Does America deserve to survive?
That is the question that William Faulkner publicly posed in 1955 when news reached him that Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black youth, had been murdered and mutilated in a town in Mississippi, for having dared to whistle at a married white woman—a lynching that acted as a catalyst for the creation of the civil-rights movement.
Whether America deserves to survive was not the question I had expected to be asking myself on this literary pilgrimage my wife and I have taken to Oxford, Mississippi, where Faulkner lived most of his life and wrote the torrential masterpieces that made him the most influential American novelist of the 20th century. We had been planning such a journey for many years, seeing it as a chance to meditate on the life and works of an author who had dared me since my Chilean adolescence to break all conventions, venture every risk, in order to portray the multiple flow of time and mind and grief, goaded me into trying to express what it means “to be alive and know it” in one of the remote backwaters of the wide world. And yet, it is that question about the survival of America that haunts me as we visit the grave at St. Peter’s Cemetery where Faulkner was lowered into the earth 54 years ago, it crops up as we walk the streets he walked, it cannot be avoided as we wander through Rowan Oak, the antebellum mansion he called home.
Because if Faulkner were alive today, as his country faces “an incomprehensible moment of terror”, the most drastic election of our maelstrom era, where an egomaniacal demagogue could conceivably occupy the White House, the author of The Sound and the Fury would surely once again painfully hurl that question about the future of the United States at his fellow citizens. And also, I have no doubt, issue a challenge to Trump’s supporters, hoping that they, like so many of his own characters, do not doom themselves and their land to destruction out of rage and frustration, subjected to the darkness of an untamed past.
Faulkner’s words today would not be addressed to African Americans, though he wrote of their dilemma with remarkable sensitivity, describing how the descendants of slaves carried, “with stern and inflexible pride,” the burden imposed upon them by a corrosive and unjust system. But a man who preached patience as a way to overcome race barriers, a man who did not hear Martin Luther King’s speeches, a man who could not have imagined even the possibility of a president born of miscegenation and even less of a Black Lives Matter movement (not to mention Oprah Winfrey!), would have little to teach a multicultural America that he would find unrecognizable. Equally difficult for him to deal with would be the women empowered by the feminist revolutions he could not have anticipated.
Other, less enviable, aspects of contemporary America would, however, be more sadly familiar to Faulkner.
He would have been appalled, but not in the least surprised, by the rise of Donald Trump or the deranged danger he represents. Faulkner had created in his fictional universe a minor Southern incarnation of Trump: Flem Snopes, an unscrupulous and voracious predator with “eyes the color of stagnant water”, who claws and lies his wily way to power, cheating and conning anyone naïve enough to think they can outsmart him. In Flem and his clan, Faulkner excoriated many of his fellow citizens who “know and believe in nothing but money and it doesn’t much matter how you get it.” He harbored no doubt about the harm people like the Snopes tribe could inflict if allowed to reign and proliferate, if their “stupid chicanery and petty corruption for stupid and petty ends” were ever to prevail. Given the latest polls, such an electoral apocalypse seems increasingly unlikely, but the mere fact that Trump is even a viable candidate, would be terrifying to the author of Absalom, Absalom.
Though politically liberal and progressive for his time, Faulkner’s attitude toward Trump’s followers would have been an entirely different matter. He lovingly and often good-humoredly portrayed the lives of those whom we might identify today, forgiving the generalization, as core Trump supporters—hunters and gun owners; ill-informed men clinging to their threatened virility and old time traditions; white Americans of small rural or economically depressed communities overwhelmed by the harsh rush of modernity, unprepared for a globalization they cannot control. Without ever condoning their racial prejudices and paranoia he also never condescended to them, never looked down upon their bafflement and blindness, always afforded them the one thing they deeply desired then and still desire now: respect for their human dignity. Faulkner would have understood the roots of the present disaffection of those people he cared for so much and the fear from which that disaffection derives, the feeling that they are trapped in a historical tide not of their making, their American dream gone berserk.
This is what makes Faulkner so valuable a voice today.
The sympathy that this extraordinary, sophisticated novelist felt for the less educated, religiously conservative, inhabitants of his imaginary county of Yoknapatawpha and their sense of loss and disorientation, the fact that he preferred their enduring and dignified company to the abstractions and elitism of privileged intellectuals, makes him ideally suited for delivering a message that Trump’s devotees should try to heed, a plea against bigotry and dread and divisiveness that is not tainted with even a hint of paternalism or contempt.
As I contemplate the fragile, tiny desk in his study at Rowan Oak where he composed the words for his daughter Jill’s high school graduation, I can hear their echo today, and am honored to convey them once more to Faulkner’s present day compatriots. He urged his daughter’s class, and urges us right now, to become like “men and women, who will refuse always to be tricked or frightened or bribed into surrendering.” He told them, and tells us again and yet again, that we have not just the right, “but the duty too, to choose between … courage and cowardice …” He speaks to me and to them and to all of us when he demands to “never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion, against injustice and lying and greed.”
Will we stumble and falter into the abyss, come to grief?
Are we doomed to tragedy, like so many of Faulkner’s relentless characters, or do we still have the chance and wisdom to prove that this country deserves to survive?