- Faulkner and the Great Depression: Aesthetics, Ideology, and Cultural Politics
In the fall of 1938 Time associate editor and erstwhile proletarian novelist Robert Cantwell traveled from New York to Oxford, Mississippi to interview the "steadily more obscure" novelist William Faulkner for Time's mass market readership. Cantwell cast his trip to Rowan Oak in the familiar terms of the plantation romance and the Southern gothic, depicting an almost Marlovian journey from the modernist metropolis to the "heart of the South," a land "saturated with the memory of old feuds and old sins" (Time, 23 Jan. 1939). Ted Atkinson's Faulkner and the Great Depression: Aesthetics, Ideology, and Cultural Politics works to diminish the cultural distance Cantwell imagined himself traversing between Popular Front New York and plantation Mississippi by demonstrating Faulkner's close and complex relationship to the issues and anxieties informing American culture in the 1930s. Rejecting both New Critical investments in Faulkner's aesthetic autonomy and Old Left critiques of Faulkner's formalist decadence, Atkinson argues for Faulkner as a socially engaged Depression writer who "found his own means of radical and revolutionary expression" (236).
Atkinson's study falls broadly into two related sections. The first two chapters focus on Faulkner's relationship to the aesthetic politics of the "literary class war" of the Great Depression—the literary and critical debates over the relationship between art and politics, aesthetic autonomy and social commitment, and formalism and social realism that animated much of the Depression literary scene (56). The first chapter maps the key camps in this war while articulating these debates to a contemporary crisis in classical liberalism's ethic of self-reliance, a crisis brought about by the Depression-era failure of American capitalism and countered by a renewed interest in collectivist remedies and class-based politics. In chapter two Atkinson seeks Faulkner's engagement with this cultural politics in what might seem the least likely corners of Faulkner's work, his early novels Mosquitoes and The Sound and the Fury. Trading on these novels' high-modernist reputations, Atkinson argues that Faulkner proves increasingly dissatisfied with art-for-art's sake aestheticism and increasingly engaged with looming crises in the American social and economic fabric. With Mosquitoes, Atkinson traces a critique of aesthetic decadence "that anticipates the intense conflict between alternative aesthetic ideologies that would mark the literary class war" (79). In The Sound and the Fury, Atkinson finds in the novel's movement from Benjy's insular perspective to the final chapter's more [End Page 608] communal vision an expanded social engagement and a pervasive thematics of dispossession through which the novel mounts a sharp critique of commodity culture and rising consumerism.
The second half of Faulkner and the Great Depression highlights Faulkner's participation in Depression America's concerns with the politics of social upheaval. Chapter three, "Power by Design: Faulkner and the Specter of Fascism," adapts Michael Denning's work on the "rhetoric of fascism and anti-fascism" in Depression America to argue that "the discourse around fascism functioned as a constitutive force in relation to Faulkner's literary production" (118). Here, Atkinson shows us a Faulkner attendant to developments in the political unconscious of Depression-era popular culture. Sanctuary signifies on Hollywood gangster sagas and their protofascist appeals to popular frustrations with what seemed to many to be a rigged social and economic system. Faulkner's lynch dramas in Light in August and "Dry September" join with other contemporary portrayals of unruly mobs to express dominant class fears of growing working-class unrest. Atkinson casts Absalom, Absalom!'s Thomas Sutpen as a figure of the "great dictator" in an antifascist allegory through which Faulkner probes fascism's racist roots (117). Chapter four, "Revolution and Restraint: Faulkner's Ambivalent Agrarianism," considers Darl Bundren and Ab Snopes as figures of an emergent rural radicalism whose acts of barn burning challenge dominant ideologies grounded in property and ownership while also threatening a revolutionary upheaval that both Faulkner and rural America ultimately reject. Finally, in a concluding chapter on The Unvanquished and...