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Visions and Revisions: Essays on Faulkner.

John E. Bassett's Visions and Revisions: Essays on Faulkner is both the beneficiary and the victim of its method of composition. Initially published as independent essays, the book's fourteen chapters divide into two groups: one of five chapters, first published in 1980 and 1981, and one of seven, first published from 1985 through 1988. (Of the two remaining chapters, one - on Light in August - has never before been published, and the other - on Sanctuary - is not mentioned in the book's acknowledgements.) With the exception of a chapter devoted to the Snopes trilogy, each of the book's chapters examines a single novel; only Pylon, The Wild Palms, and The Unvanquished are not discussed at length.

The main advantage of this method of composition, and a primary strength of the book, is that it accurately reflects the evolution of a good critic's thought during an important decade of Faulkner criticism. Broadly speaking, Faulkner criticism can be divided into three phases: 1) a New Critical phase of appreciative studies, dominated by Cleanth Brooks, Olga Vickery, and Michael Millgate; 2) a biographical-textual-formalist second phrase, sheltering under Joseph Blotner's massive two volume Faulkner: A Biography (1974) and benefiting from close study of Faulkner's manuscripts and typescripts; and 3) a revisionist third phrase, in which critics such as Eric Sundquist, Philip Weinstein, and John T. Matthews use feminist, deconstructionist, and new-literary-historical methodologies to challenge earlier readings. John Bassett is a stalwart representative of the second of these phases. Mainly known for his editorial and bibliographical work, he lays claim in this book to equal esteem as a critic. All of the chapters in the volume are characterized by broad knowledge of Faulkner's life and oeuvre, by close engagement with the text, by stylistic felicity, and, especially, by an admirable balance between sympathy and judgment.

The first five chapters and the last three are particularly interesting. The first five (four of them from 1980 and 1981) focus on the evolution of Faulknei's artistic self-understanding, the last three on (among other matters) Faulkner's later reworking of his earlier authorial self-conception. Taken together, these chapters provide a valuable addition to our understanding of the relation between Faulkner's life and his art. They display a judicious understanding of the intricate, elliptical ways in which Faulkner represents himself in his fiction. Primarily concerned with the main sequence of authorial surrogates, running from Quentin Compson through Isaac McCaslin to Gavin Stevens, the chapters are also alert to some odd vagaries of Faulknerian self-presentation - to how Horace Benbow in Flags in the Dust, for example, embodies Faulkner's understanding of himself as a "resigned, middle-class, [soon-to-be] married, perhaps limited craftsman" (p. 51), and to how Darl and Cash Bundren divide two halves of Faulkner's artistic self-conception between them. Particularly strong is Bassett's understanding of Faulkner's shift in the late fiction, equivocal and never complete, toward identification with older male characters. (His reading of A Fable is particularly strong in this regard.)

These merits noted, one also notes limitations arising from Bassett's method of composition: occasional repetitions of phrases and arguments, occasional staleness of perception, an overall sense that our understanding of Faulkner's personality and career has advanced beyond the terrain here occupied. Of these limitations, the last is the most noticeable. Bassett nowhere mentions the 1984 one-volume edition of Blotner's biography, with its added candor about Faulkner's personal life, nor the other bits and pieces of biographical information that made their way into print in the 1980s (e.g., Louis Daniel Brodsky and Robert W. Hamblin's 1984 volume of letters by and about Faulkner). This information - particularly the startling letter, reprinted in Blotner, that Faulkner wrote to his publisher on the eve of his wedding - severely challenges Bassett's optimistic reading of Faulkner's early career as a "working through" of psychosexual problems, culminating in the recovery of Estelle Faulkner in 1929. It rather suggests an opposite interpretation, of Faulkner grimly discovering unsettling truths about his attitude toward love and marriage - discovering, one speculates, that passion would always be associated in his mind with transgression and moral irregularity. What, after all, is Caddy Compson, if not an elegiac image of passionate irregularity, disappearing into a conventional and loveless relationship?

A further and larger limitation is the incompleteness of the career description Bassett provides. As he himself notes, the middle six essays, those devoted to novels between Light in August and Requiem for a Nun, shift focus from biographical to "epistemological, aesthetic, and social concerns" (p. xi). Certainly these more public concerns abound in the fiction of the 1930s and 1940s. But it is unfortunate that Bassett reads Faulkner's interest in them as a resolution, rather than as a continuation, of his earlier psychosexual obsessions - that he sees, for example, the incest motif of Absalom, Absalom! merely as an inorganic late addition, designed to make the choice of Quentin as narrator more appropriate, not as a crucial bridge between the themes of sex and race. By so doing, Bassett supports (in a sense foreshadows) the inclination of much "third phase" criticism to drive a wedge between the "private" novels of the late 1920s and early 1930s and the later "public" novels, and to valorize the latter in comparison to the former.

At stake in this revisionary critical effort are aesthetic and political issues too large to confront in a brief review. But surely one can say that the recent devaluations of The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, and Sanctuary in favor of the post-1940 fiction create a troublingly "correct" vision of Faulkner's career (if not of the nature of literary merit). Students of the evolution of Faulkner's artistic vision face no more pressing task than to challenge this artificial division, not by a reactionary revalorization of Faulkner's modernist phase, but by a deepened understanding of the coherence of his career as a whole, of how his early explorations of self, libido, and family lead, by a complex internal logic, to his later explorations of history, race, and region. One wishes that Bassett had helped in this effort. But this and my earlier caveats to the side, Visions and Revisions is a welcome addition to the long shelf of studies of Faulkner. It presents, in one convenient place, a decade of insightful work by a mature and intelligent critic.
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Author:Zender, Karl F.
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1992
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