- Darwin and Faulkner’s Novels: Evolution and Southern Fiction by Michael Wainwright
Michael Wainwright’s book enters a crowded and mature field. William Faulkner has been held up as the intellectual equal to most, if not all, of the major shapers of Western thought from the Victorians through the modernists. Four decades ago Jean Kellogg put Faulkner in a typical ensemble in Dark Prophets of Hope: Dostoevsky, Sartre, Camus, Faulkner (1974). More recently Daniel Joseph Singal, in William Faulkner: The Making of a Modernist (1997), found Faulkner the equal of Freud. Philip Weinstein made a trio of Faulkner, Kafka, and Proust in Unknowing: The Work [End Page 134] of Modernist Fiction (2005), and a duet of Faulkner and Morrison in What Else but Love?: The Ordeal of Race in Faulkner and Morrison (1996). Edouard Glissant’s Faulkner, Mississippi (1999) finds Faulkner permeating, and permeated by, the Caribbean and its writers. If we searched the stacks of unpublished master’s and doctoral theses, we could probably find Faulkner compared to legions of writers in all echelons of cultural prestige.
Any critic, then, who approaches Faulkner with another writer of influence on his or her back heads into a challenge. Since Faulkner was such a notoriously poor academic student, and such an eclectic and idiosyncratic reader, it is always difficult to, first, ascertain what he read, and, second, how much of it he retained. And there is also the question of what Faulkner knew and when he knew it. In A Southern Renaissance: The Cultural Awakening of the American South, 1930-1955 (1980), Richard King strongly implies that Faulkner did not need Freud to explain “the family romance” (20-38).
Wainwright skirts the issue in the first chapter of his study of Darwin and Faulkner with an overview of the process by which white academic gentlemen, almost to a man sporting tripartite names, wriggled Darwinism into fledgling American university curricula. Inevitably, Wainwright arrives at the Scopes Trial (1925) in Dayton, Tennessee. “Is there a link between Faulkner and Dayton?” Wainwright asks. Yes, but not direct: H. L. Mencken reported on the “monkey trial” and Faulkner, on his European tramp at the time, sent Mencken a pseudonymous, probably tongue-in-cheek, inquiry about a poem he might write (16-17). That’s it. Although, not too many years later in 1930-31, Faulkner and Mencken would achieve a closer relationship when the latter published Faulkner’s short story “That Evening Sun Go Down” in his American Mercury. It was probably not shared interest in Darwin that drew Faulkner to Mencken, but rather the fact that Mencken was a beacon of “cool” in the 1920s of Calvin Coolidge and George F. Babbitt.
Faulkner’s reading from this period forward in his life, both documented and speculative, serves as the foundation of Wainwright’s assertion of “the paradigm of Darwinian evolution as a literary hermeneutic” applicable to each Faulkner text and to his oeuvre in general (33). Like all claims for a unified theory of any author’s work, this one works more persuasively at some junctures than at others. For example, in his reading of Flags in the Dust, Wainwright insists on seeing Col. Sartoris’s killing of two “carpetbaggers” who had brought freedmen to vote “as part of an ecological struggle for existence” (37). From a certain altitude, perhaps; but from that altitude almost all of the particularities of Faulkner’s time and place fade into distant outlines, rendering the “Southern” of Wainwright’s subtitle next to meaningless.
Wainwright’s approach seems to work more convincingly when he moves on from the generalized tenets of Darwinism to the more particular science and simultaneous myth of blood that seems to overtake Faulkner’s works of the 1930s. His discussion of eugenics as it develops from Flags in the Dust through Light in August helps us see the connections among the scattered dramatis personae of the latter novel, and provides an offsetting thematic center to the very powerful imagery of menstrual blood in Light in...