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Faulkner and Race: Art and Punditry

[clock] 18-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Autumn 1997

A curious silence has thus far greeted the centenary of William Faulkner, born in New Albany, Mississippi in the autumn of 1897.By any accounting, he was the most distinguished American storyteller of the century; and it is astonishing still to recall that only a few years before the Swedish Academy conferred the Nobel Prize for literature in 1950, his major works were almost all out of print. We have been trying to catch up with his genius ever since. The silence may be a silence of awe.

One index to Faulkner’s magnitude, I would suggest, lies in his precocious penetration of what Gunnar Myrdahl called “the American dilemma,” the dilemma of race. That dilemma haunted his life. When W.E.B.DuBois wrote that “the problem of America is the problem of the color line,” young Billy Falkner (he spelled it without the “u” then) was a boy of six. Only a year before his birth, the Supreme Court had set its official stamp on the “separate but equal” doctrine. He died in Oxford in 1962, the year of James Meredith’s troubled admission to Ole Miss and a year before the assassination of Medgar Evers. His life in a sense unfolded against the inescapable backdrop of that “color line,” its implications and complexities.

William Faulkner tends to be viewed by unwary readers not as a prophet or visionary but as a Southern Gothic or romantic regionalist with a taste for the grotesque. Those elements may certainly be found in his stories, notably Sanctuary and As I Lay Dying; but they do not define them. There are occasions when Faulkner’s fiction seems to echo the pasteboard conventions of the magnolia-and-moonlight school of fiction, with its stereotyped figures. But Faulkner is too discerning a student of human nature to imagine that origins or labels are useful predictors of human behavior. For instance, the Compsons, in The Sound and The Fury, come from the top drawer of the planter gentry, while the Snopeses whom we first meet in The Hamlet are a byword for lowborn, scheming, depraved “white trash.” Yet Faulkner does not hesitate to show that Jason, of the latter-day Compsons, is as mean, sneaky, and calculating as the worst of the Snopeses, while certain of the latter-day Snopeses contrive to achieve a certain bourgeois respectability in the post-World War II world. Indeed, though I cannot confirm the fact here, I suspect that some of them have even turned Republican. For Faulkner, in short, the test of virtue rarely lies in surface indices of rank or race, but in adherence to a code of personal responsibility, marked by those qualities—pity, compassion, pride, a sense of honor and responsibility—which he repeatedly celebrates and extols. Faulkner shows that the capacity to meet the sterner tests of virtue transcends race or class, birth or breeding or fortune.

With this preliminary caveat, and always bearing in mind that Faulkner is among the least didactic of artists, it may nonetheless be said that his novels and stories tell us quite a lot that we still need to know about the dilemma of race and the ways in which it has defined Americans as a people. C. Vann Woodward has remarked that the South was American a long time before it became “southern,” but even with the nationalization of the American dilemma the South is as unimaginable without race as race, in its American aspect, is unimaginable without the South.

Had he not been a transcendent storyteller, Faulkner might be remembered today as a Mississippi worthy, and little else. Yet his times would not defer to what Milton called a fugitive and cloistered virtue. The world crisis of 1933—45 and after forced issues of race, caste, and racial justice onto the American agenda. The United States found itself awkwardly cast in the compromising double role of a crusader for human freedom that still maintained a legally-sanctioned system of racial discrimination. By 1954, when the Supreme Court at last reversed the “separate but equal” doctrine it had established in the year before Faulkner’s birth, the issue of racial equality was squarely presented and could not be ignored.

As a Nobel prizewinner and the preeminent Southern writer of his time, Faulkner was expected to have inspiring and edifying things to say about race. His prestige assured that what he said about the color line, however casual or strange, would be closely noted. I doubt that Faulkner welcomed this eminence or the temptation it offered to visit the soapbox. But it was a gentleman’s duty he could no more dodge than Thomas Mann, for all his distaste for political engagement, could dodge the issue of Nazism. The “Dixie Limited” (as Flannery O’Connor famously called him) could not sit idle on a country siding; he had to speak. But I suspect that he was conscious that he could say nothing in the language of the podium that he had not already said, far better, in the dramatic terms of fiction.

The results of his occasional ventures into punditry ranged from noble to comic to disastrous, and the occasional indignity was no doubt exacerbated by Faulkner’s notorious aversion to self-explanation: the instinct that led him to pose now and then as a bumpkin or simple Mississippi horse-breeder. One never knew in what tone or pitch, or with what degree of candor, he said what he said when forced onto the soapbox.

A famous instance was his speech to the Delta Council in Cleveland, Mississippi, in May 1951, when he held forth on the loss of the frontier virtues to an audience of planters who were far indeed from frontiersmen. It contained such passages as:

What we need is not fewer people, but more room between them, where those who would stand on their own feet, could, and those who wont, might have to. Then the welfare, the relief, the compensation, instead of being nationally sponsored cash prizes for idleness and ineptitude, could go where the old independent uncompromising fathers themselves would have intended it and blessed it. . . .

One can imagine frowns of amused incomprehension spreading across that sea of sun-bathed faces. The more so, given his biographer Joseph Blotner’s evocation of his appearance: “His trousers were striped cotton seersucker, his shirt showed a badly frayed collar, and the belted jacket he had bought in New York was too small for him. A handkerchief was thrust in his sleeve English-style, as usual. His felt hat looked. . . to date from about 1915.”

A more notorious and troubling instance was the interview Faulkner gave to Russell Warren Howe, New York correspondent of the London Sunday Times, five years later when the integration question was red hot. A controversial sentence or two, whose accuracy Faulkner later denied, caused an international uproar. While approving of much that was happening (including Martin Luther King Jr.’s Montgomery bus boycott), the Nobel prizewinner also said: “. . .But I don’t like forced integration any more than I like enforced segregation. If I have to choose between the United States government and Mississippi, then I’ll choose Mississippi. . . . As long as there’s a middle road, all right, I’ll be on it. But if it came to fighting I’d fight for Mississippi and against the United States even if it meant going out into the street and shooting Negroes. . . .

Faulkner said later that he was misquoted, and perhaps he was, although in the context one understands, in a way, what he meant. After all, Robert E.Lee, a devoted unionist who agreed with Lincoln that secession was no less than “revolution,” thought he faced a similarly tragic choice between national and local patriotism in early 1861.In any case, Faulkner mounted soapboxes reluctantly; and he could say nothing of substance in a public forum without the risk of misinterpretation. The key fact was, though too few understood it, that his better sentiments had long since been transcendently dramatized in his fiction: a body of work that is no less than breathtaking, even now, in the audacity with which it had explored the mystiques of race. This is not genteel or evasive storytelling; it boldly explores the fetishes and taboos, often fundamentally sexual, for which the age-old and conventional modes of address were the evasive, the displaced, the ribald, and of course the crude and vulgar.

Faulkner’s originality as a storyteller in the realm of race is not, I think, to be found in the more obvious places: the charming but sketchy exhibits offered by the boyish camaraderie of Bayard Sartoris and his friend Ringo in The Unvanquished; nor in the genteel and dusty paternalism of Sartoris; nor even in the later Intruder in the Dust, which explicitly addresses the issue of fair legal process for a falsely accused black man. Rather, the straight stuff is to be found in great and magical novels, representing the summit of Faulkner’s art: Light in August (1932), Absalom, Absalom! (1936) and Go Down, Moses (1942). All three quite explicitly address the tragic dilemma of race.


To get the compass setting right, and thus to gauge the precocity of Faulkner’s insight, let us merely note that all three of these works were written years, even decades, before the United States Supreme Court (in Loving v. Virginia, 1967) finally dismissed state “miscegenation” laws and found it to be a fundamental constitutional right to marry across race lines. When Faulkner wrote the first of these searching narrative inquiries into the mystique of racial purity, the Nuremberg laws of the Nazi era were on the distant horizon and all three appeared long before the apartheid system in South Africa (modeled in part on our own Jim Crow laws) showed, for all the world to see, the untenable drift of racial discrimination. Even then, those with eyes to see and ears to hear knew that sexual taboos were integral to race fetishes. Yet there was, in most quarters, a shamefaced reluctance to face that fact. Gentility demanded that such truths be acknowledged, when and if they were, in hushed, indirect or comic terms. In White Over Black, Winthrop Jordan begins his key chapter, “Fruits of Passion,” as follows:

When Europeans met Africans in America, the result was slavery, revolt, the sociability of daily life, and, inevitably, sexual union. The blending of black and white began almost with the first contact of the two peoples and has far outlasted the institution of chattel slavery. It became, in some English colonies, almost an institution in itself. It rivaled the slave revolt as a source of tension. It may even have equaled the pressure of daily contact as a mechanism of cultural fusion. Most important, however, was the reticular complex of tensions which arose concerning interracial mixture. (My emphasis)

As Jordan points out, it was the Anglo-Saxon way to treat even a droplet of so-called “black” blood as constituting decisive racial contamination—unlike the more flexible system of the Latin cultures to the south, where scores of gradations of “color” were legally recognized, no fewer than 128 shadings of so-called sang mèlé under French rule in Haiti. Antebellum Southern legislative assemblies and constitutional conventions argued and quibbled at exhaustive length over the approved dimensions of that fatal droplet. But otherwise, and especially in practice, it was ever the sort of thing that polite folks might joke about but rarely discuss. Quite the opposite is true of the three great Faulkner tales I cite. Regarding what Jordan calls the “reticular complex of tensions,” evasiveness was not Faulkner’s style; on the contrary. In these three novels, and peripherally in others, Faulkner plunged headlong into the veiled world of fears, taboos, and tensions at the heart of the race system. He did so, not as a propagandist, of course, but as an artist, cutting through the evasive rhetoric and coming to storytelling terms with what was so often unspeakable and unmentionable.

Consider Absalom, Absalom!, Faulkner’s greatest single technical achievement. It tells the story of Thomas Sutpen, a mysterious stranger of uncertain antecedents who appears one day in Yoknapatawpha County with a captive architect and a retinue of “wild niggers from the Indies.” Sutpen, as the tale is later reconstructed by its several narrators, proceeds to raise a great house at Sutpen’s Hundred, and marries into one of the leading county families. But this is not only, or even chiefly, the story of a house, architecturally speaking; it is the story of a dynasty—or an attempt to construct one; and the curse that eventually comes to plague it is as ineluctable as the curse upon the ancient house of Atreus. That curse proceeds from a defiance of the claims of love, kinship, fatherhood, and brotherhood, when they run athwart the taboos of race. Thomas Sutpen, it emerges, has children both black and white. It is their fate to become friends, and even potential marriage partners, without knowing the truth about their common paternity. Sutpen must choose whether to be a father or a stranger to his children of mixed blood, to love or manipulate. He makes bad choices, which he later describes as “mistakes.” The use of this curiously impersonal term for moral error provides a clue to the inadequacies of Thomas Sutpen, would-be dynast. The Canadian auditor of his story, roommate to the ill-fated Quentin Compson at Harvard, exclaims in exasperation: “Jesus! So all he ever wanted was a grandson!” But in Faulkner things are never so simple. As with many of the characters Faulkner portrays as human failures (the most extreme example being that of the sinister Popeye, in Sanctuary) the fatal flaw is a merely mechanistic approach to the affective roles and duties of life.

No brief summary can do justice to the thematic and narrative richness of Absalom, Absalom!; it is a tale we murder to dissect. In telling it, Faulkner shows that by the mid-1930’s he had mastered the modernist repertoire developed by James, Joyce, Conrad, Ford Maddox Ford and others. The novel is, among other things, “about” the difficulty of getting a murky story straight. In this hall of mirrors and shadows, the reader is repeatedly challenged to speculate, surmise, and conjecture along with those who knew, or had heard of, Sutpen. The backwoods dynast’s tale is told through many eyes, representing several generations and perspectives, in varying registers of emotional response, and each teller has his own notion of what happened. Impatient readers of this modern masterpiece often ask what might be the point of all this mystification. If it was so important to say these things, why not say them outright? But of course, moralizing is not art; and in any case what we think we know, sometimes even about people we think of as intimates, may be undependable. In acknowledging that eternal paradox, modernist fiction is true to life as we know it.


Light in August, the second of this trio of masterpieces, is a novel of great artistry, depth, and richness. It happens not to be among my favorites; but that is irrelevant here. Rather surprisingly, this is the way the plot is summarized on the jacket of one recent reprint edition:

Light in August begins as a young pregnant woman, Lena Grove, enters the town of Jefferson, to which she has traced her vanished lover. . . . Her arrival coincides with an outburst of violent activity enveloping Jefferson: an old mansion burns down and the woman inside is found murdered. The dead woman’s lover, Joe Christmas, a black man passing for white. . . is held responsible.(My emphasis).

I quote this otherwise unremarkable precis because—quite apart from the trickiness of being sure what a Faulkner novel is “about”— its writer would seem to have missed a controlling irony of the story: which is that the exact degree of Joe Christmas’s imputed blackness is a mystery, if indeed he is “black” by any definition. As a foundling, Christmas suffers the chilling indignities of charity. Because his complexion is “parchment” colored, other children in the orphanage to which he is sent taunt him as a “nigger.” So, later, do hostile adults, including his putative grandfather, a ranting fundamentalist preacher, who treats him as an Ishmael, an outcast, and thirsts for his supposedly tainted blood. As I read the story, however, Faulkner has taken meticulous care to make Christmas’s exact racial ancestry unclear. His mother was assuredly “white” but his father, a carnival performer with whom she elopes, is identified as “Mexican.” As in Absalom!, Faulkner explores the mystique of miscegenation and shows how cruelly the mystery of blood, when so invisible to the eye as to be a merely metaphysical idea, can so confound human identity as to thwart the most basic duties of charity and compassion. In every case, Joe Christmas’s misfortunes begin when someone gets the idea that he has a hidden trace of the forbidden blood.

In Go Down Moses, which followed Absalom by some six years, Faulkner got down even more basically to cases, though always within the discipline of storytelling. Many readers who know little else of Faulkner’s fiction have encountered his oft-anthologized tale, “The Bear,” a novella-length hunting story that forms part of the larger novel. Most readers are at once enthralled by its narrative power and stymied by its cryptic examination of certain McCaslin family business ledgers: an anguished process that leads the sons of old Carothers McCaslin to assume his crude sexual exploitation of female slaves. These records reveal a tale of miscegenation and incest, and it is so repellent to the old man’s heirs that they renounce much of their inheritance, ceding the big house to their servants and retiring to a cabin in the woods. But Faulkner can rarely resist a touch of comedy, and we learn that while the slaves have been deeded the big house they are locked inside at night. Or are they? The front door is ritually locked, but the back door apparently remains unlocked.

Go Down Moses draws its theme from the old spiritual:

Go down, Moses,
Down to Egypt-land
Tell ol’ Pharaoh
Let my people go.

It is also a tale of exodus from bondage. We find in this book of linked stories all of those “reticular. . .tensions” of which Winthrop Jordan speaks; and we may ultimately come to regard this book as Faulkner’s definitive testament on the American dilemma. And lest the point be missed, the theme of Absalom is once again explicitly recapitulated in the title story, “Go Down, Moses,” with which the novel ends. At all times, the blindness of most white people to the suffering they unconsciously impose upon black people is driven home in scalding dramatic terms, never preachy but never gentle, either. By 1942, years before the nation came to that view officially, Faulkner had seen that the second emancipation of black people had become a moral imperative—had been, in fact, all along.


But what, after all, does “saying” all this in fictional terms mean? In the great crises of human life, merely saying anything can be a snare, the snare Faulkner occasionally found himself caught in when he yielded to the temptation to stray from his workbench and mount the soapbox. Small wonder that the world’s folk wisdom is replete with warnings against the treachery of what is merely said—preached, proclaimed, prophesied; for it is a human foible to be, on sensitive matters, what the French call bien pensant—right thinking, in the declamatory or moralizing mode. In no sensitive area is dishonest right-thinking a greater or more constant temptation than in matters of race. Faulkner did not live to see the era of racial correctness, as we might call it, where solemn posturing so often passes for candor and where the term “racism” is in danger of being trivialized by promiscuous application. Fortunately, he observed in his fiction the artist’s duty to subdue proclamation to the world of picture, drama, and act: the personal realm in which existential choices are made. It is the artist’s task to indicate, through and only through the actions and choices his characters take, what is and isn’t congruent with moral duty as his vision would have it. Faulkner was parabolic; he spoke in parables in which we see ourselves as in a mirror.

Was he then false to the vision of his novels when he gave occasional voice to eccentric and transitory opinions about race and the “color line,” some noble, some farsighted, some silly, some disturbing? Fortunately, we neither need to know nor can know, for his art speaks for him. Many an unwary critic, by no means the dullest or least distinguished, has assumed that one or another character in this or that story of novel “speaks” for Faulkner. Even the often astute Edmund Wilson thought that the grandiloquent lawyer, Gavin Stevens, in Intruder in the Dust, was a mouthpiece for the author. That seems unlikely, but who knows?

Faulkner was a ventriloquist who could throw his voice in many mocking ways. Perhaps the best we can do in his centennial year is to ignore the punditry and follow where the tales lead, attempting to see what they intimate about vital choices. We do not celebrate this great storyteller, or any other, for his opinions, after all. We celebrate him for the world he created. And what a world it is.


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