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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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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.

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