Ragged, Unkempt, Strange: On William Faulkner

Ragged, Unkempt, Strange: On William Faulkner

Ragged, Unkempt, Strange: On William Faulkner

For all the ways it is rife with tenderness, fury and ugliness, William Faulkner’s fiction is stubbornly persistent in its artistry.


One morning in the late spring of 1962, William Faulkner rode his horse Stonewall across his property, following a bridle path through a forested area known as Bailey’s Woods. When he reached the clearing containing the ruins of the family’s abandoned ice plant, he turned back toward home. But according to the story Joseph Blotner recounts in his biography of Faulkner, Stonewall—known to be a skittish, intractable horse—was suddenly spooked by something and bucked, throwing his rider into the dirt.

As Blotner reports it, Stonewall returned to Faulkner and nuzzled him. It seems that the horse felt some remorse, albeit short-lived. Faulkner tried to grab the reins, but Stonewall moved out of reach and disappeared down the bridle path, leaving the writer to limp toward home on his own.

He found Stonewall waiting for him back at Rowan Oak, his estate in Oxford, Mississippi. Though he was in severe pain, Faulkner climbed into the saddle for the second time that day and rode over a course of jumps. When a doctor later told him that he could have killed himself getting back on the horse, Faulkner replied, “You don’t think I’d let that damned horse conquer me, do you?… I had to conquer him.”

Faulkner was no stranger to unruly horses, and he’d taken several dangerous falls in his life. But he was 64, and this fall from Stonewall left him with back pain that wouldn’t relent. By early July, the pain had become so severe that he checked into Wright’s Sanitarium, in Byhalia, Mississippi. Later that same night he awoke, sat up on the side of his bed, gave a groan and collapsed. It was shortly after midnight, July 6, 1962, and William Faulkner, one of the twentieth century’s most crucial authors, was dead.

* * *

In commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of Faulkner’s death, the Modern Library has reissued six volumes of his fiction. The set, amounting to nearly 3,000 pages, includes a volume of short stories, along with the novels As I Lay Dying, Absalom, Absalom!, The Sound and the Fury, Light in August and the Snopes trilogy, comprising The Hamlet, The Town and The Mansion. The novels have been outfitted with new forewords written by E.L. Doctorow, Marilynne Robinson, John Jeremiah Sullivan and C.E. Morgan. An introduction to the Snopes trilogy by George Garrett is reprinted from the 1994 Modern Library edition.

These writers are in agreement that Faulkner is one of this country’s literary giants. He “uses language as brilliantly as anyone who has ever put pen to paper,” says Robinson in her foreword to The Sound and the Fury. In his foreword to As I Lay Dying, Doctorow pays tribute to Faulkner’s “supreme achievement.” Morgan argues that Light in August joins Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Moby-Dick as one of a handful of “Great American Novels.” Garrett lauds “the rich variety of Faulkner’s method, his endlessly inventive ways and means of telling stories.” 

But amid all this praise for Faulkner, there are occasional hints of unease. Faulkner’s artistry is described with modifiers like “radical,” “demanding” and “overreaching.” Robinson notes that from the beginning of The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner “would seem to have deprived himself of elements of narrative that are most essential to it.” Morgan compares Light in August (along with its fellow Great American Novels) to a rich meal that “can overwhelm or even sicken the stomach.” Sullivan tells us that Faulkner breaks the rules that are taught in creative writing workshops by intervening with “descriptive terms between the reader’s imagination and the scene.”

There’s no doubt that these writers share a passionate admiration for Faulkner. When their observations about the challenges of his work are taken into account, however, some telling underlying differences become evident. Garrett, Robinson and Doctorow reflect on the ways Faulkner’s style expresses his thematic concerns. Doctorow sees Faulkner tapping “the human psyche to the depth of its raw existence.” Each of his books “is a new artistic adventure, making new and sometimes surprising demands on the reader,” writes Garrett. “His pleasure in the world…is always palpable,” says Robinson. 

Implied in these three tributes is a belief that fiction is a grand medium with far-reaching potential; in the hands of a brilliant writer, its demands become satisfying pleasures. In contrast, both Sullivan and Morgan are more skeptical about the status of fiction among contemporary readers and, in varying degrees, even distrustful of literary achievement. Morgan wonders why “the very idea of the Great American Novel now seems hopelessly naïve and unevolved and, like any fashion that’s become passé, a bit of an embarrassment.” Sullivan goes further, arguing that the whole notion of greatness “can leave a book isolated in much the way it can a human being.” In regard to Absalom, Absalom!, Faulkner’s own “self-consciously ambitious” novel, Sullivan states bluntly that its reputation “is safe from all reviewers and introducers.” Yet he also points out that “a subset of not unsophisticated readers” find the book “unintelligible,” and he compares it to James Joyce’s Ulysses: like Ulysses, Absalom, Absalom! “lives as a book more praised than read, or more esteemed than enjoyed.” After admitting that there were times when he tossed it aside in frustration, “with a kind of defensive laughter,” Sullivan defends the novel not because of its artistic success, but because it “attempts something that had never been tried before in the art of fiction, and as far as I know has never been since.” Absalom, Absalom! may fall short, but “not to have failed completely at such a task is indistinguishable from triumph.”

Sullivan and Morgan are certainly not the first readers to voice frustration with Faulkner’s work. And their general concerns about fiction that is more “esteemed” than “enjoyed,” too rich to be stomached, are familiar. In terms of Ulysses—the very novel Sullivan invokes in comparison to Absalom, Absalom!—recent responses are emblematic. Within weeks of each other in The New York Times Book Review, prominent fiction writers Richard Ford and Elizabeth Gilbert called it an overrated novel. In a Paris Review interview, Jonathan Franzen says of Joyce that he “was chasing a certain kind of status,” and that he wrote Ulysses because he wanted to give readers something to admire.

Modernism has always had its opponents. Yet given that publication by definition constitutes an act of distribution, it’s hard to imagine why any writer, modernist or otherwise, would choose to publish multiple copies of a book that would be impossible for readers to comprehend. There are plenty of writers, past and present, from Shakespeare to Henry James to Lydia Davis, who test the limits of coherence and put pressure on current notions of accessible (and acceptable) narrative methods. To thrive and change and grow, any art needs this kind of pressure.

Writing that flirts with incoherence can just as readily flounder as writing characterized by simplicity and composure. There is no reliable formula for originality, and strategies that are distinguished as innovative in their first incarnation can quickly become stale in the hands of lesser artists. It’s all too easy to conflate dense prose or jumbled narrative structures with literary ambition. But in this age of trending and blogging, with paragraphs growing shorter and the spaces between them growing larger, it’s also easy to dismiss the kind of fiction that might not yield readily, docilely, to our first attempt to comprehend it. This is the worry that Morgan and Sullivan express; they know how quickly readers—and writers—will turn away from fiction that dares to cast itself as difficult. Sullivan admits that he has done the same. And when, in The New York Times, a contemporary writer derides Ulysses as “a professor’s book,” he assumes that as readers, we have nothing new to learn. 

If, however, we allow ourselves to think of reading as a capacity we keep cultivating, then we have reason to turn to books that have something to teach us about the medium they use to convey meaning. While it can be pleasurable to move speedily through a work of fiction, there’s a different sort of pleasure to be had in lingering, backtracking, rereading the same page. As children know, there’s lots of fun in nonsense. We never stop benefiting from staying flexible, open and responsive, even in the midst of confusion. Now, perhaps more than ever, we need to keep learning how to read.

* * *

I still have the copy of the first book by Faulkner I ever bought: a Modern Library edition containing two novels, The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying, with a publication date of 1946. I was in high school when I found the book at a yard sale in my hometown in Connecticut, and I remember how fascinated and disoriented I felt that summer day as I turned the pages, reading through the opening chapter of The Sound and the Fury in a sweat prompted less by the heat than by the weird, unsettling resonance of Faulkner’s language. 

The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner’s fourth novel, is widely considered his first major novel and offers a gateway into all of his work. It tells the story of the dissolution of the Compson family, moving between different perspectives and back and forth in time. The first chapter, set on and around the Compson estate in the fictional county of Yoknapatawpha, Mississippi, is dated “April Seventh, 1928,” and narrated by Benjy, a 33-year-old “idiot.” The next chapter is narrated by Quentin, Benjy’s brother, on the day in 1910 when Quentin commits suicide by jumping from a bridge into the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The third chapter returns to Mississippi in 1928 and is narrated by Jason, brother to Benjy and Quentin. The fourth chapter belongs primarily to Dilsey, the Compsons’ black servant.

Here’s Benjy, whose experience, in Marilynne Robinson’s description, “is without syntax, without tense”: 

“Is Mother very sick.” Caddy said.
 “No.” Father said. “Are you going to take good care of Maury.”
 “Yes.” Caddy said.
 Father went to the door and looked at us again. Then the dark came back, and he stood black in the door, and then the door turned black again. Caddy held me and I could hear us all, and the darkness, and something I could smell.

Born Maury and renamed once his mother realized “what he was,” Benjy is the narrator who introduces us to the other characters, all of whom assume that he understands little about the world. Yet Benjy shows us otherwise. The “old looney” tells us exactly what he hears and sees and smells. He doesn’t bother providing context or explaining connections. He simply tells us what Jason said, what Dilsey said, what Caddy said. He tells us what T.P. said after drinking “sassprilluh”: “It make me feel just like a squinch owl inside.” Benjy doesn’t tell us what to think about his story. Unlike his more educated brothers, he uses language to tell us about the world rather than himself. He is a witness—nothing more, nothing less. 

In important ways, the core of The Sound and the Fury belongs to Benjy, the one narrator in the group who doesn’t try to connect the dots of experience on the reader’s behalf. But there is more to this story—and to any story—than its core, and ultimately, Benjy has to be left behind, displaced by other narrators.

“I’d take what I could get, then. I can catch just as many fish with this pole as I could with a twenty-five dollar one.” Then they talked about what they would do with twenty-five dollars. They all talked at once, their voices insistent and contradictory and impatient, making of unreality a possibility, then a probability, then an incontrovertible fact, as people will when their desires becomes words.

This passage, an emblematic one for Faulkner, demonstrates how decisively its narrator, Quentin Compson, thinks, how nimbly he can distill the complex relationship between desire and language into a clear and convincing formula. Born and raised in the South and transplanted to cold, punitive New England to attend college, Quentin obviously knows about the productive power of language. From insistent, contradictory, impatient talk—the nonsensical noise of human speech—he identifies a trajectory that leads from private emotion to “incontrovertible fact.” Words don’t just convey meaning for Quentin; they make meaning, conjuring something from nothing. 

But for Quentin, it’s not enough to know about words. This is the same young man who, a page earlier, looks down from a bridge over the Charles River, sees the mayflies skimming along the river and thinks, “If it could just be a hell beyond that: the clean flame the two of us more than dead. Then you will have only me then only me then the two of us amid the pointing and the horror beyond the clean flame.”

In The Sound and the Fury, and even more so when he reappears in Faulkner’s later novel, Absalom, Absalom!, Quentin doesn’t just interpret stories; he relives them through his intense imaginative engagement in the material. He doesn’t need correct grammar to find meaning in a sentence. He is so adept at comprehending language and imagining himself into the midst of a story that as he listens in Absalom, Absalom! to an old woman angrily ramble on about the ghosts of the past, he can picture those ghosts as if they were before him: “as though in inverse ratio to the vanishing voice, the invoked ghost of the man whom she could neither forgive nor revenge herself upon began to assume a quality almost of solidity, permanence.” Just as desires become facts in Quentin’s world, the history of the South becomes uncannily real.

Quentin shares with other key characters in Faulkner’s fiction a special knowledge of the way language gives substance to abstractions. He is a character who thinks hard about the nature of thinking, applying all his intellectual prowess to the effort of understanding how we define ourselves through words—yet it’s not enough to free him from his own obsession with death. On the contrary, his insights serve to reinforce his obsession, and the young man who is capable of blistering insight ends up throwing himself off the bridge and drowning in the Charles River.

As good as Quentin is at attending to the complex meanings of idiosyncratic speech, he makes a fatal mistake: he believes too readily, too completely. His very talent for imaginative engagement turns out to be a vexed thing; he is so haunted by the stories he’s heard that he can’t untangle them from his own life. He reminds us, through his own fierce belief in the power of language, that not every story can reveal a truth.

* * *

Benjy is a witness to the confusions of language; Quentin, an interpreter. Both characters are brilliant in their own way. Yet neither Benjy’s experiential use of language nor Quentin’s creative imagination is shown to be a viable way of making sense of confusion. Neither entirely succeeds as a reader of the world. So where else can we look? Certainly not to their brother Jason, described in the appendix that Faulkner added to the novel as “the first sane Compson since before Culloden and (a childless bachelor) hence the last.” He may be sane by society’s standards, but his fanatical certainties, expressed with bigoted slurs, lead him only to despair by way of ineffectual violence. He is one of Faulkner’s most pathetic characters and has little interest in language. He uses words as if they were disposable, presenting them in order to throw them away. His language is immediately and outrageously ugly, from his first line (“Once a bitch always a bitch, what I say”) to the end:

Like I say once a bitch always a bitch. And just let me have twenty-four hours without any dam New York jew to advise me what it’s going to do. I dont want to make a killing; save that to suck in the smart gamblers with. I just want an even chance to get my money back. And once I’ve done that they can bring all Beale street and all bedlam in here and two of them can sleep in my bed and another one can have my place at the table too.

What can possibly be learned from such vitriol? There is always something to learn, Faulkner keeps insisting—even the garbage Jason dishes out is worth our attention. Maybe, because we turn to Jason after coming to know Benjy and Quentin, we’ve learned enough about what language cannot do to attend to Jason’s way of reading the world. Maybe, now that the other narrators have made us sufficiently aware of our own limitations as readers, we can recognize how hatred inherited from a culture infiltrates a language. 

In his introduction to Absalom, Absalom!, Sullivan offers a harsh assessment of the novel’s representation of racism. He calls Faulkner’s use of some of the most vile language available in English—in particular the loaded, taboo word “nigger”—gratuitous. He accuses Faulkner of misusing his rhetorical power. He says of Faulkner’s language: “I count it a weakness of Faulkner’s, to be placed alongside his occasional showiness and his incessant ‘not’ constructions.” He announces that he wouldn’t blame African-American readers for walking away from the book.

It’s telling that Sullivan equates Faulkner’s use of racist language with the “showiness” of his vocabulary and syntax. I bet Faulkner would approve of the equation. Racism is one kind of linguistic spectacle, and he stages it alongside other kinds of performances that include extravagant mixes of paradoxical language and unconventional syntax. This is theater at its most inclusive, created in recognition of the persuasive power of language. Words can give any abstraction—vile or attractive, productive or destructive—new influence. The danger arises when we begin to overestimate our ability to control language and make meanings stick.

Writing about race and speech in Light in August, Richard Godden has argued that the novel “can be read as a thriller whose villain is the word ‘nigger.’ ” This is an idea worth applying to much of Faulkner’s work. Forms of hatred—personal, societal, spiritual—are arranged in thrilling stories, with many villains. But the worst villain of all is the taboo word that racists try to claim as their own. It is unsettling to have to watch the spectacle of bigotry in action. It is not, as Sullivan says, gratuitous. It is not even that hard to understand. In Garrett’s words, “Faulkner is not, not even at his most complex, ‘hard’ to read, but he insistently invites the reader to a deeper engagement in the experience of the story. To that extent he honors his readers, allowing them to bring as much as they can to the shared experience.”

It’s only Dilsey, the Compsons’ black servant and the steadfast presence of the final chapter, whose awareness doesn’t collapse in on itself. Like Benjy, she is witness to the world’s turmoil. She makes no secret of the fact that she hears everything going on around her: “‘I hears you,’ Dilsey said. ‘All I been hearin, when you in de house. Ef hit aint Quentin er yo maw, hit’s Luster en Benjy.’” Like Quentin, she turns the chaos of life into meaningful narratives: “‘I seed de beginnin, en now I sees de endin.’” Like Jason, she is quick to respond and, despite her frailty, is willing to scold Jason, to order him out of the kitchen, even to fight him. She is the protector, the one who is as furious about injustice as she is sympathetic to the needs of others, who maintains a resistant sense of self amid all the confusion and violence around her and still manages to keep a fragile order. She is gaunt and still indomitable, impoverished but impervious. Her expression is “at once fatalistic and of a child’s astonished disappointment.” She is not allowed to enjoy any sentimentalized triumph over the culture’s sickening indignities, yet she retains a supple ability to dominate from within a position of oppression. As a figure of self-possessed endurance, she is our best guide into Faulkner’s fictional worlds. She sees what she sees, suffers, fights back, sings to herself when alone and keeps on telling others what to do. 

When Dilsey first emerges from her cabin at the beginning of the final chapter of The Sound and the Fury, she is wearing a maroon velvet cape and a black straw hat over her turban. She takes a long look around, returns to her cabin, and comes out wearing a man’s felt hat and an army overcoat over a blue gingham dress. She is ready now. She should be indomitable. If only life weren’t so wild, so powerful, so damned difficult to control. 

* * *

Faulkner’s fiction contains, among its treasures, fury, laughter, tenderness, hatred, incongruity, ugliness and the beauty exemplified by Dilsey. Taken all together, it is a motley thing, ragged, unkempt and strange, and always stubbornly persistent in its artistry. It has much to teach about the potential of language to create new meaning. But for all its expansiveness and ambition, its grace and outrageousness, it communicates the recognition that we don’t really know what we’re doing as we struggle to put the world into some sort of dependable order. 

Faulkner sought out opportunities to test his own ability to control the unruly medium of words. About beginning The Sound and the Fury, he said: “One day I seemed to shut a door between me and all publishers’ addresses and book lists. I said to myself, Now I can write.” He couldn’t have known at the time that with this book, he was going to expand the expressive capacities of American fiction and launch himself to the heights of his art.

Faulkner was drawn to the most unpredictable sorts of adventures, and his bravado as a writer was matched by his bravado on horseback. After accompanying Faulkner on fox hunts, his friend David Yalden-Thomson said, “One’s heart was in one’s mouth every time he went over a fence…. He would come swishing by one, face set, lips grim, completely out of control—trying, however, as hard as he could to look in perfect control of his animal.” In the last weeks of his life, Faulkner made a special effort to look “in perfect control of his animal,” climbing back into the saddle after Stonewall had thrown him. He wanted to show the horse who was in charge, to prove that he could conquer it—or so he maintained. More revealing is something he’d said on an earlier occasion, in a moment of candor: “I’m scared to death of horses,” he reportedly admitted. “That’s why I can’t leave them alone.”

Every skillful equestrian never lets herself forget that the animal she is trying to control is bigger, stupider and much stronger than she will ever be. Like a writer working with the unwieldy material of language, like all of us struggling to make sense of unordered, unwieldy life, Faulkner, on horseback, had precarious control. And what an exhilarating feeling it is when things go right: your horse takes off at the perfect distance, carries you over the jump and canters away. I can say from experience that it’s worth being scared to death.

Also in this issue, Anton Thier reviews the fiction of Edward P. Jones.

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