Faulkner and Love

August 27, 2009

A quarter of a century ago, Judith Sensibar set up in opposition to William Faulkner's "official" biographer, Joseph Blotner, by insisting that Faulkner's ten-year "unromantic but fascinating" apprenticeship in poetry was crucial to his development as a novelist and should not be overlooked.

In this latest revisionist biography, Sensibar again comes out fighting, intending to confront the attitudes that have seen Faulkner judged as a "magnificent failure", partly due to his commitment to a "'disastrous' and 'doomed' marriage to a hopeless hysteric".

Sensibar partly achieves her objectives by making a compelling case that Faulkner's racial and sexual aesthetics were informed by the combined influence of three women: his mother Maud, his black "mammy" Caroline "Callie" Barr, and his wife Estelle. Readers with a feminist perspective, however, may well feel that Sensibar does not go far enough.

Faulkner and Love will become an important source in the field of Faulkner studies, as it presents the findings of new research, specifically interviews with Faulkner's daughter Jill and with relatives of Callie Barr, that shed new light on Faulkner's formative experiences and his marriage.

This "new information" is used to argue persuasively that Faulkner's aesthetic was shaped by his experience, common in the American South of his childhood, of growing to love and then having shamefully to reject one's mammy as part of one's indoctrination into Jim Crow culture.

Sensibar also argues that Maud Faulkner's influence allowed Faulkner the space and encouragement he required to become an artist, and most provocatively, that Faulkner's early fiction should be looked upon as the result of a collaboration between him and Estelle.

The implications of this argument are groundbreaking. At various points, Sensibar accuses other Faulkner biographers of outright misogyny in their interpretations of what was already established of Faulkner's marriage and his creative process. Their ideological blindness is likened to that of the white male historians who suppressed evidence of Thomas Jefferson's black ancestry.

And yet, having observed this, I would question some of the attitudes expressed towards the women in Faulkner's life, particularly Maud and Estelle. At one point, Sensibar assumes that Maud "unknowingly" tutored her son to adopt a questioning attitude. While acknowledging that early in their "collaboration" Estelle's work was more "sophisticated" than Faulkner's, Sensibar judges that ultimately he reconfigured her "modest and forgotten tales".

In focusing on revising biographical accounts of the influence that these women had on Faulkner's education, Sensibar is a little insensitive when glossing over the termination of Estelle's efforts as a writer, coincidental with her marriage to Faulkner, and her relegation to the role of proofreader to the "great American novelist".

Having read Faulkner and Love (if not Estelle's fiction), some might ask questions concerning the effects of Faulkner's "borrowing" and the extent to which he suppressed an original and subversive talent. There is something almost dismissive about the way that Sensibar describes one of Estelle's stories as a "fairly sophisticated analysis and cultural critique", having earlier described her as "no Zelda Fitzgerald".

Faulkner and Love will divide opinion among Faulkner specialists and provide a valuable source for students looking for explanations of the racialised sexual imagery found in his great novels. The general reader may find this heavy going, as much of Sensibar's illustration refers to Faulkner's novels alongside sources that are unpublished or not widely circulated, such as letters and manuscripts. However, these are well described, and with a little patience one finds in these pages a fascinating account of a writer's racial and sexual education in the racially divided American South.

Faulkner and Love

By Judith L. Sensibar. Yale University Press, 624pp, £25.00. ISBN 9780300115031. Published 1 April 2009

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