It should seem extraordinary that William Faulkner would have a place in contemporary American culture. Almost all of his works take place within a particular local and historical identity; that locale has been transformed by tremendous economic forces, and the historical inertias of which he wrote—the Civil War, Jim Crow, the residual American wilderness—no longer exist as dynamic influences. When we speak of the Civil War it is an exchange of images, typically in sepia and with voiceovers. The memory of legalized racial segregation has had to be institutionalized by the left to help keep America honest: to provide the rhetorical armor to fend off, for example, those who would reform voting procedures to shore up power in their own gerrymandered districts. The American wilderness, similarly, has become the rhetorical calling card of the environmentalist lobby, a nostalgic invocation of original innocence threatened by Arctic drilling and corporate logging interests. These forces only exist in American public life as stratified, institutionalized tropes; in Faulkner’s fiction, by contrast, they flood egos, orphan children, and drive people from sanity.
Faulkner’s formal risk-taking—the experiments with subjectivity, the alternate point-of-view excesses of The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying—are now so far removed from the mainstream of American literary activity that he seems as distant as Proust or Joyce: revered and name checked—but rarely read. True, the sprawling, ungoverned model of ‘the great American novel’—the template that preceded Faulkner and to which he made at least four seminal contributions—remains intact. The spirit that prompted him to suggest that different voices in The Sound and the Fury should be printed in different colors (something that would have been a boon to bewildered undergraduates decades later) encourages Jonathan Safran Foer to taunt his publishers with absurd printing demands. And Faulkner’s work is established in many campus reading lists as a way to broach the experimentation of literary modernism with historical and cultural concerns unique to the United States—and, peripherally, to the ongoing ‘culture wars.’
But these are all ways to wall up a writer’s influence. Faulkner’s real continuing relevance is testimony to the exemplary disasters and successes of America’s twentieth century. While signal advances have been made in the field of civil rights, large chunks of the American body politic remain dominated by demagogues who hide their economic interests behind a smokescreen of fear and prejudice.
Faulkner’s work has always had a patchy career: when Malcolm Cowley took it upon himself to revive the author’s reputation in 1945, almost all of his work was out of print—even, as Cowley suggested in his introduction to The Portable Faulkner, unavailable on the used book market. 1931’s Sanctuary was the only one of his novels still regularly read—a tawdry (but typically dense) attempt at the gothic/crime genre. Faulkner described it as “a cheap idea… deliberately conceived to make money.” Faulkner himself was holed up in Hollywood—hacking out screenplays at the behest of Howard Hawks, who would amuse himself by assigning him adaptations of books by his stylistic nemesis, Ernest Hemingway. That’s Faulkner’s image being parodied in the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink: the effete and affected southern gentleman, knocking out cheap scripts without credit and drinking himself incoherent.
It was Cowley’s collection that resuscitated Faulkner’s reputation, and but for Penguin’s always shoddy bookmaking it remains the most comprehensive accessible introduction for the general reader today. Cowley admitted the difficulties of Faulkner’s work—the “awkward experiments”, the prose that can veer towards the “overblown”; above all the structural weaknesses of some of his works. His prose must remain the biggest obstacle for the contemporary reader. While our own public discourse specializes in the garbled subclauses of unintelligible marketing-speak, Faulkner’s digression sentences can seem impossibly foreign. Modern readers remain hungry for literal interpretation—‘what does it really mean?’—but the ornate and violent brushstrokes of Faulkner’s writing layer one image over another, one thought or moment piled into another in a chain of associations. His is writing that postpones understanding, and by doing so allows him to sketch out a moment and a thought as fully as possible.
Faulkner’s influence, as befits his thematic subject matter, is everywhere and nowhere. The scale and intricacy of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Macondo owes much to Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County. While the Southern Gothic tradition in American letters stands somewhat apart from Faulkner, the institutional weight it carries is owes much to his achievement. The ghost of his prose—that hazy, heat-induced sense of consciousness diffuse—is all over Cormac McCarthy, whose Blood Meridian is, with Moby Dick and Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, part of a triumvirate of American hubris, memory, and sin.
And yet ‘sin’ is not at all the right word: Faulkner’s vision is never deterministic. His characters, though sometimes given little choice by the pressures of time and place, are never absolved of their actions. His understanding of the human condition is profoundly American: we may be shaped by forces larger than ourselves, but that does not mean that our consciousness is false. His characters shape and discover themselves as they enact their destinies, though ‘destiny’ as a concept seems thin and fragile against richness of their lives.
In Light in August, the most accessible of his masterpieces, Reverend Gail Hightower’s fixation on his Confederate grandfather, and Joe Christmas’s enactment of a racial archetype, are obsessions at once chosen and chosen for them. Faulkner never believed in anything as reductive as unencumbered choice or as banal as inevitability, a point that should be taken on board by both right and left in American discourse. His refusal of absolute divisions between ‘individual’ and ‘community’ led him in the same direction as William James and John Dewey, though he came at it not from a theoretical background—Faulkner was a largely unschooled and un-apprenticed writer—but from a thoroughgoing exploration of human character.
This is his refashioning of humanism in the American mould: a refusal to carve a model of human consciousness that privileges reason above history and bloodlust and faith. It leaves space, above all, for hope, a theme that resounds through his Nobel acceptance speech, delivered from a welter of drinking in a voice so restrained that most of those present did not know what had been said until they read it in the next day’s press.
Faulkner understood the effects of violence and discrimination and—yes—terrorism. It is believed that he may have witnessed a public lynching at the age of 11; the violence-as-spectacle of the Ku Klux Klan underwent a significant revival in the 1920s. Faulkner grew up in an area in which lynching was still practiced, often with the smirking acquiescence of civic elders; the Civil War was still within living memory, and even when time and complacency and progress had smothered its public expression, veterans were still obviously identifiable by their broken bodies and missing limbs.
Nowadays, Faulkner’s Chorus—the overpowering voice of the community, the weight of collective consciousness—is exemplified and enhanced by the round-the-clock excess of the mass media. Faulkner’s work is full of torture and violence and abuse, sanctioned and sanctified by the collective fear and bloodlust and wounded self-righteousness of the crowd. In 2005, when record numbers of soldiers return home without limbs, cable news television replays images of extra-judicial torture carried out in the name of civil society, and the nation finds itself engaged in a conflict mired in bad faith, Faulkner is every bit as relevant as he was in 1932.