Through Fire and FloodPrint
Faulkner’s best fiction emerged from his willingness to face crises
By Jay Parini
December 1, 2009
Becoming Faulkner: The Art and Life of William Faulkner, by Philip Weinstein, Oxford University Press, 250 pp., $29.95
One would have thought that too many biographies of William Faulkner have already been published—the list of recent works in this area includes my own biography (2004); André Bleikasten’s astute biographical study, William Faulkner: Une vie en romans (2007); and Richard Gray’s fine critical biography (2004). Joseph Blotner’s mammoth two-volume study, which came out in 1974, remains a touchstone for all critics and biographers. And now we have Becoming Faulkner by Philip Weinstein—a critic who has devoted decades to Faulkner studies and written two books focused wholly on the great Southern novelist, as well as a more widely ranging book called Unknowing: The Work of Modernist Fiction (2005). That study looked closely at Proust and Kafka as well as Faulkner, and it remains a basic text in the field. So do we really need another book on Faulkner’s life and work? If so, what can it add?
Anyone who understands the nature of biography will know that no single study of a life is ever definitive. The finer the novelist, the truer this seems. And Faulkner—the most complex and compelling of American novelists—remains inexhaustible, both as a man and a writer. In my view, a biography is never more than a “take,” one additional perspective, necessarily subjective. A critic as lively and well informed as Weinstein will always have something to add. Becoming Faulkner attempts, quite successfully, to locate the origins of the work in the author’s developing psyche—an evolutionary and less than easily defined process signaled by that elusive word in the title: becoming.
Fiction takes root in what T. S. Eliot called “significant soil.” That soil, in Faulkner’s case, was his little “postage stamp” of a place in Mississippi—what became Yoknapatawpha County. The idea of place is well-worn territory, of course. Here Weinstein looks at Faulkner’s complex involvement with that place, examining his familial and social connectionss, which were rooted in time as well as place—the mid-20th century. The implications of Faulkner’s historical situation are interesting, and Weinstein reflects on these connections in fresh ways, seeing how Faulkner absorbed them into his own stories in a life that was, after all, its own complex narrative.
Faulkner retold versions of his own story again and again in his fiction, tirelessly dropping his bucket into the same well to draw new water. What I like about Weinstein’s study is a willingness not to tie things up too neatly. In a sense, he takes his cue from Faulkner himself—the master of improvisation, of letting loose ends flap. Just as Faulkner in Absalom, Absalom! insisted on the messiness and waste of any life and the entanglement of our lives with the lives of others, Weinstein allows for “the failure of personal coherence.” He writes: “Each individual struggles to make something, but the larger cultural loom on which the individual ‘patterns’ are plotted and pursued is defective.” (He’s alluding to a metaphor in Faulkner’s novel, wherein each character is seen as working at a loom, trying to “weave his own pattern into the rug” but finding it impossible because of the distorting complications of society.)
Faulkner, more than most writers, exposed himself to the messiness of life, and so the activity of “becoming” Faulkner turned into what Weinstein calls “a risk-filled project in ongoing time.” That is, the author exposed himself repeatedly to anxieties, difficulties, problems. Weinstein notes that in later years, when Faulkner failed to submit himself to these crises, his fiction lost some of its power to startle and disturb readers.
If anything, Faulkner’s greatest work centers on whatever crisis lay at hand for his characters. The storm always comes first, and there is rarely much calm afterward—just storm and more storm. The reader is torn apart by novels like The Sound and the Fury or Light in August because he senses Faulkner’s own willingness to face the harsh light of familial and historical burdens (indeed, part of the problem with Joe Christmas, in the latter novel, is his relationship with the aptly named Joanna Burden.
Faulkner’s better novels and stories summon characters who face the persistent threat of destabilization. Even a comic masterpiece like As I Lay Dying discomforts the reader at every turn as the family of Addie Bundren attempts to honor her desire for burial in the town of Jefferson. Indeed, they go through fire and flood to get her there, and these disasters are as much figurative as literal. Their journey soon becomes the journey of the reader. That was Faulkner’s special gift: to make us care so much, to wrap us in the world of his narrators—Cash, Darl, Jewel, Dewey Dell, Vardaman—each of them with a strong point of view.
At the center of Weinstein’s book is a chapter called “Dark Twins,” which bears an epigraph from W.E.B. Du Bois: “The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color-line.” It’s certainly the problem for Faulkner and his major characters. Weinstein casts the racial problem in “the binary terms of blindness and insight,” admitting that “this opposition is too stark.” Faulkner’s “twinship with blacks remained inalterably occluded, troubled,” as he stumbled “between the two poles.”
In Faulkner’s own life, Mammy Callie (or Caroline Barr, her real name) was important. This generous black woman helped to raise him, and her closeness to the author cannot be fully understood in contemporary terms. She was a dominant figure, perhaps the most important person in his life. One sees reflections of her in Dilsey Gibson in The Sound and the Fury or Molly Beauchamp in Go Down, Moses. On this subject, Weinstein revisits his own earlier thinking and writing. He wonders what it really meant for Faulkner to proclaim his “love” for Mammy at her funeral service, as he did. “Perhaps no love is innocent,” Weinstein writes, “and one that crosses the membrane of race is least so.”
Faulkner’s heavy, often suicidal drinking was, like his attitudes toward race and Southern history, deeply troubling and difficult to comprehend. I remember feeling unsettled about this topic when I interviewed Faulkner’s only child, Jill, some years ago. She told me that her father drank himself to oblivion. He would go on periodic binges, drinking without pause till he collapsed. She stayed out of his way when he was drunk, or he would threaten “to rearrange” her features, as she put it. I don’t doubt that Faulkner was abusive when drunk; in truth, he was a full-blown alcoholic. What this means, in terms of his writing life, seems nearly impossible to comprehend. “Faulkner was unprepared for experience as it actually arrived,” Weinstein tells us. He used his drinking as a way of sidestepping whatever overwhelmed him.
He drank to forget himself, to bury any awareness of his countless failures as husband and father, as brother, uncle, even as “citizen of the South,” as Weinstein puts it. He also drank because of “professional anxiety.” Like all writers, Faulkner encountered this anxiety repeatedly—but it seemed to increase with the years, as writing became more difficult and his concentration more scattered by alcohol and age. Perhaps the last “major Faulkner” was Go Down, Moses (1942). In any case, there was a lot of darkness and dissatisfaction in his last two decades, which yielded only minor (if entertaining) work, including the Snopes trilogy and A Fable (1954), a truly boring and largely unreadable novel of World War One.
“Writing,” says Weinstein, near the end of this thoughtful book, “was how Faulkner reckoned with what had happened to him in life.” He experienced as drama the endless contradictions and contrarieties that merged in his consciousness, translating them into prose that outlasted him. The task of making fiction was inextricably linked with the process of “becoming Faulkner”; serious readers of Faulkner will be grateful to Weinstein for what he tells us about this strange, often painful, process.
Jay Parini is a poet, a novelist, and professor of English and creative writing at Middlebury College. His most recent book is New and Collected Poems, 1975–2015.
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