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Faulkner and Race: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha, 1986.

This collection of essays brings together papers originally presented by Faulkner scholars at the 1986 Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference at the University of Mississippi, Oxford. The book expresses viewpoints on Faulkner's treatment of race by both black and white scholars, male and female. The essays explore whether Faulkner can, as a white Southerner and great-grandson of a slave owner, enter a black consciousness and render it accurately. Opinions vary, and indeed the topic of Faulkner and Race seems to be, as Noel Polk says, "a hellishly complex topic." The main characters examined for answers to the question of Faulkner and Race are Dilsey Gibson,Joe Christmas, and Charles Bon. On one hand, Faulkner seems to have attempted to probe the psychological dimensions of race and ask the recurrent question in his fiction: What does blackness signify in a white society? Yet on the other hand Faulkner portrayed the characters of his early novels as stereotypical notions of blacks, and his sometimes racist public remarks are not easily dismissed. Which was the real Faulkner: the man of unenlightened ideas on race and place in society; the man of extraordinary insight transcending his background in time and place; or the man who lost confidence in himself as he began to doubt his ability first to render the true black consciousness, and then to scrutinize anything at all?

Faulkner and Race addresses these questions through fifteen essays of two main differing viewpoints: those who doubt Faulkner's ability to really penetrate black consciousness and the race issue, and those who see him in a sincere quest for truth, perhaps still not hitting the mark for true portrayal of blacks, but at least trying and, even deeper, achieving a rediscovery of "essential human values." Eric Sundquist leads the expedition with his opening essay that asks the question: Can the black experience be truly rendered by a white author? His ultimate answer is a careful "yes, but ..." which sets the tone for the following essays of the first category. Sundquist claims that "Faulkner's position as one of the most important American writers on the problem of race is secure," but later in the essay he must add that "there are limitations to [Faulkner's] vision."

The rest of the essays, in one form or another, concur with this limitation on Faulkner's vision with regard to race. Pamela Rhodes' essay is wonderfully insightful as she turns sleuth in "Who Killed Simon Strother, and Why?" Faulkner turns out to be the murderer in Sartoris, because allowing Simon to live would have been dangerous; he was becoming too realistic and would have eventually demanded social change. Faulkner couldn't go that far in his novels, so he struck Simon on the head with a blunt object, and buried the problem.

The first section, which also includes essays by Craig Werner, Blyden Jackson, Thadious David and Walter Taylor, find a little accurate insight in Faulkner's portrayal of race. But in the second section, beginning with Noel Polk's "Man in the Middle: Faulkner and the Southern White Moderate," the tone changes to one of looking at the glass not as half empty but as half full. Polk calls for scholars to credit Faulkner with the human drama he could illuminate so convincingly, rather than always pointing to what Faulkner didn't do well. The subsequent essays by.James Snead, Philip Weinstein, Lothar Honnighausen, Hoke Perkins, and Sergei Chakovsky find Faulkler exploring race when other authors couldn't risk it, and see an optimism in Faulkner's forging ahead when even Twain gave up and dropped out of the race issue. The last two essays by Michael Grimwood and Karl Zender take a different but interesting turn as they examine Faulkner's self-confidence crisis, first in his doubts regarding his ability to accurately portray blacks, then in his anxiety regarding the writer's ability to accurately portray anything.

The major consensus of this conference, whether we give Faulkner benefit of the doubt or not is that he never really was able to enter a black consciousness or render accurately black lives, as a white Southerner. Whether he truly tried or not, there was a limit to his vision. The essays point to Sundquist's prefacing admonition that Faulkner's works must be supplemented by the canon of other authors whose works "engage and complete those of Faulkner, giving clearer voice to black lives and to the cultural traditions of race in America."

Faulkner and Race is an optimistic book, and it does succeed in exploring the issue in a variety of ways, even if no hard line is ever taken. As Noel Polk finds when he parallels Faulkner to the deputy in "Pantaloon in Black": "He doesn't answer but at least he is beginning to ask the right questions." And Hoke Perkins concludes in his essay, "I don't believe we,can come to any final conclusions about Faulkner and race. A hopeless tangle of conflicting statement, some from his characters, some from his own public speeches and letters, prevents certainty, ... we can find however a measure of growth in his fiction."
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Author:Herman, Rebecca Bliss
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1992
Words:840
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