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A Tale of Two Writers

ISSUE:  Winter 1996
The Life of William Faulkner. By Richard Gray. Blackwell. $29.95.
Erskine Caldwell: The Journey from Tobacco Road. By Dan B. Miller. Knopf. $3000

William Faulkner has proven to be a blue chip stock for literary critics over the past 50 years, while Erskine Caldwell has been accorded junk bond status. Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1950, but Caldwell is known mainly for Tobacco Road, God’s Little Acre, and a slew of pulp paperbacks with salacious covers published in his twilight. These two Southern writers are the subjects of new books with vastly different approaches, which in turn perhaps gives a clue as to the disparity in their valuations.

Richard Gray’s The Life of William Faulkner is part of the Blackwell Critical Biographies series which includes other volumes on Geoffrey Chaucer, Samuel Johnson, Robert Browning, Joseph Conrad, and Walter Scott. In taking up textual moments of Faulkner and interpreting them, the book exhibits some expository strengths, such as in illustrating how the economic history of the South, specifically the dominance of cotton and the sharecropping system, connects to the motifs in his fiction. Faulkner’s final years are also well detailed without the gloss of sentiment, showing a sad vacantness to the man who had written himself dry and knew it, and spent his days fox hunting as an escape from modern times he did not fully understand.

Where Gray will lose much of the audience is in his prospecting of the Faulknerian mines for ore samples of purported higher meanings to examine under the microscope of contemporary literary theory, itself a complex instrument fashioned by a consortium of Bakhtin, Bourdieu, Althusser, Benjamin, Jameson, Goldmann, Kristeva, Lacan, and Foucault. Theorizing runs pretty much amok here as snippets and scenes from the novelist’s works are subjected to relentless conjectural overreaching and woolly Eurobabble. By way of the briefest of examples, Gray states that “. . .the feeling of guesswork . . . that attaches to nearly every story in Light in August is compounded by Faulkner’s use . . .of the strategy of partial disclosure. . . .” But we are assured that it isn’t a case of “. . . Faulkner merely intent on presenting language as an endless process of difference and absence: trying to show that, as Lacan puts it, “language is what hollows being into desire”.”

It is a shame that literary studies cannot take a lesson from the last few centuries of western philosophy, at least the Anglo-Austrian strain, which has favored empiricism and positivism as antidotes to speculative metaphysics. Instead of superimposing more systems of ideas on reality, philosophy became deflationary, emphasizing what could not be said or where propositions had to be circumscribed. Such limiting tendencies have made no impression on academic criticism, which gallops on with assertions that reach to the very skies of possibility without much attempt to offer proofs. Gray’s book on the whole makes for a thick and heavy stew of speculation, and only the most gluttonous of Faulkner acolytes will swallow it. In this I suppose its purpose is met: the manufacture of still another source to be cited by graduate students in papers. At the risk of dooming myself to the middlebrow circle of hell, I found an observation of Clifton Fadiman interesting: “Mr. Faulkner may stand in need of interpretation, but not interpreters. He has been backtracked to his origins, broken down into groups of symbols, divided into periods, mythologized to a fare-thee-well, and in general given the A 1 Kafka treatment.”

Faulkner’s rank is perhaps less attributable to the intrinsic merits of his work than to the fact that so much critical capital has been invested there, like some stock that rises because everyone has been buying it. But such securities inevitably enjoy only a limited run until market sanity catches up and brings them down to earth again.

Dan B. Miller’s new biography of Erskine Caldwell sticks to a conventional mission and aims to examine personality, environment, and attendant influences as a way of understanding the artist and the art. As a result, substance and clarity aren’t sacrificed to the brass idol of arcane explication.

Caldwell, the only child of a minister, absorbed the earthy sensations of daily life while growing up in rural towns in Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Virginia. He later turned his experience into books that Scott Fitzgerald and Faulkner himself praised highly. Failing to take a degree at any of the three colleges he attended, including the University of Virginia, he was for a time a journalist and, after marrying and having two sons, a fledgling fiction writer who nearly starved in his apprenticeship. The Caldwells moved to Maine and endured obscurity on potatoes and turnips as rejections of his work piled up. The portrait of the young Erskine as a husband and father is not flattering; he was quick to anger and often violent with the children if they disturbed his concentration. Thin skinned in the extreme, he reacted to any negative word as evidence of disloyalty, and eventually his family, editors, and agents would flatter him rather than say a manuscript had shortcomings.

His first marriage broke up, as did his second to Margaret Bourke-White, but not before he and the famous photographer worked together to document the ordinary faces and lives of the depression as well as report conditions inside Russia when war broke out with Germany in 1941. A third and then fourth marriage ensued, the last a happy one. In the late 1940’s he was still respected; critical esteem valued Tobacco Road and God’s Little Acre as unique visions, but by the 1950’s, he was reduced to churning out stories for “girlie” magazines, and cheap paperbacks which were essentially rehashings of his first successes.

Having disciplined himself to hard work from his youth, Caldwell once again fell back on perseverance as a method. Between 1961 and 1973 he wrote eight new novels more ignored than reviewed by critics, but which still earned money. He lived to be an old man despite years of excessive smoking and drinking, and finished an autobiography before his death in 1987.

Miller’s portrait deftly reveals the paradoxes of Caldwell: we find the man odious and yet he arouses our sympathies; his writing was often laughably bad, but it was also infected with a terrible passion for directness and honesty; he was the sort of writer everyone reads but pretends not to; parents hid his books from their children, while children hid them from their parents.

It seems odd that two figures of this era who essentially wrote about the same surroundings should have such different literary reputations. If Faulkner was a better or at least a more serious writer, he was not galactically so, but had some knack of mystifying himself and his books enough to induce critics to take up the task of finding undiscovered dimensions. A simple yarn spinner like Caldwell, who never saw himself as more than that, lacks theoreticians, but if only two early novels and a wonderfully readable biography by Miller are his memorials, he is better served. The Faulkner inflation will suffer an inevitable devaluation, while Caldwell might someday enjoy a revival as a proletarian writer whose raw stories accurately reflect the world from which they derived.

I will venture that Faulkner and Caldwell ultimately will be considered capable regional novelists and most of the commentary on St. William will be regarded as just so much tenure-scribbling which can be kept for library insulation, but little else. An old country farmer once observed, “The more layers of shingles you put on a roof, the more you’ll have to take off.” Roofing and criticism perhaps have something in common.


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