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Natural Aristocracy: History, Ideology, and the Production of William Faulkner
Kevin Railey. Natural Aristocracy: History, Ideology, and the Production of William Faulkner. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1999. xv + 213 pp.
In William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country (1963), Cleanth Brooks suggests that Faulkner reconciles contradictory historical forces by transporting them to his fictional county where the unifying power of art maintains an established order. In this Yoknapatawpha, while the shifty Flem Snopeses prevail, the stoic Gavin Stevenses endure--and so, vicariously, can knowing readers who are able to gain a certain amount of superior comfort from recognizing an honorable victory in defeat. Where Brooks finds unity and order, Myra Jehlen, in Class and Character in Faulkner's South (1976), identifies conflict and discord rooted primarily in class antagonisms that link Yoknapatawpha to its sociohistorical context. Jehlen's study paves the way for inquiry into the complex relationship between material history and the fiction of an artist who reminds us that the past is never really past. With Kevin Railey's Natural Aristocracy: History, Ideology, and the Production of William Faulkner, this debate comes full-circle. Like Brooks, Railey argues that Faulkner uses fiction to impose a certain order on the chaos of history. The difference is that Brooks's account, rooted in the New Criticism, sees this tendency as a merit of Faulkner's fiction, while Railey's Marxist critique views it as a limitation forged through Faulkner's dialectical struggle to achieve historical subjectivity.
Railey proceeds from the assumption (now rarely contested in literary studies, except in a few arenas such as Faulkner studies) that the [End Page 473] writer is deeply affected by the sociohistorical forces surrounding the creative process. Specifically, Railey employs a conceptual framework rooted in ideological analysis and cultural materialism to identify an overriding ideological conflict between a residual paternalism and an emergent liberalism extant in the history and culture of Faulkner's Mississippi that, to a large degree, produces William Faulkner. Railey argues that, as Faulkner encounters and resists both the outmoded and ineffectual codes of paternalism and the radical democratic tendencies of liberalism, he undertakes a teleological progression toward an authorial ideology best defined by the Jeffersonian concept of natural aristocracy. In short, this philosophy claims that some are born leaders because of their endowed superiority in moral and intellectual judgment. Professions of meritocracy stand challenged, however, by elitist assumptions exposed whenever the Jeffersons face the Jacksons of the world--or, more to the point, when the General Compsons encounter the Major de Spains. Noting the hope and the horror of natural aristocracy, Railey concludes that Faulkner "wrote himself into history as a natural aristocrat--the process of history itself becomes the nightmare from which he and his fiction had to escape." For Railey, this authorial ideology explains Faulkner's treatment of tensions active within the Southern ruling class as the focus of his novels moves progressively from the individual psyches of his characters outward to the community in which they interact as social beings.
The comprehensive approach Railey employs is one of the main attributes of this compelling study in which the parts effectively serve the whole. In part 1, Railey offers a useful ideological history, focusing on how paternalism and liberalism interact in dialectical form to influence Faulkner through political and familial means. Part 2 considers Faulkner's early attempts to engage the struggle between paternalism and liberalism in his fiction. Railey considers the implications of this larger ideological struggle in terms of class, gender, and race. On the latter count, he is especially insightful, fixing an unflinching and long overdue gaze on Faulkner's implication in the Southern ideology of race. Bringing contemporary race theory to bear on Faulkner, he explores how Light in August operates under strict binary racial codes which are then implicitly challenged in Absalom, Absalom!--the latter examination comprises the whole of part 3. In part 4, Railey arrives at the Snopes Trilogy and asserts that in these novels Faulkner articulates an increasingly...