Richard Posner, in Law and Literature: A Misunderstood Relation (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988), concludes from his survey of literature on legal themes that “the legal matter in most literature on legal themes is peripheral to the meaning and significance of the literature.” Taking “legal” in the strict sense, this statement is probably true. What works so well in Jay Watson’s Forensic Fictions, however, is just that he does not take “legal” or “lawyer” too literally. He is, as a lawyer might put it, right on point in his basic arguments about Faulkner, the law, the lawyer, and what he dubs “forensic fictions.” His analysis of the way law in Faulkner figures as a vocation, a way of life, and, most importantly, a discursive [End Page 844] practice—and not just “legal matter”—gives this book resonance despite its focus on relatively minor Faulknerian works.
Faulkner’s family was full of lawyers: “the legal vocation ran five generations deep,” and Watson is justified in identifying the paternal figures in Faulkner’s life as “forensic fathers.” Faulkner’s mentor, Phil Stone, was a lawyer as well, and he “incarnated the many dimensions of the forensic figure in a more ambivalent way than anyone Faulkner had ever known before.” Faulkner’s stories are “staggeringly rich in attorneys,” and two of these attorneys, Horace Benbow and Gavin Stevens, are among Faulkner’s most important and complex characters. These facts suggest that “in the figure of the lawyer Faulkner found his most habitual, and in many ways his most rewarding, authorial surrogate, a fictional alter ego on whom he could project, and through whom explore, numerous and often contradictory aspects of his personal experience, his family background, and his cultural heritage.”
Watson structures his book chronologically, dealing first with Horace Benbow’s failures as a lawyer and citizen in both Flags in the Dust and Sanctuary, then tracking four early but comparatively minor appearances of Gavin Stevens in “Hair,” “Smoke,” Light in August, and “Go Down, Moses.” The bulk of the study is given over to what Watson calls the “forensic trilogy”: Intruder in the Dust, Knight’s Gambit, and Requiem for a Nun, three works published between 1948 and 1951 in which Stevens enacts the role of lawyer-citizen—a Cincinnatus figure—with great success. The final chapter addresses Stevens’ “discontents” and, in some ways, failures in The Town and The Mansion. A constant theme throughout these discussions is that the forensic is language-in-action. Benbow fails, and Stevens sometimes succeeds, because of skills with (or in) language—skills in speaking, storytelling, writing, and very importantly in listening. Returning again and again to the linguistic and representational nature of the forensic, Watson knows that “the lawyer is of necessity a figure of language, particularly spoken language.” Watson’s point is not merely that lawyers are good with words, but that good lawyers—“good” in moral as well as technical senses—participate fully in the narrative lives of their communities. Horace Benbow is a failure as a lawyer because he is not in command of words: he writes rambling, incomprehensible letters, he doesn’t say the right thing at the right time, and most vitally he doesn’t listen when he should. While I think Watson underestimates the overall darkness of Faulkner’s vision in Sanctuary, he [End Page 845] is right that Horace’s failure to attend closely to the communal sounds and voices and stories renders him all the more unable to defend Lee Goodwin.
Stevens’ first appearance in Yoknapatawpha material came only three months after Benbow’s last, in the short story “Hair.” Stevens is established there as “a skilled, benevolent storyteller” who provides the narrator with important information about Hawkshaw. Then in “Smoke” (which appeared in 1932 before its later inclusion in Knight’s Gambit) Faulkner established the model of the highly educated public servant able to “discuss Einstein with college professors [and] spen[d] whole afternoons among the squatting men against the walls of country stores, talking to them in their idiom...