgeoning fields, pushing thrusting each year further and further back the wilderness and its denizens - the wild boar and deer and turkey, and the wild men ... (pp. 34-35)

Even more so than in Go Down, Moses, Faulkner voices ecological concerns as he sees man "turning the earth into a howling waste" (p. 90), and "the land, the nation, the American earth, whirl[ing] faster and faster toward the plunging precipices of its destiny" (p. 195). His tone is bitter and indignant, but an alternative to "the vain and glittering ephemerae of progress" (p. 216) is nowhere in sight. Even the touching story of Cecilia Farmer and its assertion of the power of the written word cannot mitigate the bleak vision of the land which the text conveys.(15)

What one senses most of all in Faulkner's treatment of the wilderness and in his struggle to come to terms with the issue of "land as property" is the unresolved tension between, on the one hand, a willingness to acknowledge the historical process of man's appropriation of the land as it is recorded in the "deeds" and "titles," the legal documents signifying ownership, and, on the other hand, a yearning to escape from the confinement such documents imply. This tension is reminiscent of the ambivalence in Faulkner's attitude to the land noted earlier. Did the idea of land ownership perhaps also trouble Faulkner as a more strictly literary problem? On the map appended to Absalom, Absalom! he proudly declares himself the "sole owner and proprietor" of the 2400 square miles of land his drawing is meant to represent. But how does an author "own" the land he writes about? As we saw, the act of imaginatively taking possession of the land is no simple matter. Faulkner seems to have approached it both with the confidence of the surveyor and with a certain diffidence and hesitation. The idea of the land as literary property, then, may well have appeared to him as no less problematic than the concept of legal land ownership.(16)


As early as in Soldiers' Pay, Faulkner refers to the earth in close conjunction with the body. Not only does Emmy, the girl desperately in love with Donald Mahon (perhaps the first of Faulkner's famous "earthmothers") "feel earth strike through her clothes against legs and belly and elbows," but George Farr, the rather fatuous young man who is to marry Cecily Saunders, also is aware of "the soft damp earth" and becomes "one with the earth, with dark and silence, with his own body ... with her body" (p. 238). It is this conjunction of the earth and the body which Faulkner explores in many of his later works.(17)

Central to his concept of the earth on this figurative level is its equation with the female and such of its attributes usually linked with the female in his imagination as "fecundity," "fertility," "the spawning and teeming life," qualities, that is, of which most of his male characters are deeply apprehensive. As his frequent use of Biblical or mythological allusions indicates, Faulkner was quite aware of the long tradition of the motif The tension he sees between the male and "the female earth" is one between a desire for "freedom," "purity," or simply "peace" on the one hand, and an earth-bound existence, the notion of procreation, sexuality, and love on the other. It is often expressed metaphorically in contrasts such as those between "cool" and "hot," "dry" and "wet," "clean" and "foul," "calm" and "wild." The tension is rarely resolved; Faulkner's misogyny and his deep-set fears of the body and its functions are everywhere noticeable.(18)

If the conflict between man and the earth in Flags in the Dust is implied rather than dramatized - we become aware of it mostly by the juxtaposition of Bayard's memories of his brother's death and the world of airplanes against the serene and peaceful land - Faulkner for the first time fully probes into the feelings of terror "the dark land" and "the wild earth" can inspire in As I Lay Dying.(19) The three characters most starkly outlined against the background of "the dark land" are Dewey Dell, Addie Bundren and Darl.

Dewey Dell's fears over her unwanted pregnancy are expressed almost exclusively in terms related to the earth. When she says that she feels "like a wet seed wild in the hot blind earth" (p. 61) or, "It is because in the wild and outraged earth too soon too soon too soon ..." (p. 114), it seems that all she can sense is turmoil and a loss of control over her life, of something that has been done to her which she would by all means make undone - thence her wish for an abortion. The equation of the female and the earth, echoed later in Darl's words - "Squatting, Dewey Dell's wet dress shapes for the dead eyes of three blind men those mammalian ludicrosities which are the horizons and the valleys of the earth" (p. 156) - suggests here nothing but terror: the earth is blind, wild, and outraged, reflecting the state of panic, in the true sense of the word, in which Dewey Dell finds herself. If her name, besides its obvious sexual connotations, also has pastoral overtones, it is deeply ironic.

An even more unsettling symbiosis of ideas of pregnancy, motherhood and "the wild earth" informs the one section in the novel given to Addic Bundren. Through childbirth she becomes one with the earth, "hearing the land that was now of my blood and flesh" (p. 165); in her children she feels "the wild blood boiling along the earth" (p. 167). The phrasing Faulkner chooses is revealing - the land, Addie insists, has become part of her; she has arrogated it rather than given herself to the land. Similarly, she claims that "My children were of me alone" (p. 167); in her imagination she includes even her husband among them. Her spirit is all rebellion, stamped by a fierce desire for domination. Life for her is "terrible," manifesting itself in "the terrible blood, the red bitter flood boiling through the land" (p. 166). Typically, she does not seek peace in nature, but room to exercise the spite she feels toward her schoolchildren:

In the afternoon when school was out and the last one had left with his little dirty snuffling nose ... I would go down the hill to the spring where I could be quiet and hate them. It would be quiet there then, with the water bubbling up and away and the sun slanting quiet in the trees and the quiet smelling of damp and rotting leaves and new earth; especially in the early spring, for it was worst then. (p.161; my emphasis)

The frequent repetition of the word "quiet" suggests that for her at least the tranquillity of nature is in line with her spirit of vengeance. She fears the renewal of life; the echo of Eliot's The Waste Land is unmistakable.

Vengeance indeed is the message Addie Bundren always seems to hear when she is listening to "the dark land talking the voiceless speech" (p. 167). In a pre-verbal, pre-rational way the land reveals itself to her and shows her "God's love and His beauty and His sin," a sin which then becomes hers as she commits adultery with the minister, "the instrument ordained by God who created the sin" (p. 166). Her act of adultery springs directly from that "dark voicelessness in which the words are the deeds" (p. 166); again, it is a pre-verbal act and part of the "doing" which, in her mind, "goes along the earth, clinging to it," whereas words, language, human speech "go straight up" and are "quick and harmless" (p. 165), as "words are no good," they "dont ever fit even what they are trying to say" (p. 163)(20.)

Yet Addie also thinks of her adultery as an act of love in which life - "the terrible blood" - might possibly achieve some kind of meaning: "I would think of the sin as garments which we would remove in order to shape and coerce the terrible blood to the forlorn echo of the dead word high in the air" (p. 167). That "dead word" may well be the word love. For when Jewel is born, "the wild blood boiled away and the sound of it ceased. Then there was only the milk, warm and calm, and I lying calm in the slow silence, getting ready to clean my house" (p. 168).

While Addie's husband, Anse, forever "gazing out across the land" (pp. 17, 19, 29, 30, 31), is peacefully unaware of the dark and secret messages his wife thinks she is receiving from the land, Darl, her unwanted son, knows, for he too has a strange and intuitive affinity with the land. He knows that his mother rejects him, and that Jewel, her illegitimate child, is her favorite. Darl, whose eyes are described by Dewey Dell as being "full of the land dug out of his skull and the holes filled with distance beyond the land" (pp. 25-26), can perhaps see further than Addie; he may have realized not only her adultery, but also her folly and extreme self-centeredness. Are we to read his setting fire to the barn as an attempt to prevent Addie from returning to the earth? As the family approaches Jefferson, he finds that "in the sand the wheels whisper, as though the very earth would hush our entry" (p. 219); earlier, as they crossed the river, it was Darl who most keenly felt the dissolution of the earth under their feet. But Darl's role is not only that of the seer or the poet. Like Addie, he is unforgiving, forever seeking vengeance - therefore his constant watching of his brother Jewel. He may know more of "the ultimate earth" than the others (p. 49), but whether or not what he understands of it is closer to the truth than what the rest of his family or even Tull comprehends is left open. Faulkner has Darl end in madness, and gives the last word of the novel to Anse.

There is little peace in As I Lay Dying, if, at the end, it returns to the level on which our daily lives are run, it is nonetheless one of Faulkner's darkest novels. Nowhere else has he used such cataclysmic images of the land as here, nor does he ever again expose his characters to a similar sense of the dark, terrifying and, literally, unsettling powers of the earth as in this novel.

Man's conflict with "the female earth" appears in a milder and more hopeful version in Light in August, in which, if only in the person of Lena Grove, it is momentarily even put at rest as Hightower, in an often-quoted sentence, thinks of the children Lena is going to bear in the future, as "the good stock peopling in tranquil obedience to it the good earth" (p. 356). Hightower's own brief return to life after he has assisted in Lena's childbirth is emphasized by his now positive response to the "savage and fecund odor of the earth" from which earlier in his life he had fled (p. 356; cf 278). The role of the "good earth" in the novel has received ample attention, but as Andre Bleikasten has recently reminded us, the idea of fecundity, which for a short while seems to rejuvenate Hightower, is the very same which causes panic and fear in Joe Christmas, indirectly leading to his death.(21)

Of all of Faulkner's novels, the "female earth" is most pervasively present in The Hamlet. The motif here appears in such richness of forms and variations, in such a finely wrought net of contrasts and parallels, that it is as if Faulkner had deliberately set himself the task of giving his vision of the earth its fullest possible expression. For reasons of space, I can only touch upon a few of the aspects he deals with.

The tension between man and the earth is dramatically evoked in Labove's struggle with Eula Varner, the most obvious embodiment of the female in the novel. In an often-quoted passage foreshadowing her sterile marriage with Flem Snopes, Labove, the monk-like figure fallen under Eula's spell, imagines her as the wife of "a dwarf, a gnome, without glands or desire," someone who will simply own her "as he might ... own a field":

He saw it, the fine land rich and fecund and foul and eternal and impervious to him who claimed title to it, oblivious, drawing to it tenfold the quantity of living seed its owner's whole life could have secreted and compounded, producing a thousandfold the harvest he could ever hope to gather and save. (p. 119)

The text with its curiously voyeuristic overtones suggests at once the male fears of the threatening attributes the earth and the female share, and their fascination; in what it implies about the idea of land ownership, it anticipates Ike McCaslin's comments in Go Down, Moses. Is there an autobiographical echo in Labove's comment that the land is "impervious to him who claims title to it"? After all, claiming title to the land is exactly what Faulkner had done with his map in Absalom, Absalom!(22)

If Labove - thanks to Eula - appears as a comic figure, Mink Snopes's struggle with the earth and the female are clearly meant to be heroic. As a young man, the novel tells us, Mink had to run away from home, "seeking the sea" (p. 240). Whatever deed it was that necessitated his flight, it involved an act "his body and his intellect ... had failed the will to do" (p. 239). The sea promised freedom from "the land, the earth" (p. 240) which he holds responsible for such failures; he sought the sea because of

the proffer of this illimitable space and irremediable forgetting along the edge of

which the contemptible teeming of his own earth-kind timidly seethed and recoiled,

not to accept the proffer but merely to bury himself in this myriad anonymity beside

the impregnable haven of all the drowned intact golden galleons and the unattainable

deathless seamaids. (p. 240)

The passage may remind us of Conrad's Lord Jim, whose strong sense of honor Mink Snopes shares. Like Jim, Mink wants to flee the earth and its limitations, its timidities and failures, seeking the "proffer ... of illimitable space and irremediable forgetting." He never reaches the sea but succumbs to the nymphomaniac woman whom he marries and with whom he "returned to his native country, where he rented a farm on shares" (p. 243). So much for dreams of "golden galleons" and "unattainable deathless seamaids." Like Houston, his counterpart and double who also tried to flee "not from his past, but to escape his future" (p. 214), Mink is tied down to the land, caught short the moment he sees the woman, the priestess of sex, "framed in the open door, immobile, upright and listening, while [the] hoarse loud manshouts and cries seemed to rise toward her like a roaring incense" (p. 240). If Mink cannot escape from "the contemptible teeming of his own earth-kind," it is not because a particular woman ensnares him - he insists that his wife is beyond such schemes - but because his desire to be free is checked by an elemental force to which he surrenders, knowing beforehand that it is his "fate" (p. 242) which he will have to accept.

The one account of the "female earth" in The Hamlet, in which, for a while at least, all fears and reservations seem to be suspended, is the extraordinary, hymnal evocation of the day the idiot Ike Snopes spends with Houston's cow, eating, drinking, and lying down with her in that "drowsing rapport" he has finally achieved with her and, through her, "with all anonymous faceless female flesh capable of love walking the female earth" (p. 183). In what is undoubtedly one of Faulkner's most audacious texts, he turns Ike and the cow into a pair of lovers whose course he traces through a specific day and a specific part of the country, viewing them at the same time against the earth in its totality, as it wheels its course from dawn to sunset, containing all "time's silt and rich refuse" (p. 184). One image in particular controls the passage, that of the earth as a living organism from which, at dawn, light "is ... suspired," and which, at dusk, draws all light back into its "still and insatiable aperture," the spring from which Ike and the cow drink water:

It holds in tranquil paradox of suspended precipitation dawn, noon, and sunset; yesterday, today, and tomorrow - star-spawn and hieroglyph, the fierce white dying rose, then gradual and invincible speeding up to and into slack-flood's coronal of nympholept noon. Then ebb's afternoon, until at last the morning, noon, and afternoon flow back, drain the sky and creep leaf by voiceless leaf and twig and branch and trunk, descending, gathering frond by frond among the grass, still creeping downward in drowsy insect murmurs, until at last the complete all of light gathers about that still and tender mouth in one last expiring inhalation. (pp. 188-189)

It is difficult not to think of the fairly obvious sexual symbolism of the "insatiable aperture of earth," but here, in contrast to As I Lay Dying, the earth is celebrated as a place of love, of life, and "the boundless freedom of golden air" through which the lovers "walk in splendor" (p. 188). Here all is fertility, and heaven and earth are wedded, as the rain is compared to "gauzy umbilical loops from the bellied cumulae, the sunbelled ewes of summer grazing up the wind," and then, in a sudden shift of metaphor, the earth is seen to be impregnated by a gust of wind, rain and hail:

the shaggy pelt of earth became overblown like that of a receptive mare for the rampant

crash, the furious brief fecundation which, still rampant, seeded itself in flash

and glare of noise and fury and then was gone. (p. 187)

The text is filled with images of procreation and fertility-the sky is "breaking as of its own over-fertile weight," the wind has "begotten and foaled" the icy raindrops, and in the midst of all this tumescence Ike picks grass and flowers for a garland for the cow, stripping "the flowerhead into a scatter of ravished petals" (pp. 187, 187).

Lest we forget that the lovers whose union is portrayed against the background of the earth's "teeming minute life" (p. 167) are an idiot and a cow, Faulkner reminds us that in the real world of Yoknapatawpha their love appears as sodomy, watched by the prurient villagers through a peephole in the barn. Its beauty exists in the realm of mythology, in a literary world of "herald-cock, and sty and pen and byre" where Ike, reflected in the cow's eyes, "watches himself contemplating what those who looked at Juno saw" (p. 185).(23) Deeply moving as the episode is, it leaves no doubt that the kind of harmony, that "drowsing rapport" between male and female, between man and the earth which it portrays, is not for human beings to achieve.

Neither "the dark land" evoked in As I Lay Dying nor the "female" and "fluid earth" of The Hamlet shows particularly Southern characteristics. Faulkner looks at the earth as an elemental force, as one of the conditions which shape and determine man's life and which he is "fated" to accept. Against "earth-mothers" like Lena Grove or Eula Varner and against the rare moments of a peaceful enjoyment of "earth's teeming life" he grants his characters, we find a long line of rebellious spirits who feel threatened by the female powers the earth represents and who struggle to escape from the limitations it imposes upon them.

How to account for the hold "the land, the earth" had over Faulkner's imagination, and for the different shapes "the native soil" assumes in his fiction? Is there, in the wide range of responses to the land and the earth which we encounter in his writings, a unifying element, an indication that the earth celebrated in The Hamlet is identical with the one which speaks to Addie Bundren of its terrors, and that both "the dark land" in As I Lay Dying and "the enduring land" in Go Down, Moses are the same? If the earth is so often and so consistently related to the female, in which terms did Faulkner conceive of the wilderness, which clearly does not share the female qualities he usually attributed to the earth?(24) Is there, to raise yet another point, a public view of the earth as we find it in Requiem for a Nun, which stands in contrast to the private fears exposed in As I Lay Dying and also, if less dramatically, in The Hamlet? To raise these questions is to realize once again that simple definitions will not do with Faulkner, and that the tensions so often found characteristic of his work also determine his attitude to the land.

An element of tension is indeed present in all three of the approaches to the land discussed in this paper. It informs Faulkner's writing about "the planted land": his frequent elision of landscape and his tendency to map rather than describe the land indicate a certain resistance against it which is noticeable even in those passages where the land simply functions as the setting of the events portrayed. Such resistance may also explain the very general way in which Faulkner usually writes about farming the land (as opposed to his more detailed hunting scenes). Perhaps we can also understand his frequent references to the "fluid" earth in this context, as "fluidity" can indeed not be contained in maps, or measured in distances and directions.

Tension also dominates Faulkner's writing about land ownership and the wilderness: against the Sutpens, the Sartorises and Compsons, paraded once more in the first prologue to Requiem for a Nun as if in a gesture of farewell, and against both Old Carothers McCaslin and Cass Edmonds, we have Ike McCaslin's vision of the wilderness, against the deeds and records of ownership, the stories told by Sam Fathers. Does such tension perhaps reflect the ambivalence one occasionally senses about Faulkner's literary appropriation of the land? What exactly is the relationship between the title the writer claimed to Yoknapatawpha County as his literary property, and that which signifies legal ownership?

Finally there is the pervasive tension - "the being pulled two ways like between two teams of horses" (Collected Stories, p. 17) - in Faulkner's writing about "the female earth," the pull and fascination it exerts experienced no less keenly than the wish to reject it and forever be free of it. These tensions do not rule out the possibility that Faulkner felt "the brooding love for the land where he was born and reared" or "the passionate devotion" to the "sacred" South of which Malcolm Cowley and Cleanth Brooks have spoken, but it seems to me that his troubled sense of "the abstract earth" as an elemental force in man's life, as one of its very basic conditions, which his characters both feared and embraced, was always stronger than that of the land as Heimat.(25) Faulkner's imagination never turned away from it; he was still grappling with it in A Fable.

Few of the writers who, like Faulkner, were turning to their "native soil" in the 1920s and 1930s, seem to have approached the land in a similar spirit of at once wanting to own and disown, accept and reject it as he did. I will have to limit myself to some very brief examples. The following is a passage from Knut Hamsun's much admired and, especially in Germany, highly influential novel Growth of the Soil:

For generations back, into forgotten time, his fathers before him had sowed grain; solemnly, on a still, calm evening, best with a gentle fall of warm and misty rain, soon after the grey-goose flight ... Grain was nothing less than bread; grain or no grain meant life or death. Isak walked bareheaded.. in Jesu name, a sower ... Every cast was made with care, in a spirit of kindly resignation. Look! the tiny grains that are to take life and grow, shoot up into ears, and give more grain again; so it is throughout the earth.(26)

Against the sacred grain Hamsun (who did not think much of America or Americans) holds potatoes, "a new thing, nothing mystic, nothing religious, women and children could plant them," and, besides, "they came from foreign parts." The reverence expressed for the grain is extended also to the earth, and it includes the man Isak, the "tiller of the ground, body and soul ... A ghost risen out of the past to point the future, a man from the earliest days of cultivation, a settler in the wilds, ninehundred years old, and, withal, a man of the day" (p. 434). The novel describes the "growth of the soil" from its pristine state Isak finds when he arrives in the Northern wilds, to the flowering fields and meadows he will leave behind to his son when he dies. Hamsun leaves no doubt that Isak stands for an anti-urban, agrarian way of life. The "settler in the wilds" represents an idea, a program: his simple, self-sufficient life close to the soil is exemplary and serves as an antidote to the evils of progress and civilization. "We must cultivate Norway's soil," and "agriculture is the future now" are slogans which Hamsun will later on propagate; his support of the National Socialists is prefigured in many of his essays of the 1920s.(27)

The enormous success of Growth of the Soil on both sides of the Atlantic indicates that Hamsun spoke to a sentiment widely felt in his times. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that we find feelings similar to those expressed in Growth of the Soil in so many other novels about the land published in the 1920s and 1930s. Here is a passage from Lewis Grassic Gibbon's Sunset Song:

The wet fields squelched below her feet, oozing up their smell of red clay from under the sodden grasses ... And then a queer thought came to her there in the drooked fields, that nothing endured at all, nothing but the land she passed across ... the land was forever, it moved and changed below you, but was forever, you were close to it and it to you, not at a bleak remove it held you and hurted you. And she had thought to leave it all!(28)

The praise of the enduring land occurs in a context describing the heroine's wish to leave the country and move to the city. Her ties to her "native soil," however, are stronger than her desire for a career. Staying on the land of her fathers, the novel implies, is a moral decision, for this is where she belongs, where she has grown roots, and where she therefore ought to be - those who leave the land fall into evil ways.

The ideology we encounter in Hamsun and Gibbon is similar to that expressed in Jean Giono's early novels about the land, published later as a trilogy under the title Pan. A short excerpt will have to suffice:

He is approaching his field. He bends down and takes a handful of earth. Heavy, fertile earth it is: full of good will. He feels all this goodness and richness with his hands ... He is standing upright on his land. He is wearing his brown velvet trousers, and it is as if they were a part of his labors in the field ... Firmly rooted, column-like, he rises from the brown soil.(30)

The pride, the almost sacred sense of the earth, the mystical union of man and the soil, the a-historical view, all these qualities characteristic of Giono's text, are typical also of the so-called "blood-and-soil" movement in Germany. Most of the writers who contributed to it are forgotten today; many of their works virtually disappeared from the literary scene after 1945 because of the close association between "blood-and soil" and the National Socialists. For the concept of the "native soil" was here often used in a highly exclusive, xenophobic, and racist sense. The soil was considered sacred not only because it yielded rich harvests, but because it was German soil, the people it bore and nourished were of German origin, and the village community ideally mirrored the values of the nation as a whole. Neither Hamsun, Gibbon, or Giono would probably have found much wrong with this way of thinking; it was only when its principles were used to justify the atrocities committed in the concentration camps and in World War II that its darker implications dawned upon many readers.(29)

That the agrarian ideas advocated by the writers just mentioned found expression not only in Europe but also in the United States is obvious when we consider some of the tenets put forward in the famous symposium of the Nashville Agrarians of 1930. The notion of the cultivation of the soil as "the best and most sensitive of vocations," the emphasis on farming as a self-sufficient, harmonious and healthy way of life rooted in the traditions and history of a region, the anti-urban, anti-capitalist, and anti-industrialist attitudes prevalent in most of the essays of I'll Take My Stand clearly link the Nashville Agrarians with some of their European counterparts. To say this is not to accuse them of Fascist tendencies, as some of their contemporaries did. It is simply to say that they were part of a much wider international agrarian movement than has often been recognized.(31)

It is hard to imagine that Faulkner, whose sensitivity was keenly attuned to the central concerns of his times, should not have been aware of the debate about the land that was going on around him. He must have been familiar with the sentiments expressed in Sherwood Anderson's Mid-American Chants as well as those in Willa Cather's novels about the prairie. But his response to the land and, above all, to the challenge of writing about it, was infinitely more complex than that found in the majority of the works against the background of which we can try to measure his.(32) He never simply praises the soil, nor do we find it anywhere in his works held up as a panacea against the ills of the times. If, as I have tried to show, the attitude to the land expressed in his novels is characterized by very basic tensions, this would appear as an indication that his writing resisted the kind of ideological commitment to which that of many of his contemporaries seems to have lent itself more easily. Moreover, when we realize how often these tensions manifest themselves in Faulkner's works as conflicting "texts" - how the land is variously embedded in words, in stories, in deeds, in maps, in myths - we begin to see that for Faulkner writing about "the postage stamp of [his] native soil" from the very start must have meant that the land could never be contained in any one ideological view, but that it would always have to compete with others, the stories told by Sam Fathers set against those written down in the plantation ledgers, "the deed clinging to the earth" held against the "forlorn echo of the dead word high in the air," the mythic celebration of the love of Ike and the cow against "the title" supposedly "claimed" by Flem Snopes to Eula Varner. Such tensions gave rise to others which Faulkner explored with "the tenacity of despair," to use a phrase of Joseph Conrad's. For if he knew that, as Mink Snopes and Ike McCaslin would learn, he could not repudiate "the land, the earth," he also knew that the land was "impervious "voiceless," "dark," and, finally, "impenetrable."
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Author:Nicolaisen, Peter
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Date:Jun 22, 1992
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