Michael Gorra, an English professor at Smith, believes Faulkner to be the most important novelist of the 20th century. In his rich, complex, and eloquent new book, The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War, he makes the case for how and why to read Faulkner in the 21st by revisiting his fiction through the lens of the Civil War, “the central quarrel of our nation’s history.” Rarely an overt subject, one “not dramatized so much as invoked,” the Civil War is both “everywhere” and “nowhere” in Faulkner’s work. He cannot escape the war, its aftermath, or its meaning, and neither, Gorra insists, can we. As the formerly enslaved Ringo remarks in The Unvanquished (1938) during Reconstruction-era conflict over voting rights, “This war aint over. Hit just started good.” This is why for us, as for Jason and Quentin Compson in The Sound and the Fury (1929), was and again are “the saddest words.” As Gorra explains, “What was is never over.”
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In setting out to explore what Faulkner can tell us about the Civil War and what the war can tell us about Faulkner, Gorra engages as both historian and literary critic. But he also writes, he confesses, as an “act of citizenship.” His book represents his own meditation on the meaning of the “forever war” of race, not just in American history and literature, but in our fraught time. What we think today about the Civil War, he believes, “serves above all to tell us what we think about ourselves, about the nature of our polity and the shape of our history.”
The core of Gorra’s book is a Civil War narrative, which he has created by untangling the war’s appearances throughout Faulkner’s fiction and rearranging them “into something like linearity.” From the layers and circularities and recurrences and reversals of Faulkner’s 19 novels and more than 100 short stories, Gorra has constructed a chronological telling of Yoknapatawpha’s war, of the incidents and characters who appear in the writer’s extended chronicle of his invented “postage stamp” world. Faulkner took liberties with the historical order of events; what he sought to depict was the “psychological truth of the Confederate home front” and the war’s aftermath. This is work, Gorra argues, that actual documents of the period would be hard-pressed to do. And that psychological truth certainly could not have been derived from study of the racist historiography of Faulkner’s era, which he insisted he never even read. Instead, this understanding is the product of what Toni Morrison once called Faulkner’s “refusal-to-look-away approach” to the burden of his region’s cruel past.
Faulkner enacts this refusal through his practice of looking again, of revisiting the same characters and stories, and through the prequels and sequels and outgrowths of those he has already told, digging deeply into the hidden and often shocking truths of the South he portrays. Gorra endeavors to unknot and clarify Faulkner’s oeuvre by reconstructing it himself, but his act of literary explication is also one of participation—a joining in the Faulknerian process. Gorra renarrates these Civil War stories as he seeks to come to terms both with America’s painful racial legacies and with William Faulkner.