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Faulkner Country

ISSUE:  Spring 1979
William Faulkner: Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond. By Cleanth Brooks. Yale. $17.50,

Time and nature are altering the Southern landscape. In the past decade especially, Northern Mississippi has been overgrown with kudzu, originally planted to prevent erosion, so much so that a tourist traveling from Memphis to Oxford, Mississippi, has trouble perceiving what is under all this luxuriant growth. In much the same way, literary critics often find it difficult to discern the landscape of Yoknapatawpha County; it takes someone long familiar with the inhabitants of these small towns and rolling back hills to help us see the complexity of what is actually there. Cleanth Brooks did just that in his William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country (Yale 1963). His latest book, a companion to the first volume, offers literary analyses of five novels (Soldiers’ Pay, Mosquitoes, Pylon, The Wild Palms, and A Fable),as well as significant essays on Faulkner’s poetry, his early romantic prose, his sketches and early stories, including Elmer(an unfinished novel), plus a concluding essay on Faulkner’s conceptions of time and history. In addition to some helpful notes about the above topics, Brooks includes three appendices: on Thomas Sutpen as a Southern planter, on the narrative structure of Absalom, Absalom!, and on the relationship between Faulkner and Yeats. In all, Brooks’s two volumes are the most systematic, comprehensive, and incisive study of Faulkner’s works by a single critic.

Brooks’s chapters on the literary efforts of the young Faulkner are particularly valuable. In his early poetry and sketches, Faulkner never really distanced himself from the romanticism of Wilde, Housman, Eliot, Yeats, Baudelaire, and Verlaine; yet, as The Wild Palms (1939) magnificently demonstrates, Faulkner gradually learned over the years to integrate the romantic with the realistic. For Brooks, Faulkner’s “mythical county provided him with a social context in which what was healthiest in his romanticism could live in fruitful tension with his realistic and detailed knowledge of the men and manners of his own land” (xi). While Brooks finds The Marble Faun (1924) an awkward and stumbling poem, he notes that, in fairness to the young author, the very limitations and deficiencies of this book reveal much about Faulkner’s intellectual and literary development.

A Green Bough (1933), on the other hand, shows greater dexterity and finesse, especially in adapting the fin-de-siecle poetry of Swinburne, Tennyson, and Housman. Although Faulkner took a long time in discovering A Shropshire Lad(1896), it made a strong impression on him: “Here was reason for being born into a fantastic world: discovering the splender of fortitude, the beauty of being of the soil like a tree about which fools might howl and which winds of disillusion and death and despair might strip, leaving bleak, without bitterness: beautiful in sadness.” Eliot’s influence, too, is noteworthy, in such works as the 88-page collection entitled Vision of Spring, which Faulkner gave to his future wife in 1921.In this work and in To Helen [Baird]: A Courtship (an unpublished copy exists in the Howard-Tilton Library at Tulane University), Faulkner included some of his most interesting poetry. Thus Brooks has searched out both Faulkner’s published and unpublished poetry to give a new appreciation of someone who once considered himself a failed poet.

It seems clear that Housman and Eliot were too strong for Faulkner, and when he wrote in their modes, he could not help ending up imitating or parodying their poetry. Faulkner might have been so overwhelmed by Eliot’s poetry that he hesitated to acknowledge his debt to him, although his poetry and fiction through Pylon clearly reveals the Eliot influence. While Housman helped Faulkner discover clarity, austerity, and tough-mindedness, he also helped him realize the importance of placing his poetry in a known landscape. For all this, Faulkner might have been criticizing himself when he wrote in The Mississippian (Nov.10, 1929) of William Alexander Percy: “His muse is Latin in type—poignant ecstasies of lyrical extravagance and a short-lived artificial strength achieved at the cost of true strength in beauty.” While favoring Poems II, VI, and XLIV in A Green Bough, Brooks correctly demonstrates that Faulkner did not limit himself to the verse form for lyrical expression; The Hamlet, in particular, contains some of Faulkner’s best “poetry,” especially in the sequences involving Ike, a faun-like creature who deals with nature directly and does not feel the constraints of artificial speech.

As a young writer, however, Faulkner wrote more than poetry. His play, Marionettes (1920), recently reprinted by the University Press of Virginia with a thorough introduction by Noel Polk, concerns the seduction of Marietta by Pierrot. Perhaps because it was derivative in nature, Faulkner failed to give this drama a focus and thus, Brooks believes, this early piece serves in large part as an omnium-gatherum of ideas and motifs that Faulkner would develop more significantly later on. Two sketches, “The Hill” (1922) and “Nympholepsy” (apparently dating from 1925), more realistically portray farmhands tired from working in the fields. In addition, Mayday (in the Tulane University Library and dating from early 1926) deals with some Arthurian themes, this time reflecting James Branch Cabell’s unusual work, Jurgen.Cabell, like Faulkner, regarded man as the victim of illusion: “The woman of one’s dreams is literally just that: a dream. The women of flesh and blood with whom one falls in love are only shadows of the woman of one’s ideal vision. For this reason, all actual women must sooner or later cloy, and the lover will sooner or later discover that he has deceived himself” (49). The result is that the unattainable is always beyond reach. Quentin Compson in the second part of The Sound and the Fury and Harry Wilbourne in The Wild Palms show, each in his own way, this state of mind, whereby nymphs inspire men to seek for the unobtainable woman.

Unfortunately, the non-Yoknapatawphan material that Brooks discusses is not intrinsically as interesting as that treated in his first volume, and thus his evaluation of certain works is not as laudatory as one might expect. Brooks has a low opinion of Mosquitoes (1927) since he finds the story line minimal; it is replaced by a cast of pseudo-artists who spend most of the time talking to one another to such an extent that the interchange is artificial and inconsequential. Likewise, the New Orleans Sketches (edited by Carvel Collins in 1958) are flat and banal. Though one can trace the language, style, and characterization in the New Orleans Sketches (“The Kingdom of God” and “The Liar,” for example, partially show resemblances to The Sound and the Fury and The Hamlet), in general, “the sleaziness of the plots of most of the stories hints at their perfunctory nature” (106). In his unpublished novel, Elmer, Faulkner portrays a young American artist’s trip to Europe; this work reflects not only Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a young Man but also Faulkner’s trip through Italy and France, part of which he shared with the artist, William Spratling. Elmer’s initial involvement with Ethel, their subsequent relationship, and the refusal of marriage might reflect some of Faulkner’s own personal experiences. While it would definitely be wrong to interpret Elmer as an autobiographical novel or sketch, it does represent the plight of a young artist who desires to control the romantic impulses in his life in order to put them into an artistic perspective.

Unlike some of the poetry and early sketches, Brooks considers Soldiers’ Pay (1926) a brilliant and exciting novel, incorporating, as it does to some degree, Faulkner’s penchant for nymphs and fauns. Faulkner was interested in the divided nature of man; at once, man reflected an animal nature and, at the same time, he transcended this animal world with the aid of his memory, reason, and imagination. While this novel does not attempt to dislocate man’s sensibilities and divide his nature, it does evoke a world that has not kept control of itself and is at loose ends. The mood and atmosphere in this novel are noteworthy. When Margaret Powers and Joe Gilligan bring the invalid Donald Mahon to hear some jazz, one senses not only the excitement of this new music but the reaction of the older generation who have grown up accustomed to other rhythms. Above all, these characters react honestly as they cope with Donald’s dying state; they are flexible characters, something that Faulkner later perfected in someone like Lena Grove in Light in August.Donald will not accept anything less than love; and though his death has not transformed the people who surround him, particularly his father, there is a calm at the end that reveals “the longing of mankind for a Oneness with Something, somewhere.”

Another recent volume complements Brooks’s interest in Faulkner’s early career. Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha novels of the late 1920’s and early 30’s (Sartoris, The Sound and the Fury with the Compson Appendix, Sanctuary, and As I Lay Dying) have appeared in revised translations in the Bibliotheque de la Pleiade series published by Gallimard. This work, Faulkner: Oeuvres romanesques, presented under the direction of Michel Cresset, a leading French Faulkner scholar, also includes a 98-page chronology of important dates and facts concerning Faulkner’s life and career, plus an introduction to each of the four novels with invaluable notes on textual variants. Unfortunately, this volume has no equal in the United States and should spur American scholars, as Gresset gently reminds us, to pursue with even more vigor James Meriwether’s desire to have authoritative editions of all of Faulkner’s works.

What is of particular value in this book are the introductions and notes on textual variants. For example, Faulkner rewrote much of Sanctuary in November 1930, achieving among other things a tighter focus on Temple’s story. The present Gallimard volume incorporates an introduction to this novel with the appropriate textual variants (184 pages in all), giving for the first time, albeit in French, a sense of the larger context to this novel. Such scholarship is not pedantic; rather it reveals a reverential appreciation for one of America’s literary geniuses. Professor Cresset has judiciously put the introductions and textual apparatus after the novels; they are there for the reader and scholar to consult, but they do not detract from the pleasure of reading these novels. As Sartre said so succinctly about Faulkner in the conclusion of a 1938 article on Bartons, “Il faudrait le connaitre.” Undoubtedly this volume will be of enormous help in doing just that.

Brooks believes that Pylon (1935), like Sartoris, deals with variations on a theme, that of the unreflective man of action played off against the inactive man of words: Roger Shumann takes breathtaking chances that are admired by the passive Reporter. In addition, Faulkner places these pragmatic, airborne nomads in a romantic relationship which is intensified because of the ever-present reality of death. Brooks sees Laverne, Roger, and Jack as representing the incurable humanity of human beings. They “are constantly stunned to discover the depth of depravity in their fellow human beings and sometimes, in themselves” (193). Yet man can rise above his depravity and not always opt for the plausibility of the lower choice, something Faulkner explains as a dominant motif of A Fable (1954). While the emphasis in A Fable, one of Faulkner’s underrated books, is on the individual heroic struggle of the French Corporal, the emphasis in The Wild Palms focuses rather on the relationship of the man-woman in each of the two stories. Yet Faulkner seems to throw a spotlight on the two men, the Tall Convict and Harry Wilbourne, precisely because they survive. In particular, Brooks probes the character of the Tall Convict: “What attitude are we expected to take with regard to the Tall Convict? He performs actions, but is he really a hero? Can there be a somewhat dim-witted hero? Or an unintentional hero—one who is unaware that he is making and abiding by heroic choices?” (223). Brooks does not settle for an easy answer but tries to savor the subtlety of these characters who, though given opportunities for growth and inner freedom, lead lives that are decidedly limited.

In his discussion of the non-Yoknapatawphan novels, Brooks never fails to ask basic questions, to explore sources, to analyze character motivation and literary style; his method is honest and reflects years of reading, teaching, and publishing. The result is always rewarding. In his treatment of The Wild Palms, perhaps the most significant novel he discusses in this volume, he might have developed more precisely the contrapuntal nature of this novel, perhaps through a chapter-by-chapter analysis, without, of course, repeating the insights of Thomas McHaney in his William Faulkner’s “The Wild Palms”: A Study (University Press of Mississippi, 1975), a book which Brooks acknowledges. These two stories are so dynamically related that the discovery by the reader of the point-by-point relationships is thrilling. Faulkner actively invites the reader to understand parallel situations that ironically comment on one another or to see individuals who react differently when confronted with similar problems. Yet Brooks carefully explains that Harry stakes his life and love on a hopeless kind of transcendence which can only be realized by the unrelenting demands of the flesh. Unlike the Tall Convict who cannot enjoy his new-found freedom, Harry drifts into prison, not because he disliked the outside world but because he mishandled Charlotte’s abortion and did not really take control of his life.

Brooks’s excellent appendix on the narrative structure of Absalom, Absaloml presents an in-depth continuation of his concluding essay on time and history, an essay that caps the two volumes and presupposes a knowledge of the Faulkner canon. Faulkner did not imitate Bergson’s theory of duree.For Bergson, time is experienced by humans as being continuous; for Faulkner, time has no existence except as it is experienced in the consciousness of human beings. Thus for Faulkner, this interior sense of time has a distinctly metaphysical quality to it, as revealed in Darl’s revery on his mother’s death in As I Lay Dying or in Harry Wilbourne’s statement, “Then I am, and the time begins, retroactive, is was and will be.” Faulkner, never a serious student of Bergsonian philosophy, understood the need to believe in man’s potential and to see that the concerns of the heart are inexorably linked with man’s finitude. In a conversation with Jean Stein, Faulkner explained the relationship between time and the artist: “The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that 100 years later when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life.” No one image or novel can incorporate all the dimensions of time, but as Darrel Abel suggests, many different images through a convergence of their action direct the attention of the reader so that the reader’s intuition will be able to seize on them and make an intelligent pattern.

Faulkner maintained that one had only to read his fiction to understand him—a simple notion that requires extraordinary energy and discernment because of all the variables it implies. Though Professor Brooks can be faulted for not probing deep enough into some of Faulkner’s important novels in this present volume, particularly The Wild Palms and A Fable, he has, nevertheless, explored in a scholarly and humane way the richness of the non-Yoknapatawphan material of Faulkner’s creative imagination.


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