- Faulkner and the South: Political and Literary Contexts
Single-author books are becoming, increasingly, an endangered species. Yet Faulkner continues to inspire many fine studies, a tribute both to his depth and versatility and also to the scholarly acumen of those intrepid enough to venture along a very well-traveled path. Despite the obstacles, one of the books considered here does an excellent job of laying out new ground and offering a fresh perspective; the other is less successful.
Ted Atkinson’s Faulkner and the Great Depression performs some valuable work in delineating a detailed political and economic context for some of Faulkner’s greatest novels. While Faulkner has often been read in terms of alienation, Atkinson reminds us that he was “very much attuned to the American experience” and “ideologically responsive to cultural politics.” But Faulkner, as Atkinson points out, is difficult to pin down; his sympathies seem to lie both with the downtrodden rural folks and with a form of liberal humanism most commonly associated with a more elite class. While Atkinson may rely a little too heavily on the association of literary modernism with conservative ideology, he carefully [End Page 151] lays out the fissures and ruptures both of Depression-era culture and politics and of Faulkner’s complex position within that framework. He also makes an important move in insisting on aesthetics as an integral element of his study, looking to “bridge a gap” between methodologies of form and ideology, “exploring how ideology informs literary production by giving aesthetics its due.”
In the first chapter, Atkinson sets up the economic and political context of the Depression, pointing out the incoherence of the New Deal as well as the reservations in the South that the federal social agenda could upset the racial hierarchy. He draws upon Adorno to explore the intersection between art and social reality, arguing that Faulkner presented Depression readers with “an order of things in which totalizing conceptions of unity, organic wholeness, and harmony exist not as achievable ends but rather as tenuous constructs inherently vulnerable to the more ‘natural’ human desire to pursue individual liberty—sometimes nobly, sometimes unscrupulously.”
The book gains even greater strength as it proceeds to discussions of individual novels. Atkinson’s discussion of Mosquitoes as a response to the decadence of the 1920s is a fascinating angle on a text that has often proved difficult for Faulknerians to love. By illustrating the novel’s position within “competing aesthetic ideologies,” Atkinson makes a strong case for his exploration of the connections between aesthetics and politics, as well as offering valuable insight into Faulkner’s early textual experiments. His claim that The Sound and the Fury “works ideologically to critique a socioeconomic order rooted in capitalism” and that modernist form ultimately gives way to a more “panoramic social perspective” offers a terrific counterbalance to all of the work done on the psychological complexity of the novel. It is useful to be reminded that the Compsons—even Benjy—live within a very detailed social order.
Atkinson goes on to explore discourses of fascism, drawing heavily on 1930s gangster films, though it might have been useful to factor in Faulkner’s own Hollywood experience. While I am intrigued by the claim that Sutpen represents a fascist dictator, this connection links fascism and the antebellum South, a connection that could have been explored in some depth. Atkinson then charts what he terms Faulkner’s “ambivalent agrarianism,” arguing that his “moderate” approach for rural America yields “nuanced, complex, and at times contradictory treatments of social relations.”
Overall, this is an excellent book, well argued and well written. Despite a few fairly minor problems—Atkinson’s conclusion on The [End Page 152] Unvanquished, for example, comes across as a bit forced—this book succeeds admirably in its goals and helps to further the new work situating Faulkner within a specific historical...