In this searching and intelligent book, Philip M. Weinstein examines the ways in which William Faulkner and Toni Morrison engage some of the central concerns of American culture: race and gender, but particularly race. In so doing, he attempts the very difficult and slippery task of examining the way the author’s racial and gendered identity may shape and color (if you will) his work without falling into an easy identity politics. Or, as Weinstein more clearly puts it, “The purpose of this book is [. . .] to return to the shaping power of racial and gender positioning, without falling into reductive cliches about a writer’s/character’s/ reader’s racial or gender identity.” In attempting to accomplish this task, Weinstein’s analysis is sometimes frustrating, often difficult, yet always thought-provoking.
Weinstein divides the book into three sections. In the first, “Beginnings,” he sets his own personal story beside that of Faulkner, [End Page 1005] using the experience of being “mothered” by a black woman to examine the presentation of Dilsey. “Faulkner’s admiration for her,” he concludes, “is simultaneously his limited vision of her.” Her portrait thus lacks the “tortured rhetoric” with which he delineates the Compson angst. Morrison, on the other hand, examines not black mammies but black servants and black mothers, “whose subjective life is lived on other terms than caring for their white charges.” Sydney and Ondine of Tar Baby, for example, display a full—and malicious—awareness of the dysfunctional family of Valerian Street that Faulkner cannot provide for Dilsey. Weinstein deftly juxtaposes this account of female origins, of mothers and mammies, to historical origins: slavery. Beginning with Light in August, the text, he argues, in which Faulkner moves from writing “through” black people to writing “about” them, Weinstein suggests that, in the figure of Joe Christmas, Faulkner both enters blackness and recasts it as whiteness; Joe Christmas “experiences blackness not as a cultural resource [. . .] but as a white man’s intolerable secret.” For all of its searing examination of race, the novel presents the legacy of slavery as “a centuries-old catastrophe that registers in the continuing dysfunction of contemporary whites,” a pattern which continues on into Absalom, Absalom! where “this tragic insight opens up no options in the real, however compellingly it reveals its deficits.”
Morrison, of course, offers a very different perspective. Song of Solomon, Weinstein points out, explores the cost of slavery, its legacy for the Dead family, and its presentation of the ancestral Solomon as opposed to Carothers McCaslin of Go Down, Moses. Morrison, unlike Faulkner, documents black loss, “the diaspora that has not ended.” She speaks about what Faulkner cannot: the subject of African American identity and the power of black women. She presents, in Beloved, a black community that is empowered rather than emasculated by the “terrible knowledge” of the slave experience. In accessing such knowledge, Morrison “also presses beyond the limits of realism to invent a uniquely capacious form for expressing the wound that was slavery. The figure of Beloved, [d]ead and live, single and plural, real and mythic [. . .] incarnates at every level the tragedy that was American slavery.”
The second section of this book, “Legacies,” examines the impact of slavery on masculinity. Weinstein interweaves an oedipal model of masculine identity with a Lockean emphasis on property as a natural [End Page 1006] right. Faulkner, he argues, “becomes Faulkner paradoxically, by finding his way into the drama of radically failed self-ownership,” evident in characters from Benjy Compson to Joe Christmas. “If in Western culture the Oedipal crisis is the ordeal the male child must go through in order to emerge as a candidate for paternity and its perquisites—property, propriety, the proper—then each of these characters remains arrested on the threshold of that journey [. . .] .” In Beloved, however, Morrison “both endorses and provocatively calls into question this model of achieved self-ownership—calls it into question not least because no people who had experienced three centuries of enslavement could afford to envisage their subjectivity in such immaculate terms of...