“I don’t think there is much to be done: these specialists and enthusiasts have been documenting his life almost every day.” This is what John Shelton Reed said when I asked him during an interview in 2012 if there was more to be learned about William Faulkner’s life in New Orleans.
Reed, perhaps, was right, not only about Faulkner’s New Orleans life, but about his life as well. That would explain why Michael Gorra’s story about Faulkner is just that: a story, not a biography or, strictly speaking, a scientific paper. And it’s a story – non-fiction, of course, but part memoirs, part history and historiography – that includes theories of time, past-present, and present-past, exploring the Civil War’s relationship to Faulkner and his fiction.
Reading the saddest words during a confusing period of mandatory lockdowns and widespread quarantines only adds to the emphasis on interrupted time, moving forward by looking backward or looking backward by looking forward, especially after a presidential election that led to terrible warnings of a second before Civil War.
“Great fiction about civil war will never be about war itself in terms of battles and campaigns,” writes Gorra. “The real war lies not only in physical combat, but also in the war after the war, the war for its memory and meaning.” The first-person me with which Gorra leads us through battlefields, New Orleans, Richmond, Natchez, and Oxford, Mississippi, among others, reminds us that the Civil War is, in a sense, a narrative without end. Gorra shares his 21st-century experience with Faulkner’s 20th-century experience of the 19th-century civil war – with memories of memories of memories – and multiplies the complexity of the already complicated feeling that we are still fighting that hostilities are not over, even if the physical violence has mostly taken the form of rhetoric and discourse. Most of time.
Faulkner was born in 1897, over 32 years after General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox. Faulkner’s south was, in Gorra’s words, “a country in which the dead past walks, was not, but is, and always burns in the head”.
Was. This verb and again are the two “saddest words” found in the book’s title. They come from The Sound and the Fury, more precisely from the characters Jason and Quentin Compson, the latter of whom, in a suicidal state, realizes that “again” is the sadder term (because it is an inevitable repetition, a relapse or an inevitable Repetition is about repetition.
Faulkner really didn’t write much about the civil war. At least not as a live event or as dramatized action. Rather, he focused on the before and after, the slaves and soldiers who were hauntedly present in their palpable absence. He wasn’t after nostalgia for moonlight and magnolias either. His yoknapatawpha was the site of murder, rape, and incest – the dark and filthy secrets that the southerners hoped to bury. His actions – neatly disordered or disordered – are neither chronological nor linear. Shaped by analepsis and prolepsis, they transport you through time, sometimes alternating narrators, with repeated attention to the same families and characters.
And the race, about which Faulkner’s track record is mixed. “Faulkner used racist epithets almost every day of his life,” says Gorra, “and as a young man he accepted the entire social order of Jim Crow South.” In this regard, Faulkner, like almost every other white man who lived and lived in Mississippi during this period, was “caught up in the conventional thought and language of his time and station”. However, fiction freed him from these inevitable limits. “The pen made him honest and from the start it skinned his eyes in the face of the racial hierarchy that part of him has never stopped believing.”
Too often, today’s discussions about race lacks the nuances characterized by malicious soundbites, slogans, exaggerations, denunciations, and memes. arming characters and events to destroy or discredit competing perspectives and opinions; and the unwillingness to address or acknowledge significant tensions, contradictions, circumstances and contexts. How do you read Faulkner in such a toxic climate? How do you analyze his portrayal of the racism that was embedded in the laws and institutions of the southern states, counties and cities and shaped everyday attitudes towards whites towards blacks and blacks towards whites?
It is not surprising, then, that Gorra’s measured meditations strain to avoid conviction. For those who refuse to read Faulkner at all because of his views on race, Gorra makes no judgment, stating, “Such decisions are personal and may not be subject to argument or exhortation.” Gorra, for his part, pretends to read Faulkner because of the writer’s struggle against the weight of history and culture to convey truth through literary invention, a medium through which truth could permissibly pass. Faulkner is “difficult”, emphasizes Gorra, and his “books” [are] better than the man. “
Nowadays it is understandably risky to write positively about a southern white man from the early 20th century – rather than his views on the Civil War – and requires strong intellectual detachment to avoid setbacks and dissolve the culture. Gorra makes it clear where he stands not only on the history of Faulkner and the South, but also on current events that seem to lie outside the scope of his chosen subject. Gorra’s assessment of Faulkner goes far beyond Faulkner, from and against whom he extrapolates political ideas about current culture.
For example, in his introduction he talks about contemporary politics and claims that the Tea Party “cadres” brought about what he believed to be “a dead letter, a belief that had vanished before the civil war”. If this sounds complacent or dismissive, it’s wrong too. Apparently Gorra has overlooked recent efforts to legalize marijuana by states in violation of federal law. He also missed the attempt by so-called “protection cities” to circumvent federal immigration laws.
You can argue whether these local acts of defiance – which do not reflect the remaining aggression of the civil war – constitute a formal, official repeal. Regardless, Gorra implies here that the lifting is an automatic, intrinsic evil. However, would he grapple with the northern states, which before the civil war had enacted “personal freedom laws” to protect former slaves from the harshness of the fugitive slave law? Certainly not. Also, let’s not forget that the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions – the most popular expression of annulment – targeted the terrible Alien and Sedition Acts. Gorra certainly doesn’t think the Alien and Sedition Acts were ideal or excellent productions.
Gorra says elsewhere that “[t]This may include political or practical questions about the removal of Confederate monuments. There are no moral ones. “None? Not one? What about the argument that removing these monuments robs viewers of the opportunity to learn moral lessons about the time when most of these monuments were erected (decades after the Civil War)?
Long gone are the days when Southern white boys grew up cherishing Confederate generals and romanticized civil war battles and campaigns, invoking myths about the lost cause, and telling themselves, “What if” or “If only”.
Anyone who sees a statue naturally wonders why and how it got there. As a result, Confederate monuments force passers-by to recall problematic, shameful elements of the past and to question how white supremacy could have been so acceptable and widespread. Such intellectual work would not take place if the monuments were out of sight and out of mind. You don’t have to buy this argument (and at least I don’t fully know) that argument to see that it’s a moral one. Gorra himself seems to prefer the “series of skeptical contextualizing plaques [that] were placed next to the [University of Mississippi’s] Confederate monuments, along with other plaques, to document the work of the slaves who once belonged to the university itself. “So does he prefer or not prefer to remove Confederate monuments entirely? I would calculate this ambiguity to the point of hypersensitivity to a hypersensitive problem.
In any case, Gorra’s message to the expected (left) audience is that Faulkner is not so bad after all, that this conflict with Mississippi has often, but not always, overcome the circumstances of his birth and the sad constraints of his moment and place to be difficult to write Texts that struggled with the brutal legacy of slavery. This will not satisfy uncompromising, bright zealots, but it does resonate with those who are reasonable enough to appreciate that everyone will be judged by future standards that the living cannot meet or understand. We must forgive to be forgiven, placing clarity and understanding before victory and conquest.
Gorra means well and goes about his business in good faith. Its prolixity is more charming than irritating, mainly because it lacks the jargon and esotericism that caused too much writing from English departments. He has an ear for language and a knack for diction. But readers unfamiliar with Faulkner’s novels may be tempted to go beyond his plot summaries and analysis, however skillfully presented.
Long gone are the days when Southern white boys grew up cherishing Confederate generals and romanticized civil war battles and campaigns, invoking myths about the lost cause, and telling themselves, “What if” or “If only”. If anything, they ask “what for?” or why?” Most likely they don’t care at all.
So for those overseeing such standards, Faulkner should be “safer” to teach and read than ever before. Failure to teach and read it could only make matters worse. Because Faulkner – both the man and his writing – provides a clarifying context for considering questions about racial relationships that we keep asking without definitive answers, slowly healing, never forgetting.