- William Faulkner: Seeing Through the South
In the introduction to his remarkable new study, John T. Matthews repeats a claim that, unfortunately, has become something of a literary commonplace among Faulkner scholars. Echoing Michael Grimwood, Daniel J. Singal, David Minter, and Mark McGurl, Matthews depicts Faulkner as a split personality, an artist torn by contradictory impulses. In fact, Matthews identifies at least three overlapping Faulkners: a Faulkner who longed both to indict the South and to escape into its storied past (3), a Faulkner who wanted to chronicle the history of his native region yet felt considerable anxiety about revealing “inside stories to outsiders” (11), and a Faulkner who aspired to be an artist yet longed to cash in on the lucrative opportunities available to a professional writer (6).
Such bifurcation encourages us to embrace a “good Faulkner” and, conversely, to reject a “bad” one. Typically the reader is asked to [End Page 633] choose the highbrow Faulkner over the lowbrow, the tragic Faulkner over the comic, the modernist over the Victorian, the Faulkner who plumbed the depths of the past over the Faulkner who meticulously chronicled contemporary life. These preferences, of course, are easily reversed. Leslie Fiedler, for example, famously preferred the lowbrow Faulkner to the highbrow. Whichever Faulkner one embraces, the unfortunate consequence of this slice-and-dice approach is that we are left with a thin, one-dimensional artist and, most troublingly, a truncated canon.
Thankfully, Matthews’s portrait of a Faulkner driven by “divided sentiments” is limited to his short introduction and is dropped in his remaining chapters. Matthews’s actual thesis is articulated most clearly in chapter 1—where the volume truly begins—and in the preface. Taking issue with the “prevailing view” of a Faulkner “obsessed with the past” (19), Matthews counters that “Faulkner’s entire imaginative career” is best seen “as a distinctively coherent project”: an attempt to chronicle the South’s difficult movement into modernity (viii). So instead of perpetuating the myth of a divided Faulkner, Matthews actually takes issue with it, emphasizing both the coherence and breadth of Faulkner’s imaginative vision. Reflecting on Faulkner’s oeuvre, Matthews writes, “as Faulkner describes the volatility of contemporary life in Yoknapatawpha and the greater South, he notices the frantic discontentment of many young women; the imaginative bankruptcy of a once dominant, now moribund planter elite; the blithe materialism of an ascending class of ‘rednecks’; the courageous gestures of resistance or acts of escape performed by African Americans” (172–73). Beginning with chapter 1, Matthews methodically makes his way through Faulkner’s novels, detailing how the members of these various groups respond to the economic, political, and social “changes that constitute twentieth-century modernity” (75).
Matthews’s Faulkner is especially sensitive to how the individuals within these groups relate to—and often try to exploit—each other. Indeed, Matthews contends that the essential question in Faulkner’s South is “who gets to reduce whom to brutehood” (191). What allows Faulkner to avoid the cookie-cutter naturalism of a novelist such as Frank Norris, Matthews suggests, is the realization that “the rampant reduction of human beings to instruments or commodities” doesn’t generate a uniform response (193). Instead—as the rich variety of Faulkner’s characters illustrates—the “forces of modernization” spur a multitude of reactions (60). These include ennui, denial, materialism, flight, renunciation, revenge, and self-imprisonment.
Borrowing language from The Town, Matthews hints that what these negative reactions to modernity have in common is that they allow the individual to avoid the crisis at hand rather than to enter [End Page 634] into it. One notable example of such avoidance behavior is that of Joe Christmas. For Joe, entering his crisis means coming to terms with the idea that identity is more complex than he and his society want to admit. Despite his “struggles to affirm an unambiguous racial identity,” Joe comes close to such an admission, Matthews writes, when he finds himself drawn to the anonymous voices of African American women in the “negro section of town” (164). “Even as...