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William Faulkner and Southern History.

Though most historians of the South offer lip-service to William Faulkner's greatness, his influence on them is far from evident. The two figures who divide modern Southern history between them -- W. J. Cash and C. Vann Woodward -- have both paid homage to Oxford's not-so-favorite son. Yet it should be noted that neither Cash nor Woodward was originally enthusiastic about Faulkner's work. More recently, Michael O'Brien, a Southern intellectual historian, has wondered out loud what all the fuss about Faulkner is anyway. Still, if there is any doubt that the weight of the Southern past has been experienced as a burden or that the classical Southern "mind" lacked the propensity for abstract thought, Faulkner's oeuvre is available as evidence for just such claims.

By way of contrast: if Faulkner scholars and biographers declared a five-year moratorium on Faulkner studies, no one except those same scholars would suffer unduly -- and even they might be secretly relieved. Not that there is no good or important Faulkner criticism being produced or that it was better "back then": it wasn't. But there is so much of it that, like Quentin Compson haunted by a ghost-ridden past, you sometimes wonder why you have to read another article or book on Faulkner at all. Overall, historians tend to avoid Faulkner with ritual words of praise, while literary types bury him under mounds of critical studies.

This is the scene which Joel Williamson, a distinguished historian of Southern race relations and racial ideologies, enters with his biography of Faulkner. Williamson's entry into the field raises hopes that the professional historian of the South can provide some particularly illuminating perspective on Faulkner and/or some fresh assessment of Faulkner's importance for the understanding or even writing of Southern history. Over the years Faulkner has been subjected to myth and symbol, theological and new-critical readings, fought over by reactionaries and progressives, and latterly deconstructed, new-historicized and psychoanalyzed. An interested reader of Faulkner might secretly wish for someone to pare away the critical-theoretical persiflage and get down to the bone-true Faulkner and the way he/it really was.

Unfortunately Williamson's biography of Faulkner doesn't quite come off. This is not to say that it is without interest or value, though sceptics might well ask whether we need five Faulkner biographies in twenty years. Most surprising is how little Southern history, or even Mississippi history, is brought creatively to bear on Faulkner's work or Faulkner criticism. Frederick Karl's William Faulkner: American Writer (1989), a big, often sloppy and sprawling but intermittently interesting biography, sought to make the case, as the subtitle indicates, that Faulkner was preeminently an American and modernist rather than Southern writer. Leaving aside whether Karl succeeded or not -- or whether it is even an interesting question -- one might have expected Williamson, an expert on Southern history and culture in Faulkner's formative years, to take up such an issue. But he doesn't really do so; and rather offers the anodyne judgment expressed in terms Faulkner would have approved that: "The stage happened to be the South, the subject was the human condition, and the play was ongoing and without end" (p. 6).

Yet near the end of his book, Williamson seems to reverse himself by suggesting that Faulkner himself misjudged the strengths of his own work:

Faulkner did best when he wrote about the unatoned sins of his natal region, but

he himself relished most that he wrote about the universals of human existence.

(p. 432) I don't think these two positions are compatible; but the important point is not which is right so much as that Williamson doesn't really ever argue either the "Southernness" or the "Americanness" (or universality) of Faulkner's vision in a sustained manner. Thus, he begs the question right from the beginning of what the relevant context for best situating Faulkner really is. And Williamson fails to bring his historical sixth sense -- by which I mean his feel for what Faulkner's South was like to inhabit, not his knowledge of facts and trends of Southern history -- to bear on his understanding of Faulkner's life.

Nor does Williamson give any indication that he has mastered, or systematically sampled, the various literary-critical and theoretical approaches to Faulkner that have appeared over the last half century. No one should be condemned to read all -- or even most -- of this critical output. But as it stands, Faulkner and Southern History unfolds Faulkner's development in an intellectual and critical vacuum. Williamson makes reference, for instance, to a planter who had a daughter by a slave woman and then had a child by that daughter. He also notes the frequency in the South of marriages between close relatives, giving concrete meaning to the term "kissing cousin." But he never really does anything very interesting with these historical examples of Faulkner's obsession (literary? personal?) with incest and miscegenation. Does this historian find anything of use in John Irwin's pathbreaking psychoanalytic exploration of the centrality of incest in Faulkner's core texts? Are literary types such as Eric Sundquist and James Snead, who address the centrality of race and color in Faulkner's texts, in touch with historical reality? Can the Southern historian learn from Faulkner or his critics anything essential about the agonies of Southern race relations? By default, the answer is apparently: no.

It is difficult in other words to say where Williamson stands on the "cognitive" status of fiction in general or of Faulkner's work in particular. Does a novel such as Absalom, Absalom! really teach us anything, or offer us any truths, about the history of the South (forget the stuff about the "truths of the human heart")? Cleanth Brooks has of course brought Eugene Genovese's thesis of the paternalistic, pre-capitalist nature of the slave South to bear in support of one reading of Absalom. But Williamson neither takes up this issue or similar ones that might provide ways of understanding Southern history through Faulkner and Faulkner through the work of Southern historians. Or is Faulkner's a "world" so self-enclosed and idiosyncratic, so eccentric to historical reality, that it fails essentially to illuminate that reality? Everyone in literary theory has grown tired of theoretical discussions of realism, but this is a genuine issue which historians in particular, committed as they are to a rhetoric of reference and realism, might usefully take up and ponder.

These caveats aside, it is important to discuss the way Williamson approaches and shapes Faulkner's life and work. It is to Williamson's text that I will now turn.

The biography is divided into three large sections: "Ancestry" (138 pages), "Biography" (211 pages), and "The Writing" (78 pages). Clearly, a biography should devote most of its attention to being a biography. But the fact that Williamson devotes significantly more space to Faulkner's ancestry than to his fiction is a worrisome point from the beginning. My own guess, based on Williamson's account in the "Acknowledgments," is that he identifies his major achievement as, and has most invested in, the reconstruction of Faulkner's family background contained in the "Ancestry" section.

Williamson's task as a biographer was to recast the family historians on both sides of the Falkner family into a narrative. He is convincing on Colonel William C. Falkner: "No Sartoris or even a Thomas Sutpen of fictional fame here" (p. 36). But the "Old Colonel" appeared as out of nowhere from Missouri, always suffered a "measure of alienation from the ruling elite" (p. 37) in Northern Mississippi, and was repeatedly "alienated by his own acts" (p. 61). Williamson's analysis here obviously foreshadows the personality of the "Old Colonel" 's great-grandson, who obviously felt similar alienation and manifested the same tendencies to self-defeating behavior. But there is little mention of the Colonel's career as a writer, much less a discussion of his The White Rose of Memphis. Was it important that Colonel Falkner had been a writer or not? It is hard to tell from Williamson's account.

He also makes a meal of the existence of a shadow family of black Falkners and of the fact that Faulkner's mother's father, Charles Butler, killed a man on the square in Oxford in 1884 and then in late 1887 absconded with local tax revenues and, local tradition says, an octoroon mistress. Williamson also stresses that both family lines arose from the small-town business and commercial class and were scarcely of planter provenance. Again, this adds something to our understanding of Faulkner's general background and imparts something of the texture of Northern Mississippi social structure (and its shadowy underside) in the mid- to late nineteenth century. But it is hardly the kind of startling information that might cause us to see the novelist or his work in a new way. Indeed I sensed that Williamson was occasionally writing up materials that he was reluctant not to use, even though they had no crucial bearing on Faulkner's life or work.

Overall, then, the "Ancestry" section has a certain interest as family and local (Northern Mississippi) history. Because that history is not more robustly interpreted there or later, it fails to be compelling and frankly could have been cut significantly. Aside from a brief reference to Faulkner's memory of the hostile feelings toward his great-grandfather in Ripley, the second section includes no general reflections on what William Cuthbert is likely to have known of his family history on either side. This raises a significant biographical-historical question about the relevance of family histories, elements of which the subject of the biography had no knowledge.

The "Biography" section not unreasonably is the longest and, I think, the best of the book. Williamson valuably emphasizes the "radical racist hysteria" (p. 162) that permeated Faulkner's childhood and adolescence. Like others he also emphasizes the closeness of Faulkner to his mother and is frank about the fact that father Murry "manifested a measure of dislike" (p. 166) for his oldest and increasingly inscrutable son. Overall, Williamson provides a succinct account of Faulkner's formative years and captures precisely the shape of the life to come in which "Faulkner observed and imagined, but did not experience" (p. 187). This avoidance of full engagement was manifested in a never-ending protean-like quest for a persona with which he was comfortable -- flyer, fin-desiecle poet-dandy, tough guy, farmer, aristocrat, husband, father, lover and writer -- and with which he could keep people at a distance. Only in the role of writer was Faulkner truly at home with himself and even there the agonies accompanying the process of writing meant that he was never really a happy or satisfied man; nor, as Williamson notes, anything but "peculiarly inept in self-understanding" (p. 249).

With others Faulkner was self-enclosed and uncommunicative. So close as children, Bill and Estelle were diabolically mismatched as husband and wife. Williamson focuses a good bit of attention on Faulkner's various affairs, especially the one with Meta Carpenter, a woman with whom he came close to enjoying times of sexual happiness, while treasuring her qualities as a younger, almost sisterly woman. She was, observes Williamson, "both virginal and endlessly sexual" (p. 253). If one wants a glimpse of the murky nexus from which Quentin's sexualized sister, Caddy, emerged, Williamson provides it. He also suggests that Wild Palms was "a story of the road that Meta and Bill had not taken" (p. 258).

The first half of the 1950s saw Faulkner drinking a lot, even for Faulkner. He was clearly a serious alcoholic, careening out of control repeatedly. After enduring a series of embarrassments over his pronouncements on racial issues, Faulkner and his wife moved to Charlottesville in the last six years of his life. There until his death in 1962, he was accepted as the famous writer he had become, something that never happened in Oxford. As bad a horseman as he was a pilot, he died of the cumulative effects of riding accidents and alcohol.

The portrait Williamson constructs is not a pleasant or happy one. He has taken Frederick Karl's emphasis upon the debilitating effect of drink on Faulkner's writing and extended that effect to every aspect of his existence. At the end the reader doesn't know whether to weep in pity for this miserable man or to wish him eternal punishment for the unhappiness he brought to others and to himself. If there is a hero(ine) in Faulkner's biography, it would have to be his daughter, Jill, who had the intelligence and courage to escape the poisonous atmosphere at Rowan Oak as soon as possible. Yet though Williamson undoubtedly gets central aspects of Faulkner's character right, he allows Faulkner few, if any, friends or acquaintances, once Phil Stone leaves the scene. There was something about Faulkner that appealed, not just to women but also to men. But we don't get much feel for whatever that appeal was, even if it only consisted of Faulkner's ability to sit still and listen and a certain generosity with money. Friends such as James Silver at Ole Miss, a Southern historian of no little civic courage, fail to appear in Faulkner and Southern History, even though the two men were close. Williamson's portrait of Faulkner is probably the most extreme example of the demolition of the Faulkner family romance in which Faulkner is depicted as a taciturn and admittedly difficult writer, but possessor of hard-won wisdom about himself and the world by the end of his life. It is, I suppose, valuable for that reason.

Finally "The Writing." The remarkable quality of Faulkner's achievement comes even more into bold relief once we have retraced the deeply unhappy life he led. How was the transformation from deeply flawed human being to brilliant writer possible? Williamson does not address this problem, but rather chooses to construct a model, as it were, of the "Faulknerian universe" (p. 355). Williamson suggests that Faulkner's universe is "defined by two connected continuums" (p. 355): one which stretches from the "Ideal" to the "Real" and the other which runs between "Nature" and "Society." Between these two sets of binaries, Faulkner's characters live and move and have their being. Quentin lives in and for an Ideal conception of reality, while his brother Jason is immersed in the Real; life in the "big woods" is Nature (but so is an ideally ordered society in which the idea of "placeness" [p. 403] obtains), while the modern world offers only a time -- and social order -- seriously out of joint. Williamson also adds the important point that Faulkner never assumed that the slave South was also "natural or harmonious" (p. 359) either.

Beyond that Williamson foregrounds two central aspects of human existence in Faulkner's cosmos: sexuality and community. Williamson notes quite rightly that there are hardly any human sexual relationships in Faulkner's world that offer anything approaching happiness or fulfillment--the importance of virginity to men in the fiction and in Faulkner's own life is striking. But there are nevertheless a few characters, and situations, in his fictional world where community "works" in a normative sense or is redeemed and re-established after a period of disruption.

Such overarching interpretations of Faulkner's (or anyone's) total work are by their very nature incomplete and worth arguing about. Thus, a couple of observations are in order. First, it is in this section that Williamson's neglect of American or Southern intellectual history is most noticeable, in terms of influence but more importantly in terms of comparisons. For instance, though Faulkner often sounded like a combination of Allen Tate and Andrew Lytle on a bad day, he never bought the essential innocence or "naturalness" of the antebellum South which the Agrarians often peddled. But Williamson might have emphasized that Faulkner's work was permeated by a deep tension between a dominant mode of telling, taking the form of a decline-narrative, and the equally crucial assumption that the South was "already always" corrupted. Sutpen was representative of origins which the South attempted to deny; he is the region's "truth" made flesh, not an outside force who corrupts an essentially morally coherent community. By not developing his own best insight that Faulkner refused to depict the South's flaw as externally imposed, Williamson fails to convey the dynamic, even explosive tension at the heart of Faulkner's work and the explanation for the superior force and moral power of Faulkner's exploration of the Southern past. Instead Williamson tends to "figure" things in terms of the static model of two intersecting continuums and fails to put Faulkner up against other of his contemporaries, writers and intellectuals who were charting the same territory of the Southern past.

Some other matters are also worth noting. When Williamson discusses a single work at any length, he tends to fall back on extended plot summary rather than engage in close textual or stylistic or formal analysis. He also tends to confuse metaphysical Idealism (the existence of a world of forms outside of space and time) with ethical Idealism (the firm commitment to certain Ideals beyond self- or material interest). More surprisingly, considering his interest in the historical significance of miscegenation, Williamson fails to discuss just what Faulkner's objection to miscegenation was and why it was associated with moral incoherence in his world. Was miscegenation the prime example of the domination of black by white, of slave by master? Or was it that black and white would/should not mix in a Natural order, the sin lying in the mixing, not the domination which subtends it? My suspicion is that the two sorts of objection are impossible to separate in Faulkner; and I have come to feel that Faulkner remained much more of the racial separatist than even he might have admitted. Again, it is the agonized tension between such positions on race that generated Faulkner's obsessive exploration of the relation of white and black and red in his work. The power of his work came precisely from the unresolved nature of his conscious (and unconscious) views on race, not the settled beliefs he held. That is the difference between William Faulkner and Gavin Stevens.

What finally emerges in Williamson's reading of Faulkner is a kind of (Cleanth) Brooksian reading of Faulkner's cosmos as a place/community of potential moral coherence. His comments on Light in August suggest as much: it is a "book about how they all [the various characters], in one way or another, come to find place again as if moved by some unseen force . . ." (p. 405). In this conception even Joe Christmas "found place as the sacrificial lamb" (p. 413). Moreover, many of Williamson's examples in this final section are drawn from the later, less agonized Faulkner texts. The result is a serious underestimation of the tragic and of the transgressive dimensions of Faulkner's fictional world. Indeed, I would want to argue, for instance, that Joe Christmas's death is a perverted parody of Christ's reconciling self-sacrifice and that the meaning of Lena's concluding section lies in its ironic relationship to the main action preceding it. Put differently: the essential Faulknerian vision isn't the one with which he concluded his life and work but the one which first emerges with awesome intensity in the writing between The Sound and the Fury and Go Down, Moses.

Finally, there is a dimension of Faulkner's work and a central capacity of his that Williamson fails to factor into his model of Faulkner's world-view -- historicity and historical consciousness. Sexuality and its tortured nature, community and its possibilities are both important to Faulkner's world. But what characterizes that world above all else is the modern (and Southern) exploration and deployment of memory to recuperate, or to come to terms with, a culture, a set of values and institutions under immense historical pressure. Of these pressures, of the vicissitudes of modernity, Williamson speaks but without somehow conveying their seminal importance. It is particularly ironic that Williamson the historian neglects this dimension of Faulkner's art and of his fictional universe. That such an astute and knowledgeable (Southern) historian all but ignores the problematics of memory in Faulkner suggests that Southern historians (or for that matter, American historians) have yet to learn to think through or to convey to the reader the processes by and through which they explore the past through memory and memory through the past. For this we still need Freud or Proust -- or Faulkner. The representation of historical consciousness is still too important to be left to the historians.
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Author:King, Richard H.
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
Previous Article:"This hand holds genius": three unpublished Faulkner letters.
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