The Magazine

Modernist Master

Fifty years since his death, we remain in Faulkner’s shadow.

Jul 23, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 42 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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April seventh, 1928: Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. They were coming toward where the flag was and I went along the fence. Luster was hunting in the grass by the flower tree. They took the flag out and they were hitting. Then they put the flag back and they went to the table, and he hit and the other hit .  .  . 

William Faulkner, 1950

William Faulkner, 1950

“Here, caddie.” He hit. They went away across the pasture. I held to the fence and watched them going away.

“Listen at you, now.” Luster said. “Aint you something, thirty three years old, going on that way. .  .  . Hush up that moaning.” 

“Read this, Bud—it’s a real son-ofabitch,” the author of a famous American novel said as he handed the typescript of The Sound and the Fury to an old friend one day in New York. Many baffled readers of this country’s first great work of modernist fiction would cry, “Hear! Hear!” Indeed, it’s a real sonofabitch.

As of July 6, we are 50 years beyond William Faulkner’s death. And in observance of that milestone, the Folio Society has published an anniversary edition of the novel ($345), printing in varicolored inks the time sequences covered by its most baffling narrative voice, that of the idiot Compson brother, Benjy. There were no footnotes to advise the reader that Benjy, in his vapid innocence, is “moaning” for his lost sister, Caddy, and believes the golfers are calling her name—nor that the “pasture,” long alienated from the family property, has become a golf course.

Faulkner, in later interviews, did try to explain what he was attempting in The Sound and the Fury. The story, he said, began with the mental picture of an adorable little girl with muddy drawers climbing a tree to peer through the window at her grandmother’s funeral—and to describe it to her three less adventuresome brothers who are standing below: 

It was a story without a plot, of some children being sent away from the house during the grandmother’s funeral and then the idea struck me to see how much more I could have got out of the idea .  .  . if one of those children had been truly innocent, that is, an idiot. So the idiot was born and then I became interested in the relationship of the idiot to the world and just where could he get the tenderness, the help, to shield him. .  .  . And so .  .  . his sister began to emerge, then the brother. .  .  . Then .  .  . someone to tell the story, so Quentin appeared. 

I hear skeptics protesting, Wait a minute! What’s so damned important about so ordinary a story to justify so much technical huffing and puffing? It is the perennial protest of those who think all stories, however elusive, should be told straight, the way we think they happened, in a novel as on the front page or gossip column of the morning paper. It is a reasonable protest, though scarcely new; so herewith one reader’s attempt to satisfy it.

But! by the way, the story told in The Sound and the Fury is far from ordinary; it involves the epic decline of a proud family, the Compsons of Jefferson, Mississippi (by bastardy, idiocy, alienation, suicide, monomania, bad debts, drunkenness, mean degeneracy, and incompetence), and thus, by inference, of a regional social order.

Who can wonder that even sophisticated readers remain sharply divided on the merits of Faulkner’s fiction and on the mythic world he created? One thing, however, is undebatable: Almost a century after he began to write, Faulkner stands at the top of the slippery pole of “modernism”—the American branch of it, at least. The term descends from the early decades of the last century (modernism is obviously no longer “modern” in the chronological sense). Its roots remain as elusive as Faulkner’s storytelling; but it was no coincidence that traditional novelizing (Dickens, Trollope, Hardy, et al.) began to fragment when new theories in physics and psychology dawned on the literary imagination and expanded our interest in the intricate byways of human consciousness. 

Such figures as Einstein, Freud, and Joyce were among Faulkner’s collaborators in this narrative mischief—if you consider it so, as many do. A story is reliably told that when Faulkner paid a visit to Albert Einstein in Princeton, the two sat in mutually respectful silence, finding no small talk, smoking their pipes and sipping Mrs. Einstein’s coffee, then parted—another of those lamentable lost opportunities, like the chance encounter of Joyce and Proust in Paris one evening. (However, Faulkner so venerated his fellow genius that he placed a period after the Dr. in Einstein’s name, the only instance in his writings in which such titles were punctuated.)

Faulkner is frequently viewed as a Southern gothic or romantic regionalist. Those trace elements exist in his stories, but do not define them. Faulkner created a mythic county called Yoknapatawpha and peopled it with characters rich and poor, virtuous and vicious, established and parvenu, drawn from both observation and imagination. In Faulkner’s world, as in all settled societies, castes and locales differ—Jefferson, the county seat (based on Oxford, Mississippi), from Frenchman’s Bend, an outlying rural community. The Compsons, principal family of The Sound and the Fury, are from the top drawer of the planter gentry, while the Snopeses, whose story opens with The Hamlet, are a byword for scheming “white trash.” 

But Faulkner’s people aren’t predictable, and he doesn’t hesitate to show that Jason Compson, Benjy’s sneering brother, is as mean, dishonest, and calculating as any Snopes, while certain latter-day members of the Snopes tribe achieve a measure of bourgeois respectability, even as bankers. For Faulkner, virtue lies not in superficial marks of rank, race, or origin, but in the capacity to observe a code of honor, marked by pride, compassion, and pity.

His stories and novels are set in a sometimes surreal, natural world of the Delta, and the hills and bottomlands. He was a lifelong outdoorsman, hunter, horseman, and gentleman farmer. But as Cleanth Brooks has observed, Faulkner is no Rousseauist, idealizing nature and identifying instinct with innocence. In his stories, nature is latent with menace and violence, vengeance and dark comedy. An exploitative view of the wilderness intimates evil; for man owes respect to the land, whose possession is a trust. Ownership is a kind of human delusion, related to the evil of slavery, the primal curse which must be expiated. 

These themes are not political: The power of the natural world goes behind and beyond civic structures. Faulkner’s animals, wild or domestic,
are beautifully observed and often take on a numinous quality. Such is Old Ben, the ancient, invulnerable bear with 53 bullets in him, the hero of his best-known story. Another is the buck deer that young Isaac McCaslin shoots in his first hunt. Then there are the wild Texas mavericks brought to Frenchman’s Bend for sale to the gullible in “Spotted Horses,” one of Faulkner’s wildly funny stories:

Larger than rabbits and gaudy as parrots. .  .  . Calico-coated, small-bodied, with delicate legs and pink faces in which their mismatched eyes rolled .  .  . wild as deer, deadly as rattlesnakes, quiet as doves.

These horses are not drawn from life; they are not the horses of George Stubbs. They are impressionist animals and would be at home in a painting by Renoir.

Finally, as for the narrative tricks that trouble so many novice readers, there is this to be said: Faulkner is a ventriloquist who projects an inventive authorial voice through various channels. Benjy, the idiot, is one—but there are others. There is the agitated brooding of Quentin Compson, who is driven mad by his obsession with the family decline, and who finally drowns himself in far-off Cambridge, Massachusetts. These technical ingenuities are keys to the deeper pleasures of Faulkner’s work. His ear for the registers of human speech is unrivaled in American fiction, tuned to the Southern tradition of bardic storytelling. 

At least since the English critic Percy Lubbock wrote his seminal study The Craft of Fiction (1921), it has been conceded that the novel has the same potential for high art as older forms of epic and drama. By study and the force of his genius, Faulkner grasped its potential and, in a burst of brilliant productivity between the late 1920s and the mid-1930s, made himself a major voice of the modernist movement. We do well to discount the superstition (including his own mischievous statements) that he was a bumpkin who stumbled into the writing trade. The most notorious tease is his preface to the 1935 Modern Library edition of Sanctuary

This book was written three years ago .  .  . a cheap idea because it was deliberately conceived to make money. .  .  . I took a little time out and speculated what a person in Mississippi would believe to be current trends, chose what I thought was the right answer and invented the most horrific tale I could imagine and wrote it in about three weeks.

Up to a point, Mr. Faulkner! Sanctuary is indeed a “horrific tale,” featuring the brutal and impotent Popeye, who abducts an Ole Miss coed and rapes her with a corncob; but calling the story horrific is the only statement the author makes about this dark and brilliant fable that isn’t pure moonshine. Elsewhere in the same introduction he complains that he has been misjudged by most of the critics and literary tastemakers, and that his early masterpieces, including The Sound and the Fury, were dismissed by indolent and conventional readers as gibberish. 

It is true, alas. But today, half a century after his death, Faulkner is even more happily crowned with laurels and honors, and we know better. 

Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is the author, most recently, of Vacancy: A Judicial Misadventure.

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