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Karl F. Zender. Faulkner and the Politics of Reading. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2002. xvii + 179 pp.
What does it mean to read William Faulkner's work in a postmodern age, Karl F. Zender asks in Faulkner and the Politics of Reading, his second volume of Faulkner criticism, especially when that work increasingly comes to be seen, like that of other canonical writers, "as too white, too male, too heterosexual"? What does it mean in particular for a Faulkner specialist trained in the New Criticism, dedicated to the study of Faulkner's work over a thirty-odd-year career and now confronted with disturbing student questions on the one hand and scholarly assaults on the other fueled by feminism, poststructuralism, and cultural materialism?
His initial reaction, he frankly acknowledges—and the unflinching honesty of these six intertwined essays is perhaps their most laudable feature—"was perplexity, confusion, and resistance." But Zender is nothing if not a thoughtful and thorough reader of both Faulkner and the scholarship that has transformed the master of Yoknapatawpha over the past twenty-five years, and he is far too shrewd and sophisticated a reader not to recognize his own intellectual and emotional investments in the Faulkner originally bestowed upon us by Cleanth Brooks and the New Criticism. Accordingly, this volume of essays is not so much a critical reassessment of Faulkner's work or of Zender's own scholarship, for that matter, as it is a series of meditations and debates of sorts with postmodern critics on the transformations Faulknerian texts undergo under the press of contemporary theory. The result is both an intensely personal portrait of one man reading and a plea for Faulkner's continuing relevance amid the currents and eddies of postmodernity.
Not one to pull his punches, Zender focuses on those issues that have attracted the most controversial and caustic commentary in Faulkner scholarship—representations of gender, race, and incest, the baroque difficulty of the fiction, and the seductions of nostalgia. Wielding the tools of postmodern theory that he periodically scrutinizes and interrogates, Zender unearths in these essays a Faulkner remarkably similar to the one that has emerged in the scholarship that he finds both worrisome and compelling—a writer whose texts are surprisingly accommodating to the politics of identity, the fluidity of contemporary sexuality, and critical race theory. In his most valuable essays, Zender offers useful readings of Faulkner's representations of incest as increasingly politicized over the years, of changing constructions of the private self, of the feminist ramifications implicit in If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, and of the anticipations of postcolonial hybridity to be found in Faulkner's much-criticized African-American [End Page 845] protagonist Lucas Beauchamp. Along the way, Zender takes issue with postmodern readings that condemn out of hand Faulkner's representations of sexuality and of women, underscores the self-interrogative nature of fiction that is always "trying to say" but somehow never quite succeeds, challenges the "utopian" agenda of feminist critiques of female characters, and argues for the viability of oppositional African-American voices in Go Down, Moses. Though Zender is quick to resist the idea of viewing Faulkner as "a postmodernist manqué," he nonetheless underscores that his own readings of Faulkner have significantly shifted—under the pressure of his students and critical theory—away from "innocent" readings. But if he has learned to resist idealizing the work of the writer he has studied for more than three decades, he has also, he hints, come to appreciate the "tragedy" he sees lying at the fiction's core—"the suspicion that all (male) development is a form of psychic imperialism, a co-optation of some 'other' (generational, sexual, racial) in the service of the self." That recognition alone is a long way indeed from the Faulkner of Cleanth Brooks's Yoknapatawpha Country—and well worth contemplating.
College of William and Mary