restricted access William Faulkner, William James, and the American Pragmatic Tradition (review)
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Reviewed by
David H. Evans. William Faulkner, William James, and the American Pragmatic Tradition. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2008. xi + 304 pp.

In his book's final sentence, David Evans is concerned that we "assure a future for Faulkner, and a Faulkner for the future" (236). Taken at a glance, this concern might imply a need to safeguard Faulkner's continuing relevance: pointing to the future and Faulkner together suggests that their mutuality is not, in fact, certain. And in light of shifting critical approaches to this canonical writer, not to mention the diminishing importance of author studies as well as scholarly genres like the monograph, Evans's caution makes a certain critical sense. [End Page 766]

Yet the statement's fuller meaning within the context of this new study lies with Faulkner's creative and intellectual affinity with an ostensibly quite different figure. Such is Evans's main contention in William Faulkner, William James, and the American Pragmatic Tradition. This is a rich study, notable for the attention Evans pays to James's prose as well as his ideas, and to the ways he links the Harvard philosopher and member of the gentile New York clan to the Bard of Mississippi. Evans readily admits the unusual nature of this linking. Yet he argues that despite their differences, Faulkner and James share, above all, a commitment to the notion of truth as produced, not found; to the narrative aspect of knowledge; and to the ways in which reality is constructed through communal acts of faith and a willingness to believe—all dimensions of what Evans describes as central pragmatist ideals.

Evans's book appears at an interesting juncture in Faulkner's critical history. Positioning himself against the idyllic approaches of Cleanth Brooks and Warren—what Evans calls "the cotton belt gemeinschaft" (21)—and what he terms the ideological approaches of more recent critics like Myra Jehlen, Richard Godden, and John Duvall, Evans offers us in a sense two books. Greater than the sum of its parts, it nevertheless relies on two distinct interests and, in a certain way, dual projects. The book offers three introductory chapters that treat James in significant depth, followed by chapters devoted to separate Faulkner novels in which James's thought receives ample attention: The Hamlet, Absalom, Absalom!, and Go Down, Moses. Evans's explication of James's central ideas and major works (as well as minor ones) is remarkably lucid throughout. While he invokes more contemporary and equally abstruse figures such as Derrida or DeMan, Evans always does so with a notable sense of their specific relevance to his larger interests in James. Where their theories resemble James's—and in the poststructualists' emphasis on language, indeterminacy, and the play of meaning, they often seem to follow James quite closely—Evans incorporates them with both an ease of clarity and a sure sense of their role within his discussion.

At the center of the first half of Evans's book is a literary and historical entity, the American confidence man. Central to Evans's interest in this figure is his capacity to effect a sense of community where none had existed prior. Confidence, Evans shows, depends on a willingness to believe, not only in another's authenticity, but also in a communal sense of shared values that incorporates other and self and binds their ongoing relationship. This process was particularly vital in a new country or in the space and culture of the American frontier. Despite his willingness to swindle and to exploit another's trust, the con man performs an important and positive social function: revealing [End Page 767] the fact that individuals otherwise unfamiliar with one another can nevertheless fashion belief, a belief that is decidedly social.

Some of the book's more striking moves appear in the close readings of James's prose. Evans finds remarkable traction in James's imaginative writing strategies, for example, his essays' supposed vagueness. In particular, "The Will to Believe" evidences the fact that "James's vagueness can be seen not as an intellectual shortcoming but as a deliberate literary strategy and a way of resisting the illusion created by artificially distinct terms and...