- William Faulkner: The Making of a Modernist
Faulkner once remarked, “I think that the writer is a perfect case of split personality. He is one thing when he is a writer and he is something else while he is a denizen of the world.” With this comment and others like it, Faulkner expressed his awareness of two opposing strains or tensions structuring his psyche. In William Faulkner: The Making of a Modernist, Daniel J. Singal interprets these conflicting tensions in terms of two identities, Faulkner’s modernist self and his late or post-Victorian self. Unquestionably, Faulkner, who grew up in the deep south of the early nineteen-hundreds, was influenced by the late Victorian values of this culture. At the same time, Faulkner also undeniably embraced the modernist culture of the avant-garde. This collision of cultures, late Victorian and modernist, Singal argues, is reflected in Faulkner’s art, and Singal attempts to identify these warring strains. The Victorian sensibility, as defined by Singal, is characterized by a [End Page 489] belief in order, stability, and immutable natural laws. The modernist artist, on the other hand, views the world and the self as shifting, unstable, and permeable. For the Victorian, the world is rigidly structured by unassailable binary oppositions, like the white-black, male-female, and master-slave distinctions; for the modernist, these putative binaries coalesce, destabilizing meaning and identity.
Singal finds that in the course of Faulkner’s literary career neither identity achieves complete dominance. In the years before 1929, according to Singal, Faulkner is making his way toward modernism. In the years following 1942, Singal states, the momentum shifted toward more traditional ideas. And from 1929–1942, the years of Faulkner’s greatest works, “the Modernist Faulkner was generally dominant”; however, even during this period, “the Victorian Faulkner remained very much alive in his psyche.” For example, while The Sound and the Fury’s stream-of-consciousness technique mirrors the flux and instability characteristic of the modernist view, both Quentin and his father wistfully cling to the Cavalier myth of a southern planter aristocracy. Light in August and Absalom, Absalom! are triumphs of modernism, yet even in these novels Singal finds lingering vestiges of a traditional world view. In the final version of Light in August, Joe Christmas’s indeterminate race subverts the notion of racial identity, but in manuscript drafts of the novel, the narrative voice occasionally lapses into language (later deleted) that enforces racial difference. And in Absalom, Absalom!, a novel driven by a modernist integrative impulse, Singal argues that “the book begins with an interpretive approach straight from the mid-nineteenth century, that of Miss Rosa Coldfield.”
William Faulkner: The Making of a Modernist, which appears to be the expanded version of a chapter devoted to Faulkner in Singal’s 1982 study, The War Within: From Victorian to Modernist Thought in the South, 1919–1945, is a welcome addition to Faulkner studies. Faulkner, as the author frequently professed, was driven by “a heart in conflict with itself,” and to interpret this Faulknerian duality in terms of a conflict between Victorian and modernist values is appropriate, even necessary. I have, however, two reservations. Occasionally Singal, a historian, makes somewhat heavy-handed generalizations about Faulkner’s nuanced, multi-layered texts. My other reservation is that ultimately Singal’s project, in the main, does not lead us to read Faulkner’s texts in new ways. Rather, as Singal’s own numerous citations acknowledge, [End Page 490] William Faulkner: The Making of a Modernist assembles and systematizes insights about Faulkner’s representations of race, gender, and Southern history that have been variously articulated by a number of other scholars in other contexts. For example, a large number of critics, James Snead, Donald Kartiganer, and André Bleikasten among them, have observed that Joe Christmas’s ambiguous racial identity deconstructs the notion of racial difference. Similarly, Faulkner’s subversive exploration of gender difference, another topic that Singal discusses as evidence of Faulkner’s modernist sensibility, has been sensitively and intelligently analyzed by Deborah Clarke, Minrose...