Tim Ryan’s Yoknapatawpha Blues is the first book-length study of Faulkner and the blues, and it is an insightful, original contribution to both Faulkner studies and music criticism. Ryan’s book continues the recent trend in Faulkner scholarship of situating and understanding [End Page 189] Faulkner’s work in relation to the popular cultures of his era. The relationship of Faulkner and the blues artists working at the same time just down the road from Oxford in the Mississippi Delta, however, has been a neglected area of inquiry, as Ryan notes: “Very few articles in the vast and ever-expanding body of Faulkner criticism address the blues, and those that do are almost exclusively concerned with the author’s demonstrable awareness of the music: with what Faulkner knew about the blues and when he knew it” (14). Ryan’s approach, instead, is to bridge the high-low cultural divide and create an intertextual dialogue among specific Faulkner novels and particular blues songs, and he successfully makes the case that the esteemed author and his musical neighbors respond to the same sets of issues, events, and tensions: “the relationships between Faulkner and the blues—historical, regional, and thematic—are substantial and specific, rather than vague or tenuous.”
The first chapter provides helpful background on blues scholarship, primarily aiming to inform an audience of literary critics about how the blues has been treated as an object of analysis in music criticism, as well as in the popular imagination. Ryan is a deft tour guide, providing a concise and illuminating summary of the scholarship of the blues in order to make the case that the genre is worthy of academic study and that other scholars have produced lyrical analyses that finds blues singer-songwriters (at least obliquely) tackling subjects such as race, gender, and lynching.
The book strives to appeal to different audiences with a brief historical survey of the blues as well as a summary of Faulkner’s life and work, suggesting that both divide into a pre-World War II phase of remarkable creativity with limited recognition and a postwar move into the national mainstream while detailing specific and significant parallels in the two career arcs, such as “self-narration and racial performativity” (38). Ryan may raise some eyebrows among Faulkner scholars when he claims that “a canonical prewar country blues recording . . . is as complex and redolent with meaning as If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, ‘That Evening Sun,’ or Sanctuary” (22), but he makes a compelling case with an approach that blends cultural studies, new historicism, and identity studies with close reading, writing in an accessible, jargon-free style that will appeal to a wide range of readers, not just literary critics.
Subsequent chapters employ the design of pairing a specific Faulkner work and a single blues song as the primary objects of textual and intertextual analysis, a method that helps ground Ryan’s study in close readings and allows for often surprising connections to emerge. The second chapter, for instance, compares representations of the great Mississippi River flood of 1927 in Charley Patton’s “High [End Page 190] Water Everywhere” (1930) and the “Old Man” section of Faulkner’s The Wild Palms [If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem] (1939). Similarities between these two works extend beyond the flood itself to a larger theme, that of the individual versus society, which both texts deal with, Ryan argues, in terms of voice, “each exploring how an individual might mobilize vernacular discourses to challenge existing social hierarchies—as an act of individual self-assertion and in the name of communal justice” (44). Ryan’s attention to the two-part, divided structure of both Faulkner’s novel and the blues tune further illuminates and substantiates his claims of inherent similarity.
Chapter 3 pairs “That Evening Sun” (1931) and Geeshie Wiley’s “Last Kind Words Blues” (1930) and demonstrates how each employs coded, even unconscious, representations of lynching. Ryan does a superb job of tracing numerous and detailed connections between Faulkner’s story and multiple blues texts and artists, especially the recurring theme of the impossibility for whites to truly understand blacks in the pre-World War II South, while offering a revealing and provocative reading of Faulkner’s Nancy Manningoe as a blues heroine.
The fourth chapter employs a gendered approach to intertextual readings of Faulkner’s Sanctuary (1931) and Robert Johnson’s “Dead Shrimp Blues” (1936) to produce an innovative and beguiling analysis of Faulkner’s novel through the lens of Johnson’s lyrics. Ryan details the vague and ambiguous references to male impotence in Sanctuary (particularly regarding Horace Benbow) and argues that the blues tradition “provides a way of cutting through the ambiguity surrounding Horace’s condition” (137), as he suggests a new and convincing reading of Horace’s dead shrimp speeches as references to male impotence. Both Sanctuary and “Dead Shrimp Blues,” Ryan contends, participate in the “tradition of bawdily comic seafood imagery” (130) stretching back to Shakespeare. The blues allows for open, if coded, discussion of male impotence in a way that Horace and Popeye find impossible, so juxtaposing Johnson’s song to the novel provides new avenues for interpreting Faulkner’s characters.
Chapter 5 turns to postwar America and examines the later works of Faulkner and blues legend Howlin’ Wolf, with particular emphasis on Faulkner’s final novel The Reivers (1962) and The Back Door Wolf (1973), Wolf’s last album. One interesting way Ryan links these two giants in their fields is by noting both men’s penchant for reusing and reworking their own material into something new: “If Wolf and Faulkner always had a predilection for cannibalization and self-reference, these tendencies became central in their twilight years. The author’s novels after the 1940s and the bluesman’s final recordings consistently engage in self-conscious dialogue with their creators’ respective artistic traditions and existing bodies of work” (158). This [End Page 191] chapter also finds thematic resonances between the artists’ explorations of aging and vitality but also in a less expected subject. Howlin’ Wolf’s much-derided album Message to the Young (1971), Ryan argues, engages in a similar effort as several of Faulkner’s (similarly derided) late-career novels: emphasizing “the value of black tutelage of young whites” (163).
There are quite a few of these sorts of surprising insights throughout the book that highlight the efficacy of Ryan’s comparative approach. (Who knew Faulkner and Johnson both loved the Tin Pan Alley standard “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby”?) The book’s conclusion looks briefly at how criticism and canonization have affected all of the artists examined, noting, for instance, that even if Faulkner had been more of an avid blues listener, he would likely not have known the artists and songs Ryan examines since they were not particularly popular in their own time, only later enshrined in the canon. This book is a welcome addition to Faulkner studies and one that may spur further interdisciplinary scholarship from Faulkner scholars as well as music critics.