Why Faulkner, Still?
At a fall social function, friends inquired about my visit to the “Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha” summer conference at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. Referring to topics (among them race, place, and elegy) in Faulkner’s novels and short stories, I explained the sessions were “an indulgence” of one of my favorite authors and a chance to restudy his longstanding works. Faulkner convinced me again of his brilliance with the written word. Almost in union, friends asked, “Why do you want to study Faulkner?; He is so hard to read!” My response was, “Because I finally can.”
One of the lecturers, James Carothers, reminded us, “You’re different every time you read a book.” Prior to the conference, I had pulled my yellowed-paged, dog-eared copy of As I Lay Dying off the shelf, and again relied on the wisdom of my high school senior English teacher, Mrs. F., to unravel the vignettes. Suddenly, I was seventeen again and reading Faulkner for the first time. Edges of pages showed the still readable class marginalia, for instance: “inner-action: Bundrens trying to define themselves; and outer-action: journey in the wagon.” I remembered writing these words; I recalled Faulkner’s stream-of-consciousness, morose family, one sentence filling a chapter; and I reflected on my part in a skit: our group performed the burial scene, and, as daughter Dewey Dell, watched my “brothers and father” digging the grave.
Faulkner’s evocative, postmodern novel--a tempered and haunted one--depicts the Bundren family’s process of mourning their matriarch, Addie, and honoring her burial request in Jefferson, Mississippi. Now, an English professor and a different reader of As I Lay Dying, I noticed the depth, characterization, and prose. Yet, the feelings of curiosity and sorrow, and surprise were similar. Faulkner taught me that inner human experiences sustain over time, and this time, I attained a clearer understanding of ways he brings us expertly to an intersection of the past and the present. Benjamin, a literary critic, lays bare the essence of Faulkner’s writing: the “obsessive and puzzling representations of the past and its impact upon the present” (3), which is a place where we can still draw similar and useful parallels in the classroom. After all, it was Faulkner himself who argued, “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.”
In further conversation, a friend asked, “What does a conference on Faulkner have to do with cadets and their learning?” (I teach English at a military academy.) I replied, “Well, my freshmen students take a literature survey course, and I teach ‘A Rose for Emily,’ ‘Barn Burning,’ and others. Faulkner challenges every corner of their minds.” As such, we readers have to “be present.” There is no partiality with Faulkner: readers either choose (or not) to ride in the southern carriage with him. In the classroom, he can still bring students to a higher level of literacy, but with our guidance as they make connections across time.
Our challenge, noted Carothers, is to steer students away from “the tyranny of the present,” an assumption that lifestyles and attitudes of the present apply squarely to the past. Accordingly, we can ask our students: Why does he disallow us to interpret the events in only a present light? Why does he want us to look at the past uniquely? Perhaps he wants us to examine the shared, but historically contextualized, human experiences.
A relevant approach to Faulkner’s works that literary critics Guerin, et al., describe is Historical-Biographical, which “sees a literary work chiefly, if not exclusively, as a reflection of its author’s life and times or the life and times of the characters in a work” (51). His works, particularly the characters, reflect the times and argue for a serious consideration of the historical and cultural context in which they lived.
Meanwhile, later at the social function, one friend pressed on, “Why Faulkner? He is so hard for students to read.” I replied, “Because they can too.”
Why is Faulkner’s writing challenging to read? In a word: complexity. His works demand close reading and deep thinkingᾰcrucial skills for students, given the shorter, information bursts they read on technology today. Creating what Professor Peek referred to in his lecture as “his own best readers,” Faulkner respects their intelligence and wants them to realize his fiction as “disordered order.” His works are rich for students’ critical thinking because he “made texts problematic” (Davis), thus giving them challenging assignments without apology. Lest our students think many short stories are linear, sensible, and accessible, exposing them to thinkers such as Faulkner in literacy activities is valuable.
For instance, I have built upon Jennie Joiner’s idea relative to the non-chronological order of “A Rose for Emily.” Students work in groups to rearrange the subsections (within the Roman enumerated sections) into chronological sequence from the death of Miss Emily’s father to the gray hair found on the pillow; and identify the “ghost” subsections (for example, the two-year lapse). We then discuss how the story “reads” now in comparison to the disordered sequence of events and the dramatic effect created from each sequence on the readers.
Characteristically, his style is complex and poses a challenge for our teaching and students’ learning. Guerin, et al. explain, “A historical novel is likely to be more meaningful when either its milieu or that of its author is understood” (52).With practice, students can take active roles in understanding the milieu: content and syntax. His content, specifically the variety of scrambled, dense, and spare plots that includes: stream-of-consciousness, unreliable narrators, multiple charactersᾰsome with shared namesᾰwho appear in different texts, a fictional but seemingly real county, and foray into Southern culture; his topics of race, identity, moral conscience, legacy, relationships, and communication all yield conflicts rising in every chapter like humidity on a July day in Oxford. Faulkner’s masterful prose presents layers of meaning in complex syntax that often includes lengthy sentences--if unraveled, would span a small town’s main street. In “Barn Burning,” Faulkner writes:
The boy, crouched on his nail keg at the back of the crowded room, knew
he smelled cheese, and more: from where he sat he could see the ranked shelves
close-packed with the solid, squat, dynamic shapes of tin cans whose labels his
Noted in this and any given passage, Faulkner shows us what words say (form) and do (function): giving information, characterization, and figure of speech (imagery) as shown in the arresting passage:
The Negro met the first of the ladies at the front door and let them in, with their brushed, sibilant voices and their quick, curious glances, and then he disappeared. He walked right through the house and out the back and was not seen again (Faulkner 129).
In my classes, I have used this and other passages to develop a fuller appreciation for his stylistics, which cumulate into a “dare” Faulkner poses to us to partner with him to advance our literacy.
Given his influence and the potential to connect works of literature from our classrooms, Faulkner’s writing also has its place in curriculums. That all good American literature is traceable to Faulkner still swirls in literary circles. Many writers whose works in our curriculums: Shakespeare, Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Woolf are obvious contenders as well, but there is something special about Faulkner’s works that are consistent decade after decade. There exist many fine authors influenced by Faulkner. For instance, several of Toni Morrison’s novels and Cormac McCarthy’s films have Faulknerian roots. Terrell Tebbetts, another lecturer, argued:
In its treatment of African American masculinity, this novel [Beloved] has some relationship with Go Down Moses…[especially in] the white male Southerner’s and the black female Midwesterner’s treatments of identity.
Tebbetts added that
many readers and critics have commented on McCarthy’s general relationship with Faulkner, noting the rich language, brooding tone, and sometimes gothic characters and situations common to both, especially in McCarthy’s early Appalachain novels.
That said, countless authors could all turn around and acknowledge authors who influenced their writing. In short, it can be said that enough fine literature is traceable to Faulkner.
Faulkner is also worth reading because of his humanistic characters. “Every story has about a 1000 entry points” (Peek). One way to enter a Faulkner story is to reveal common values and experiences in the hopes and despairs of his early 20th century characters to citizens’ today. When one of my students responded to the gossip, customs, and intrusion of Miss Emily’s small town by stating: “Well, it’s not like that anymore,” this revealed only a present view that applied contemporary standards on the past. Since I wanted students to understand the significant influence of the town’s point-of-view in the story, we not only discussed historical context, but distinguished it from the present. In another discussion, students have wondered why the Bundren family travels so many miles in a rickety wagon when they could have buried their mother Addie in a nearby field or cemetery.
To address this, I asked students to imagine themselves in Yoknapatawpha county in the early 1900s and look around to understand (1) the conditions in which the Bundrens lived; (2) burial traditions; and (3) their individual motives, particularly Mr. Bundren’s, for wanting to bury his wife in a distant location. Once the past context is established, the discussion of Anse’s human flaw (similar to some today) of selfishness reveals another agenda: to introduce his children to their stepmother. The shared human experience of those now privy to the truth is the same past to present: shock, anger, and betrayal. Framing students’ perspectives in the past releases the need to make sense of characters’ actions through today’s lifestyles, but rather to contrast different contexts and compare similar emotions of the human experience.
When I have taught “A Rose for Emily,” students have often asked, “Why didn’t she just leave the house and make friends? Why did she grieve forever for her father? Is Homer gay? Why did she [“allegedly,” I add] sleep with a dead guy?” Particularly at issue in the discussion is homosexuality. Faulkner writes, “Homer himself had remarkedᾰhe liked men, and it was known that he drank with the younger men in the Elks’ Clubᾰthat he was not a marrying man” (32). Students assume Homer is a homosexual based on the line, “he liked men,” which they have concluded from current culture. An example of “tyranny of the present,” Faulkner’s implication is that Homer enjoyed his time with male counterparts and was not interested in marrying because he was engaged in a same-gender socialᾰnot necessarily sexual--lifestyle.
Teaching Faulkner with a renewed sense of purpose: steering clearer of the “tyranny of the present,” I have found more dynamic discussions by posing the question: What does Faulkner insist upon in his stories? An historical critic may ask, “What do we need to know about the Old South, to understand Faulkner’s stories. First, an understanding of a distinct context: fictional Yoknapatawpha County, where a complicated family tree of the Compsons, Satoris, and Snopes grows heartily. Assisting students in their understanding of the citizen interconnectedness in Yoknapatawpha is critical for their comprehension. It is an imagined place, only as real as a Blues song. Faulkner insists we become aware of the post Civil War South and contemplate the question: “Can the ideals of the Old South be preserved or decimated in post Civil War?” As shown, Miss Emily preserves her father and lover but risks decimation of her spirit and, ultimately, her life. Again, he asks us to understand the past and how it cycles into the present.
This county embodies southern values: loyalty to family, proper etiquette, protection of land; and making good on one’s word, acting appropriate to one’s socioeconomic class, living within a commanding social structure, keeping up appearances at any cost, believing the Confederates won the Civil War, and that living below the Mason-Dixon line was a privilege, never to be taken for granted. Faulkner knew the classes did not intermix in the Old South; the hierarchy was solvent; nevertheless, characters rail against the norm; for example, Miss Emily from the aristocratic class having a romantic relationship with Homer Barron of the common class. The townspeople’s reaction reveals this acutely: “Of course, a Grierson would not think seriously of a Northerner, a day laborer” (Faulkner 32). Again, he confronts us with issues of class and challenges our assumptions.
In the autobiographical sense, it is difficult to assert that he wrote his own life, but he certainly writes the life of his home region. Faulkner loathes and loves the South. Miss Emily represents “a kind of ache…to see his beloved South recognize all its shortcomings and begin addressing them,” (Tebbetts). Faulkner loves Miss Emily, her fortified backbone evident when “dating” Homer, despite the differences in their social classes, the risk of town gossip as pervasive as the heat, and her asking for “arsenic” without explanation. He loathes her inability to embrace change, her stubbornness to stand still in the past. Thus, he creates an odd, pitiable woman who stayed in her house for almost ten years. She becomes a symbol of suffering, an object of gossip, and, overall, a bona fide mystery.” Given her lifeᾰideal and grotesque--Faulkner gives her a complimentary rose and raises his glass to her,
In all of his works, Faulkner presents us with untidy, truthful themes and characters. Though he wants us to respect the past South and its citizens, he “won’t look away from [their] worst behavior; he provides an unvarnished study of his characters who are flawed, glorious, and mixed” (Carothers). For example, Abner, the father of Sarty in “Barn Burning,” is a proud, vindictive, yet necessary character. He embodies the resentful lower class and is the self-identified marker of injustice. But, at the enormous expense of his son. Sarty and his father represent binary characters--obvious in their opposite moral positions. Sarty experiences a mature and burdensome dilemma: Should he tell the truth or stay loyal to his family and hide the truth about his father’s pyromania? Abner demands that Sarty stay silent about his barn burning of the aristocratic persons whom he believes have betrayed him. Sarty’s conscience vacillates between honesty and lying. When, ultimately Sarty betrays his abusive father and confesses the crime, he must leave the family because he necessarily burned the bonds. Faulkner is a subtle social advocate for his characters, including Sarty, the actual symbol of justice in the South, a boy who would not compromise his values, despite the high familial cost. Faulkner forces us to look honestly at these flawed and dynamic characters whose hearts are hypocritical honestly so we can deliberate their moral dilemmas alongside them as human experience sustains.
Faulkner’s universal themes are relative to the same human emotional
expression across centuries, generations, and the relationships within them. Faulkner asks his readers to set aside perceived patterns of fiction and experience the uncomfortable response to a past culture with its strengths and ills. Accordingly, Lurie, another literary critic, argues, "the way that historical consciousness, on the part of either characters or readers (and often, both) is activated by and necessitates a textual effect of suffering” (qtd. in Benjamin 3). Readers can relate to this emotional experience, despite the time period, but recognize the distinct conditions under which suffering occurs. Interpreting Faulkner’s words not as “me,” or “them,” but rather “us,” in the spirit of a shared humanity as he remembers our past and its distinct place in the present.
Benjamin, Walter. “Introduction: Faulkner, memory, history.” The Faulkner Journal. Vol. 20.1-2, Fall 2004. 3(17). Print.
Carothers, James B. “In Conflict With Itself: Faulknerian Context.” Paper presented at The Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference. Oxford, Mississippi. 23 July 2008. Lecture.
Davis, Thadious. “Visualizing Light in August: Text, Author, Textuality, Authority.”
Paper presented at The Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference. Oxford, Mississippi. 23 July 2008. Lecture.
Faulkner, William. “A Rose for Emily.” X.J. Kennedy and Dana Goia. Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing. 5th Compact ed. New York: Longman, 2007. 28-35. Print.
Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying. New York: Vintage, 1964. Print.
Faulkner, William. “Barn Burning.” Edgar V. Roberts and Henry E. Jacobs. Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing. 4th ed. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1995. 143-155. Print.
Guerin, Wilfred, et al. A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature. 5th ed. New
York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.
Lurie, Peter. "Querying the Modernist Canon: Historical Consciousness and the Sexuality of Suffering in Faulkner and Hart Crane." Benjamin, Walter. “Introduction: Faulkner, memory, history.” The Faulkner Journal. Vol. 20.1-2, Fall, 2004. 3(17). Print.
Peek, Charles. “Introduction to Faulkner.” Paper presented at The Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference. Oxford, Mississippi. 22 July 2008. Lecture.
Tebbetts, Terrell L. “Inheritance in The Unvanquished: Teaching Faulkner.” Paper presented at The Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference. Oxford, Mississippi. 24 July 2008. Lecture.