- Conversations with William Faulkner, and: Natural Aristocracy: History, Ideology, and the Production of William Faulkner
The issue of authorial agency versus historical and cultural determinism as the crucial factor in the creation of literary texts seems, for the moment at least, to have been settled emphatically on the side of the latter. Not the least of modernism’s commonly decried heresies and delusions is the authorial heroism it brandished, intimately related to its elitism, its flights from history, political engagement, and popular culture—its insistence that the making of significant art is essentially the work of the solitary individual, whose mission, indeed fate, is to stand apart from the world’s ordinary doings in order to reach for what Frank Kermode once called “a radiant truth out of space and time.” 1
The claim is not notably less arrogant even when combined with a confession of passivity. In a 1953 letter to Joan Williams, Faulkner writes, “And now I realize for the first time what an amazing gift I had: uneducated in every formal sense, without even very literate, let alone literary, companions, yet to have made the things I made. I dont know where it came from. I dont know why God or gods or whoever it was, selected me to be the vessel. Believe me, this is not humility, false modesty: it is simply amazement.” 2 Against such notions of inspired invention lies the weight of current critical emphasis on less divine sources of selection: the defining power of discourse, ideology, and institutional apparatus that constitute human subjectivity, capable of shaping even the language of its resistance.
The two books under review are not likely to cause any serious shift in the prevailing critical perspective, although the strengths and limitations of both should at least discourage complacency as to the respective claims of agency and determinism. A volume on the “Production of William Faulkner,” describing in great detail the writer’s historical and ideological matrix as he grew to maturity in the Deep South, juxtaposed to a series of “Conversations” with the same writer who consistently minimized the significance of that matrix, compels us at least to keep the door of the argument slightly ajar.
Conversations with William Faulkner, skillfully edited and introduced by M. Thomas Inge, collects forty accounts of various meetings and encounters with Faulkner, ranging from as early as 1916 when he was a special student at the University of Mississippi to shortly before his death in 1962. Unlike the class meetings that make up Faulkner in the University and most [End Page 168] of the formal interviews of Lion in the Garden, the two most important previous collections of interviews, Conversations consists largely of articles and essays, a good many of which are written by people who knew Faulkner over a substantial period of time and with whom he seems to have expressed himself with greater candor than in his more formal appearances.
In his public statements, whether in the classroom at the University of Virginia or in interviews, Faulkner frequently compensated for his natural shyness and even suspicion by relying on formulaic responses he had tried out and found satisfactory. “It was as if,” Nancy Hale writes, “he had constructed a carapace for himself out of set phrases” (138). The “set phrases” are familiar enough to students of Faulkner; repeated often and with little variation in wording, they gradually assume the brittleness of cliché, as if they have not become stale with use but were stale the first time around. In one of the few question-and-answer sessions in this volume, we read the well-known account of the origins of The Sound and the Fury—“the picture of the muddy seat of that little girl’s drawers climbing the pear tree to look in the parlor window” (213)—the characteristic rejection of complex interpretation: “[The writer] is simply telling...