March 2011

Guy Cunningham

nonfiction

Faulkner and His Critics edited by John N. Duvall

William Faulkner is one of the defining figures of American modernism, so it’s no surprise that Modern Fiction Studies, a journal dedicated to modern and contemporary literature, would publish a book focused on his work. Faulkner and His Critics collects more than half a century’s worth of MFS essays about the Nobel Laureate, exploring all of his major novels. It is a dense, occasionally difficult book, geared at a somewhat narrow academic audience, but it is also well organized and some of the pieces are very illuminating. Editor John N. Duvall, who also edits MFS itself, has assembled the collection thematically, instead of by date of publication, to avoid the trap of “tell[ing] a familiar story of the changing critical reading practices over the last six decades.” Duvall sees four major concerns among Faulkner’s critics -- myth/religion, temporality/history, gender/race, and modernism/modernist technique -- and groups the essays accordingly. The result is that the book often presents different critical styles side-by-side, creating a kind of dialogue between the New Criticism that held sway immediately after World War II (which centered on a “close reading” of a particular text) and more contemporary approaches that emphasize different strains of critical theory (especially those that draw upon the work of thinkers such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Lacan).

For example, by following Robert Hemmingway’s “Enigmas of Being in As I Lay Dying” with James G. Watson’s “‘If Was Existed’: Faulkner’s Prophets and the Patterns of History,” Duvall creates a dialogue between Hemmingway’s close-reading style and Watson’s approach, which is rooted in Faulkner’s “prophetic” historicism, where characters are “historian-prophets who discover in the past the laws of historical evolution which explain and predict historical phenomena.” Both essays take the time to look at the character Darl Bundren, who, in the wake of his mother Addie’s death, reflects on the difference between the words “is” and “was.” They interpret the passage in different ways, with Hemingway reading it in a more existential light and Watson seeing Darl as a prophetic figure. But when Watson uses Darl as the starting point for an exploration of other novels, namely The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom!, the reader cannot help but also bring Hemmingway’s ideas “along for the ride,” reading Watson’s work in light of his fellow critic’s observations. This is true throughout the book, as essays with common themes compliment and extend each other throughout.

Of course, these essays were written individually, and many also stand out on their own. Catherine B. Baum’s piece “'The Beautiful One': Cady Compson as Heroine of The Sound and the Fury” is particularly notable both for the way it anticipates contemporary feminist literary theory (Baum wrote it in the late 1960s) and for how it calls attention to an easily misunderstood character. Baum points out that The Sound and the Fury’s seemingly experimental narrative in fact follows “a logical and traditional ordering based on the chronology of Cady’s life.” Baum then carefully goes through the novel to reveal how Cady constantly acts to protect and care for her family -- especially her handicapped brother Benjy and her aging father. As a result, Baum concludes that this understated character, whose own point of view is never revealed in the text, is the tragic heart of the novel. The result is the reader gains a new insight on Faulkner’s technique, particularly his knack for revealing certain characters through indirect means, and on The Sound and the Fury generally.

Another worthwhile piece is Erik Dussere’s essay “Accounting for Slavery: Economic Narratives in Morrison and Faulkner.” It looks at the famous sequence in the “The Bear,” from Go Down, Moses, where Ike, the multiracial son of slave owner Carothers McCaslin, goes through the family’s slave records, using it to reconstruct the family’s secret multiracial history. In a sense, Dussere argues, that ledger “becomes a stand-in for the Bible,” which is where the family’s “official” genealogy would be kept. Dussere then ties this metaphor to Toni Morrison’s novels. Just as the ledger is both an account of the economics of slavery and a narrative device, Morrison uses “the free-floating imagery of coins and payment” to signal “the residual, haunting presence of slavery” in her novel Beloved. As a result, the work of each writer is illuminated by that of the other:

If the shape of Morrison’s engagement with the economics of slavery is illuminated by the way that Go Down, Moses constructs a narrative relationship to the ledger as a formal concern, the exploration of the conflicting possibilities for black economic success in Beloved and The Bluest Eye makes possible a reading of Faulkner’s anxiety about such success.

This is valuable because Faulkner no longer exists in a vacuum -- his work is interacting with that of Morrison, and we read both of them differently as a result. It also suggests that Faulkner’s work is still of interest to contemporary novelists, who may also be influenced by -- and in dialogue with -- it.

But Dussere is the only critic in this anthology to look at Faulkner alongside a later author. While this makes sense -- both New Criticism and the literary theories that followed it are very rooted in “the text” itself -- it is a big missed opportunity. Some critics do at least attempt to situate Faulkner amid his own influences, and this effort opens the collection up to the wider literary community. Especially good is Ellen Crowell’s piece “The Picture of Charles Bon: Oscar Wilde’s Trip through Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha,” which looks at the way Absalom, Absalom! draws upon Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray -- a connection I had never made before but that now seems quite plausible. But one can’t help but think that it would be equally interesting to read Faulkner’s work alongside that of writers such as Mario Vargas Llosa, to expand the conversation in a way that might shed light on both Faulkner’s influence on contemporary writing and how his work is read outside the United States. Unfortunately, this largely falls outside contemporary academic concerns, so it is not addressed in Faulkner and His Critics.

Ultimately, this is a work geared at graduate students and scholars interested in the contemporary academic conversation about Faulkner’s writing. In that context, it is quite successful. So while non-specialists will find a piece such as Erin E. Edward’s “Extremities of the Body: The Anoptic Corporeality of As I Lay Dying,” which draws on the work of Michel Foucault, slow going, the book’s target audience will find it interesting and well-argued. This is certainly not a definitive take on Faulkner -- his work is too complex, too deep to be exhausted in one volume -- but it is an interesting book on its own terms.

Faulkner and His Critics edited by John N. Duvall
The Johns Hopkins University Press
ISBN: 0801896991
408 Pages