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The Southern Literary Journal 34.2 (2002) 148-152

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Race and Class in Faulkner

Linda Wagner-Martin

Natural Aristocracy: History, Ideology, and the Production of William Faulkner. By Kevin Railey. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1999. xviii + 213 pp. $29.95.
Faulkner on the Color Line: The Later Novels. By Theresa M. Towner. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2000. 179 pp. $35.00.

Moving into the new millennium, one has the sense that criticism of William Faulkner's oeuvre has greatly improved. Both Kevin Railey's Natural Aristocracy: History, Ideology, and the Production of William Faulkner and Theresa Towner's Faulkner on the Color Line: The Later Novels are valuable books. By helping readers to locate Faulkner's treatment of racial issues within his later novels—from Intruders in the Dust (1948) through The Reivers (1962)—Towner summarizes one of the more controversial topics of recent Faulkner criticism. It is Kevin Riley's wide-ranging assessment of the way Faulkner's fiction becomes a useful site for any consideration of history, text, and author, however, that deserves the label "ground-breaking."

Railey approaches William Faulkner the author as the product of the ideology of his culture, both Lafayette County, Mississippi, and the South. Managing to provide discussions of his use of terms "paternalism" and "liberalism" as the ideological grid for Faulkner's thinking, Railey weaves biography, the ramifications of history, and close readings of the novels of the major period into a well-argued study. He contends that even as Faulkner understood that paternalism "was a fading, residual ideology and liberalism an increasingly emergent, then dominant one," his sympathies lay with the paternalism of the well-bred white culture in which he saw himself enmeshed. While Faulkner understood rationally the way change in ideology was necessary, he could not accept the unstable leadership that occurred within democratic liberalism. Railey writes, [End Page 148] "Despite the necessity of changing, Faulkner always held fast to paternalistic notions, and I will argue that his authorial ideology and his social vision remain deeply influenced by them." Railey discusses both Quentin Compson and Horace Benbow as examples of Faulkner's characterization of white male believers in the paternal system; and Jason Compson and Anse Bundren as illustrations of Faulkner's "continuing, deep distrust of liberalism and what it means for Southern American society."

In Railey's exploration of what the early twentieth century understood to be paternalism, he discusses race, varieties of class, and the complexities of the intentional avoidance of sexuality. He makes clear that the dilemma that faced the South in the twentieth century was a white man's problem: Women's roles within the paternal, and higher classed, society were well understood and severely limited. When Faulkner tries sympathetically to depict women who break out of these roles—Temple Drake, Drusilla, Caddy, Charlotte Rittenmeyer—his imagination cannot conceive of their behaviors. He also points out that Faulkner's primary interest is never in racial problems but rather with "the internal fabric and fiber of the upper classes. . . . This identification with the ruling class explains, in a preliminary way, why Populist, working-class, and integrationist voices are so absent from Faulkner's canon."

In Faulkner's puzzlement over the rapidity of social change that flies so far from the codes of honor and respectability of the well-placed white upper-class scions, he finds his pervasive theme: How does a man acknowledge the flaws of the system he has fought to uphold? Ike McCaslin relinquishes his land, but his choice is seen as ineffective. Quentin Compson's suicide is similarly wrong-headed. The deaths at the centers of so many of Faulkner's novels are always vortices of misunderstanding, but Railey shows convincingly that the absence of any real leadership with the liberalism that suffuses the South in modern times (at least, post-slavery times) is a large part of the problem. To explore this conundrum, Railey includes one of the best assessments of Faulkner's creation of the Snopeses that criticism has given us. He then concludes by reading The Reivers as "a fairy tale...


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