One Matchless Time: A Life of William Faulkner - Jay Parini (2005)
Chapter 4. Into His Own
Another Ship of Fools
“No, no,” he repeated, “you don’t commit suicide when you are disappointed in love. You write a book.”
As I read him, Faulkner was hurt into greatness.
—PHILIP M. WEINSTEIN, Faulkner’s Subject
Boni & Liveright, a small but distinguished publishing firm, occupied a brownstone on Forty-eighth Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. Faulkner appeared at their door soon after his arrival in New York, in mid-December 1925. His beard had grown out, and he looked suitably authorial, especially with his beat-up tweed jacket worn over a heavy sweater-vest bought in London. His newfound European sophistication was in place, worn to impress. But the young editor who greeted him, Manny Komroff, appeared less than enthusiastic about future projects. Years later, he would only recall of this meeting that Faulkner insisted on talking about his flying accident during his RAF training in Canada and his “cracked skull.”1 That no incident in his life corresponds to this anecdote suggests that, once again, Faulkner had lost his nerve and was seeking to impress by making up stories about himself, to prove his worth and nobility by allusion to war heroism that remained in the realm of fantasy.
He took the train to Memphis, where he was met by his mother and Mammy Callie in the new family car, a four-cylinder Cole. His mother found his condition—the beard, the lack of grooming and bathing—somewhat alarming and scolded him. After a few days at home, where he was treated like the prodigal son on his return, Faulkner moved into the Delta Psi fraternity house on campus because they were willing to rent him a room cheaply. Faulkner had seen at once that he could not live comfortably at home, having gained a sense of independence in Europe. He perhaps found it easier to deal with his mother by letter than face to face on a daily basis. (Miss Maud was apparently warmer on paper than in person.)
The work at hand was Mosquitoes, although he continued to tinker with “The Leg” and other stories written in Europe. Though his interest in poetry had waned, he did write a few brief lyrics that drew on his experience abroad. During this period of relative relaxation and recovery he played golf frequently and read some books, including Arrow of Gold by Joseph Conrad and a life of Napoleon—a figure who would always retain his interest (another short but iron-willed man with a lust for creating an empire). Though in his late twenties, Faulkner socialized freely with undergraduates and must have seemed an oddity on campus: a lonely, reserved, bearded young man with superior airs.
The return to Oxford had proven less than satisfactory, and Faulkner eagerly left in February for New Orleans, taking up residence again with Bill Spratling at 621 St. Peter Street. The young men shared a bohemian attic apartment that consisted of two tiny bedrooms adjoining a large living space jammed with Spratling’s painting implements: palettes, a painting easel, bottles of linseed oil and turpentine, brushes, tubes of paint. Faulkner told his mother that he “didn’t care for the clutter and commotion” but the rent was incredibly cheap, and he had managed to push a desk into his bedroom. He was there when Soldiers’ Pay appeared, on February 25, and this was fortuitous, as the reaction to the novel in his family and among the local citizens of Oxford was less than enthusiastic. Miss Maud found the novel scandalous. The sex (however inexplicit) shocked her, as it shocked the librarian at Ole Miss, who refused a gift of the book by Phil Stone. Murry Falkner accepted his wife’s verdict on the novel, refusing to open its covers. He preferred to stick with Zane Grey, his favorite author.
In New Orleans, Sherwood Anderson hovered on the brink of a permanent move to Virginia. He had considerably cooled on Faulkner by now. Although they met, briefly, there was no warmth between them. Anderson later wrote to Manny Komroff, at Boni & Liveright, that he was pleased to see that Faulkner had gotten a good review of Soldiers’ Pay in the New York Times but that he didn’t want to congratulate Faulkner himself. “I do not like the man very much,” he wrote. “He was so nasty to me personally that I don’t want to write him myself.”2 The coolness dated from the appearance of the satirical booklet that Faulkner had written, with its caricature of Anderson, but the relationship also cooled because of Faulkner’s need for independence, his wish to cut off his literary father at the knees. Anderson just shrugged his shoulders and said he had “never understood the man” and “didn’t much care” to continue the relationship.
Spratling and Faulkner continued their friendship with young Bob Anderson, a teenager, who liked hanging around in their apartment and mixing with young artists and writers who came through. Yet Faulkner turned on Bob one day, as did Spratling. According to the latter, they tackled him, stripped his clothes off, painted his penis green, and sent him stumbling naked into the streets of the French Quarter. It was a bizarre act of adolescent rowdiness, tinged with a smolder of homoeroticism that had probably been fanned into an open flame by alcohol. If news of the event had ever reached the ears of Bob’s father, it may well have further dampened Anderson’s feelings toward the young man from Oxford.
In the meanwhile, the reviews of Soldiers’ Pay began appearing in early spring. The anonymous reviewer in the New York Times Book Review concluded: “This novel of transmuted life is poignant with beauty as well as a penetrating irony. There is a sensuous regard for the feeling of life that is quite Hellenic. The picture of the dying man—returned to a world that is flowering with its natural loveliness—utterly destroyed so as to be unconscious of it, has its varied aspect a more austere quality than mere pathos. It doesn’t touch the heights of tragedy. But it does strike a note of deepfelt distress that is more akin to us all.”3 Donald Davidson, himself a well-known poet, wrote in the Nashville Tennessean that Faulkner “reveals himself quite clearly in his novel…as a sensitive, observant person with a fine power of objectifying his own and other people’s emotions.”4 In the Saturday Review of Literature, Thomas Boyd suggested that the novel was “not for people of prosaic minds.” He found it “pitched unnaturally high” as if the author “were struggling to break all contacts with the normal world and to vault upward into a sort of esoteric sphere of his own making.”5 In the New Orleans Times-Picayune, John McClure, Faulkner’s friend, wrote: “This reviewer can think of none of the younger novelists, and few of the older, who write as well as Mr. Faulkner.”6
Faulkner could only have been delighted to see his praises sung in high places, even with the occasional note of dissent that is scattered through the reviews. From this point on, he could think of and call himself an author without feeling pretentious. The reviews were forwarded to him by his editor, and he would proudly send them straight to his mother, Miss Maud, who eventually came to regard Soldiers’ Pay as a fine piece of work, and the place where any student of her son’s fiction should begin.
Faulkner spent a considerable amount of time at home in the winter and spring of 1926, visiting friends and seeing to some delinquent tax matters left over from his period as postmaster at the university. The presence of Estelle and her children was also a draw, though Faulkner was hesitant to press his cause with her: she was, after all, still married to someone else. And Faulkner could not get Helen Baird off his mind, even though she was now engaged to Guy Lyman, a stylish young man who had won the approval of her parents—something Faulkner had never done. Indeed, a letter that Faulkner wrote to Helen in February or early March of 1926 is full of longing and constrained desire. There is an ache in its tone, a sadness, a sense that he cannot win her love but cannot bear to think of living without her. Faulkner knew about Guy Lyman but chose to ignore this uncomfortable fact in the letter:
I have set out several times to write you only I had lost the old address not to mention having an idea you had probably moved again, since it seems to take about three movings for people to settle down for life. I know where you are now though. I hope to come to New Orleans before winter is over. I don’t hate it. I don’t come back much because I had more fun there than I ever had and ever will have again anywhere now. I remember a sullen-jawed yellow-eyed belligerent humorless gal in a linen dress and sunburned bare legs sitting on Spratling’s balcony and not thinking even a hell of a little bit of me that afternoon, maybe already decided not to. But damn letters anyway. I will come down as soon as I can. In middle of another book. I’ll write publisher to send you last one. I’ll write in it for you when I come down.7
The last line suggests that being a writer was, for Faulkner, a romantic calling card. He liked to use his writing skills as a means of attracting women now and later. He included a brief, wistful poem to Helen in the above letter, a poem of hopeless love in the manner of late Victorian verse that shows he understands that his relationship with Helen had no future:
You have seen music, heard
Grave and windless bells? Your air
Has verities of vernal leaf
Well, let it fade;
It does and must not grieve;
Forever can you hope, and she be fair.8
By June, as a heat wave spread across the state of Mississippi, Faulkner decided to spend the summer in Pascagoula, moving among houses owned by various friends, although he would mainly stay at “The Cottage,” owned by the Stone family. The recently engaged Helen Baird would be there, although this fact held out no promise to Faulkner, as she had accepted a ring from Guy Lyman.
Pascagoula itself was a pocket out of time, a sleepy beachfront city on the Gulf, near Mobile Bay. The younger crowd of summer people were all characters from an unwritten novel by Scott Fitzgerald: well-off young men in elegant clothes, many of them with Ivy League degrees, who courted belles in bright dresses. There were parties at the nicest houses, and a lot of time was spent on the water, where sailing and fishing were the attractions. Helen Baird’s friends were largely drawn from Nashville, New Orleans, or Memphis society, and Faulkner could only have felt inferior and intimidated. Nevertheless, he called on Helen frequently, taking her sailing or walking along the beach with her in the moonlight. She remained unimpressed by his efforts, referring to him in later years as “a fuzzy little animal.”9 His attire—white ducks, an open shirt, a straw hat, bare feet—stood in stark contrast to that of the upper-middle-class boys in their pale cotton suits, silk shirts, and patent-leather slippers. Once, when she stood him up, he waited patiently on her porch for several hours until she returned. When she apologized, he said, “It doesn’t matter. I was working.” And he was.
He worked with monomaniacal drive on his stories and Mosquitoes, in which one of the characters—a novelist—says that “every word a writing man writes is put down with the ultimate intention of impressing some woman.”10 Faulkner may himself have used the relationship with Helen as a prod now, though he didn’t need one. His artistic drive was sufficient to provide him with all the energy he needed to keep going. Among his many manuscripts in various states of progress were a dozen or so stories, many of which reflected his visit to Europe, such as “Divorce in Naples” and “Mistral.” In the former, there are two homosexual lovers, George and Carl, with the “dark” George an older Greek man, while Carl (from Philadelphia) is “fair,” a “young man of eighteen” who also has strong heterosexual interests. For the first time, Faulkner seems willing to play openly with sexual difference. Even “Mistral” has homoerotic undertones, as two men, not unlike Faulkner and Spratling, make their way with backpacks through Alpine villages not unlike those Faulkner described in his letters home to his mother. Another vivid story in the making was “Evan-geline,” about a young man trying to take control of his destiny and separate from his family. (The figure of Colonel Sutpen, who would make a full-dress appearance in Absalom, Absalom! arises here, ghostly and incomplete.) Another story that may have been in rough draft at this time is “The Big Shot,” in which a character called Popeye first appears; he will reappear as the gangster/bootlegger who rapes Temple Drake in Sanctuary. In this story, however, he is a bootlegger who inadvertently runs over and kills the daughter of a bully politician, Dal Martin.
Fragmentary images of the major fiction begin to emerge here, and Faulkner knew enough to hang on to these visions, to linger in their presence, imaginatively, long enough for them to gain flesh and spiritual form. By the time Popeye, for example, steps into the full light of day, in Sanctuary, his face has “a queer, bloodless color as though seen by electric light” and “that vicious depthless quality of stamped tin.”11 This terrifying figure was based on a Memphis gangster called Popeye Pumphrey, known for his womanizing as much as for his impotence. Faulkner knew him only by reputation, but that was enough. He could imagine this “little deadlooking bird” of a man in his tight black suit and “savage falsetto voice.”
Having failed to win Helen Baird’s affections, Faulkner turned his thoughts to Estelle. He knew that Estelle’s marriage to Cornell Franklin was frayed, as she spent increasingly longer periods away from him and often complained about him. When Estelle became pregnant again—with Malcolm—Franklin grew highly suspicious and in due course sued her for divorce on grounds of adultery. The facts in this case remain shadowy, although Joseph Blotner believes that Malcolm did resemble Franklin. Frederick Karl noted in Estelle “a wild, uncontrollable streak which put her outside conventional behavior,” although he doubts that Malcolm was actually Faulkner’s child, even though Faulkner seems to have hinted as much and maintained a close, even possessive, friendship with Estelle throughout her unhappy marriage to Franklin. In later years, he would would certainly treat Malcolm as if he were his own son.12
By midsummer, Faulkner had settled in with the Stones, where his bedroom had a daybed, a cane chair, and small card table, where he propped his typewriter. He was free to focus on his work, often sitting outside under a live oak tree, in a canvas chair, working on Mosquitoes. The relationship with Helen Baird was doomed, and he knew it: she had told him as much. Estelle was a more promising direction for his fantasies. Mostly he kept his mind on the novel, which caught fire in July and which he pretty much had finished by the end of summer in very rough draft.13
A book is a writer’s secret life, the dark twin of a man: you can’t reconcile them.
While the narrative in Mosquitoes unfolds far from the usual world of Faulkner’s major fiction, one sees in its pages a tremendous flowering of themes that would soon preoccupy him. The setting of the novel is New Orleans, and he writes intimately about the bohemian/artistic community he had come to know there. In a sense, he is writing about a fringe community in a manner resembling that of other novelists of the day, such as Aldous Huxley (Chrome Yellow, 1921), D. H. Lawrence (Women in Love, 1920), and Virginia Woolf (The Voyage Out, 1915). The main character in the book, a widower called Ernest Talliaferro, recalls the J. Alfred Prufrock of Eliot’s poem. A weak man who deals in wholesale women’s clothing, he worries excessively about his thinning hair, his sexual inadequacies, and the passing of time.
Faulkner effectively cannibalizes his own experience here, with New Orleans as a backdrop, “an aging yet still beautiful courtesan.”14 That phrase was sucked straight up from one of his earlier sketches. He also vacuums details and characters from other sketches, raiding his unpublished stories as well, transmogrifying characters as they move from one context to another. So a story called “Don Giovanni,” written the summer before, provides a less distinct version of the sentimental writer from Indiana, Dawson Fairchild of Mosquitoes, who strongly resembles Sherwood Anderson. (The little book called Sherwood Anderson and Other Creoles would appear in the fall of 1926, although Faulkner had shown it to Anderson before, precipitating their falling off.) “Don Giovanni” also provided prototypes for Ernest Talliaferro and the sexy Jenny Steinbauer, whose lesbian dalliance with Patricia Robyn, the seductive niece of Mrs. Maurier, the wealthy matron whose shipboard party lends the novel its setting, was later cut by the publisher.
Faulkner relies in this novel on a well-worn device, one commonly seen in, say, Agatha Christie: a group of disparate characters are brought together in a self-enclosed, exotic setting. In this case, everyone comes aboard a yacht, the Nausikaa (a Joycean-sounding name for a yacht). The novel has a deceptively simple structure: in the prologue, the characters are introduced. Four sections aboard ship follow, titled “The First Day” and so forth. An epilogue in which the characters set forth on their own concludes the book, although the word concludes doesn’t quite describe the scattering of this particularly eclectic tribe. Three of the main characters (Gordon, Fairchild, and Julius Kauffman) disperse into the red light district of New Orleans in a scene reminiscent of the Circe episode in Ulysses; indeed, in fairly pretentious italicized sections Faulkner emulates the impressionistic prose of the Circe chapter of Joyce’s novel—as reviewers would note. But the protagonist, Mr. Talliaferro, does not join the wicked three. With a world-weary sigh near the end of the novel, he watches a cat flashing “a swift, dingy streak across the alleyway” and thinks to himself: “Love was so simple for cats—mostly noise, success didn’t seem to make much difference.”15
The novel is called Mosquitoes for various reasons. These pesky insects commonly swarmed visitors to Lake Pontchartrain. Though Faulkner doesn’t refer to them specifically in the novel except in the title, the buzzing of mosquitoes recalls the activity of the characters in the book, who seem to flutter around one another, occasionally landing and sucking a little blood, causing a minor irritation, moving on to the next piece of flesh that attracts their attention in this “ballet of desire,” as André Bleikasten has nicely put it.16 These annoying insects also represent nature in its least attractive aspect: a reality that human beings must contend with, overcome, or try to ignore.
The novel is largely composed of dialogue, and much of this talk is pointless and chatty: the buzz of human mosquitoes. When Faulkner moves into a narrative mode, he does so with poetic fervor:
The Nausikaa was more like a rosy gull than ever in the sunset, squatting sedately upon the darkening indigo of the water, against the black metallic trees. The man shut off his fussy engine and the launch slid up alongside and the man caught the rail and held his boat stationary, watching her muddy legs as she climbed aboard the yacht.17
The concreteness and lyricism of such writing, so studded with imagery, makes it appealing. Of course this lyricism would rise to extremely high levels in the later work, but Faulkner writes evocatively quite often, drawing on his own experience, naming the trees and birds, the flowers, the smells and tastes and textures of life on the water.
He drew as well on friends and acquaintances. The novelist from Indiana, Fairchild, is unquestionably Anderson. Fairchild is “an unmistakable, full-length portrait” of Anderson, as Max Putzel has said.18 This real-life portrait made the Faulkner-Anderson breach more or less permanent. The towering, muscular, bearded sculptor called Gordon (no last name is mentioned) owes something to Bill Spratling in his vitality, although his robust heterosexuality lends an unexpected twist to that portrait. Mrs. Maurier’s niece, Patricia Robyn, is a boyish young girl, not unlike Cecily in Soldiers’ Pay. She struck many in Pascagoula and New Orleans as a version of Helen Baird, to whom the novel was dedicated. She stands “straight as a poplar,” like Cecily once again, oddly asexual and epicene, a wood nymph idealized to the point of unreality. Her childishness removes her from the realm of desire, however much Faulkner may have yearned for that innocence and found it erotic.
Mr. Talliaferro has often been regarded by critics as a version of Prufrock, but he is also a version of Faulkner: his own continuing disappointments in love frightened him, and he was afraid of what he might become. “The sex instinct is quite strong in me,” Talliaferro says at the novel’s beginning, but this instinct has been buried under layers of civilization. He is “always a little uncomfortable with men,” we are told, and being “among a bunch of women seems to restore his confidence in himself, gives him a sense of superiority which his contacts with men seem to have pretty well hammered out of him.”19 Faulkner obviously did not see anything of himself in Talliaferro, and—especially in this novel—there is no one character who might be called the novelist’s surrogate; instead, he produces remote versions of himself, selves that might have been, that might emerge. Daniel J. Singal memorably calls Talliaferro “Faulkner’s object lesson on the defects of the Victorian persona in the modern world.”20 If anything, Talliaferro is the author’s antiself, a man who “labors under the illusion that art is just a valid camouflage for rutting.”21
The novel offers a vibrant but flawed working-through of Faulkner’s ideas on art, a way of trying to picture himself as a writer among his friends and associates. It’s certainly a novel of notions (more than ideas), and the various Lawrentian monologues by characters on the use of art remain interesting. Faulkner was himself harsh on the book, calling it “trashily smart” within a year of its publication. He later condemned it as a “bad book” when, in fact, it seems reasonably evocative, even brilliant in patches, if somewhat derivative. It relates awkwardly to the later books, of course, being so different in tone and style, subject and approach. Yet Faulkner’s sharp satirical eye plays delightfully over the motley crew stranded in the shallow waters off the coast, and the pretensions of Mrs. Maurier, Dorothy Jameson, Mark Frost, and Mr. Talliaferro are neatly skewered. These are all hangovers from the aesthetics of late Romanticism, the sons and daughters of Walter Pater, who worship beauty more than truth. Mrs. Maurier is, on top of everything, a prude who can say with a straight face: “There are so many things to satisfy the grosser appetites.”
In a way, Fairchild (the name itself is satirical, suggesting the blithe egocentrism of the child) also represents a late Romantic type, although he is modern in his pretensions; his sublime egotism, innocence, and lack of psychological depth are the problem. He regards life as essentially “sound and admirable and fine”—a position Faulkner could never accept. Like Julius Kauffman in the novel (a character probably modeled on an acquaintance, Julius Weis Friend, who worked at The Double Dealer), Faulkner condemns Fairchild as he would Anderson himself as a naive and simplistic practitioner of his craft, although Kauffman also calls Fairchild “a man of undoubted talent.” His shortcomings involved an unwillingness to deal with emotions in a serious and complex way, an inability to pass through that “dark door” into the netherworld of the unconscious. He was perpetually the fair child who could not stand very much reality, who could not grow up into the abrasive modern world that Faulkner would portray in his fiction by courageously opening the dark door himself.
In Mosquitoes, Faulkner avidly questions his own aesthetics, trying to settle on a way of being in the world as an artist. He let the characters take the various parts that were playing in his head, as when Julius says: “A character in a book must be consistent in all things, while man is consistent in one thing only: he is consistently vain. It’s his vanity alone which keeps his particles damp and adhering one to another, instead of like any other handful of dust which any wind that passes can disseminate.”22 Faulkner understood this fact of fiction but disliked it; it was a standard assumption that he, in his work, set about to change. Although vanity does drive many of his later characters and causes them to adhere internally, there is also a feeling of multiple worlds in each imagined head and heart, a sense of the genuine complexity, even the contradictory quality, of human consciousness.
But the characters in Mosquitoes carry on rather exhaustingly, chatting about art and artists to a ridiculous degree, as when Mrs. Wiseman shrugs and says: “That’s what makes art so discouraging. You come to expect anything associated with and dependent on the actions of man to be discouraging. But it always shocks me to learn that art also depends on populations, on the herd instinct just as much as manufacturing automobiles or stockings does—.”23 Faulkner’s characters sigh and tremble with feeling, they allude to Ibsen plays, to Chopin sonatas, to Verdi, Sibelius, and Siegfried Sassoon.
The novel was, of course, written at ferocious speed, completed on September 1, 1926. It was retyped, with many corrections, and published only eight months later, on April 30, 1927, having had an enthusiastic reader’s report from Lillian Hellman, before she went on to become a major American writer. As usual, Phil Stone’s law office in Oxford provided a fresh typescript for Horace Liveright, who agreed to bring out the novel if the young man cut several offending passages, including the aforementioned scene where Patricia Robyn and Jenny Steinbauer climb into a bunk together. There were no hopes for immense financial gain, on the part of either the author or Liveright, but the novel’s acceptance did mean that Faulkner was really a writer now, an artist who could justify devoting himself to his art with singular focus and without apology.
Native Soil: The Evolution of Flags in the Dust
I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it, and that by sublimating the actual into the apocryphal I would have complete liberty to use whatever talent I might have to its absolute top.
—FAULKNER, Lion in the Garden
He returned to Oxford for a while, mostly to get the manuscript retyped by Phil Stone’s secretary, and to visit a few old friends and family; by the end of September, however, he was back in New Orleans, a man of enough consequence to warrant an interview with a small local paper called Item. He explained to his interviewer that he had spent the summer writing another novel and working on a commercial fishing boat; the latter claim, of course, had no basis in reality. Faulkner might still say anything that came into his head, more concerned with his image than with paying allegiance to anything one might normally call truth. Faulkner worked hard to cultivate a bohemian look, often going barefoot, even in Oxford, and he told his interviewer that he planned to settle down that winter in New Orleans to work on yet another book.
As before, Faulkner lived with Bill Spratling, dropping quickly into a familiar routine of writing during the day and socializing at night. He began each day with a brisk walk into the French Market near the river, where he bought a cup of strong coffee and several beignets, as the local powdered doughnuts are called. He returned to his room as soon as possible to begin the day’s work. With Mosquitoes behind him, he planned not one but two new novels, which he seems to have worked on simultaneously, the stories actually blending as he went. He decided to write about Jefferson County and to dig into the soil that would become fertile ground for him over the next four decades. One of the novels began in a town like Oxford, though it was mostly a flashback that explored the life of hill people and farmers. Faulkner also wrote about sharecroppers, who were mostly local folks—former slaves and small landowners—who had somehow to eke out a living after the Civil War and got caught up in the sharecropping system, which put them in the service of a large landowner until they could work their way out of debt (something that often proved to be practically impossible). The second narrative dealt with the town and its established families. Faulkner worked from no particular outline, without the contained narrative that inspired Mosquitoes and allowed him to finish that book over one summer. What compelled Faulkner at this point was the process of writing itself, and he seemed benevolently free of the need to keep an end in view.
The main book to emerge from this writing was Sartoris—later republished as Flags in the Dust—although Faulkner apparently used Father Abraham as a working title for the other manuscript, which became a quarry for later stories. The main character to emerge here was Flem Snopes, a dark figure who “appeared unheralded one day” and got himself a job in a local restaurant. (It’s important to note that not all Snopeses are malevolent. Wall and Eck Snopes, for example, possess the good traits of generosity and steadiness. Even Flem, a very bleak figure, has a singleness of mind that Faulkner seems, ruefully, to admire.) In Flags, Flem—though not a father here—is called Abraham at one point, and the title may refer to him, a redneck with eyes like stagnant water, his cheeks full of tobacco, his lips drooling. What intrigued Faulkner in this narrative was the rise as a political class of poor whites who eagerly voted for such vile politicians as Vardamam and Bilbo; this subject would absorb him to the end in his intricate, unrelenting examination of class and caste in the Old South.
In a fragmentary sheaf of notes, Faulkner mused on his project. He saw himself as “old, getting more so,” and eager to hold on to his vision, however fleeting, of a world melting away under him, vanishing. To hang on to this vision, to summon and declare it pure, he would have to invent characters and stories, all based on things he had “heard told.” And so, in his fiction, he “improved on God who, dramatic though He be, has no sense, no feeling for theatre,” and can’t match the work of the artist.24 The seriousness of Faulkner’s project becomes evident here; he had moved beyond the kind of conventional storytelling that is found in the first two novels, moving toward a fiction of process, one grounded in history and place, “in the hill cradled cane and cypress jungles of Yocona River.”25 This fiction also involved self-fashioning, as the author explored his own past and the past of his own region with a tenacity that, indeed, equals that of Flem Snopes himself.
Faulkner also began to contrast the Snopes and Sartoris families. John Sartoris is closely modeled on the Old Colonel; he makes his money after the Civil War in business (railroads, in particular, like his prototype), but he sports an aggressive streak that equals that of Flem Snopes. He is ruthless in the pursuit of power and money, opposing the liberal tendencies of Reconstruction. His will to power is excessive, of course, and he has little understanding of community as a value in itself. His life’s goal is to acquire and keep power for himself and his heirs, and he doesn’t much care how he manages this. It makes no sense, then, to assume an easy opposition between Snopes and Sartoris; they may ride along different class tracks, but their engines are powered by the same fuel.
The Sartoris family as a whole was closely modeled on the Falkner clan. The original Sartoris men, like others with dynastic ambitions in Yoknapatawpha County—Ike McCaslin or Flem Snopes—need to replicate themselves, in their heirs and within the emotional landscape of their region. They are self-ratifying men who declare themselves founding fathers, and their families seem necessarily to move in the direction of decline and fall, as none of their male heirs (the male is always the generative force) can quite sustain the original vision of the great ancestor. Each generation seems to fall away from its original source of power and wealth.
Faulkner certainly regarded himself as something of an aristocrat, a cut above the rest, and family associations were important to him. Yet Faulkner was also a writer given to complication, ruthless in his critique of privilege and its abuses; he interrogated the notion of class with a determination that suggests an uneasy relationship with his own roots and aspirations. The Sartoris clan is called “arrogant” and “haughty.” The family rapier is “itself fine and clear enough,” but it is nevertheless tarnished. Even John Sartoris himself makes fun of those who go around “chortling over genealogy,” and he calls this “poppycock,” although he also suggests that “the man who professes to care nothing about his forebears is only a little less vain than he who bases all his actions on blood precedent.” He even suggests that a Sartoris is entitled to brag about his familial connections “if he wants it.”26 On the other hand, the whole trajectory of the family—toward dissolution, loss of power, diminution of resources—suggests that Faulkner had deep ambivalence about his own family’s assumptions about class, which were unrealistic in the modern world.
The Father Abraham manuscript ground to a halt after about fourteen thousand words, but Faulkner had not wasted his time, having opened a rich new direction for his work. Over the coming decades he would dig characters and incidents from this manuscript, often creating a whole novel from a single line or suggestion.
Having put aside the first manuscript, Faulkner devoted himself to the second narrative, which became Flags in the Dust, the author’s first attempt to recover or invent a history for himself and his county. Even more so than Hardy, fate—a sense of historical inevitability—hovers above Faulkner’s creation, claiming its due. The novel grew and changed under Faulkner’s hand, with the story set just after the Great War and long flashbacks to the Civil War and the antebellum farmland of northern Mississippi, seen as an Edenic realm of slaves and civilized landowners. The Sartoris clan centers the novel, set in the fictional Yocona County (an early version of Yoknapatawpha) and the country town of Jefferson (which is closely modeled on Oxford). While there is some nuance in each generation, the older members of the family seem strongest, more self-possessed and sure of their morals and confident in their virtues, however headstrong and aggressive. Entropy sets in, and the newer members of the Sartoris clan seem dislodged by historical developments, by new ideas, by the changes in technology from horse to car, from cavalry charges to dueling airplanes.
Another character of major focus in Flags is Horace Benbow, who marries into the Sartoris clan. He vaguely resembles Ben Wasson, Faulkner’s close friend (the name could be a play on Ben and beau, since Wasson was famously handsome), although he also seems to have something in common with Phil Stone and, indeed, Faulkner himself. Benbow was a lawyer, like Wasson (or Phil Stone), and brother-in-law to Bayard Sartoris. Having been an ambulance driver, he came home from the Great War with, of all things, a glassblowing kit. He has not been a person eager to confront life; indeed, his glassblowing seems almost a symbolic act: quite literally, he blows bubbles in the air. He is passive by nature, ruled by a woman: Belle Mitchell, the girl with eyes “like hothouse grapes” whose mouth was “redly mobile, rich with discontent.” He married Belle, but he really loves his sister, Narcissa; this becomes yet another of the vaguely—or genuinely—incestuous relationships that crop up in Faulkner. (One thinks of Josh and Patricia Robyn, Quentin and Caddy Compson, Charles Bon and Judith Sutpen, and various siblings in the Beauchamp or McCaslin clans.) Benbow resembles Mr. Talliaferro in Mosquitoes, someone who cannot fully enter the stream of life. He is called “a poet,” representing another version of the artist, but the false artist, the one who cannot swim in cold, swift waters.
The novel moves toward uncertain, symbolic resolution. In a vivid scene toward the end of the book, young Bayard crashes his car, killing the old Bayard. In desperation, he wanders off after the accident and stumbles into a Christmas dinner with a poor black family, whose fellowship and generosity form a contrast to his own family. There is no real hope for him, Faulkner appears to suggest. Young Bayard lives under the curse of history, an unsympathetic man programmed by a puppeteer-god who tugs his strings.
This was a pivotal time for Faulkner, who had stumbled into his real material here. He had been reading Dickens and Balzac and wished to create a shelf of books that had some unity and purpose. But what purpose? Like both of these nineteenth-century masters of the genre, he had imperial ambitions and needed to take possession of a large imaginative landscape filled with characters representing parts of reality as he found it, so he set to work. “I created a cosmos of my own,” he said, “I can move these people around like God, not only in space but in time too.”27 Poetry, however seductive, could not provide ample room for the kind of imaginative work he felt the urge to pursue, and so poetry gradually subsided as a focus in his writing, virtually disappearing.
Getting deeper into his material now, he left New Orleans for Oxford in December and resumed life in the midst of family and friends. He also continued the pattern of writing in the morning and playing in the afternoons, usually on the golf course. In the new year, Phil Stone, acting as publicity agent, drafted a release for the local paper, saying that Mosquitoes would soon appear, and that Boni & Liveright had “two new novels which are already under contract. Both are Southern in setting. One is something of a saga and is of an extensive family connection of typical ‘poor white trash’ and is said by those who have seen that part of the manuscript completed to be the funniest book anybody ever wrote. The other is a tale of the aristocratic, chivalrous and ill-fated Sartoris family, one of whom was even too reckless for the daring Confederate cavalry leader, Jeb Stuart.”28 In fact, Horace Liveright had not promised to publish Flags in the Dust or anything else by Faulkner. Actually, he considered the new novel rambling and plotless and refused even to consider a revision.
Oxford would, more or less, remain Faulkner’s home base throughout his life from this point on. By contrast with Joyce, who left Dublin in order to write about home, Faulkner preferred to keep the physical reality close at hand. He remained emotionally dependent upon his mother, and he genuinely loved the town and its surrounding landscape. He liked the golf courses, the Big Woods for hunting, and the sense of connection, and the many overlapping layers of social narrative. The possibility of marriage to Estelle loomed: a piece of unfinished business that increasingly worried him.29 Was he ready for such responsibility? Did he love Estelle? He could not answer these questions firmly, and he seems not to have wanted easy or quick answers to these questions.
It so happened that Estelle’s marriage finally unraveled, making her suddenly available in a way that was new. She fled the relationship with Franklin, taking the children by ship to San Francisco, then wiring her father for assistance. Knowing how unhappy his daughter had been, the Major didn’t hesitate, welcoming Estelle and her children back into the family home. The process of divorce was set in motion by Estelle’s lawyer in Oxford, and Faulkner began to mull over his options.
Meanwhile, the manuscript of Flags grew throughout winter and spring, the theme of generational conflict widening with the additions of other social strata and families, such as the McCallums. Rafe McCallum was one of six brothers who went hunting with John and Bayard Sartoris in the years before the Great War. They farmed their own place, belonging to the so-called yeoman class, thus extending the range of castes in the novel, which includes black servants and farmworkers, white sharecroppers, poor tenant farmers, as well as the townsfolk who ran various shops and provided professional services. Most centrally, one encountered the gentry, represented by the Sartoris clan, with whom Faulkner identified. He looked at the society of his childhood and youth steadily now, unwavering in his sympathy and interest, willing to examine each strand in the social fabric.
Flags tells a story in its general outlines similar to that told in Soldiers’ Pay: a young man returns broken from the Great War and has no luck in adjusting to the home scene. But the newer work is infinitely richer, with its Balzacian range of characters, its complex physical and social settings. Faulkner contrasts the Civil War and the Great War, flashing backward to suggest how current history depends upon earlier times, earlier stories; indeed, his narrative becomes a palimpsest, with each generation writing its own story over the earlier stories, which still show through and determine the shape and tone of the current story.
The crash of the fighter plane in France recalled by the dying Donald Mahon near the end of Soldiers’ Pay has its parallel in the deaths of John and Bayard Sartoris in Flags, John Sartoris jumps to his death from a burning plane over France, while his twin brother, Bayard, dies later in the crash of an obviously unsafe plane (during a test flight in Ohio). Bayard’s failed flight is as much symbol as fact: “There was not enough tension on the wires, he decided at once, watching them from the V strut out as they tipped and swayed, and he jockeyed the thing carefully on, gaining height. Also he realized that there was a certain point beyond which his own speed would rob him of lifting surface.”30 While Bayard seems to have something in common with Dean Falkner, Bill’s youngest brother (who did, in fact, later die in the crash of a small plane), there is obviously something of Faulkner in Bayard as well: the feeling of “gaining height” and the pressure to maintain this altitude.
Faulkner’s literary career was certainly gaining height. In spring, Mosquitoes was published, with several laudatory reviews in national publications. One of the most encouraging voices in favor of the novel came from Conrad Aiken in the New York Evening Post: “Mr. Faulkner has a sense of character; he has a sense of humor; he has a sense of style; and for his new novel…he has found an amusing and more or less original setting.” It was a “highly entertaining” performance and a “delightful” book, even though the author allowed the story in places “to run away from him.”31 Lillian Hellman likewise praised the novel, although she noted that “portions of it are overwritten” and that “certain Joycean passages…have no direct place or bearing.” Parts of the novel were also “heavy and dull with overloaded description.” Nevertheless, it was “not spoilt” by these flaws.32 Donald Davidson weighed in again, writing for the Nashville Tennessean, finding the novel “clearly an example of the principle of the grotesque in full operation.” He seemed to like the “easy langorousness” of the novel, which he found suitable for a writer from Mississippi.33 Ruth Suckow in the New York World, however, was having none of this, calling the novel “the result of too resolute a determination to be sophisticated,” and finding a “raw amateurishness” in the narrative style.34 As with Soldiers’ Pay, the novel sold poorly, disappointing the author and his publisher, but Faulkner’s career was aloft now and gaining altitude.
Having spent nearly six months at home, living back in the midst of family and friends, slyly courting Estelle, playing golf, hunting, drinking, and making short-term visits to Memphis (for gambling) and elsewhere, Faulkner returned to Pascagoula for the summer; hoping to repeat the performance of the previous year on Mosquitoes. Flags needed a final, hard push, yet he was excited about what he had accomplished and aware that he had fallen, at last, into the material that would carry him forward as a writer.
He moved in, as before, with the Stone family, staying on after their departure in mid-July. He had acquired a small circle of friends in the area and would regularly borrow a sixteen-foot sailboat from Tom Kell, a local acquaintance, making a three-mile sail to Round Island, where he would fish or swim. As in the previous summer, he talked local shrimpers into taking him with them for a few days at a time. Once he persuaded the captain of a small schooner to take him to New Orleans, where he dropped in on old friends in the Vieux Carré, including Bill Spratling and Lyle Saxon. Wherever he went he was forced to rely on friends for what he called “hospitality” as his bank account dwindled by the week. Phil Stone, as always, furnished loans, but Faulkner began to resent this relationship, in part because Stone had become so possessive. He considered Faulkner’s career his own, and he had a strong wish to live a literary life vicariously.
On September 29, Faulkner finished Flags in the Dust, and he felt convinced that this book would establish him as a writer of consequence. The manuscript of 583 pages was impressive in bulk and complexity, and he wrote to Liveright that he had “written THE book, of which those other things were but foals.” He said it was “the damdest book” his editor would see that year. He also tried his best to hit up Liveright for money, claiming that he was “going on an expedition with a lady friend for purposes of biological research.”35 This was, of course, braggadocio. Liveright replied that he would read the book as soon as he could and that, if he liked it as much as Faulkner did, he would send money.
Meanwhile, back in Oxford, the Big Place, the family homestead, was being cut up into apartments: a dreadful and symbolic dismemberment of the Falkner legacy. The family no longer had the wealth to keep it going. The townscape itself was changing rapidly, too, as cheap, small bungalows began to rise up and concrete was replacing long stretches of lawn and garden. Gas stations and dinettes dotted the town as well, and electric streetlights were installed. The dirt roads of Faulkner’s boyhood were paved over, and a number of beautiful trees were cut down to make parking spaces for cars. Faulkner returned to this Oxford in late October, eager for the hunting season to begin, nervously awaiting a letter from Horace Liveright about his manuscript.
The letter came at the end of November, and the news was dreadful. Liveright said that he and two other colleagues had read the novel, and they didn’t want it. They also strongly advised him against trying to publish it elsewhere. “Soldiers’ Pay was a very fine book,” Liveright told him,
and should have done better. Then Mosquitoes wasn’t quite as good, showed little development in your spiritual growth and I think none in your art of writing. Now comes Flags in the Dust and we’re frankly very much disappointed by it. It is diffuse and non-integral with neither very much plot development nor character development. We think it lacks plot, dimension and projection. The story really doesn’t get anywhere and has a thousand loose ends. If the book had plot and structure, we might suggest shortening and revisions but it is so diffuse that I don’t think this would be any use. My chief objection is that you don’t seem to have any story to tell and I contend that a novel should tell a story and tell it well.36
This was devastating news. It says a great deal about William Faulkner’s character that he continued to write, and with renewed intensity, in the face of this criticism. Liveright, in his way, was right: the manuscript is diffuse, and there is little in the way of conventional plot. But Faulkner had unearthed something special, had stumbled into material that would prove immensely rich for him. He knew this, and he believed in himself, and there was simply no discouraging him. He might have had a few bad nights, but he would not be dissuaded. He knew that Flags in the Dust marked a beginning and that no end was in sight.
He was having no better luck with short stories. He had tacked a sheet to the inside door of his bedroom at home, and he kept track of where the stories had been accepted and where rejected. He tried all the major periodicals, such as Scribner’s, Collier’s, the Atlantic Monthly, and the Saturday Evening Post. Thus far, he’d had no luck at all. Rejection slips mounted, and he wondered if he would ever sell a story to a major outlet.
The long winter months of 1928 were fairly joyless for Faulkner, who tinkered with the manuscript of Flags and worked, with some trepidation, on a new novel and shorter pieces of fiction. He would sink into periods of inactivity, when he drank to excess and kept to his room at home. His family found him awkward and difficult. He was entering his third decade without the prospect of earning a decent living. Even with two novels published, he could hardly claim to have made much of a name for himself as writer. He continued to visit Estelle on an almost daily basis. He ate the food his mother prepared, and he depended on family and friends for spending money. He looked like a failure in the eyes of the world, although he had the advantage of living in a small, organic community where his name carried a certain reservoir of respect and where he could expect, to a degree, that his physical needs would be met.
Faulkner reached out for help to Ben Wasson, his good friend, who had by now migrated to New York City, where he found a job at the American Play Company, a literary agency that specialized in dramatists but also handled novelists. Wasson agreed to act as an agent for his friend by submitting stories to magazines. At least Faulkner would not have to borrow the cash for postage stamps from his mother or Phil Stone. Wasson also agreed to try the slightly revised manuscript of Flags on various publishing companies, including Harcourt, Brace and Company, where he knew Harrison Smith, a prominent editor. Smith admired the novel, but thought it had to be drastically cut, and Wasson agreed (at Faulkner and Smith’s behest) to do the cutting: a rather daunting task for someone who had no claims to being an artist himself. Indeed, it seems odd that Faulkner would entrust the job to anyone, but he obviously understood that he could not bear to cut away the flesh from this story that he adored, that summoned a world he knew intimately to his satisfaction.
To make money, Faulkner worked at a local golf course selling refreshments and painted houses. He painted barns as well. Using his artistic talent, he also designed and painted signs for local businesses. His parents were not especially keen to discuss his “career,” and simply accepted him as one of their sons who had not done well. The others, it seemed, were doing just fine, so there was room for a “failure” in their midst—if indeed one can refer to someone with two published novels in such terms. Of course Murry himself had never succeeded in his own father’s eyes and nursed this wound for many years. Now he pitied his son, and their relations, if anything, improved during this dark period in Faulkner’s life. Miss Maud continued to say that her son Bill would become a famous author one day, and Faulkner benefited, emotionally, from her confidence, even though he knew she had not especially liked either of his novels. His brother Johncy, still living at home, was the only family member who read Faulkner’s work with some care and responded warmly. Indeed, whenever he finished a story, Faulkner would call Johncy into his room to read it aloud to him.
By early spring, he was writing new stories again, this time about a family called the Compsons. “That Evening Sun Go Down” and “A Justice” both concerned young children in the Compson family who had to face frightening circumstances, who were alone in their worlds, which was the world of Faulkner’s boyhood in Oxford. He began to think and dream about these children and to envision them as creatures suspended in a kind of “strange, faintly sinister” twilight. He began a third Compson story in April, calling it “Twilight.” This latter tale would, like a pile of dry sticks doused with gasoline, suddenly catch fire and flare, magnificently, against the dark sky of his imagination, lighting a new world. It would become The Sound and the Fury.
The Sound and the Fury
Indeed, The Sound and the Fury has been for me, ever since I encoutered it in 1960, the supreme American novel of our century.
—PHILIP M. WEINSTEIN, Faulkner’s Subject
Faulkner called The Sound and the Fury his “finest failure” and never tired of talking about it in later years.37 He wrote it in a period of professional despair, in the aftermath of Liveright’s scorching letter, without a sense of hope or audience. He said that he “shut a door” between himself and all publishers and just began to write what came to him, without giving a thought to the consequences. He wrote “without any accompanying feeling of drive or effort,” and this was strangely liberating.
It was the appearance of young Caddy Compson that triggered everything. He called her “the daughter of his mind” and spoke of her fondly until the end of his life. She was “the beautiful one,” and Faulkner “loved her so much” that he couldn’t bear to write about her only in “Twilight,” a story. In an introduction to the novel written at the behest of a publisher, Faulkner meditated on what she meant to him: “I said to myself, Now I can write. Now I can make myself a vase like that which the old Roman kept at his bedside and wore the rim slowly away with kissing it. So I, who had never had a sister and was fated to lose my daughter in infancy, set out to make myself a beautiful and tragic little girl.” Oddly enough, the only way the reader gets to know Caddy is through the needs of her brothers. Her presence is more felt than perceived, and it could not be said that readers get a vivid sense of her—at least not early in the novel, where she remains an alluring phantom.38
The relationship between Faulkner and his female subjects has, in fact, been a controversial one. When asked at the University of Virginia by a student about whether he found it easier to write about men or women, he replied: “It’s much more fun to try to write about women because I think women are marvelous, they’re wonderful, and I know very little about them.”39 Early critics, such as Cleanth Brooks, took Faulkner at his word here, ignoring the actual presentation of women in the novels. Beginning in the 1970s, critics like Judith Wittenberg, Doreen Fowler, Judith Sensibar, Linda Kauffman, and Minrose Gwin looked more closely at his use and evocation of female characters, generally noting that women represent, in his narratives, a space of “disruption,” as Gwin calls it. Women become a site for embodying “the rebellious unconscious of patriarchy.”40 They are “noteworthy, remarkable, but continuously isolated within their own domain,” says Weinstein.41
The opening scene of the novel represents a fictionalized version of the funeral of Faulkner’s maternal grandmother, Lelia Swift Butler. Faulkner had been struck by the way the children were sent outside the house because they were not old enough to understand the seriousness of the event at hand. In the novel, Faulkner for the first time put aside all considerations of “story” and allowed the text to absorb and embody whatever aspects of consciousness were caught in its web. The entire novel was written at stunning speed, rising up from some deep reservoir of the imagination.
It was early spring, probably late March, when the first section of The Sound and the Fury, the part told by the “idiot” Benjy, began to take shape on paper in the bedroom of his parents’ house in Oxford. The novel “began as a short story,” he later recalled, “a story without plot, of some children being sent away from the house during the grandmother’s funeral. They were too young to be told what was going on and they saw things only incidentally to the childish games they were playing.” He was then struck by the idea that one of these children would be “an idiot. So the idiot was born and then I became interested in the relationship of the idiot to the world that he was in but would never be able to cope with and just where could he get the tenderness, the help, to shield him in his innocence.”42 The other siblings then came into view, as context: “And so the character of his sister began to emerge, then the brother…Jason (who to me represented complete evil. He’s the most vicious character in my opinion I ever thought of), then he appeared. Then it needs the protagonist, someone to tell the story, so Quentin appeared. By that time I found out I couldn’t possibly tell that in a short story.”
The novel opens, then, with what Matthews calls “a disequilibrium” in which we have two things in motion: Luster, the fourteen-year-old black boy who looks after Benjy, is “hunting” for a lost quarter, whirling around, trying to obtain something that has meaning in the “real” world. The innocent idiot, Benjy, rushes around in his head, searching for the meaning of the word caddie, just as the novel as a whole performs this activity on a larger scale, looking for the lost child, the beautiful but unimaginable, or unimagined, sister. Only later do we come to understand that Caddy’s flight, eighteen years earlier, has pushed Benjy over the edge into a world of “loss, memory, time, and grief.”43 In this, Benjy presents only a fiercer version of what others, such as Quentin, experience: a maddening loss, a disruption of the sense of time, a haunted memory, an itch for significance that addles a mind.
After Benjy’s (only apparently) incoherent soliloquy, Faulkner decided to let the sensitive Quentin (who longs for the Old South and a coherent society, as well as for Caddy) tell his version of that same day and occasion. To counterpoint that, he brought in Jason’s viewpoint in the next section, with this brother representing the New South, in all its Snopesian acquisitiveness. Having finished Jason’s version of the family story, he “knew that it was not anywhere near finished,” Faulkner said. So he wrote “another section from the outside with an outsider, which was the writer, to tell what had happened on that particular day.”44 That section is often regarded as belonging to Dilsey, who had nutured Benjy, Caddy, Quentin, and Jason in their early years.
The novel moves, with abrupt shifts, from the innocence and incoherence of Benjy, whose world is all primitive and unedited sensation, through the fairly innocent but anguished and fully articulate self-consciousness of Quentin, into the distasteful and harsh world of Jason’s mind, which reduces everything to a level where only the most pragmatic considerations obtain. This third section is by its nature the most conventional and, therefore, the most accessible, although in the context of the previous two sections, even Jason’s world is seen as highly subjective in its efforts to appear lucid, and the shallowness of the lucidity becomes eerily apparent. Drawing attention to the nature of fiction itself, the fourth section comes from the novelist, the “outsider,” who cannot participate in the interior life of a character without plunging himself directly into the muddy water of consciousness. “I was still trying to tell one story which moved me very much and each time I failed,” the author lamented, though not without pride. For him, fiction that is worth anything necessarily fails to embody what cannot be embodied, to tell a story and reflect a consciousness that cannot be told or reflected except partially, by hints and guesses.
The narrative moves forward on different time levels, with the narrative line tangled in the minds of the first three speakers. Over the years, critics have tried to identify the different levels in the especially complex opening section, which refers to periods from roughly 1898 to 1928. Joseph Warren Beach, in 1941, discerned seven basic levels in Benjy’s story. Sumner Powell, in 1949, found fifteen. In 1952, Cleanth Brooks found eleven, while Carvel Collins counted thirteen. Edmund Volpe, in 1964, counted sixteen levels. “To be sure,” say Stephen M. Ross and Noel Polk in their commentary on the novel, “time levels are presented as fragments of narrative that emerge in Benjy’s ‘memory’ in response to various stimuli, including memory and physical sensation, that he encounters on 7 April 1928, the present time of the opening section.”45
Among the most vivid early moments in Benjy’s narrative is the image of Caddy’s “muddy drawers.” The children had been playing in the stream, “the dark, harsh flowing of time” that drew Caddy away from the family circle, from the male world of her brothers. She climbs a pear tree to watch the funeral going on inside the house. Benjy is aware of “the muddy bottom of her drawers,” an image that Faulkner later claimed lay at the center of the novel. Because Caddy is not given a narrative of her own, her behavior is constantly judged from without, not from her own consciousness. Caddy’s climb is, in fact, a pivotal moment for her, associated with her first confrontation with death. (She escapes from the house and the tree to pursue sexual liaisons.) Dilsey Gibson, the black cook, whose compassionate nature is crucial to the novel, regards Caddy in the tree (where she obtains the knowledge of death) as “Satan,” even though she knows better. So the scene around the pear tree seems to replicate, in some form, the site of the fall of man in the Garden of Eden.
The amazing, difficult, and infamous first section, with its jumbled time sequences and confusingly ambiguous references, stands like a great dragon folded in the gate of the novel. Readers have to move through it, suspending disbelief, allowing the language to work its subtle magic. It is, quite literally a “tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,” as we read in Macbeth (5.5.26-28). In creating an interior monologue that features stream-of-consciousness and time shifting, Faulkner self-consciously associates himself with the great modern writers: Conrad, Proust, and (especially) Joyce. The reader learns about the world of the novel through an idiot’s ramblings as the novel opens on Benjy’s thirty-third birthday.
Benjy stands beside his minder, Luster, contemplating the fence that now defines and restricts his world, which once included the pasture beyond. That pasture has been sold off (to send Quentin to Harvard and to pay for Caddy’s marriage) by the Compson parents. The former pasture is now a golf course, and when Benjy hears the word caddie, it of course recalls or summons his loving sister, Caddy, whom he has lost. In Benjy’s mind, time shifts precipitously, as in the scenes he recalls with Dilsey’s youngest son, T. P. Gibson, and with Versh Gibson, her eldest child. These scenes reach back thirty years or so. The reader’s only clue as to when a given scene takes place is the presence of a particular minder.
The seminal scene, with Caddy climbing the tree, goes back nearly thirty years, when the children’s grandmother, Damuddy, died. Scenes or occasions flicker through Benjy’s fragile mind: the death of Damuddy, Caddy’s loss of virginity (which he doesn’t comprehend but intuits, having seen a “shiny condom wrapper”), the sale of the pasture, his sister’s wedding, his brother Quentin’s suicide, his own castration after he was thought to have molested a neighbor’s daughter, whom he (more or less innocently) wanted to touch, and the death of his father. As the narrative returns to the present, on his thirty-third birthday, Benjy encounters Caddy’s daughter, Miss Quentin, who brushes him off. “I became interested in the relationship of the idiot to the world,” Faulkner later said.46 In a sense, Benjy represents the pure need, the Freudian id, a zone of helplessly free-floating desire. As Bleikasten suggests: “The first section—the story of the miserable child-man—may thus be said to represent the whole Compson drama in reduced form. It tells us almost all there is to know, but it does so with a deceptive mixture of opaqueness and transparency. To yield its rich harvest of ambiguities and ironies, the prologue must be read again—as an epilogue.”47
The second chapter is, perhaps, the finest, extending many of the issues raised in the Benjy chapter. It centers on Quentin Compson at Harvard on the day he kills himself, in 1910. His own fixation on Caddy, “the center on the horizon,” weighs heavily on him; indeed, he has told his father he had incest with Caddy, though he hadn’t—not a deception on his part, but a confusion born of his own emotional dislocation. Indeed, the possibility of incest here, as elsewhere in Faulkner, is central to his work, as many critics have seen. For Cleanth Brooks, incest represents “alarm at the breakdown of sexual morality” by bringing behavior to a place “beyond which surely no one would venture to transgress.”48 John T. Irwin regards incest as part of an Oedipal struggle in which the father loses to the son, the past triumphs over the present, representing “the inability of the ego to break out of the circle of the self and of the individual to break out of the ring of the family.” Quite naturally, it becomes a metaphor for the South after the Civil War, a region ingrown, self-destructive, self-cannibalizing.49 Karl F. Zender, most recently, sees Faulkner in this novel beginning to question his “earlier single-minded association of incest with a backward-looking southern chauvinism.” The subjective intensity of the novel “constricts its range of cultural influence,” making it difficult to read much beyond the immediate scene of the story.50
Quentin’s incestuous desires are surely confused, at best; he seems to wish for a kind of purity with Caddy in the flames of Hell, far removed from the “loud world” that drives him mad. He watched helplessly as Caddy was “taken” by a series of men, including a strong man whom she loved but who treated Quentin like a ridiculous child; most recently he saw her wedded to a man she didn’t love, trapped in a marriage of convenience. The section opens with Quentin’s recollection of a watch: “It was Grandfather’s and when Father gave it to me he said, Quentin, I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire; it’s rather excruciatingly apt that you will use it to gain the reducto absurdum of all human experience which can fit your individual needs no better than it fitted his or his father’s.”51 In a vividly symbolic scene, Quentin breaks the watch, pulling the hands off, symbolically killing Time itself, hoping for the stillness of death, where he would be past change. “Father said clocks slay time,” Quentin recalls. “He said time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life.”52 Even after the watch is destroyed, it eerily keeps ticking.
The action in the Quentin section centers on another little “sister,” an Italian girl who is (he assumes) lost; he tries to escort her home, playing a valiant and gentlemanly role by attempting to save a damsel in distress. Unfortunately, she won’t tell him where she lives, preferring simply to have his company. He gives her a quarter at one point, and she runs off, but only temporarily. Soon she is dogging his heels again on this fateful day. In a bizarre turn of events, her older brother, Julio, and a town marshal called Anse, catch them, and Quentin is hauled into court for kidnapping. The judge realizes that the young Harvard man is no kidnapper, and he is let off with a small fine, but the shame of the situation, and his own complicity, overwhelms him. His friends, Shreve (who reappears as Shreve McCannon in Absalom, Absalom! although he is once addressed in this novel as Mr. MacKenzie), Spoade, and Gerald Bland, lend their support; they all meet up with Mrs. Bland, who has made a picnic. Yet Quentin now thoroughly loses his grip on reality, confusing Gerald with Dalton Ames, Caddy’s seducer, whom Quentin despises. Quentin attacks him, but Gerald wins easily, and Quentin retreats to his room to try to get the blood from his clothes. He washes himself and dresses, then leaves his room for what will be the final time, moving into the realm of twilight that was a dominant image for the author.
Quentin’s “malfunction” is never quite understood, especially by himself; the author is never explicit, although a drive to unite with Caddy in incestuous ways is apparent. Quentin may also experience homoerotic feelings that he suppresses: Spoade, a classmate of Quentin’s, notices that he lacks an interest in girls and refers to Shreve, Quentin’s roommate, as his “husband.” Homosexuality certainly challenged the code of behavior that most residents of Yoknapatawpha considered acceptable. Yet Faulkner alludes to it often, so that it becomes an important antithetical drive that powers his narratives at a subliminal level.
There is also the malfunction of the family, with Mr. Compson drinking to excess and his wife being a hypochondriac and general annoyance to the family. Her feelings of class superiority oppress her children, for whom this idealization of the past becomes a burden. Overall, one sees a coldness in the Compson family, too, and this appears to thwart or distort the impulses of the children, especially Caddy and Quentin, who confuse feelings of affection and emotional needs of various kinds with sexual feelings. Even worse, these sexual feelings are ludicrously confused, as when Caddy discovers Quentin in the midst of adolescent sexual play in the barn with a neighbor girl called Natalie. Because he has been acting dishonorably, or so he thinks, he runs in panic to a hog wallow to immerse himself in filth, fighting fire with fire. As often happens in this novel, Faulkner works the story on literal and figurative levels at the same time.
This puritanical view of sex carries over into a distorted view of women, whom the men in the Compson family regard (as their father says) as “so delicate so mysterious.” Girls are fallen creatures to Quentin, “dirty little sluts” as Spoade and Shreve put it bluntly, when they are not idealized madonna figures. Women, Quentin believes, hang between “two moons,” with “periodical filth,” referring to female menstrual cycles, occurring between those moons. Bleikasten sees “a deep-seated hatred” of women in Quentin, whom he regards as a Puritan, like John Milton, associating women with the Fall. “Eve was the beginning of evil; it was through her that the innocence of Eden was lost.”53 By contrast, Quentin sees men as logical, cool-headed, chivalrous; he regards women as flowing like a river, as part of nature, and their lure is suffocating for him. Obsessed with sexual desire, he associates the smell of honeysuckle—“that damn honeysuckle”—with sex, and when recalling that smell in relation to Caddy he finds the atmosphere so thick he cannot breathe. Certainly the false confession to his father that he had incestuous relations with Caddy complicates all of this in peculiar ways. In essence, Quentin is trying to undo Caddy’s loss of virtue with Dalton Ames. If she had sex with him, her brother, this would somehow (at least in his twisted, tormented mind) have reversed what actually happened.
Quentin yearns, as Daniel J. Singal observes, “to synchronize with the natural flow of time.”54 But he can’t, and so he envies those who move easily in their lives. Working symbolically, as he does, Faulkner uses the image of the flowing river, the Charles, to stand in for the flow of time. Thus Quentin envies his friend, Gerald Bland, who rows on the river “in a steady and measured pull.” Quentin, by contrast, jerkily hops about town, leaping onto and off of streetcars in a confused way. He can’t mesh with the time of his life or move with any agility through it, as does a trout that he spots in the river; indeed, he admires the way the fish can leap for a mayfly, then resume its swimming. Quentin lacks this sort of flexibility, and so time wears him down, and he commits suicide by wading into the river with flatirons tied to his body to drag him to the bottom. He kills himself for many reasons, of course: his confusion over Caddy and his relations with her, but also because he simply longs for death. As Karl F. Zender has written: “Beneath his yearning for death lies a nostalgia for home as strong as any found in Faulkner’s fiction.”55It is a desire to go back as far as possible, into the womb, even beyond it.
The major action in the second section unfolds on June 2, 1910, in Cambridge, a Thursday. Because one finds various images that connect Quentin with Christ in this section of the novel, it’s possible that Faulkner thought of this as Maundy Thursday (though the date seems to have moved well beyond Easter). Carvel Collins observed that “the four sections of the novel have dates related to the four major days in the sequence of Christ’s passion.”56 The passage has also been compared to Bloomsday (June 16, 1904) in Joyce’s Ulysses, and critics have noted that June 2 is the birthday of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy (the famous Lost Cause that Quentin idealizes). While not central to the text, these associations serve to enrich the passage for readers. Faulkner may not have been entirely conscious of these references, though it seems impossible to discount anything, as he did manage to layer this text with recondite allusions, especially during the revision process.
The Quentin section having been completed, Faulkner felt the need for a further counterpoint. The Jason section is dated April 6, 1928, and a look at the original manuscript suggests that it was written without the hesitations that came with the Quentin section. Jason is simple and straightforward as a narrator; his inner life does not have the anguished fits and starts that one associates with Benjy and Quentin. He attends to the world’s surface, though he seems as mired in his own subjectivity as his other siblings. His story is, however, easy enough to follow and depends on clichés and commonplaces, as in the opening salvo: “Once a bitch always a bitch, what I say. I says you’re lucky if her playing out of school is all that worries you. I says she ought to be down there in that kitchen right now, instead of up there in her room, bogging paint on her face and waiting for six niggers that cant even stand up out of a chair unless they’ve got a pan full of bread and meat to balance them, to fix breakfast for her.”57
The date of the narrative falls on Good Friday, and Jason is aptly characterized as the one who “spends his Good Friday crucifying himself.” A severe paranoid who despises his parents and their world, he nevertheless attracts his mother’s favor, though nobody else’s. He is a disgruntled man who believes that everyone is against him, even the natural world, right down to the sparrows in the courthouse square: “First thing you know, bing. Right on your hat.” As for his career, he believes that his chances for a bank job were denied when his sister, Caddy, divorced her husband, bringing shame on the whole family. He likewise despises his sister’s teenage daughter, Miss Quentin, who was perhaps named after her deceased uncle in a vain attempt to continue the family line. Jason tells his story in a fairly conventional narrative form, more or less associational but hardly stream-of-consciousness, and without the disruptive shifts of time (requiring italics and other techniques to alert readers to where they happen to be) employed earlier in the novel.
Jason at least survives, although this survival is hardly a form of victory, given his “toxic bitterness.”58 He stands in for a range of failed characters in the New South: farmers, small businessmen, rednecks. With his rage and ambition, he seems to embody all of white society in a region of the country condemned to failure. It seems that military defeat at the hands of the North cannot be overcome or reconciled; during Reconstruction, nothing was reconstructed, especially among gentlemen of the cavalier tradition, that segment of the Old South with emotional ties to the Cavaliers of seventeenth-century England, who sided with the beheaded King Charles I and opposed the Roundheads or Puritans. (This tradition has few ties to reality, of course; the pioneers who came from Virginia and the Carolinas to Mississippi and Louisiana were hardly aristocrats; what they were, in reality, was a rough and ready gang of high-spirited and ambitious young men who liked their horses and women almost as much as their whiskey.)
In some ways, The Sound and the Fury is a book in which Faulkner makes no conscious effort to generalize beyond the immediate family circle of the Compsons; he conjures a family full of delusion and self-pity, incapable of regeneration, doomed by its own hand to diminishment and isolation. Jason’s narrative embodies all the ills of this family, from its sexism to its delusions of grandeur and withering self-reproach that bleeds into neurosis and paranoia. Needless to say, Jason’s paranoia could be seen as standing in for a deep cultural paranoia that transfixed the New South, which considered itself under siege long after the Civil War had ended, with the nation still dividing into “us” and “them,” as Bleikasten has argued.59
Jason thinks of himself as a patriarch, in control of his life and his family, a man of importance in the community, one who commands respect from those around him. He believes that only his sense of the world has any validity. But Faulkner reveals him as a wheedler, a whiner, and a cheat. Even Dilsey heaps scorn on him when he destroys some carnival tickets rather than give one to Luster, his black servant: “A big growed man like you,” she scoffs. Interestingly, it is the servants who keep the family going, since Jason’s own work and financial dealings are pathetic and irresponsible; his attitude toward money is foolish, at best: “After all, like I say, money has no value; it’s just the way you spend it. It dont belong to anybody, so why try to hoard it. It just belongs to the man that can get it and keep it.” By implication, Jason represents a vein of the New South that seems not to understand its traditional role in husbanding the land and the culture, in protecting the family and those within the family circle, including the blacks who depend upon them for their economic lives.
It is, ironically, the blacks in the family circle who understand the nature of responsibility. The final section, narrated in the third person, on Easter morning, is largely Dilsey’s story (though it also belongs to Jason). At the beginning of the section, Dilsey’s grandson, Luster, has neglected his duties and the house is cold; there is no firewood at hand to make a fire. Mrs. Compson is calling for a hot water bottle. Jason complains about a broken window in his room and blames Luster. He also insists that Dilsey go to wake up Miss Quentin, who must join the family for breakfast. She has, in fact, disappeared with the money from Jason’s strongbox: money that was hers all along, having been sent to Mrs. Compson by Caddy. But Jason has systematically cashed Caddy’s checks and hidden the money, telling his mother that he burned the checks because it was tainted money. In a fury, he summons the sheriff, though he has to lie about the amount taken to protect himself, since he has stolen the money from his own mother.
While the painful meeting between the sheriff and Jason transpires, Dilsey (having warmed the house and made biscuits for the family) goes off to church. “The darkies are having a special Easter service,” as Mrs. Compson charmingly explains to Jason. Dilsey’s duties to her God come first, and she is among the faithful. She takes her daughter, Frony, and Frony’s son, Luster, as well as Benjy, with her. The sermon at the local black church is preached that day by the Reverend Shegog, who has a gift for rhetoric. His sermon, centered on the Christian message of self-sacrifice and redemption, moves Dilsey to tears. His big voice booms in the tiny chapel: “Breddren! Look at dem little chillen settin dar. Jesus was like dat once. He mammy suffered de glory en de pangs. Sometime maybe she helt him at de nightfall, whilst de angels sinin him to sleep; maybe she look out de do’ en see de Roman police passin.”60
The story, as befits Easter Sunday, describes the sorrow of Mary and the crucifixion of Christ. It ends with the promise of glory in which all “whut got de blood en de rickleckshun of de Lamb” will participate. “It is a vision of eternity which gives meaning to time and will wipe away all tears in a final vindication of goodness and in a full consolation of those who mourn,” suggests Cleanth Brooks.61 In Brooks’s standard reading of Shegog’s sermon, the fourth oral presentation in the novel (adding to the first-person voices of Benjy, Quentin, and Jason), the Christian vision gives meaning to events that, to the Compsons, are incomprehensible; they have no context for human suffering, and they do not understand the role of forgiveness and compassion in the play of life.
Noel Polk, in Children of the Dark House, reads the Shegog sermon differently, referring back to the notion that this is a novel in part about language that is “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Meaning is not, for either the preacher or his audience, something articulable. “It is precisely Shegog’s purpose to invest this life with meaning,” writes Polk, “to make it signify something instead of nothing in the midst of all the sound and fury. He locates this meaning in the life and death of Jesus Christ, and his sermon being a ritualistic incantation of that meaning for the assembled congregation, a meaning in which the congregation participates, though not in words.” The congregation simply moans and sputters, “without words, like bubbles rising in water.” They behold Shegog and lose themselves in his presentation; the congregation watches “with its own eyes while the voice consumed him, until he was nothing and they were nothing and there was not even a voice but instead their hearts were speaking to one another in chanting measures beyond the need for words.”62
Polk points to the fact that Shegog’s sermon is, in fact, “a hodgepode of pseudo-eloquence and non sequitur and nonsense theology—he speaks of the ‘widowed God’, for example, and lapses into Benjy’s synethesia when he speaks of ‘seeing de golden horns shoutin down de glory’—which perhaps move by some sort of fluid stream-of-consciousness associations in Shegog’s mind, perhaps not: his rhetorical need, like Jason’s, is to keep himself and his congregation wrapped up in his voice, which takes them ‘into itself,’ to keep the sound at such a pitch that there will be no time, no reason, for his congregation to think or articulate or explain.”63 So as he approaches his own “meaning,” his signification of “nothing,” he strays far from common parlance and moves (like the language of Benjy) beyond simple denotation.
Importantly, however, the congregation finds a degree of meaning in community, in the “ritualistic incantation” into which they are absorbed. By contrast, the Compsons do not understand the point of community. Jason actually boasts that he can get along without anyone. Neither does Quentin regard human life with any more respect than did his remote, painfully egotistical father, who saw people as dolls full of sawdust.
Faulkner clearly presents the congregation at Dilsey’s church as a forceful counterpoint to the Compson message, which features human isolation and subjectivity. Faulkner’s portrait of the black community, especially the preacher, may smack of racism, as when he describes the visiting preacher as “a small, aged monkey.” On the other hand, Faulkner’s black characters seem wonderfully together and spirit-filled, especially when compared to their woeful “betters,” the Compsons. The Reverend Shegog’s strange incantation, his embodiment of “nothing” in a language that conjures a vision of Mary and Jesus, “a motionless, silent pietà,” presents a shimmering challenge to the language of the Compsons, where speech and meaning seem only to clash.64
The novel ends with a clash of the two surviving Compson brothers, Jason and Benjy. They meet in town, where Jason has gone in pursuit of Miss Quentin and the carnival pitchman she has run away with, and where Benjy and Luster have gone in a horse and carriage. Benjy relies on a certain literal path to keep a vague sense of order in place in his mind, and when Luster makes a wrong turn, Benjy goes wild, bellowing madly. Hearing the screaming, Jason rushes to the scene, taking control of the carriage as he slaps Luster to the side. He goes back and resumes the expected order of the journey, and Benjy is soothed, his eyes “empty and blue and serene again cornice and facade flowed smoothly once more from left to right; post and tree, window and doorway, and signboard, each in its ordered place.” These are the last, ironic words of the novel, with “an ordered place” being mere chronology, a predictable time line, a geography of familiarity. Jason takes control, but his hold on the reins of reality is fragile indeed.
Some biographical questions arise here and some possible parallels with Faulkner’s own life. The novel might be read as a critique of his own childhood, with the cold and helpless father being a version of Murry. The fierce Miss Maud, who nevertheless adored her son Billy, seems imperfectly refracted in Mrs. Compson, but there can be no doubt that both mothers were intensely class-conscious and held this awareness over (or above) their children—imposing on them an ideal of aspiration they might never quite achieve. Mammy Callie and Dilsey seem obviously connected, and there is no doubt that Faulkner lavished affections on Mammy Callie that he could not bestow on his mother. Through the novel, Dilsey stands in harsh contrast to Mrs. Compson, whose icy qualities inspire no depths of love.
The larger question may be where Faulkner imagined himself in his own clan, and how this played into the family dynamics of The Sound and the Fury. In a family of brothers, one can only guess where the author saw himself among the strange trio of Jason, Quentin, and Benjy. He is mostly likely all of them, each representing a part of his psyche: none of the brothers can be said to have prospered; each represents a different kind of failure. Yet there must be some peculiar revenge for him in writing these failures, thus triumphing in art, much as God triumphs in the world no matter which of his petty creatures destroys another of his petty creatures.
The missing sister, Faulkner’s “heart’s darling,” as he later called her, remains a creature without distinct features. Why did Faulkner not give her voice, her own section? Was it simply that he hadn’t the confidence to “do” a woman’s voice? Did he feel estranged enough from women to hesitate before entering a female consciousness? Certainly, by denying her a voice in the narrative, reducing her to “sister,” Faulkner takes uncanny possession of her. As Weinstein notes: “Like ‘sister,’ a Caddy wholly presented through male optics is a Caddy wholly available to male emphases.”65 As a result, Caddy remains a ghostly figure, an ideal, someone who exists only in other people’s narratives and is felt only in relationship to needs that she satisfies. Faulkner may have connected her, unconsciously, with a feminine part of himself, with the artist. She is promiscuous, but loving; she means well, but she wreaks havoc on the family. Faulkner cannot look at her directly; like the Medusa, she threatens such a gaze with extinction. She requires refraction, reproduction in the mirror of Perseus, the artist’s text, the narratives of someone “not” herself. She hides in the textual lacunae, in the interstices, in the gaps of knowledge and awareness that are part of this complex narrative.
The Old South, that nonexistent Eden, has been permanently “muddied,” like the drawers of young Caddy, which represent a fall, the Fall of Man, with Eve the instigator. The muddy drawers loom vividly in Benjy’s head, as a sexual threat; Caddy herself, to Benjy, represents a mother love he cannot have, except through Dilsey. Jason, later in the narrative, is appalled by Miss Quentin’s sliding down a drainpipe: a return to a similar image, as Caddy’s daughter repeats the same kind of sin. But the men are just as culpable as the women in this novel, even more so. Mr. Compson’s lack of authority and Jason’s feeble assumption of an authority he hasn’t earned blend to suggest that patriarchy itself has failed; the Old Colonel’s ease of mastery in the world is forever gone. It’s the same story one saw told, more tediously perhaps, in Flags in the Dust or Sartoris: the decline of male power, and the madness that results from the breakdown of this phallocentrism. And just as Bayard Sartoris, after the car accident that killed old Bayard, makes his way to the table of a black family, the youngest Compson, Benjy, the idiot boy, makes his way to the lord’s table in the black community with Dilsey, the ultimate source of faith and genuine human power.
Faulkner’s novel is time drenched, like all his work, and full of people shifting through life and dealing with various stages in their passage. Comparing him to Hemingway, Robert Penn Warren observed that “there is no time in Hemingway, there are only moments in themselves, moments of action. There are no parents and no children. If there’s a parent, he is a grandparent off in America somewhere who signs the check, like the grandfather in A Farewell to Arms. You never see a small child in Hemingway. You get death in childbirth but you never see a child. Everything is outside of the time process. But in Faulkner, there are always the very old and the very young. Time spreads and is the important thing. A tremendous flux is there, things flowing away in all directions.”66 And time is registered in small moments, in small images that grow large as the narrative swells: the muddy drawers of Caddy or the fact that Jason acted as treasurer when the other children made and sold kites, keeping the cash in his pocket. Small moments prefigure larger moments, anticipating major lines of development.
With The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner had made a startling breakthrough, not only for himself. This was something new in American fiction, something strange, complex and disruptive, a work that attempted to articulate grief and loss while acknowledging, at every turn, the impossibility of recovery, the limits of articulation, as well as the pleasures afforded by repetition and incomplete reconstruction: the pleasures of the text itself.