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“So I, Who had Never had a War . . .”:
William Faulkner, War, and the Modern Imagination

So I, who had never had a sister and was fated to lose my daughter in infancy, set out to make myself a beautiful and tragic little girl.

—William Faulkner, “An Introduction to The Sound and the Fury

There were three wars at work in the mind of William Faulkner: the American Civil War, World War I, and World War II. He did not fight in any of them, nor did he write about them, if by writing we mean an account, factual or fictional, of what occurs or is likely to occur during military engagement. They are all there—in novels, short stories, essays, and letters—and yet not there: wars fantasized as reckless adventure, wars recalled as part of a legendary past or foretold as apocalyptic future, wars that have paused and are about to begin again, but never the plausible, violent reality of actual battle.

With very few exceptions, war for Faulkner is an occasion for gesture, a decisive event that—in the fighting of it, in the telling and the fullest understanding of it—demands something other than concrete involvement: a figurative rather than a literal action, dramatic rather [End Page 619] than strategic effect, the miming of battle. As for territory won or lost, casualties suffered or inflicted, prisoners captured, planes downed—these are not the purpose (although occasionally they are the result) of military action in Faulkner. What counts is the manner of engagement, however irrelevant to the war’s ultimate outcome, which usually turns out to be of small importance. “What the devil were you folks fighting about, anyhow,” asks Old Bayard of a Civil War veteran in Flags in the Dust, and Will Falls answers, “damned ef I ever did know” (252).

Surrounding Faulkner’s accounts of his own experience in war and the portrayal of it in his fiction is a curious, in some ways unique, gathering of literary, regional, and biographical contexts: late nineteenth-century literary movements in France and Great Britain; shifts in the American Southern cultural background, ranging from a paradox in turn-of-the-century Southern manners to the historical and psychological factors that were to contribute to the Southern Renaissance in the 1920s; and, finally, the specific crises of Faulkner’s individual and family history. Together they comprise a series of modernist movements that pervade Faulkner’s fiction, assuming a distinctive resonance in his treatment of the wars that preoccupy him throughout his career. 1

Faulkner’s introduction to literary modernism began under the tutelage of his fellow townsman, Phil Stone, in 1914 and continued more or less for over a dozen years. Unusually well read from the ancients to the modern poets, Stone supplied Faulkner with books and journals containing the work of the writers and theorists who were in the process of creating the modern age: Swinburne, Housman, Yeats, Pound and the Imagists, Eliot and Joyce, Frazer, Croce, Clive Bell.

Of particular importance to Faulkner as a poet—originally his preferred literary mode—were the French Symbolists, whom, like many of his British and American contemporaries, he probably first encountered in Arthur Symons’s The Symbolist Movement in Literature, the 1919 edition of which also contained a large selection of poetry in English translation. 2 Here he could read not only the poems he would himself translate as some of his earliest published work, but also Symons’s summary and interpretation of the theories lying behind French symbolism. Faulkner seems to have been particularly impressed by Symons’s discussion of Mallarmé, which emphasized his commitment to the suggestiveness of allusion rather than to the detailed, realistic account of scene or situation: [End Page 620]

To evoke, by some elaborate, instantaneous magic of language, without the formality of an after all impossible description. . . . Remember his principle: that to name is to destroy, to suggest is to create. Note, further, that he condemns the inclusion in verse of anything but, “for example, the horror of the forest, or the silent thunder afloat in the leaves; not the intrinsic, dense wood of the trees.”