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Keeping Faulkner in the Classroom

Lisa C. Hickman, Rhodes College

On September 25, 1997, Faulkner turns one hundred. The event will be marked by an outpouring of critical essays and probably some hand wringing. What is the state of Faulkner studies and what does the future hold? Has his literature become anachronistic? While the racial tensions explored were representative of the time, are they palatable today?  Those issues and more surface as one contemplates this author and his centennial mark. But spread these discussions beyond circles of academic scholars and authors, and a more diverse and arguably more important group will be uncovered. High school instructors and college professors who teach Faulkner know that the job becomes more difficult with each new class.

Yet, ironically, this increasingly difficult setting--the classroom--is the very one that invites an ongoing scrutiny of Faulkner's texts and what they have to say to contemporary students:  students more comfortable with computers, video games, television, and fast-food fiction. Classrooms are the real litmus test for the future of Faulkner studies. A spirited class discussion ushers in controversies surrounding Faulkner's texts and challenges students and teachers alike to get beyond the language and situations that are troublesome to embrace the genius of the prose and revel in the Southern universe Faulkner provides. Certainly, an elementary step in this classroom-centered focus is to listen closely to students--to learn from various interactions between student and text; student and teacher; and peer discussion.

I write this as a teacher who has introduced Faulkner to many classes over the past eleven years. My classes have encountered Sanctuary, Light in August, The Sound and the Fury, Absalom, Absalom!, Selected Stories of William Faulkner, Go Down, Moses, and The Portable Faulkner. At Rhodes, where our minority enrollment is low, I often have found myself teaching Faulkner to a class with only one or two African-American students. To my delight, it is often these students who seem to get the most out of Faulkner; who forgive him for his occasionally offensive prose and unflattering descriptions. Once the marvel of the story line unfolds they will often champion this author. However, it is strikingly apparent that a class without African-Americans results in freer and franker discussions. Race remains the most difficult subject to broach in class, and when there are only a few minority members present, the other students fear that any statement they make may be a misstatement.

During the 1996 spring semester I taught, as I frequently do, Absalom, Absalom! in my Southern literature course (a class open to freshmen through seniors). One student confided in me after class that every book store in Memphis had sold out of the Cliff's Notes on the novel. Those lucky enough to obtain a copy enthusiastically shared their knowledge with classmates. Naturally, I found some of their "information" less than accurate, but they were actively engaged, and as one student said, "I hated this book at first, but it's like a puzzle, and when you start to figure it out, it's really cool."

Complex syntax, convoluted plots, flashbacks, multiple narrators, and stream of consciousness are obstacles to students who do not read as much as we would like, and for those who do not read literary works outside of class. Quite a contrast to Faulkner's Quentin Compson and Shreve McCannon, college roommates and narrators in Absalom, Absalom!. I always hold out hope that this exchange in a Harvard dorm room will foster a sense of comradeship with my own students. Usually they dismiss Quentin as too introspective and self-absorbeed. Shreve, on the other hand, is a Canadian (!). Why aren't they as interested in Quentin's story as Shreve?  Because, for some students, gleaning the essence is too much trouble.

Unite that hurdle with an increasing sensitivity to race, and you realize two weeks on a Faulkner novel can feel like two months. I have endured the anguish of selecting a passage for a student to read aloud, only to find it littered with the word "nigger." (One student said, "I can't read that word.") Then I internally rebuke myself. The class looks tortured and relieved when the reading is over. Near the conclusion of Absalom, Absalom! Henry Sutpen decides he will stop his half-brother who carries his mother's mixed blood from marrying his sister, Judith. It is not, Faulkner reveals, the incest that finally decides Henry's actions, but it is the miscegenation that is intolerable:

Henry looks at the pistol; now he is not only panting, he is trembling; when he speaks now his voice is not even the exhalation, it is the suffused and suffocating inbreath itself: 
-- You are my brother.
-- No I'm not. I'm the nigger that's going to sleep with your sister. Unless you stop me, Henry.
([New York: Vintage International Edition, 1990], 286)

That passage, though offensive, and outside the context of this novel, outrageous, begs to be read aloud and deserves to be. It dramatizes and exemplifies the racial concerns registered in Absalom, Absalom!. The miscegenation so central to this novel is again crudely illustrated through the private agony and self-induced torment of Charles Etienne De Saint Valery Bon, the son of Charles Bon and his octoroon mistress. Faulkner's description of Bon's tortured existence and Bon's selection of a mate who would loudly proclaim his African-American blood even though his light skin denied it, cannot be ignored:

    And none ever to know what incredible tale lay behind that year's absence which he [Charles Etienne Bon] never referred to and which the woman who, even a year later and after their son was born, still existed in that automaton-like state in which she had arrived . . . how he had found her, dragged her out of whatever two dimensional back-water (the very name of which, town or village, she either had never known or the shock of her exodus from it had driven the name forever from her mind and memory) her mentality had been capable of coercing food and shelter from, and married her . . . how there followed something like a year composed of a succession of periods of utter immobility like a broken cinema film, which the white-colored man who had married her spent on his back recovering from the last mauling he had received, in frowsy stinking rooms in places--towns and cities--which likewise had no names to her, broken by other periods, intervals, of furious and incomprehensible and apparently reasonless moving, progression--a maelstrom of faces and bodies through which the man thrust, dragging her behind him, toward or from what, driven by what fury which would not let him rest, she did not know, each one to end, finish, as the one before it had so that it was almost a ritual--the man apparantly hunting out situations in order to flaunt and fling the ape-like body of his charcoal companion in the faces of all and any who would retaliate. . . . (166-67)

While it would be easier to glide through this novel using a modern-day sensitivity index, it would be a disservice. Astute students should see the importance of this passage and regard it more as a barometer of the times and less a reflection of Faulkner's moral compass. Yet, given the racial discomfiture his prose elicits and its complexity, Faulkner's literature could slip from syllabi at an alarming rate. So this centennial mark invites a look at how Faulkner plays in the classroom and the role of teachers in keeping Faulkner's literature alive.

In an effort to gather opinions directly from students, I distributed questionnaires to three different classrooms: my own section of Southern literature at Rhodes with Absalom, Absalom! the assigned text; a colleague's section of the same course with Sanctuary the assigned text; and a sophomore American literature course at Christian Brothers High School who were assigned Intruder in the Dust. CBHS is a private, exclusively male institution in Memphis. Student participation was anonymous and in no way connected to grades or class performance. 

Why do you think it is important to read William Faulkner today? Almost all CBHS students felt it was important to read Faulkner, and cited his realistic representation of the South as the primary reason: "He shows in his writing good Southern values, filling us with respect for our land." And "He also shows the South intellectually and his critical acclaim takes away from the stereotype of dumb Southerners." Some responses were more highfalutin: "I think it is important to read Faulkner because his works expose timeless and universal truths about humanity." Responses from college students were more diverse, though still primarily positive: "The 'truths and verities of the heart' are applicable to all generations. As long as there is 'love and honor, pity and pride, compassion and sacrifice,' Faulkner's novels will be read." Less eloquent participants felt his importance rests in the challenge his prose presents, his ability to bring Southern settings and characters alive, and his "profound insights on good and evil." Many students saw him as the centrifugal point of Southern literature--"William Faulkner really represents the essence of the South"--and recognized that the themes identifiable in the course literature such as race, gender, violence, and social class, were first evidenced in the Faulkner novel. As one student put it, "He is pretty much the father of Southern literature." Others were less complimentary: "I really do not feel that reading Faulkner is very important. I found his work to be contrived, intellectual bitterness--without which I could easily do" and "Personally, I cannot say that I feel it is important to read Faulkner today. I walked away from the Faulkner novel wondering why he is such a great author!"

In response to a question concerning political correctness and whether or not Faulkner's language would keep them from reading more Faulkner, or would lessen their appreciation of his work, students were adamant in declaring themselves free of such pressures. While high school students responded with an emphatic "no," a few college students expressed sheer exasperation: "No! Definitely not. It's part of the charm and value of his work. You can't go back and change what people said or did because we wouldn't do so now. It's almost erasing the past"; "No. 'P.C.' is not a good tool. It makes people hold back their true feelings"; "No, I've studied a good bit of Southern literature and have grown somewhat used to seeing such language in prose, but it does make me cringe to hear it out loud"; "No. I think people go overboard with this pc crap. I am not saying some of it is not needed, but Faulkner is a part of history and the only way for history to not repeat itself is to learn about it." Abject honesty resulted in this response: "I was not troubled by the language because I was not able to understand his writing"; and frustration in this one: "His language could have been a whole lot better. Even if the language was used in that way at the time, the books need to undergo serious editing."

We know that this student is not alone in his or her desire to cut and past Faulkner's prose. The primary difficulty in teaching Faulkner is handling student frustration. In February of 1994 I was saved by the ice storm. I had just completed a lengthy magazine article on Faulkner and his psychiatrists. In the fervor of the moment, I selected The Portable Faulkner for my freshman composition classes. As we read some of the easier, shorter stories, the students, still on board, were fairly receptive. Then, as the stories became more difficult and developed, a slow stubbornness set in. Only one student seemed removed from the classroom revolt. He would diligently answer my questions, explain the story's plot, and delve into analysis. Eventually the class turned from mild resentment to a united obstinancy. A mutiny was afoot. Then, miraculously, Rhodes closed due to weather for the first time in its history. Faulkner melted away with the ice, and I realized it was best to teach his literature in a class where students are expecting to find him. Daunted but not defeated, I placed Light in August on my syllabus for an introduction to literature course. The class was exceptionally bright and did quite well, but the novel's length proved an obstacle. As our last class on the novel progressed, I realized how many were lagging behind. At that point I happened upon my now standard Faulkner joke. Whenever I begin a Faulkner novel, I quip, "When we have our final class on this novel, I'll be the only one still reading."  Thankfully this has not become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and has served to challenge the students to try their hardest.

The rewards for this effort resonate in student responses to the following question:  What aspects of the South (i.e., culture, class system, history, "characters") did Faulkner elucidate for you, or allow you to visualize? CBHS students' responses focused primarily on class distinctions. "Faulkner's writing allowed me to understand the feelings of entrapment and pressures placed by the Southern aristocracy upon all who lived in the South"; "Faulkner showed the reader that prejudice was rampant in the South--not just racial prejudice, but also discrimination toward anyone who is different. For instance, the upper class shows no kindness toward the 'Snopes,' and the Snopes show no kindness toward the upper class"; "The total segregation, both physically and intellectually, that existed in the South. Not only did people treat African Americans badly, they also 'thought' badly of them"; "He went into depth when talking about the class system of a small town and where a black man fits in." And there was this notably different response:  "He shows the scenes and landscapes of the South beautifully with some of his very colorful descriptive sentences." 

Many Rhodes' students also placed emphasis on his crystallization of the social classes. A reader of Sanctuary wrote:  "The opposite of the "Gone with the Wind" deep South, he showed the bottom-of-the-barrel; the violence, the ugly sexuality--the unappealing South":  and of Absalom, Absalom!: "I love the history that Faulkner creates. Great visions of antebellum homes and southern belles come to mind. He also has a remarkable ability to describe in words what so many people can never say. In Intruder in the Dust, he once describes the temperature as 'hog killin' time.' That gives me an unique idea of the temperature. I can really feel what he is talking about." Interestingly, when students commented on the Faulkner characters, they wrote that he helped them to better understand their own families. "He made my own family's past visibly real to me"; " . . . reminiscent of some of my own weirdo family members."  More than one student pointed out Faulkner's impartiality and independence. "Faulkner explores taboos in his books and breaks the codes of society. He does not seem to favor anyone"; "Faulkner gave me a sense of the culture and class system of the South, as well as a sense of the injustices which were (and maybe still are) a part of the South."  The students appreciated Faulkner's frustration with the rigid social roles, and one wrote:  "He gave me a clear picture of what it meant to be Southern, how such roles had a definite effect on the people living in that region, and how such roles burdened the people as well as gave them identity."  Some commented on the hauntedness of his work and how the past figures into present lives:  "More than anything else, the sense of community and the fact that the 'past' isn't really so."  Racial injustice was summed up in a visual image:  "When I read Faulkner, I saw the big plantation mansion and the white plantation owner with slaves that were made to do the work of animals." 

A different response involved Faulkner's treatment of women: "Faulkner revealed to me the submissive yet crucial role of Southern women; she helped uphold the structure and order of the family while remaining quietly in the shadows of the men," wrote a Rhodes student. Class discussion about the female characters in Absalom were vigorous. The comfort level with this topic soared in comparison to race, but when the discussion on women hinged on race, comments were less forthcoming. The following passage includes Faulkner's candid description of the New Orleans courtesans, some of whom were one-eighth African-American. Despite the provocative nature of the prose, the passage yielded little more than visible discomfiture: 

    Because though men, white men, created her, God did not stop it. He planted the seed which brought her to flower--the white blood to give the pigment of what the white man calls female beauty, to the female principle which existed, queenly and complete, in the hot equatorial groin of the world long before that white one of ours came down from trees and lost its hair and bleached out--a principle apt docile and instinct with strange and ancient curious pleasures of the flesh (which is all:  there is nothing else) which her white sisters of a mushroom yesterday flee from in moral and outraged horror--a principle which, where her white sister must needs try to make an economic matter of it like someone who insists upon installing a counter or a scales or a safe in a store or business for a certain percentage of the profits, reigns, wise supine, and all powerful, from the sunless and silken bed which is her throne. . . (92-93).

Considering the theme of miscegenation in Absalom, Absalom! or Light in August, for example, the tendency to opt for less controverisal novels might be seen as a compromise. However, it would rob students of some of Faulkner's most important work. Therefore, the solution, as I see it, involves frankness on the part of the instructor and commitment to the belief that the rewards students reap from the literature will overshadow our contriteness when trying to talk about race. And again, that is only one issue. We still have to prod, poke, and encourage students to keep after the prose until, as my student said, the puzzle is solved.

The last three questions on my handout are easily summarized. It was unanimous that class discussions were crucial to their reading of the text: "They are essential in my opinion. I would write down questions as I read; therefore it helped my underestanding by going over the reading in class." But a surprising number of college participants wrote that they would read more Faulkner outside of class, and many listed specific books they had in mind.

My final question evoked some colorful responses:  Would you take a future literature class knowing Faulkenr would be an important figure in the course? "Yes--he's an obvious genius. It's extraordinary to read the work of a genius"; "I'd avoid it at all possible costs (for the sake of my GPA)"; "Yes, I would look for that class and demand entry on the grounds of religious right and moral conviction!"; and "No." An offhand compliment and a perhaps representative remark comprise my two personal favorites:  "If you were the professor . . .? I'd have to think about it"; and "Yes, I would, just as long as I didn't have to read the works." 

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