restricted access William Faulkner: An Economy of Complex Words (review)
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Reviewed by
Richard Godden. William Faulkner: An Economy of Complex Words. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2007. x + 251 pp.

Critical writing on William Faulkner has long served as a register, and at key moments a bellwether, for larger trends in literary criticism and theory, from the earliest new critical studies to pioneering poststructural treatments to the recent turn toward historicism. The proliferation of recent work on Faulkner indicates two major trends. First, the historicist approach continues to reign, especially in pursuit of the continually vexed status of race, gender, sexuality, and class in Faulkner's texts. Second, increasing interest has emerged in the South as a region, particularly in multidisciplinary studies and considerations of the region's borders in wider national and hemispheric contexts.

Within this frame, Richard Godden's William Faulkner: An Economy of Complex Words proves to be a timely study, both in its interdisciplinary interest in the convergence of economic conditions and literary production, and in its careful attention to the seismic shifts [End Page 770] in labor and capital brought about by the Agricultural Adjustment Program between the years of 1933 and 1938 in the rural American South. Godden has been mining similar connections for nearly two decades—both in his Fictions of Capital: The American Novel from James to Mailer (1990) and in Fictions of Labor: William Faulkner and the South's Long Revolution (1997)—while our contemporary post-Lehman Brothers, post-TARP economic climate only heightens the immediacy of the Depression-era financial turmoil that is Godden's core subject. An Economy of Complex Words is presented explicitly as an extension of the argument put forward in Fictions of Labor: "Where Fictions of Labor read Faulkner's work of the thirties as thematically and formally generated by a premodern labor trauma, An Economy of Complex Words . . . argues that Faulkner spends the next two decades resolving the impact of that founding trauma's loss" (4). This focus on the economic and social aftereffects of the New Deal leads Godden to Faulkner's late works of the 1940s and 1950s, and the study offers multiple chapters each on The Hamlet (1940), Go Down, Moses (1942), and A Fable (1954).

Godden's thesis is that Faulkner's complex words are both social instruments and occupied territory; they constitute and are constituted by the economic conditions of the referent world in which he wrote. As such, Faulkner's late novels become a conspicuous and conflicted response to the influx of capital that deluges the Depression-era South and effectively ends the premodern residues of sharecropping, replacing it with a wage-labor economy. The effects are profound both on a social and demographic level, transforming a predominantly black tenant farming population into a radically contracted wage-labor force and accelerating the diasporic energies of the Great Migration. This produced, in Godden's words, "the contradictory need of the planter class to loose and retain the bound body of African American labor" (119), a need heightened by the irreparable alteration done to the dense social networks and hybrid identities that were forged in these communities on both sides of, and across, the racial divide. Godden's claim is that these disjunctions endured by the Southern subject occasion the paradoxes, ellipses, and parataxis of Faulkner's distinctive prose: "I posit language as 'practical consciousness,' delivering split referents, doubled and divided by specifiable contradiction, [rather than] a semantic of deferral and undecidability, within which an epistemic aporia, rather than an historical contradiction, serves to best explain the tendency of language to refer in a complex and incomplete manner" (7). One might object that what is being repudiated here is a vision of poststructuralism as merely a nugatory project, disallowing productive connections between the poststructuralist and historical materialist strands of Faulkner criticism. Also left [End Page 771] unanswered is the question of why Faulkner's prose so distinctively registers these economic conditions as linguistic dissonance, while other Southern writers of the 40s and 50s, witnesses of and subject to the same conditions, continue to write more conventional fiction.

While such questions point toward work that might build on Godden's book, its great virtue remains the willingness to carefully interrogate Faulkner...