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David Minter. Faulkner's Questioning Narratives: Fiction of His Major Phase, 1929-42. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2001. xiv + 166 pp.
David Minter's biography William Faulkner: His Life and Work remains a landmark in Faulkner studies. His copious research and detailed yet sweeping prose still make his readers "feel in reading, as [he did] in writing, not only respect and gratitude but tenderness too" for his subject. Since Minter's deservedly high standing in the field can be neither helped nor hindered by what I think of Faulkner's Questioning Narratives, I nonetheless must voice disappointment. The book is primarily a collection of previously published essays and public presentations, loosely grouped rather than fully revised. From its introduction to its chapter titles to its concluding lines, Faulkner's [End Page 364] Questioning Narratives does little more than repeat its contention that The Sound and the Fury, Absalom, Absalom!, and Light in August are great novels, and so are Sanctuary and Go Down, Moses.
This repetition is terribly frustrating for admirers of Minter's work. Whole sentences, never mind sentiments, appear within pages of one another. In his first chapter, for instance, he argues that "Faulkner's considerable achievements place him in the great modernist literary tradition, in the late moment of its turning back on itself in a mood of skepticism mixed with celebration—which is to say a mood similar to one we see in Wallace Stevens' poetry." The very next paragraph begins with almost exactly the same sentence, and five pages later we hear that Minter
hope[s] to show that Faulkner engaged, obliquely in some moments and more openly in others, in repeated as well as extended examinations of his own expressive urges and of the varied formal preoccupations of international modernism in the late moment of its turning back upon itself in a mood that mixed skepticism and critique with continuing celebration, in much the way that Stevens did in his poetry and others have done in other ways.
His final chapter begins and ends with lines from Stevens's "The Poems of Our Climate" and repeats that the main "voices" of Faulkner's major phase "speak in mixed tones of evocation, celebration, and revision." The chapters in between extol the importance of talk, memory, and history in Faulkner's major phase, yet without grounding those discussions more than cursorily in Faulkner scholarship—which, by the way, has come to question the usefulness of the term "major phase." His bibliography has all the right names in it, but his chapters do not engage the ideas alphabetized there. A footnote in the chapter devoted to Light in August, for instance, asks us to "note" the racial elements of a novel that has attracted an enormous amount of critical attention on that very subject.
Such superficial attention appears even in the titles of Minter's chapters, which reflect, I think, the scattershot quality of the book's conception and execution. Chapter four makes "Notes"; five, "A Brief Encounter"; six, a "Guide to One Aspect"; eight, "An Encounter." His final chapter is "In Lieu of a Conclusion." Of course, meditative criticism has its unique uses, and sometimes Minter's insight into the pleasures of Faulkner's texts gleams. He reflects at one point that even though "readers have felt that he treated them and most of his characters as Vince Lombardi was said to treat all of his football players: like dogs, [. . .] the other side of Faulkner's demands, the varied difficulties that he strews in our paths, is a remarkable generosity. [End Page 365] Few writers have shared so fully their tasks and even their prerogatives, as writers, either with their characters or with their readers." Yet during most of Faulkner's Questioning Narratives it seems as though Minter has decided not to read any Faulkner other than what he knows he likes and as though the writing of his Cultural History of the American Novel, the chapter headings of which also...