- Faulkner, Writer of Disability by Taylor Hagood
As Taylor Hagood notes in his compelling new book, one of the primary goals of disability studies is to expose “ability as a construct against which disabled bodies and minds are juxtaposed and judged” (ix). In literary criticism, this often means revealing the ways that disabled bodies and minds are leveraged for symbolic and stylistic purposes or introducing alternative ways of perceiving abnormality. Faulkner, Writer of Disability deftly weaves biographical detail, close textual analysis, and theory from field pioneers such as Rosemary Garland-Thomson, Lennard Davis, Tobin Siebers, David Mitchell, Sharon Snyder, David Wills, and Leslie Fielder to offer a provocative depiction of William Faulkner as an “increasingly disabled” writer (184) whose personal life, career, characters, and even fictional structures were “shaped in contexts and dynamics of disability” (35).
Beginning with the great-grandfather after whom Faulkner was named, the book’s first two chapters trace the thread of disability throughout Faulkner’s life, boldly characterizing the Nobel Laureate as “a man at times overwhelmingly abled and at others heartbreakingly [End Page 559] disabled” (35). By focusing on the decade Faulkner spent writing A Fable, the book offers a vivid biographical account of Faulkner’s alcoholism, which included collapses, unconsciousness, a stay in the Fieldstone Sanitarium, seizures, and cognitive deterioration. Faulkner, Writer of Disability convincingly establishes this period as potentially marking Faulkner’s “transition into a physically and even cognitively disabled writer of disability” (16). Hagood argues that in his self-mythologizing, Faulkner often walked “a line between normalcy and stigma” and that he employs this tension in his early fiction by creating wounded characters in works such as “Mirrors of Chartres Street,” “The Leg,” Soldiers’ Pay, and Flags in the Dust (55). These early textual explorations of bodily inferiority and superiority are connected to Faulkner’s own sense of self and the legacy of his great-grandfather and later reach their culmination in The Mansion’s Linda Snopes, the deaf, war-wounded woman with quacking speech who shows “the way that a disability can be turned into an empowering thing” (86). Hagood’s biographical criticism is insightful and restrained; he does not make sweeping claims about life influencing art, and when an interpretation is a stretch, he acknowledges as much, seeing these connections not as easy correlations but as opportunities to tease out new implications for Faulkner’s disabled characters.
The remaining chapters use disability studies theory as a jumping-off point for fresh considerations of Faulkner’s fiction. While many disability studies scholars use textual analysis to support their theoretical interventions, there is currently a dearth of book-length studies that use disability studies theory to reassess the work of a single author through close biographical and textual examination. As disability studies strives to shed its label as an emerging field, Faulkner, Writer of Disability demonstrates that a single-author study is not only sustainable but also raises enough questions to open up entire new veins of research. In some striking passages of close analysis, Hagood thrusts seemingly minor characters center stage. The visually impaired Pap moves from marginal to essential in the voyeuristic world of Sanctuary; his eyes, “yellowish clay marbles” that lack glass prosthetics, render him “more frightening and even powerful,” as he makes “the eye itself visible,” forging a metaphorical connection to Temple’s trauma and Popeye’s impotence (135). In A Fable, a German general with a missing eye and a disabled racehorse not only function as symbolic textual vehicles but also signal a “submerged fear intimately connected with Faulkner himself” as he was increasingly forced to engage with the public (15).
Faulkner, Writer of Disability also proves the capacity of disability studies to breathe new life into characters who have been so thoroughly criticized they could sustain their own libraries. In a [End Page 560] particularly original chapter titled, “Smart Idiots in Faulkner,” Hagood daringly asks us to reassess our assumptions regarding the relationship between skilled narration and cognitive disability in Faulkner’s writing. Going against long-held interpretations of The Sound and the Fury, this chapter...