In his comprehensive introduction to Faulkner’s authorship, William Faulkner: Seeing Through the South, John T. Matthews argues that though the author was in many ways a provincial Mississippian who wrestled with the South’s troubled past, he was also a cosmopolite and modern writer who dedicated himself to exploring the profound global, national, and regional shifts of his time. Through careful close reading of each of Faulkner’s nineteen novels, as well as much of his lesser-known short fiction, Matthews reveals how Faulkner’s art consistently “asks how individuals process the massive upheavals associated with modernity, and how their varying reactions tell us about their distinct characters, backgrounds, and futures” (20). Over five lengthy chapters, in which he largely follows the chronological trajectory of Faulkner’s works, Matthews deftly and often brilliantly draws out the specific ways each of Faulkner’s texts responds both aesthetically and thematically to pressing historical contingencies. In addition, Matthews is also interested in drawing out Faulkner’s biography as it is related to his work. To that end, he examines Faulkner’s time spent working as a Hollywood screenwriter, his affair with Meta Carpenter Wilde, and his marriage and life with Estelle Oldham Faulkner. The cumulative effect of the blending of history [End Page 139] and Faulkner’s biography is a fresh and utterly relevant reading of Faulkner’s oeuvre, one that encourages readers to examine his life and work in ever more complicated ways.
Matthews begins by investigating Faulkner’s ambivalent response to the modernization of his region and the nation as a whole in the several years following World War I. For example, Faulkner’s Pylon (1935), a novel about indigent barnstormers, “signals its allegiance to an exuberant modernism” by highlighting the advent of machine technology, mass production, and the development of mass culture through a distinctly modernist style (65). Yet despite Faulkner’s eagerness to capture “modernity’s capacity to surprise, delight, liberate, and lift,” he also emphasizes the destructive capacity of technology by focusing on the “misery that comes directly from the new deadliness of the machine age” (65–66). Figures such as Horace Benbow in Sanctuary (1931) and Quentin Compson in The Sound and the Fury (1929) are identified as representing Faulkner’s “exploration of the refusal to accept modernity” (47). For Matthews, these characters gave Faulkner the room to investigate his anxieties regarding the renewed forms of sexual, racial, and class exploitation precipitated in modernity, as well as what he perceived to be a coarsening of culture due to accelerations in entertainment technologies.
In extended critiques of Faulkner’s plantation novels, Matthews analyzes in his second and fourth chapters the ways in which these works isolate the origins of the Southern plantation system “in the earliest violations of the New World by European settlers, whether in North America or the West Indies” (3). According to Matthews, Faulkner’s purpose here is twofold. On the one hand, in his early plantation fiction—in novels such as Sartoris (1929) and The Sound and the Fury—Faulkner hoped to catalogue the demise of the Southern planter elite who had been made increasingly obsolete by modernization. Yet on the other, in later novels such as Absalom, Absalom! (1936) and Go Down, Moses (1942), Faulkner wanted to chronicle the ways in which his region had been produced out of and sustained by New World colonialism, and in so doing attend not only to the experiences of those who profited from the system, but those who were exploited by it. Faulkner accomplished this by narrativizing the lives of African chattel slaves and their ancestors, native peoples, and women—though Matthews is careful to note that these representations were often fraught with Faulkner’s own misperceptions about them.
Finally, Matthews’s third and fifth chapters are both interested in fleshing out Faulkner’s investigation of the economic impacts of modernization. In novels such as The Hamlet (1940), for example, the Snopes family clambers from the depths of rural poverty at the same moment old Southern families like the...