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The essays collected in this book were originally lectures given to specific audiences on specific occasions, which were then separately published, the author informs us. Considering that some of the lectures were delivered and published for small circles or outside the United States, this is a most opportune collection. With a rigorous eye as the editor of the definitive versions of Faulkner's fictions, Polk pays special attention to grammatical aspects of the texts, such as syntax, punctuation, and capitalization, those small peculiarities that would otherwise have passed unnoticed in critical examination; but in Polk's treatment, they reveal something crucial to a fuller understanding of each fiction's themes.
The two Mississippians, Faulkner and Welty, did not have a relationship of the "anxiety of influence," Polk insists, as Welty was no ephebe to the strong Father, unlike those male writers who spent their life-long energies escaping and denying Faulkner's influence. Polk asserts that Welty saw "a different landscape than the one he [Faulkner] saw" over the same native soil (7). While Faulkner addresses epic issues "on an epic scale in an epic landscape" (8), Welty opens up an alternative landscape, equally potent and disturbing, residing in the domestic realities of families and communities. Expressed this way, the distinction does not sound very unique. What is unique about Polk's essays is the basis on which his argument rests, which comes from his assumption that the critical language of the time Faulkner and Welty were publishing, and long thereafter, was not large enough to contain the two authors, and had kept us from understanding Welty in particular.
Drawing on a more expansive critical language that overcomes the limitations of earlier critical discourses, Polk presents the South of Faulkner and Welty through images that sometimes require courage to face squarely. In contrast to traditional discussions on the cosmically heroic or demonic acts of Faulkner's men and women, he focuses on the ultimately private motives of these characters, discussing the kind of repressed sexual energies that early Faulkner criticism had written off as perverse. By focusing on this, Polk is able to explore the societal taboos at play in the South of Faulkner and Welty with a new clarity and directness. Specifically, with regard to Faulkner, he reveals the theme of homoeroticism to have been prevalent in areas which earlier psychoanalytic readings had more or less neglected. In a similar vein, Polk's essays also deal with controversial issues in Faulkner, such as communism and patriotism, the importance of which earlier critics had likewise tended to underrate. And in the quotidian [End Page 849] scenes of Welty's family and community circles, Polk's new critical language discloses, rather than love and comfort, the savage cruelty and violence her characters do not hesitate to take pleasure in.
Of the seven essays on Faulkner, the first four demonstrate how sex and gender, rather than race, are the main vectors of the development of his themes. In "Testing Masculinity in the Snopes Trilogy," where this argument is presented most explicitly, Polk states that "race, statistically at any rate, is a very minor part of [Faulkner's] concerns. Sexual and sexualized relationships, on the other hand, are everywhere, on nearly every page" (44). Without getting bogged down in theoretical jargon, Polk provides readers enough background on Judith Butler's gender theory to illustrate Faulkner's profound ability to describe the strict sexual roles of his Southern culture. Polk uses Flem Snopes and Eula as convincing examples of characters who embrace these restrictions and deny their instinctual desires at their peril. In the essay "How Shreve Gets in to Quentin's Pants," Polk most effectively exploits his forte. He takes notice of a curious change in Quentin's speech style in certain passages in The Sound and the Fury, a change from his usual elegant, complex, and compound style to the absolute crumbling of syntax, failure in capitalization and punctuation, and repetition of fragments. Polk interprets the change as a reflection of Quentin's barely repressed homoerotic desire...