As I Lay Reading
At first glance, Faulkner, a writer who offers few consolations of any kind, seems a far cry from the feel-good, self-help issues that all but define Oprah's talk show. He earned a reputation for misogyny, especially among feminist critics, largely because of Sanctuary. That said, it's also possible to discern in As I Lay Dying a vast empathy for the plight of women trapped in brutal relationships and suffocating social worlds. The novel tells the story of the long funeral journey of Addie Bundren, whose husband, Anse, "wore her out at last." The women in the book spend their time "clinging to some trifling animal to whom they never were more than pack-horses." One character's opinion--"It's a hard life on women, for a fact"--is strikingly contemporary, and certainly amenable to the Oprah ethos. Faulkner does not merely depict strong women like Caddy Compson and Dilsey Gibson; he breathes their words and thinks their thoughts more convincingly than most contemporary male writers.
Faulkner's often-misunderstood approach to race also suggests the boldness of Oprah's decision. Like Mark Twain, Faulkner has long faced charges of racism, both for his frequent use of the word "nigger" (although he has nothing on Quentin Tarantino), and--with more justice--for his politics. After a visit to Faulkner's house, Alice Walker wrote that she felt the place "crushing me." (Winfrey, of course, herself appeared in Steven Spielberg's film of Walker's The Color Purple.) In Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin admired Faulkner's work, but he later lambasted his "gradualist" stance on change in the South during desegregation. In 1956 Faulkner gave an outrageous (and drunken) interview in which he said he would, like Robert E. Lee, fight against the United States on behalf of his state even if it meant leaving "the middle road" and "going out into the street and shooting negroes." Although Faulkner later repudiated these remarks, Baldwin's Partisan Review essay "Faulkner and Desegregation" presented a powerful case for the prosecution.
In the wake of the controversy, Faulkner published an article in Ebony magazine, "If I Were a Negro," in which he urged leaders in the black community to "go slow" on desegregation and to adopt the nonviolent tactics of Gandhian "flexibility" instead of--as he saw it--forcing recalcitrant Southerners into a fight. "Decency, quietness, courtesy" and "dignity" would prevail, while confrontation would only lead to violence. This was, of course, the line of Booker T. Washington, whom Faulkner cited approvingly. Still, it's worth remembering not only that Faulkner was a white Mississippian born in 1897 but that he was ostracized by many Southern whites for making even these small overtures to the civil rights movement.
What's more, in his art Faulkner transcended his own limitations, as Ralph Ellison argued in his 1953 essay "Twentieth Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity." Readers of the Ellison blurb printed on many Faulkner paperbacks--"For all his concern with the South, Faulkner was actually seeking out the nature of man"--may not realize that this is half of a sentence clipped from an essay that is often harshly critical and profoundly ambivalent. Ellison felt the early Faulkner "distorted Negro humanity to fit his personal versions of Southern myth," but that he ultimately "explored perhaps more successfully than anyone else, either white or black, certain forms of Negro humanity." Like Twain, Faulkner considered racism an inescapable fact of American life and therefore a proper subject for an American writer. In waging a relentless battle against prejudices that sometimes seduced him, Ellison explained, "he has been more willing perhaps than any other artist to start with the stereotype, accept it as true and then seek out the human truth which it hides."
Today, Ellison's views, and even more generous ones, have largely prevailed. Stanley Crouch, for example, chose Faulkner's Go Down, Moses (1942) for his list of "eight great books that get race right." Toni Morrison, whose work would have been very different without Faulkner and whose friendship with Oprah may have influenced this summer's syllabus, praises what she calls his "refusal-to-look-away approach."