- Faulkner's Persistence
These three volumes from the "Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha" series comprise scholarly papers presented at the University of Mississippi's annual Faulkner conference in 2013, 2014, and 2015, respectively. They also serve as barometers for the field of southern studies and the humanities writ large, reflecting broad interdisciplinary trends and showcasing some of the best recent scholarship on the South's most unforgettable chronicler and his complex legacy. While a Faulkner conference in Oxford, Mississippi, may smack of a friendly "home field" (or hometown) advantage, Faulkner criticism has long welcomed dissenting voices, readings against the grain, and new paradigms—from queer, feminist, Marxist, and Freudian interventions to critical race theory, postmodernism, and beyond—without ever losing sight of the original object(s) of study. The conceptual field that is "Faulkner studies" manages to embrace challenges that question the very premises on which it is founded.
To the credit of the editors listed above, it is almost impossible to open any of these three books to a random page and not encounter sophisticated, progressive thinking supported by rigorous and relevant sources. Yet a perennial focus on a single author is difficult to sustain without resorting to repetition or to farce. As Michael Kreyling observed in Southern Review back in 1993, Faulkner's work has been recognized for so long as a southern literary master-code that it has become ripe fodder for parody. [End Page 441] Scholars have also long grappled with problems of racism and sexism in his fiction that prove difficult to dissociate from the white male author himself. As Thadious Davis argued in Faulkner's "Negro" (1983), Faulkner acknowledged the tyranny of cultural stereotypes but was never able to escape from them. By rethinking "Faulkner" through the lenses of black literatures, history (and historiography), and print culture, these three recent collections not only help us grapple with Faulkner the author but also compel us to consider where American literature is going, and where it has been.
In his introduction to Faulkner and Black Literatures, Jay Watson expresses the editors' and contributors' collective desire that the volume should move beyond the "admittedly compelling but also limiting question of influence—who read whom, whose works draw from whose—to explore…common questions" connecting Faulkner's oeuvre and "black literatures of the Americas"—the latter category intentionally situated as plural, hemispheric, intersectional, and multivalent (ix). This challenge hovers over the entire book and is achieved more fully by some contributors than others. Thoughtful considerations of Faulkner's literary and personal relationships with Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Ernest Gaines, for example, might support fruitful classroom discussions or curricular pairings but ultimately default to the "Great (but Flawed) Man" model of authorial influence. Conversely, some contributors posit black cultural influences on Faulkner's aesthetic, including literary works by Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Toomer, and James Weldon Johnson as well as the "indelible marks" of black jazz and blues musicians (37, 81, 92).
More interesting than the "limiting question of influence" are the book's analyses of the shared modes of literary and cultural production that reveal Faulkner and his multiethnic literary "relatives" as players on the same capitalist, geopolitical stage. George Hutchinson cannily observes that Faulkner's first trade publisher, Boni & Liveright, also issued Jean Toomer's Cane, Sherwood Anderson's Dark Laughter, and Waldo Frank's Holiday—all of which examined racial issues and conflicts in southern settings (61). For this New York publishing firm, some of the most "daring and modern" literary material was emerging from the same desert that Mencken was busy satirizing (61). Joseph Fruscione muses on the invitation issued by Faulkner and New York Times Book Review critic Harvey Breit to Ralph Ellison in October 1956, asking Ellison to join President...