- Faulkner and the Outer Weather of 1927
That day she put our heads together,Fate had her imagination about her,Your head so much concerned with outer,Mine with inner, weather.Robert Frost, "Tree at My Window"
Floods play a conspicuous role in two of William Faulkner's novels: As I Lay Dying (1930) and Wild Palms [If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem] (1939). In the 1940s, Faulkner would continue writing about the Big River and its floodplain, and humanity's attempt to outthink it—his tone becoming increasingly and irascibly elegiac—in the final story of Go Down, Moses (1942), "Delta Autumn," in which the protagonist describes the Delta as "This land which man has deswamped and denuded and derivered in two generations so that white men can own plantations" (347). What Ike McCaslin refers to here is a complex of anthropogenic changes such as wetlands drainage, cotton monoculture, massive deforestation by the timber industry, and the building of ever-higher levees to manage the Mississippi and its tributaries by straightening and containing their courses. The year 1954 would find Faulkner once again contemplating the Mississippi watershed. In a Holiday article on his home state, he described the periodic flooding that was made worse by these human practices, remarking how, during floods, the "Old Man" paid "none of the dykes any heed at all" as he "gather[ed] water all the way from Montana to [End Page 34] Pennsylvania . . . and roll[ed] it down the artificial gut of his victims' puny and baseless hoping" ("Mississippi" 45).
From 1930 onward, then, Faulkner returned again and again to the topic of floods in the Lower Mississippi Valley. His demonstrated awareness of what "man" had done shows that he understood the role humans played in turning naturally occurring floods into catastrophic events. Yet the "Great Flood" of Faulkner's life, and the life of the south, the one about which Herbert Hoover said: "Outside the Great War, there has been no such calamity as this flood," occurred three years before 1930, in 1927 (qtd. in Barry 329).1 I suggest that when Faulkner sat down to write, in the winter of 1928, the opening line, "Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces," this catastrophe bore down on his imagination mightily, as much as, for example, the New Orleans Levee Disaster would have on a Louisiana author in 2006, or the 9/11 attacks on any American author working in 2002. Registering fully, then, that The Sound and the Fury was written in the year after the Flood of 1927, all its dispersed and seemingly merely metaphorical references to "water building and building up" (138), "debris on a flood" (78), "bubbles rising in water" (296), bodies "lying in the water" (149), "drowned things floating" (128), "all dat flood-watter" (114), and, finally, a "whelmin flood" (296) suggest a repositioning of Faulkner's signature work as a post-ecocatastrophe novel. Moreover, as the only one of his three flood novels to include significant African-American characters, The Sound and the Fury offers us the rather unique opportunity to explore how Faulkner saw catastrophic environmental experience, and its knowledge, to shift across the color line.
Thus far, the dominant interpretative approach toward the novel, other than a formalist one, has been psychoanalytic, appropriately and productively so, given how much psycho-sexual turmoil is fenced inside the Compson domain: castration anxiety and castration, incestuous desire, maternal and paternal dysfunction—the list goes on. With such a family romance, it is not surprising that critics have read the environmental references in the novel as only offering a kind of disposable Ariadne's thread leading us toward the apparently repressed psychic material. Given our own recent global history of ecocatastrophe, and given the exhaustive psychoanalytic mining of Faulkner's oeuvre, it is now time to rethink which are the manifest and which the hidden realms of the novel. Brothers having to hunt for dropped knives, or keys kept fast in their mother's pocket, or brothers holding flowers with broken stems, or almost getting hit in the head by other men's balls—these are not exactly hidden, or particularly subtle, occurrences in...