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Faulkner on the Color Line: The Later Novels
Theresa M. Towner. Faulkner on the Color Line: The Later Novels. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2000. xi + 179 pp.
Theresa M. Towner's Faulkner on the Color Line is a welcome addition to the short list of works paying sustained attention to the fiction of Faulkner's so-called "late phase." As her title suggests, Towner approaches the late novels primarily in terms of their representations of race relations. Within this broad subject, her specific concern is the influence of racial attitudes on human perception--how what she calls, in a fine phrase, "America's rigid protocols of racial ideology" constrain the ability of Faulkner's characters to understand themselves and one another and how Faulkner enacts this constraint in the structures of his novels. Her choice of focus initially may seem surprising, for with the exception of Intruder in the Dust, Faulkner's post-World War II fiction engages the theme of race less frequently and with less apparent complexity than do Light in August, Absalom, Absalom!, and Go Down, Moses, the more widely studied novels on racial themes of the 1930s and early 1940s. [End Page 475]
Towner responds to this difficulty by attending assiduously to those racial representations that do occur in the late fiction and by arguing that "Faulkner did not need [to depict] specific racial issues in order to racialize his fiction." In the first of these responses especially, her book is often illuminating. Her second chapter, "'How Can a Black Man Ask?'" argues strongly that in his later fiction "Faulkner took racial culpability as a given and became increasingly interested in scripting responses to it." Focusing on post-World War II representations of the black descendants of the McCaslin-Beauchamp line of Go Down, Moses, the chapter offers a fresh interpretation of the Lucas Beauchamp/Chick Mallison relationship in Intruder in the Dust and of Philip Manigault Beauchamp's role in A Fable; it culminates in a convincing challenge to the view that in The Reivers Faulkner valorizes a "gentleman's code" of tacit color-blindness. In subsequent chapters, Towner gleans similar insights, arguing, for example, that in Requiem for a Nun Temple Drake's racialized perception of Nancy Mannigoe severely constrains her ability to resolve her own moral and emotional confusion.
This said, one wishes for more. Throughout the book, Towner aspires to an ambitious overall goal not only of illuminating the role of racial representations in the late fiction but also of contesting the relatively low esteem in which that fiction is held. This effort fights a battle that many present-day critics have abandoned (along with the universalizing aesthetic assumptions on which it depends). Towner's continued engagement with this issue leads to repeated rejoinders to the views of critics of the 1960s--to those, for example, of Beck, Brooks, Howe, Vickery, and Waggoner. Accompanying this critical focus is relatively sparse attention to recent theoretically informed explorations of the role of race in Faulkner's fiction. The book contains only one reference to Philip Weinstein's probing series of studies of the relation between race and identity formation in Go Down, Moses and later works, none to Richard Godden's essays on race and economics (republished in revised form in his 1998 book, Fictions of Labor), and only infrequent references to essays on similar topics appearing in The Faulkner Journal.
Greater engagement with this body of criticism could have strengthened Towner's argument that Faulkner's late fiction is racialized even when race is not its topic. Critics using New Historicist methodologies have developed ingenious techniques for reading the "repressed context" [End Page 476] --what Judie Newman calls the "amnesia which is America's second name"--of racial, gender, and class inequality in mainstream American literature. As the words "repressed" and "amnesia" suggest, these techniques read against the grain of a work's manifest meaning and against the assumption of authorial mastery. Towner, by comparison, writes out of a deep belief...