William Faulkner: Seeing through the South

April 2, 2009

Flannery O'Connor declared that William Faulkner was "the Dixie Limited", and while she demonstrated no fear that her fiction would be overshadowed by his, the idea persists that writers should fear being stalled in the wake of the Faulkner juggernaut. His influence is such that some critics continue to compare each new "regional" writer to Faulkner, while others expose the very propensity to delimit Faulkner as the official interpreter of Southern culture when his prose remains enigmatic, its depths revealed with each new critical approach.

Faulkner's posthumous status is also the subject of parody, as when the novelist Harry Crews imagines Faulkner as a commodified Christ - his face a Shroud-of-Turin image on a T-shirt. It is therefore significant that John T. Matthews' lucid critical biography examines Faulkner's writerly persona and his rich fiction as developing organically out of precise aesthetic and social preoccupations best illustrated through a variety of methodologies. Just as Faulkner created Yoknapatawpha as an imaginary place with "William Faulkner, sole owner and proprietor", so Matthews endeavours to present his "entire imaginative career as a distinctively coherent project".

The wide reach of Faulkner's writing allows for such ambition. This study reads closely all Faulkner's novels and a number of short stories; it reads them both thematically and chronologically, in comparison and counterpoint, for innovative formal qualities and compelling storytelling. Matthews has previously explored modernist, post-structuralist, materialist and Marxist ways of reading Faulkner, and this critical suppleness benefits and supports student readers. He is as comfortable reading Absalom, Absalom! for its dark disquisition on the myths of New World colonialism as he is tracing the new mercantilism that nuances As I Lay Dying.

If there is a fault, it is merely a stylistic tic that derives from Matthews' intention "to suggest what a Faulkner for our times might be". This is the least effective element in his overall achievement. Materialist criticism has ensured that reification of the representative writer "for all time" has receded in academic work, but there is evidence of a disturbing new tendency to reach for anachronistic and awkward analogies, as in Ron Powers' Mark Twain: A Life, which compares him to Bob Dylan and describes him as "the nation's first rock star". Anachronistic analogies do not always work as the culturally suggestive indices their authors may intend. Here, they are not so forced. However, after a short but illuminating reading of the short story Elly, in which the protagonist is usefully compared with sexual renegades that recur across Faulkner's imaginative career, it is superfluous to add that Elly "dreads her ordained lot as a Stepford Wife".

Matthews' admirably clean prose is a key strength, given that the Wiley-Blackwell introductions hope to stimulate general as well as student readers. But the occasional aside jars: "Faulkner made a splash by authoring a pair of well-reviewed novels. This is easy, thought Bill." Fortunately, these do not intrude beyond the introductory chapters once Matthews' authoritative command over writer and period is fully established and the general reader is hooked.

We do not need to imagine Faulkner anew for our times when - as Matthews demonstrates in a deft reading of A Fable and in myriad ways throughout this study - reading Faulkner is always a journey through time as well as space. Faulkner died in 1962 as the US civil rights movement reached its height, but stories as differently inflected as Absalom, Absalom!, Light in August, Intruder in the Dust and The Mansion return readers to the intimate and internecine history with which US race relations is underscored. When Lucas Beauchamp proclaims "I'm a man" in the 1942 story The Fire and the Hearth, readers cannot help but cast forward to black sanitation workers in Memphis carrying placards on which that single sentence summarised the strikers' demand for civil rights.

Faulkner once confided that his ambition was "to put everything into one sentence - "not only the present but the whole past on which it depends and which keeps overtaking the present, second by second". William Faulkner: Seeing through the South guides readers through the innovative and imaginative project according to which such creative endeavours may be understood.

William Faulkner: Seeing through the South

By John T. Matthews. Wiley-Blackwell, 309pp, £45.00. ISBN 9781405124812. Published 1 January 2009

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