A young writer with a talent for biography and criticism, HARVEY BREITis the Assistant Editor of the New York Times Book Review. We invited his appraisal of William Faulkner’s novels and short stories with the realization that our latest Nobel Prize winner has never received the thorough reading he deserved from his own countrymen. This essay will make Mr. Faulkner’s work more meaningful for those who wish to make up for lost time.
by HARVEY BREIT
Now that William Faulkner has been given so many honors — the Nobel Prize among others — it seems as though we have been familiar with his talents for a long time. It is a deceptive notion. With the exception of a small group of American and French writers and critics, we were only indirectly and distortedly acquainted with Faulkner’s work. One statistic reflects, and sums up, this extraordinary situation: in 1945, only six years ago, all of Faulkner’s seventeen books were out of print.
And so it could be said that Faulkner, achieving fame overnight as it were, took most of our informed readers by surprise. Even now, because of the secondhand knowledge we have of his work, Faulkner is regarded with suspicion and misgiving. Is he really good? What is he trying to say? Why does he say it in the way he does?
There isn’t a clear line on Faulkner. Usually fame is slower in mounting; a name is more and more frequently heard over a longer and longer period of time; there is a gradual accrual of a dominant criticism that helps give shape to one’s sense of the man and his art and helps approximately to place him.
In Faulkner’s instance this did not happen. His admirers were a relatively fixed group; their enthusiasm hardly penetrated the little magazines and the university quarterlies. The criticism, with few exceptions, was wrongheaded, inept, and vulgar. Faulkner, for one example, made an ideal “enemy” for the Marxian critics who dominated a large area of opinion in the thirties: he did not write ‟proletarian” novels, and he was nostalgically attracted only by decadence and an obsolete aristocracy. As the thirties neglected Fitzgerald, they minimized Faulkner. And so in the forties the reader had little help from his literary spokesmen. Criticism had failed at its most crucial job: to give the reader some sense of a significant author’s effort, and to isolate what was distinctive and perhaps momentous in his art.
What did penetrate the curtain between Faulkner and his potential reader was a set of halftruths that in effect turned reader away from writer. The prevailing impression was that (1) Faulkner was too difficult; (2) his art — if it could be called art — was formless; and (3) it was “decadent.” It was the task of the critic then, as it is now, precisely to dispel those ideas. Robert Penn Warren’s statement, made years ago, that Faulkner constitutes the greatest challenge to modern criticism, continues to hold.
I think it is important to recognize that the term “difficult,” at least within the framework of art and probably of science, possesses no pejorative meaning. Is André Gide or T. S. Eliot easy? They were the Nobel Prize winners just before Faulkner. In our increasingly specialized and complex world, the “easy” writer is perhaps inadequate. The authors who have most fired the imagination of our own generation of writers are, after all, Dostoevsky, James, Kafka, Proust, Joyce — none of them “easy” writers. The question, then, is not whether Faulkner is difficult, but whether, in submitting to his imaginative order, one is repaid by an experience that is valuable.
The Sound and the Fury contains an opening section that is alienating and closed. If the reader, however, manages it (as one manages a poem without grasping the literal meaning altogether), the subsequent sections are relatively easy going. The reward for having suffered initiation in the first part becomes apparent. In Faulkner’s favorite small novel, The Bear, the next to the last section is so complex that it drives the reader backward rather than forward; yet there is little doubt that this somber moral dialogue gives to the story considerable of its force and depth and seriousness, even while on the surface it constitutes an interruplion of the obsessive chase after the bear. In the Indian stories, A Justice and Red Leaves, Faulkner writes as though in cryptogram, but once he has deciphered it, the reader participates with extraordinary satisfaction in a culture that is moving and strange and that nevertheless holds something of a parable for our times.
Faulkner’s talent is a “participative” one: he is writing from within his people, from within their dilemmas and aspirations. Nearly twelve years ago, in this magazine, Conrad Aiken isolated Faulkner’s stylistic triumph: —
What Mr. Faulkner is after, in a sense, is a continuum. He wants a medium without stops or pauses, a medium which is always of the moment, and of which the passage from moment to moment is as fluid and undetectable as in the life itself which he is purporting to give. It is all inside and underneath, or as seen from within and below; the reader must therefore he steadily drawn in; he must be powerfully and unremittingly hypnotized inward and downward to that image-stream; and this suggests, perhaps, a reason not only for the length and elaborateness of the sentence structure, but for the repetitiveness as well. The repetitiveness, and the steady iterative emphasis — like a kind of chanting or invocation.
Here is only part of a sentence from Intruder in the Dust that I think is illustrative: —
. . . but mostly and above all the motion and the noise, the radios and the automobiles — the jukeboxes in the drugstore and the poolhall and the cafe and the bellowing amplifiers on the outside walls, not only of the sheet-music store but the army-and-navy supply store and both feed stores and (that they might falter) somebody standing on a bench in the courthouse yard making a speech into another one with a muzzle like a siege gun bolted to the top of an automobile, not to mention the ones which would be running in the apartments and the homes where the housewives and the maids made up the beds and swept and prepared to cook dinner so that nowhere inside the town’s uttermost ultimate corporate rim should man, woman or child, citizen or guest or stranger be threatened with one second of silence.
Perhaps of all Americans, excepting Melville and James, Faulkner is the greatest prose virtuoso. But just as Marxist criticism contributed to a distorted image of Faulkner by overemphasizing his violence, so did overemphasis on his baroque style place him in false focus. There is more to Faulkner’s prose than brilliant architectonics, as there is more to his content than violence and sex. For all the magnificence, the language is minutely and infinitely flexible, capable of registering, and transforming into art, the bloom’s bouquet or the corpse’s smell, the most rudimentary instinct or the most conscious moral act. For all the brutality and frenzy in Faulkner’s work, outweighing them are gentleness and love, courage and idealism, ethical concern and moral decision.
The charge against Faulkner of formlessness is the offspring of the alarmingly rich detail, the sensuous munificence of the parts. The totality tends to vanish in the lavishness of the parts. It is a little like climbing a mountain: there are all sorts of hazards on the way, and instantaneous rewards; so many that the objective is all but forgotten. Miraculously, though, one makes the final ascent, one comes to the peak, and the view is all that one hoped for, more than one thought it would be. The vista justifies the difficult ascent; it was made possible only through the climb. One could not have seen what finally one did see, except from that height and (as James had it) from that post of observation. Light in August satisfies the strictest formal demands one might make on the novel. So does Absalom, Absalom!, in a far more subtle and oblique manner.
BIOGRAPHICAL facts are dangerous. The work of art is what matters, and no reader must be distracted from that. Too often theories are spun from facile biography. No life explains the totality of genius; Faulkner’s life does not account for the mystery of the creative process. What it can do is indicate certain preoccupations, establish a map of interests, explain or light up a dark incident in the work. Faulkner’s life is of interest only in so far as it can illuminate some of the work, or dispel ideas that Faulkner himself contributes to: for example, that he is solely a farmer, merely a storyteller.
Of all writers of stature today, Faulkner, along with Hemingway, is perhaps the least formally educated. His schooling was irregular after his eleventh or twelfth year. He attended the university at Oxford, Mississippi, in hit-or-miss fashion, after flying in World War I with the Canadian Royal Air Force. He became a writer without knowing any writers except Stark Young and Sherwood Anderson. These biographical details and what they point to — the fact that he has been so profoundly close to his place of birth most of his life — help us to recognize in Faulkner the isolation, the introspection, the independence that are distinctive features of American genius.
These facts also deceive us. Faulkner is educated in the superior sense; he is an ‟insulated” man who follows our world’s activities with interest, awareness, and independent thought. His education is of the best kind, of the uncorrupted kind. He reads only what he wants to, in his own tempo, and reads certain works over again without the sense of having missed something else. Therefore, he has the time to do what he wants to do. His obligations are moral rather than social. He is intact. He has been made, as all of us have been made, by a mixture of things in our private and public, our filial and national lives. But unlike most of us, he acts out of necessity, in the way that Spinoza meant it; there is little that is superfluous or vain or indulgent in him.
Now, as against the indigenous, insulated view that the first aspect of the biography suggests, there is this other view — of someone who is morally and humanly associated with the world of affairs. This side of Faulkner accounts for the mature and even sophisticated ideas that one finds in the novels and short stories. He can reply to a reporter (on the eve of his departure for Stockholm) who asked him what was the most decadent thing in America, “What you are doing” — not because he doesn’t know that a reporter’s job is to ask questions, even silly ones, but because he is resisting an aspect of our way of life which takes too easily for granted that we have abdicated our need for privacy. He can say that the mule is the most maligned animal in the animal kingdom because he has raised mules and mules amuse him. He is immeasurably pleased, as a proud craftsman would be, because he so successfully trained the horse in the film of Intruder in the Dust to shy away from fake quicksand. These biographical bits correspond to the extraordinary felicity with which he manages animals in his work — horses (see Spotted Horses) and hounds and, above all, the bear in The Bear (Faulkner’s equivalent of Melville’s whale in Moby Dick.)
These are merely indications, rough-and-ready at best: the pitfalls of facile biography must be avoided, the facts used tentatively, with infinite care and scrupulousness. But the face, one supposes, is there, to be read, as Schopenhauer tells us, if only we learn to read.
DURING the past years Faulkner has come back into print; most of his work is now available, mainly through Random House (Faulkner’s publisher) and The New American Library (in their 25-cent Signet edition). Where shall one start to read Faulkner? His not an author whose work can be picked up at random. The danger is, quite frankly, that certain books may repel a reader who comes to them uninitiated. This is not true of Fitzgerald, say, or Hemingway; preference and taste aside, picking up for the first time either The Great Gatsby or This Side of Paradise, either The Sun Also Rises or A Farewell to Arms, isn’t too crucial; each is accessible. If one were to take the plunge with Absalom, Absalom!, however, the chances are the reader would give up after a short, puzzling tussle. One nevertheless can get into Absalom if he has already become acquainted with a few of the more straightforward works. What makes the order of reading Faulkner even more complicated is the fact that the author uses a good many of his people over and over again in the various related books, all of which constitute a Balzacian chronicle of Yoknapatawpha County.
For the mythical, ideal reader (of whom we all partake and who is perhaps the most abnormal of us all) I would urge that he start out with Light in August, because it is at once the simplest of the best of the novels, the least difficult of the most rewarding. I would follow with Faulkner’s first collection of short stories, These Thirteen, because they are very good stories and because after the protracted intensity of the novel the reader can begin to fan out. After having experienced a certain range and diversity through the stories, I would suggest two novels in succession: As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury. (The reader is, by this time, ready for the plunge. The latter novel is my favorite, and on at least one occasion I have heard its author admit, it was his, too.)
In this ideal sequence I would guess that about now the reader needs to come up for air. It would be relaxing to go to the Viking Portable Faulkner and experience in the short takes you get there a variety of moods. In it, the reader will find Faulkner’s great novelette, The Bear, as well as one of the most superb comic stories of our time, Was. I believe our reader can go into Absalom after that — and then he is on his own, having really earned his freedom. He can now indulge himself in lesser, but nevertheless fascinating, Faulkner: Sanctuary, for example, or Pylon, or Intruder in the Dust.
The question of where to begin in Faulkner has point precisely at this time. Faulkner’s new novel, Requiem for a Nun, is just out, and though it has autonomy, and can and should be read as an isolated experience, I wonder how much the reader loses if he is not familiar with a number of Faulkner’s earlier books.
Not only are the play sections of the new novel based on an earlier novel (Sanctuary); the prose sections are reminiscent of the climaxes in those magnificent. Bach fugues, the stretto passages in which already-voiced themes crowd together, make their entrances briefly in a dramatic recapitulation of themselves. So we note, in Requiem, the recapitulation of past themes — not only of Temple’s destiny and young Stevens’ fate, but of Sutpen’s folly (Absalom, Absalom!), the encroachment of civilization on the last wilderness (The Bear), the indictment of a technics that makes man comfortable but does not heighten his life (Intruder in the Dust), the truthfulness and nobility of the individual even as it expresses itself in gloomy and unfortunate acts (The Sound and the Fury).
And not only these facts of precedence; there is the fact of nonprecedence too. If the reader is familiar with Faulkner, this new performance is all the more impressive. In Requiem the author has constructed a form that is unique, a rich counterpoint of forms that grows into one form. He has written a novel, in effect a three-part narrative, each one of which is succeeded by an act of a play — the play itself being free of the narrative yet having relationship to it. The narrative sections deal with the history of Jefferson (the capital of Yoknapatawpha), from its beginnings when it was not yet a town, when it had no courthouse or jail. The play is contemporary; it reveals the fateful struggles of a now-married, matured, and stilltormented Temple Drake. Each section of the narrative history is related to each act of the moral drama; the genesis of the courthouse, for example, keynotes the opening act in which a maid is sentenced to death for the murder of Temple Drake’s child.
This fresh emergence of form is additional proof that at some unpredictable time in the future Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County series will be read consecutively as one work of great magnitude. Yet the reader does not lose by reading Requiem: it is a complete and self-sustained work and offers its own clues to the past work. The point, I think, is that Requiem would mean considerably more to him if he came to it in its proper order.
The prose sections of Requiem are as moving and incisive and magnificent as anything Faulkner has yet done. The drama, juxtaposed with the monuments of narrative, is weaker — and suffers, I believe, from an astonishingly naïve third act (which, unfortunately, brings down the curtain on the whole book). Yet this drama is moving and continuously serious; it may very well “play” brilliantly (a Broadway production is planned). Not the least of Faulkner’s talents are a true ear and an uncannily accurate speech. But it is to the prose sections that I find myself returning again and again. Faulkner, recapitulating briefly the prolonged and hallucinated theme of The Bear — the theme of the tragedy of progress — records it with the austerity and sincerity and mesmerism that must have been the equipment of the historians of ancient tribes (who could only have been poets): —
That fast now: tomorrow, and the railroad did run unbroken from Memphis to Carolina, the lightwheeled bulb-stacked wood-burning engines shrieking among the swamps and canebrakes where bear and panther still lurked, and through the open woods where browsing deer still drifted in pale bands like unwinded smoke: because they — the wild animals, the beasts — remained, they coped, they would endure; a day, and they would flee, lumber, scuttle across the clearings already overtaken and relinquished by the hawk-shaped shadows of mail planes; they would endure, only the wild men were gone; indeed, tomorrow, and there would be grown men in Jefferson who could not even remember a drunken Indian in the jail; another tomorrow — so quick, so rapid, so fast.
That was the progress of the middle years; Faulkner records the progress up through today too: —
One nation, one world: young men who had never been farther from Yoknapatawpha County than Memphis or New Orleans (and that not often), now talked glibly of street intersections in Asiatic and European capitals, returning no more to inherit the long monotonous endless unendable furrows of Mississippi cotton fields, living now (with now a wife and next year a wife and child and the year after that a wife and children) in automobile trailers or G. I. barracks on the outskirts of liberal arts colleges, and the father and now grandfather himself still driving the tractor across the gradually diminishing fields between the long looping skeins of electric lines bringing electric power from the Appalachian mountains, and the subterrene steel veins bringing the natural gas from the Western plains, to the little lost lonely farmhouses flittering and gleaming with automatic stoves and washing machines and television antennae.
It is no longer easy, as it once was in the thirties, to scorn such a nonpolitical, or apolitical, vision. We learn each day that gain is expensive, that each step advanced is as well a retreat, that progress may be achieved only at a cost — of an earlier progress, or of the spirit. Faulkner does not praise the furrows of the Mississippi cotton fields; he is not running for any office. He is the bardic chronicler, unusable by any biased faction. He writes: “the long monotonous endless unendable furrows,” as a true historian must. We have a great deal to learn from Faulkner because he sees events only as they affect human beings. He helps us to remember and to understand the human situation in its particularity, and thus in its universality, and he helps us to become more human.