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Reviewed by
Joanna Davis-McElligatt
University of Louisiana, Lafayette
Matthews, John T. 2009. William Faulkner: Seeing Through the South. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell. $93.95 hc. $29.95 sc. 309 pp.

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 Compsons find themselves on the skids—as a result, “the Snopeses come to represent Yoknapatawpha’s major brand of modernity” (128). And despite the fact that the Bundren family in As I Lay Dying (1930) never manage to climb the socioeconomic ladder, they, too, are enticed by the rewards of modernity, as their sojourn to town to bury their wife and mother is coupled with the opportunity [End Page 140] to spend money and interact with new technologies: an abortifacient, a train, a new catalog, and false teeth. In Faulkner’s late novels produced at the height of the Cold War, such as A Fable (1954), The Mansion (1959), and The Reivers (1962), he began to work through a new anxiety: his fears of the growing development of the military-industrial complex at the behest of unrestrained market capitalism. Matthews makes the compelling case that what Faulkner ascertains in his late fiction “is how intersecting spheres of power—economic, military-industrial, political, cultural—were consolidating to form a global class of owners of means” (271). Matthews argues that these novels herald postmodernity in concern and postmodernism in aesthetic, and, as a result, represent more fully the broad scope and span of Faulkner’s literary career.

Matthews presents all of this to the reader in a refreshingly colloquial style—one character “hooks up” (59) with another, someone “freaks out” (35), and yet another is described as being “cool” (41). As such, Seeing Through the South will be an invaluable resource for teachers who may find themselves struggling to find ways to help their students conquer Faulkner-anxiety. In fact, Matthews makes a point of easing his readers into his study of Faulkner. After parsing a particularly difficult passage in the 1933 short story “There Was a Queen,” Matthews urges readers to “relax” (17), and explains that he won’t be subjecting them to obsessive, line-by-line interpretations of dense modernist prose. Rather, he explains, his goal is to establish that Faulkner’s style is not “some resentful torture of the reader, but an audacious bid to write like no one ever wrote before” (17). When Matthews delves into aspects of literary theory—as he does when discussing Walter Benjamin’s messianic time in A Fable, or Jacques Lacan’s mirror stage in The Sound and the Fury—his explications are immediately approachable and digestible, capable of reminding those familiar with such theories of their efficacy, while easing those new to them into understanding. The same can be said for Matthews’s close readings: both the established Faulknerian and the Faulkner neophyte will find them compelling, often surprising, and always relevant. With its emphasis on history, culture, and biography, and its attendance to issues of postcoloniality, globalization, and capitalism, scholars will find that Matthews’s text is reflective of current critical trajectories in Faulkner studies, which have since the mid-1990s steadily moved away from the once-dominant critical modes of New Criticism and psychoanalysis. Given Matthews’s dedication to read Faulkner beyond the South, reinforced by Faulkner’s ability to “see through” his region’s façade, the text’s greatest contribution is its radical and important reading of Faulkner as a writer for our times. [End Page 141]

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Subject Headings

  • Faulkner, William, -- 1897-1962 -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Matthews, John T. -- William Faulkner: seeing through the South. -- 282064
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