Teaching William Faulkner in High School Advanced Placement Classrooms
Richard S. Turner, Hamilton, Ohio
As a high school English teacher for twenty-nine years, I have been a close colleague of many teachers of American literature. To my knowledge, my colleagues have never taught a novel by Faulkner and have only occasionally taught the one short story included in the literature text. They have usually ignored the Nobel Prize speech that has also been included in the literature anthology. Although I have taught British literature during my career, I have always maintained a fascination for the literature of William Faulkner. I have read all of his novels and most of his short stories. I believe him to be the greatest American writer of the twentieth century. It is my contention that the literature of Faulkner should be taught in high schools and that several of his novels and short stories should be included in the English curriculum of all high schools in America. It is my hope that the findings of this study illuminate specific reasons that his literature is being taught and various reasons that high school Advanced Placement English teachers are avoiding Faulkner's work. The findings may enable high school curriculum developers and English teachers to reexamine the extent to which Faulkner is included in the curriculum and how he is taught in the classroom.
The high school English curriculum is closely connected with the specific literature text which has been adopted by the school district. Teachers usually follow a chronology of selections provided by textbook companies. Most texts used in high schools contain at least one short story by Faulkner. The selections most often included are "A Rose for Emily," "Barn Burning," "Spotted Horses," and sections of "The Bear." Many texts include the Nobel Prize speech.
The English curriculum in most high schools includes a supplemental reading list which consists of recommended literary selections chosen by the teachers as a department. These selections are novels or plays that are not included in the literature text being used in the classroom. There may be certain titles that are required by the department and must be taught, but for the most part, they are selections that teachers choose because they feel they are important to teach and because they enjoy reading and teaching them.
Several novels and short stories written by William Faulkner can be included on high school reading lists and if taught would enhance student experiences of American literature. Malcolm Cowley in his classic introduction to The Portable Faulkner said, "Faulkner's novels have the quality of being lived, absorbed, remembered rather than merely observed. And they have what is rare in the novels of our time, a warmth of family affection, brother for brother and sister, the father for his children - a love so warm and proud that it tries to shut out the rest of the world" (p. xxviii). It is difficult to imagine someone reading the final scenes of Light in August and not being moved by the fate of Joe Christmas. It is hard to imagine that a reader can experience the journey with the Bundren family to bury Addie in As I Lay Dying and not be a better person for the experience. In As I Lay Dying, Faulkner used fifteen different narrators - some only once, others several times - to tell a single story. This was an original and unique style that no other prominent writer has attempted since. What student can experience Faulkner's encapsulation of the world in The Sound and the Fury and not come to a deeper understanding of himself and his place in that world? Can any reader experience Go Down, Moses with its indignities, insufferable violence, and unspeakable wrongs that the Southern white has inflicted on the Black and not come to a deeper sensibility of human morality for all of mankind?
Literature allows students to understand the heritage of the past. Faulkner teaches us better than most writers what it means to be an American, not just an American from the South. We must each learn to share the heritage wrought by slavery and learn to understand the prejudice and greed that forged its development. More than most writers, Faulkner is able to lead us to a personal understanding of "man's inhumanity to man."
There are authors who are more lyrical and romantic, authors who can move us momentarily by a rhetorical eloquence, but Faulkner at his best moves us because we become actively involved with his characters. Cowley (1946) says, "it is by his best that we should judge him, as every other author; and Faulkner at his best - even sometimes at his worst - has a power, a richness of life, an intensity to be found in no other American writer of our time" (p. xxv). In Go Down, Moses Faulkner created young Ike McCaslin who learns the oneness of all nature and that blood does not matter, that Sam Fathers, Negro, White, and Indian, is Sam Fathers, a man. He also learns love and pity for all living creatures and that there is a code of nature by which we should all live. In The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner gives us one of his greatest creations, the humble Negro servant Dilsey. She has remained the steadfast center of the Compson household. According to Edmund Volpe (1964), "The source of her strength is her humanity. She is incapable of thinking in abstractions, in terms of servant or employer, Negro or White, hers is a genuine response to individuals and to life" (p. 124).
Faulkner creates the embodiment of evil in the character of Popeye in his novel Sanctuary. He lies outside the circle of human corruption and is a link between human and cosmic evil. He is a character who is alien to the natural world and to the human species. With Faulkner's creation of the Negro Lucas Beauchamp in Intruder in the Dust, he is able to pay tribute to the strength and endurance of the Negro race. Lucas is too proud to acquiesce in submission, too self-contained to be either outcast or rebel. According to Irving Howe (1975), Lucas challenges many of the notions Faulkner had previously expressed about Negroes. He is "a member of an oppressed group who appears not as a catalogue of disabilities or even virtues, but as a human being in his own right. He is not a form of behavior but a person, not 'Negro' but a Negro" (p. 129). Perhaps Howe speaks for every reader who has come to love Faulkner's "living" characterizations: "Even those readers distrustful of Faulkner's style or repelled by his violence must be struck by the amplitude, vitality, and high coloring of the figures that move across the Yoknapatawpha landscape. Although Faulkner's plots are sometimes too cumbersome and tricky for the matter they convey, and his reflections can become turgid and pretentious, his characters seldom fail us" (p. 4).
Speaking in Pakistan in 1957, Faulkner said, "it is men and women that matter, the characters. I don't write the stories. When the characters come alive, they write the stories themselves by behaving as they should" (Inge, p. 151). Faulkner has never created a single character of the magnitude of Shakespeare's Hamlet and Falstaff, Melville's Ahab or Flaubert's Emma Bovary. His greatness lies in the development of a body of characters which surely rivals those created by Shakespeare and Dickens. And to my way of thinking, it is this masterful body of characterization to which high school students should be exposed if they are to truly understand the human spirit as it is embodied in the study of American literature.
This dissertation provides the reader with a new insight into one of America's foremost writers of fiction. It gives teachers of American literature an extensive chronology of literary, pedagogical, and curricular criticism on Faulkner. It also provides teachers with a number of valuable teaching materials that can be used in the high school classroom. This study captures the voices of Advanced Placement high school teachers who enjoy teaching Faulkner each year, the voices of students who engage in that study, and the voices of teachers who choose not to include Faulkner in the canon of writers they assign each year. This dissertation acquaints and reacquaints readers with Faulkner's writing through the commentary of literary scholars, the myriad of fascinating characters from his fiction, and the voice of Faulkner himself. Each page makes a passionate case for the inclusion of Faulkner in the high school classroom and the language arts curriculum document.
Conclusions and Recommendations
In April of 1939, William Faulkner, describing his own sense of mastery while finishing The Hamlet, wrote to his publisher, Robert Haas, "I am the best in America, by God" (Minter, p.178). There are certainly high school teachers, as reflected in this study, who would disagree with this self-assessment by Faulkner. They are quick to criticize his writing as unstructured, incomprehensible, racist, and filled with repugnant sex and violence. They point to examples of stream of consciousness that run for several pages or vulgarity as seen in the character Percy Grimm who says of Joe Christmas in Liqht in August, "Jesus Christ... Has every preacher and old maid in Jefferson taken their pants down to the yellowbellied son of a bitch?" (p. 512) These Advanced Placement teachers are adamantly opposed to teaching Faulkner in their classrooms. But this study also reveals that Faulkner and his fiction are alive and well in many high school Advanced Placement classrooms. Teachers who embrace his writing point out that it has a beautiful eloquence as reflected in an entire section devoted to the character Addie Bundren in As I Lay Dying:
And then he died. He did not know he was dead. I would lie by him in the dark, hearing the dark land talking of God's love and His beauty and His sin; hearing the dark voicelessness in which the words are the deeds, and the other words that are not deeds, that are just the gaps in peoples' lacks, coming down like the cries of the geese out of the wild darkness in the old terrible nights, fumbling at the deeds like orphans to whom are pointed out in a crowd two faces and told, That is your father, your mother. (1990, p. 166)
Or his ability to describe a landscape as seen in The Mansion:
The road had ceased some time back to be even gravel and at any moment now it would cease to be passable to anything on wheels; already, in the fixed glare. . .of the headlights, it resembled just one more eroded ravine twisting up the broken rise crested with shabby and shaggy pine and worthless black-jack. The sun had crossed the equator, in Libra now; and in the cessation of motion and the quiet of the idling engine, there was a sense of autumn after the slow drizzle of Sunday and the bright spurious cool which had lasted through Monday almost; the jagged rampart of pines and scrub oak was a thin dike against the winter and rain and cold, under which the worn-out fields overgrown with sumac and sassafras and persimmon had already turned scarlet, the persimmons heavy with fruit waiting only for frost and the baying of potlicker possum hounds. (1958, p. 127)
These teachers are also quick to point out that Faulkner's subject matter and racial language are reflections of his modernistic technique and that it is not Faulkner using the word "nigger," but his characters. This brings me to the question, "Why Faulkner?" My purpose for this study was to examine the extent to which the literature of Faulkner is being taught in high school Advanced Placement classrooms in a small geographic area of Southwest Ohio. After reading surveys and conducting interviews with 30 high school AP teachers, I found that 14 teach Faulkner's literature and 16 do not. Perhaps examples of the responses I received from my final survey/interview question, "Why should we teach Faulkner to high school students? Why shouldn't we teach Faulkner to high school students? Choose one or both," will help to answer the question "Why Faulkner?"
Carol Chafin responded to the question in her survey this way:
How can any teacher of American literature fail to include Faulkner? In his literature, he has used themes of a depth and magnitude seldom seen in other American writers. His experimentation with style, especially stream of consciousness, places him in a class of his own. When I think of characters such as Caddy and Quentin Compson and Dilsey in The Sound and the Fury, the Bundren family in As I Lay Dying, and Ike McCaslin and Sam Fathers in "The Bear," I realize Faulkner's creative genius and and his contributions to American fiction. He is our link to the South and a special place called Yoknapatawpha County. [. . .]
[Yet,] Megan Williams, who participated in the second focus group session, was quick to respond to the question and was passionate about her feelings.
I do not dispute that Faulkner is a significant twentieth century literary figure nor that his work is important. However, this does not necessarily mean that he is a suitable candidate for high school lit classes, any more than Nabokov would be, for instance. I would hope that no teacher would attempt to teach Huck Finn, Hamlet, or A Farewell to Arms to a class of sixth graders because, although they might be able to read the words, they will, in most cases, be unable to grasp the full complexities of those novels. In fact, these are books that can present a challenge to high school honor students. However fashionable it may be in colleges to introduce an ever wider number of writers into the canon, high schools are dealing with much younger, less mature students and also with their parents who are often uncomfortable with Steinbeck and Hemingway, never mind Faulkner. I believe it is my job to deal with important, accessible literature; to give these kids a taste of the "great" works that colleges will anticipate they have been exposed to. Those students who are really committed to English can go on and meet Faulkner in college where they may be better prepared to understand him.
In my interview with James Elliot, he answered the question succinctly and eloquently, and perhaps, in a way that represents each Advanced Placement teacher in this study who chooses to teach Faulkner each year.
We must teach Faulkner because no writer of my acquaintance offers as much that is quintessential to the American experience. His writing challenges today's high school students to think critically and cut their intellectual teeth on some flinty substance, something that will elevate their intellect. I believe that reading Faulkner is the most direct way into what it means to be an American, to learn about America in both a direct and metaphoric way. It's mainlining American history.
There are seven significant conclusions that I can make based on my completion of this study. First, the high school Advanced Placement teachers who participated in this study were divided on the significance of Faulkner in the American literary canon and the importance of incorporating his literature into their classroom syllabus. The teachers who do not include Faulkner in the canon of American writers they teach cited his difficult writing style, his use of sex and violence, his use of racial language, and other curricular factors such as time and political-legal issues. Ironically, those teachers who do teach Faulkner responded that his writing style and realistic use of subject matter and language are the very reasons that they enjoy teaching Faulkner, and that they have found effective ways to deal with the various curricular frame factors.
Second, high school Advanced Placement teachers are highly professional and cooperative in their willingness to respond to a written survey or take part in an interview or a focus group. The teachers in this study were excited to be included in a study that involved Faulkner in the high school Advanced Placement classroom. Each of the thirty teachers who was involved in this study provided valuable information and several indicated that they would be interested in reading the findings at the conclusion of the study.
Third, in the process of completing this study, I found that there has been more critical writing on Faulkner than any other American writer. There exists an abundance of literary criticism that has been written in the past and continues to be produced each year that can help teachers, students, and the general reader of Faulkner to better understand his fiction.
Fourth, there are several valuable books, periodicals, and articles available to high school Advanced Placement teachers in their preparation for teaching Faulkner in their classroom. These teaching guides reflect the desire of literary scholars and teachers to make Faulkner's fiction more accessible to college and high school teachers.
Fifth, the political?legal ramifications of using Faulkner and other controversial writers in the classroom are serious issues for teachers in certain school communities. Many teachers would rather find other American writers than Faulkner to include in their syllabus than hear the voices of parents and community groups. Providing an alternative assignment on Faulkner for parents and students who object to the literature assigned can be an important but necessary concession by the high school classroom teacher.
Sixth, the quality of the lesson plans, materials, means of assessment, and student writing that I received for this study reveals that those Advanced Placement teachers who choose to teach Faulkner are creating exciting ways to engage students in the study of his novels and stories. They are eager to share their approaches to teaching Faulkner and the excellent writing of their students.
Finally, qualitative research is about listening to voices. Although the central voice was that of the Advanced Placement English teacher, there were four additional voices that contributed significantly to this study. It was my goal at the beginning of this study to incorporate the literature and criticism of Faulkner with the responses I received from teacher surveys. interviews, and focus groups. As a result, the voices of literary critics and Faulkner himself play an important part in illuminating Faulkner's place in American literature and in the high school Advanced Placement classroom. In addition, the voice of curricularist George Posner contributed significantly with his frame factors which affect the pedagogy in today's high school classrooms. Finally, the students' voices can be heard in their individual papers which reflect a level of scholarly interpretation of Faulkner's writing and the excellent instruction which they have received from their teachers.
It is my hope that high school Advanced Placement teachers who are not teaching Faulkner will reexamine their reasons for not doing so. I hope that they will examine the literary criticism, sources for teaching Faulkner, and teaching methodologies and materials contained within this study. It is also my hope that the voices included in this study will influence teachers to reevaluate their thinking on Faulkner's place in America's literary canon and in the high school Advanced Placement classroom.
For those who teach Faulkner's novels, stories, and Nobel Prize speech, it is my hope that this study will provide valuable critical and pedagogical source materials, new and exciting teaching ideas, and the reassurance that Faulkner belongs in the high school's curriculum guide and that his work should be taught each year.
Recommendations for the Practice of Teaching
I believe the goal of doing qualitative research is the production of knowledge. The qualitative researcher must determine how the knowledge he or she constructs will be used. Based on the information I received from the Advanced Placement teachers who participated in this study, it is my recommendation that at least one novel and one short story by Faulkner be included in the English curriculum guide and on the recommended reading list for all Advanced Placement classes in high schools in the United States. Based on the results of this study, I recommend The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August, Absalom, Absalom!, The Unvanquished, and The Reivers as novels to be considered for inclusion. The short stories that I recommend are "The Bear," "A Rose for Emily," "Barn Burning," "Spotted Horses," "That Evening Sun," and "Dry September." The high school Advanced Placement teachers involved in this study are finding success with these titles, and these novels and stories offer teachers and students a panorama of Faulkner's stylization, social themes, and depiction of the South. They offer a mixture of Faulkner's writing that is both extremely challenging, but also accessible to most students. I would also recommend the Nobel Prize speech in addition to the literature because of its message concerning the human spirit.
Teachers who teach Faulkner and those who are contemplating teaching his fiction should make use of teaching guides such as A Reader's Guide to William Faulkner (1964), Reading Faulkner's Best Short Stories (1999), The Cambridge Companion to William Faulkner (1995), Approaches to Teaching Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (1996), A William Faulkner Encyclopedia (1999), and Teaching Faulkner (2001). The methods of teaching literature in today's high school classroom and the issues which are at the center of that teaching have changed since the death of Faulkner in 1962. Teachers are examining new and exciting ways to engage students in the study of a complicated writer such as Faulkner. These guides are written in a clear, accessible, and scholarly style by some of the most important critics of Faulkner today. They enable teachers to better understand the complexities of Faulkner's writing style, his realistic subject matter, and his perception of the decline of the Old South and the rise of the New.
Teachers who face resistance to Faulkner from administrators, community members or groups, parents, or other teachers because of his use of sex and violence and racial language can find suitable literature by Faulkner that does not contain these issues. There are viable options for students who would rather read another novel or story by Faulkner than that which is assigned to the class. There is even the option of assigning a novel or story by another American writer of the twentieth century to these students.
Finally, I recommend that teachers of high school Advanced Placement classes who do not include Faulkner in the list of American writers they teach begin a renewed reading of his novels and stories in order to determine how their themes and social issues relate to other literature they already teach each year. An excellent place to begin is with The Portable Faulkner, edited by Malcolm Cowley.
The Deep South has always held an important historical, cultural, and literary place in this country. No other writer of American fiction has described the history, the people, the society, and the cultural issues of the South quite like William Faulkner. He gives us unforgettable characters like Dilsey, Quentin Compson, Ike McCaslin, Lucas Beauchamp, Thomas Sutpen, and Joe Christmas who remind us of what is best and worst in human nature. He allows us to see a South that is still struggling with the tragedy of the past but clinging to the hope for the future. Faulkner unlocks the door of his cosmos to such realistic and controversial social issues as racism, miscegenation, incest, misogyny, and brutal sexuality and invites the reader to enter in order to better understand the baseness and the morality of the human condition. As both modernist and experimentalist, he presents the ordeal of wounded innocence in women, blacks, and children in a style that moves from incomprehensible and provocative to beautiful, poignant, and of genius.
Each year high school English teachers assign literature that transports their students across a literary landscape that encompasses this nation. The journey takes students from the idyllic New England of Hawthorne, Thoreau, and Frost to Mark Twain's steamboat town of Hannibal, Missouri to Steinbeck's beautiful Salinas Valley in California. If this journey is to be complete, students must experience the characters, culture, and social issues of Faulkner's South in a place called Yoknapatawpha.
"Tell me about the South," says Quentin Compson's roommate at Harvard, Shreve McCannon, in Absalom, Absalom! "What's it like there?" he asks. "What do they do there?" "Why do they live there?" "Why do they live at all?" Quentin, who may be speaking for Faulkner himself, answers, "You can't understand it. You would have to be born there" (1990, p.142). Why Faulkner in the high school Advanced Placement classroom? Because no writer in America's literary heritage has been able to describe the history and culture of the Deep South and its people as well as William Faulkner in his "little postage stamp" called Yoknapatawpha County. Ask the high school teachers in this study who assign his literature each year--they've been there--they'll tell you.
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Faulkner, W. (1990). As I Lay Dying, 1930. New York: Vintage.
Faulkner, W. (1958). The Mansion. New York: Random House.
Faulkner, W. (1990). Absalom, Absalom!, 1936. New York: Vintage.
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