- Negotiating the National Voice in Faulkner's Late Work
- Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 54, Number 4, Winter 1998
- p. pp. 53-81
- View Citation
JOE KARAGANIS Negotiating the National Voice in Faulkner's Late Work ROKE, all but out of print and trying to join the Air Force 'in the spring of 1942, Faulkner wrote "Shall Not Perish," a short story centered on one of his minor avatars of poor rural virtue, the Grier family. The story is set in the present and concerns the efforts of Mother and her nameless younger son (the narrator) to understand the death of the older son, Pete, in the war. It was rejected by no less than eight magazines and went through nearly as many versions before Faulkner managed to pawn it off to Story magazine for $25. Although he included it in his Collected Stories, "Shall Not Perish" has been consigned, for the most part, to critical oblivion. Nonetheless, it marked, I would argue, a watershed in Faulkner's literary trajectory, inaugurating his efforts to reintegrate Southern history into a redeemed and unified vision of national life. It also marked something of a professional watershed: once it became clear that at age forty-four the best he could expect from the military was a desk job in Washington, he returned to Hollywood as a scriptwriter under a penurious seven-year contract with Warner Bros.' In retrospect, "Shall Not Perish" shows early signs of the ambition that would occupy Faulkner for the next decade: the extrication of social and political positions from what had become virtually a stock repertoire of themes, characters and situations in his work. This moralizing turn has often perplexed and frustrated admirers of his novels of the thirties. As Michael Gresset has put it, expressing a near consensus on Faulkner's late work, "To put values on stage, as once he had put Arizona Quarterly Volume 54, Number 4, Winter 1998 Copyright © 1998 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 0004-1610 54Joe Karaganis fantasies, may well have been the mad dream which guided Faulkner during and after the Second World War" (276). Mad dream or not, "Shall Not Perish" records an interesting moment in this transition just after the complex triumph of Go Down, Moses (1942). It was a moment when Faulkner essentially broke with the historical and epistemological dilemmas that had previously underwritten his presentation of Southern and national life. "Shall Not Perish " illustrates how a solution to at least a partial set of those dilemmas was made possible by the reorientation of his art towards the political imperatives of the world war. Being too old to realize his dreams of aerial combat and with no indication that his novels would ever return to print (much less be celebrated as a major achievement), Faulkner reconceived the task of authorship in order that he might "leave [a] better mark on this our pointless chronicle than I seem to be about to leave" (Selected Letters 182).2 He imagined this new role in generational terms: "We will have to make the liberty sure first, in the field. . . . Then perhaps the time of the older men will come, the ones like me who are articulate in the national voice, who are too old to be soldiers . . . yet are not so old that we too have become another batch of decrepit old men looking stubbornly backward at a point 25 or 50 years in the past" (Selected Letters 166). Faulkner's assumption of this "national voice" was given a boost by Malcolm Cowley, whose crusade on his behalf in the mid-forties led to the publication of The Portable Faulkner in 1946. Cowley's "rediscovery " of Faulkner was then massively confirmed by Faulkner's receipt of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950. The Portable Faulkner and the Nobel Prize were the two landmarks of Faulkner's rapid critical and popular sanctification after the war. As Lawrence Schwartz has argued, they were part of his appropriation by cold-war literary culture both in and outside the United States as a symbol of "American" rather than, more narrowly, "Southern" culture. It was increasingly from this position of, if not intellectual authority, then at least literary celebrity that Faulkner turned towards the subjects of global politics and species survival after the war. On matters closer to home, however...