Saturday, July 11, 2009

Friday Night Frozen Dinner And An Intellectual: "William Faulkner: Essays, Speeches & Public Letters"

Its been over twenty years since I have read William Faulkner, who most critics maintain is the greatest writer of 2oth century America. I first encountered him in 1981 or 1982 when I read "The Bear." My exposure to classic literature was limited then and when I chose to do a paper on Faulkner for a American Lit. class and chose to read "The Bear" (because it was short, just a little over 100 pages), it literally blew my unformed mind. I was unable to grasp the full import of what Faulkner was conveying and his style is difficult as it is, but I understood enough to know that the conflict of man verses animal and man verses civilization portrayed with such raw realism and humor was simply a unique achievement. At West Virginia University, I had eight classes to Dr. Ruel Foster, who with another wrote the very first critical work ever written on Faulkner, which gave me a great background on American and Southern history and literature in general and on Faulkner in particular. The past three Friday evenings I have been home in West Virginia reading "William Faulkner: Essays, Speeches & Public Letters" edited by the late James B. Meriwether. One of those Friday evenings I ate Mexican, which is more appropriate for a Hemingway or Steinbeck novel. I don't have any appropriate music to read Faulkner by; the best music to listen to while reading Faulkner would be banjo and hammer dulcimer instrumentals.

The essays contained in this collection are a mixed bag; some of them are "must reads", especially his over forty page essay "Mississippi." It contains all the history of Faulkner's mythical creation, Yoknapatawpha County, and the families he populated it with: the Compsons, the McCaslins, the de Spains, the Hoggenbecks, and villainous Snopes clan. Even the Mississippi River (The Old Man) appears as a character as it tolerates man's alterations to its boundaries and path and without warning reminds man how much more powerful it is than those who attempt to tame it:

"Then having proved that too, he--the Old Man--would withdraw, not retreat: subside, back from the land slowly and inexorably too, emptying the confluent rivers and bayous back into the old vain hopeful gut, but so slowly and gradually that not the waters seemed to fall but the flat earth itself to rise, creep in one place back into light and air again: one constant stain of yellow brown at one constant altitude on telephone poles and the walls of gins and houses and stores as though the line had been laid off with a transit and painted in one gigantic unbroken brush stroke, the earth itself one alluvial inch higher, the rich dirt one inch deeper, drying into long cracks beneath the hot fierce glare of May: but not for long, because almost at once came the plow, the plowing and planting already two months late but that did not matter: the cotton man-tall once more by August and whiter and denser still by picking time, as if the Old Man said, 'I do what I want to, when I want to. But I pay my way.' "

In "Mississippi", Faulkner weaves the fictional history of his stories with his view of Mississippi's actual history: a history replete with man's crimes against man and nature, the white man's crimes against the black man, the loss of power by the Planter class supplanted by avaricious ignorant types like the Snopeses. The destruction of the land and man himself by modern civilization is also chronicled. Yet unlike some modern writers, Faulkner was hopeful that man would endure, as he stated in his speech accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature. Because of his style, sometimes the reader does not know if Faulkner speaks of his fictional characters or his own experiences. Having background knowledge of Faulkner helps.

The main drawback to Faulkner was his style. He lived in an age when writers were experimenting with new styles of writing, such as "stream of consciousness." Faulkner's experiments produced some astonishing stylistic achievements such as "The Sound and the Fury", he also wrote some jumbled prose that takes time to decipher. Its a pity because his traditional prose is so powerful few if any could rival him. But those who refuse to aim high always fail to reach the heights. Two of Faukner's articles for Sports Illustrated which appear in this collection illustrate his sometimes overly ornate prose, as do a piece on his impressions of post-war Japan.

I especially enjoyed some of Faulkner's earlier essays which seem to be free of modern experimentation. Here is one paragraph from an essay on the works of Sherwood Anderson that is classic Faulkner:

"Horses! What an evocative word in the history of man. Poets have used the horse as a symbol, kingdoms have been won by him; throughout history, he has been a part of the kings of sports from the days when he thundered with quadrigae, to modern polo. His history and the history of man are intermingled beyond any unraveling; separate both are mortal, as one body they partake of the immortality of the gods. No other living thing holds the same place in the life of man as he does, not even the dog. One sometimes kicks a dog just for the sake of the kick."

More posts concerning this collection may appear, depending on the content. There is one essay entitled "On Privacy(The American Dream: What Happened To It?)" that is prophetic. I will publish a separate article on that as well as two or three others. I will also examine Faulkner's views on race in the South as well. Reviews of three Faulkner works: "Go Down, Moses", "Light in August", and "Absalom, Absalom" will appear as well.

"William Faulkner: Essays, Speeches & Public Letters" was published by "The Modern Library."

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