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William Faulkner once said, "The poets are almost always wrong about the facts. That's because they're not interested in the facts, only the truth."
During the summer of 1993, I spent the better part of seven weeks in Nashville, Tennessee, exploring the implications of that statement. Under the direction of Don Doyle from the history department at Vanderbilt University, 13 college and university teachers, including me, studied "Southern History and Faulkner's Fiction," a seminar sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities.
As a product of the seminar, I developed a course titled "Literature Fights and Refights the Civil War," the title inspired by Bernard DeVoto's "Fiction Fights the Civil War" (Saturday Review of Literature December 18, 1937). I will be teaching the course (cross-listed under both English and history) for the first time as this issue of Teaching Faulkner appears in print. Though little of Faulkner's fiction is directly set in the Civil War, it provides a touchpoint for the course. As the title indicates, I don't believe the Civil War was over once the fighting stopped. Faulkner didn't believe so either. He continually confronts his characters with a past that wouldn't die, just as he and we were and are confronted by issues of race and class that have their roots in beliefs which existed before this country was born.
Faulkner's fiction also provides a time frame for the course, which examines how the Civil War and Reconstruction era and the years, events, and issues leading up to and arising from them have been portrayed in American literature.
Interdisciplinary in nature, the course includes historical readings and material in all its five units and thus looks at how American literature has accurately portrayed or misrepresented authentic history. The primary objectives for the course reflect my interest in both literature and history.
One objective is to use the interplay of the two as a means of helping students better
understand how literature can work to reinforce and, conversely, to undermine "popular
history," that is, historical beliefs which are held by large numbers of people but
which may or may not be supported by historical fact. Literature has always been entwined
with popular history, and much of the literature written about the Civil War served
to perpetuate popular sentiments, such as the plantation myth, complete with its cavalier
planters and slaves faithful to the old "massas" (Schuster 11). Faulkner's writing,
however, so often worked to undermine that popular mythology.
The course's five units have the following titles:
The Rise of the Planter Class
The War on the Battlefield and the Home Front
Reconstruction and the Aftermath of War
The Rise of the Jim Crow South
All of the units, except for the second, include selections from Faulkner (see outline at end of article). Additionally, we will study material from an array of other writers and historians, following much the same pattern: literature from a variety of authors, both African-American and white, and historical material to counterbalance the literary accounts.
Although we will be studying primarily "canonical" literature, I want my students to know that there was a great deal of non-canonical literature written about the Civil War as well. That war has provided one of the most enduring and popular subjects for literature in American history. More than 1,000 novels with Civil War themes or scenes, for example, were written by southerners alone (Madden 6). And more than 200 volumes of poetry about the Civil War were written during the 1860's (Steinmetz vii).
Undoubtedly the vast majority of that material has not been remembered as great literature. That forgotten literature played a great part, though, in fighting and refighting America's greatest conflict by contributing to and giving direction to the public dialogue. The earliest Civil War novels, for instance, were intensely partisan and intended to show how grievously the other side had erred. Many novels written by northerners right after the war's end, however, struck a conciliatory tone, even though they maintained the conviction that the South had erred grievously (Appleby 121).
This body of popular literature also offers a tremendous opportunity for scholars and students to recapture the past--to pinpoint the world view and social milieu from which their literature sprang. Whether it accurately reflects history or not, it does reflect what the people, or a substantial portion of them, believed about what was happening.
Faulkner's work, on the other hand, often presents aspects of society that many southerners (northerners, I would imagine, too) could or would not believe. His works such as Absalom, Absalom! provide a counterpoint to other accounts of this era and challenge us to examine our assumptions and conclusions about the truth(s) of this time. Undoubtedly, Faulkner's characters, such as Joe Christmas in Light in August, often reside at the margins of society, but their interaction with characters more toward the center dares us to question the nature of that center.
The strange saga of Thomas Sutpen, for example, calls into question the plantation mythology of the old South, which so many of the popular novels promoted. Surely Sutpen with his 100 square miles of land, his "indentured" French architect, his obscure past on a West Indian island, and his wild band of slaves was not a typical southern planter. However, his eccentricities and exaggerations of character may say some interesting things about antebellum southern society.
For one thing, Sutpen was not altogether unlike other "new men" who pushed into the Mississippi frontier in their search for unspoiled land. They were generally not aristocrats, and, certainly, neither was he (Oakes 82). Moreover, Sutpen, like other planters, was vying for respectability as well as wealth and power. Perhaps as interestingly, though, the telling of Sutpen's story mirrors much of the reality and difficulty of reconstructing the past, for his story is filtered through so many characters who are hindered by their own biases and gaps in information about Sutpen, who is certainly not a forthcoming man.
What I really want my students to see and what I want to continue to get a better handle on understanding is how slippery a process reconstructing history can actually be. It is a process filled with the pitfalls and chuckholes of time, memory, and bias and the painstaking gathering and analyzing of information. And the fiction writer or author of belles-lettres, who can speculate about human motives in a way an historian cannot, can add to our understanding of history just as the historian can add to our grasp of literature. And both can add to our understanding of truth.
Appleby, Joyce. "Reconciliation and the Northern Novelist, 1865-1880." Civil War History X (June 1964): 117-29.
Madden, David, and Peggy Bach, eds. Classics of Civil War Fiction. Jackson: U P of Mississippi, 1991.
Oakes, James. The Ruling Race: A History of American Slaveholders. New York: Vintage, 1983.
Schuster, Richard. American Civil War Novels to 1880. Diss. Columbia U, 1960.
Steinmetz, Lee, ed. The Poetry of the American Civil War. East Lansing: Michigan State U P, 1960.