Discussed in this essay:
The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War, by Michael Gorra. Liveright. 448 pages. $29.95.
William Faulkner’s short story “Dry September” is about a lynching in Mississippi. But we never see the white woman make the accusation. We never see the black man dragged into the woods and hanged. What we see are the prelude and the aftermath. First there is an argument in a white barbershop over whether the accused is guilty and whether he should be lynched. Nobody on either side knows the precise nature of the allegation. There is a description of the weather: “The air was flat and dead. It had a metallic taste at the base of the tongue.” And then there is a description of the accuser’s routine:
She lived in a small frame house with her invalid mother and a thin, sallow, unflagging aunt, where each morning between ten and eleven she would appear on the porch in a lace-trimmed boudoir cap, to sit swinging in the porch swing until noon.
A group of white men kidnap the accused, pull him into a car, and drive off. Then we see the accuser fly into hysterics in a movie theater. Her friends put her to bed and hold ice to her temples, but “soon the laughing welled again and her voice rose screaming.” Finally, we see one of the men from the barbershop come home from the lynching drenched in sweat. He hits his wife, angry at her for waiting up. The story ends with a description of what this murderer sees and hears as he looks out his bedroom window: “There was no movement, no sound, not even an insect. The dark world seemed to lie stricken beneath the cold moon and the lidless stars.”
That narrative structure—a cyclone swirling around an omission—is Faulkner’s signature device. A conventional story is a continuous chain of cause and effect. Take a close look at just about any classic—“The Lady with the Dog,” “The Gift of the Magi,” “Sonny’s Blues”—and you’ll find that the narrator shows you how one thing leads to another, which leads to another, all the way to the end. Faulkner’s narrators, by contrast, tend to leave out the most important events. His novel The Sound and the Fury revolves around the suicide of one of the central characters, but there is no account of the suicide; his novels Light in August and Absalom, Absalom! center on homicides, but there is no account of either act. The reader is left to surmise and imagine them.
In his critical biography of Faulkner, The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War, Michael Gorra suggests that this device, the device of the gaping void, is part and parcel of Faulkner’s depiction of the white South, the culture that produced him. That culture, during Faulkner’s lifetime, from 1897 to 1962, was so determined to look away from its own crimes that its narratives were fragmentary by necessity, avant-garde via denial. Faulkner created narrators who told redacted stories of the South because he sought to dramatize the way in which the white South redacted its own story. “In sermons and stained glass, memoirs and works of history, in fiction and poetry and finally in film,” Gorra writes, the white South falsified its past, casting it as a struggle for a “divinely ordered white supremacy.” To do so, the white South omitted the most barbaric aspects of slavery and Jim Crow. That is, it skipped the most important parts.
Gorra, an English professor at Smith College and a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books, is a lucid and rigorous critic, adept at weaving studies of Southern literature and politics into Faulkner’s biography. He argues that much of Faulkner’s work circles around one particular great void: the Civil War. The war is, in Gorra’s words, both “nowhere” and “everywhere” in Faulkner’s writing, “not dramatized so much as invoked.” “He rarely makes it an explicit subject,” writes Gorra.
At times it seems an ellipsis in his work, a lacuna; the eye of a hurricane, the still center of destruction. . . . The war as a whole remains his missing center: an all-determining absence, a gap hardwired into the novelist’s very imagination.
The Civil War is the lynching in “Dry September” writ large, the hole around which everything in Faulkner’s oeuvre spins.
The great-grandson of William Clark Falkner—a Confederate colonel, trashy bestselling novelist, owner of human beings, and minor railroad baron who was twice acquitted of murder and for whom the North Mississippi town of Falkner is named—Faulkner grew up in a downwardly mobile but respectable family in nearby Oxford, the home of the University of Mississippi, or Ole Miss. Evenings in his boyhood, in his grandfather’s parlor, he listened to old Confederate veterans swap war stories, and it’s likely he passed the hanged body of a lynching victim one morning on the way to school. He became an idle but ambitious young poet with aristocratic affectations, known around town as “Count No ’Count.” He added a “u” to his surname, attended Ole Miss on and off, and spent three years running its post office, a job that enabled him to steal modernist literary magazines that were mailed to the library. In his twenties he moved to New Orleans, where he was mentored by Sherwood Anderson, whose book Winesburg, Ohio, a collection of linked stories all set in one small town, inspired him to create Yoknapatawpha County, a fictional version of Oxford and its environs.
He returned to Oxford in his early thirties, and despite a formidable drinking problem, a torturous marriage, and a second vocation as a hack writer of commercial fiction and screenplays, wrote four brilliant novels set in Yoknapatawpha: The Sound and the Fury (1929); As I Lay Dying (1930); Light in August (1932); and Absalom, Absalom! (1936). During roughly the same period, he also produced great short stories: “A Rose for Emily” (1930); “That Evening Sun” (1931); “Dry September” (1931); and “Barn Burning” (1939). Then he fell into a long literary senescence, churning out deeply flawed novels even as he attained literary celebrity, winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949 and two Pulitzers, in 1955 and 1963, the latter awarded posthumously; he’d died the year before, alone in a private hospital for alcoholics in Byhalia, Mississippi. Despite the gorgeous museum that has been made of his Greek Revival antebellum home, and despite the statue of Faulkner in Oxford’s town square, and despite the handsome metal sign in front of the house where his parents lived, and the hundreds of other handsome metal signs all over Mississippi calling attention to the state’s literary, musical, political, and military landmarks, there’s nothing to show the inquiring visitor the place where Faulkner died of his addiction. The gruesome center of the story is omitted. All you can do is stand in the AutoZone parking lot that now encompasses the spot where he collapsed with a cry of pain and look at the remains of the hospital complex, the small white house with green shutters where the sanatorium’s owner once lived.
Faulkner was given to cruelty. When his daughter Jill, on the eve of her birthday, begged him to end the bender he was on, he told her, “No one remembers Shakespeare’s child.” He was physically abusive toward his wife, Estelle Oldham, a fellow drunk, fellow Oxonian, and fellow novelist; when there was only one copy of Light in August in the world, a stack of unbound manuscript pages, she threw it out the window of a moving car. (She had given him the title, walking out onto a portico of their house and saying, “Does it ever seem to you that the light in August is different from any other time of year?”)
In middle age, he staked out what was then a centrist position on integration, proclaiming that he had the same goals as the leaders of the civil rights movement but believed a “go slow” approach was best. For this he was criticized by W.E.B. Du Bois and James Baldwin, and threatened with death by local white supremacists. He condemned the murder of Emmett Till but lauded “the courage and endurance” of the Southerners who resisted Reconstruction, even though the Southern resistance to Reconstruction largely consisted of acts similar to the murder of Emmett Till. One of his numerous sources of torment was a “civil war within Faulkner himself,” Gorra writes: a conflict between his racism and his commitment to conveying painful truths in fiction.
The shape that his narratives assumed was the result of that internal civil war, Gorra argues. The white supremacist in Faulkner caused him to avert his eyes from some of the South’s most hideous crimes; there are no whipping scenes, no scenes in which men tear children from their mothers’ arms and sell them, no descriptions of finger bones displayed in the windows of gas stations and general stores as mementos of lynchings. But the truth teller in Faulkner compelled him to peer, fleetingly, into the forbidden chamber of Southern shame, over and over, describing other monstrosities. In Absalom, Absalom!, plantation owners’ teenage sons command overseers to bring them women from the fields whom they then rape in the bushes. In that same novel, Thomas Sutpen, a white, slaveholding patriarch, gouges men’s eyes in forced wrestling matches, as his son, made to watch, vomits. It was published the same year as Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, which, with its portraits of buoyant, slavery-loving enslaved people and chivalrous Confederate officers, won the Pulitzer.
Faulkner’s cyclonic stories evoke not only the delusional collective memory of the white South but also the mind of a traumatized person. Those who suffer from trauma “have no choice but to circle around their own experience, trying but not quite daring to look,” Gorra writes, drawing on the work of the literary theorist Cathy Caruth. “We draw close, we turn away, we try again, try to approach the place where we least want to be and yet must, drawn by its fascination and horror.” The Sound and the Fury tells the story of the Compson siblings, the decadent grandchildren of a Confederate general, from four separate points of view, but none of the narrators can bring themselves to describe the novel’s catastrophic turning points: the out-of-wedlock pregnancy of Caddy, the beloved only daughter, and the suicide of Quentin, the most promising of the three sons. The novel is both a portrait of the postbellum Southern upper class and a portrait of any traumatized family: it creeps up to the truth and backs off, creeps up and backs off, again and again, haunted by what it will not face.
The pall cast by slavery and Jim Crow is everywhere. The terror and oppression visited on black people in Mississippi obliged white families to deny black blood in their ancestry, often counterfactually, and this drives a number of Faulkner’s plots. In Absalom, Absalom!, Thomas Sutpen’s son Henry shoots Sutpen’s other, secret son, Charles Bon, who is mixed-raced but regards himself as white, to keep him from marrying their sister Judith. It’s not the incest that bothers Henry—as a general rule, Faulkner’s characters are open-minded about incest—it’s the prospect of the family line being tainted with blackness that drives Henry to fratricide. In Light in August, a “parchmentcolored” curly-haired orphan bootlegger named Joe Christmas, who is unsure of his own race, kills his rich, white lover, Joanna Burden, after she proposes that she help him start his life over as a middle-class black man. Both killings exemplify the gaping omissions in Faulkner’s work; they are never described. At the time of the fratricide in Absalom, Absalom!, the two brothers have just returned from fighting for the Confederacy, though their experiences in battle are never related in any detail. What was Henry fighting for if not to prevent a black man from marrying his sister, even if that man was his brother? In Light in August, Joanna Burden is the only remaining member of a Yankee family that came to Mississippi just after the war; her brother and grandfather were murdered by a former slave owner for supporting the local black population. Her suggestion that Christmas embrace blackness is the last stand in her family’s doomed struggle to force change on the South.
For Gorra, this structure—the way it enacts the madness of Southern racism, and indeed Faulkner’s own, by swirling around an absence—is part of a larger argument for the importance of reading Faulkner today, not in spite of but because of his failings. And indeed, other writers have been drawn to this tension. Toni Morrison, who wrote about Faulkner in her master’s thesis, spoke of his method in an interview with The Paris Review in 1993:
Faulkner in Absalom, Absalom! spends the entire book tracing race and you can’t find it. No one can see it, even the character who is black can’t see it. . . . As a reader you have been forced to hunt for a drop of black blood that means everything and nothing. The insanity of racism. So the structure is the argument. . . . It is the structure of the book, and you are there hunting this black thing that is nowhere to be found and yet makes all the difference. No one has done anything quite like that ever.
One can find traces of Faulkner’s technique, turned to different ends, in some of the best contemporary novels. Consider Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy. Shortly after publishing the first volume, Cusk said, “It’s something that the novel should take as law, that things have to happen offstage. . . . The novel has gone so far down the road of showing, and the showing is so inauthentic.” Cusk shows us nearly nothing of Faye, the trilogy’s narrator. We never find out what she looks like, how she talks, how she moves, how she dresses. Nor is that the only lacuna. Though the third volume of the series, Kudos, was written after the 2016 election, there is no sign of Trumpism, not even an oblique reference, until a whiff in the very last paragraph of the book, which is also the last paragraph of the trilogy. Faye is taking a solitary swim in the ocean, in an unnamed country that resembles Portugal, a country that has been described to her numerous times as afflicted with sexism and warped forms of masculinity. The beach is full of naked and nearly naked men.
One of them got to his feet, a huge burly man with a great curling black beard and a rounded stomach and thighs like hams. Slowly he walked down towards the water’s edge, his white teeth faintly glimmering through his beard in a smile, his eyes fixed on mine. I looked back at him from my suspended distance, rising and falling. He came to a halt just where the waves broke and he stood there in his nakedness like a deity, resplendent and grinning. Then he grasped his thick penis and began to urinate into the water. The flow came out so abundantly that it made a fat, glittering jet, like a rope of gold he was casting into the sea. He looked at me with black eyes full of malevolent delight while the golden jet poured unceasingly forth from him until it seemed impossible that he could contain any more. The water bore me up, heaving, as if I lay on the breast of some sighing creature while the man emptied himself into its depths. I looked into his cruel, merry eyes, and I waited for him to stop.
This stranger is characterized by his outpouring, by his abundance of piss. The narrator’s extreme reluctance to talk about herself throughout the trilogy is recast in these final lines as a pointed contrast to an effusive, contemptuous, male polluter of nature and the commons. Faye’s reticence—the eye of the storm—now takes on an aspect of political resistance. (A number of critics have noted the “anti-confessional” aesthetic of the trilogy, its refusal to assume the confessional mode ascendant in literature.)
One can also see this structure in Ben Lerner’s 2019 novel The Topeka School. In a scene near the end of the book, the protagonist, Adam Gordon, is at the playground with his daughters and confronts a dad who refuses to make his son share the slide. Attempting diplomacy, Adam says, “I’ve been asking for your help in making the playground a safe space for my daughters.” When the intransigent father tells him to fuck off, Adam smacks the man’s cell phone to the ground without realizing what he is doing: “Only when I heard it clatter on the asphalt was I fully aware I’d knocked the phone out of his hands.” Adam averts his eyes from his own capacity for violence, unable to narrate, unable, in the moment, even to experience it.
But the book tracks the way in which a kind of intellectual violence has been integral to Adam’s career. His excellence in high school debate, founded on his ability to overwhelm others with an effusion of specious arguments—known as “the spread”—helped him get into an elite college, and his gifts as a poet and novelist are not wholly separable from that education in verbal combat. Adam knows this, and knows that the life he has made for himself has been attained through a series of competitions in which white upper-middle-class people like him enjoy structural advantages. It is only physical violence that he abhors. He cannot accept that he is capable of raising his hand against another man in front of their children. And yet, to satisfy the impulse toward domination, he must win this showdown with the dad at the playground. We know from the sections of the book set in Adam’s high school days that he grew up in a culture of aggressive, performative masculinity in which he and his friends got into fistfights and “tried to rhyme about bitches and gunplay.” The opposing drives toward gentility and aggression make a continuous narrative impossible, forcing him to dissociate at the critical moment. He must smack the phone to the ground but he must not admit to himself that he has done so. The gaping void, for both Faulkner and Lerner, imitates a mind looking away from what it knows.
At his best, Faulkner was mounting a literary rebellion against an effusion of depraved storytelling: the fount of piss, or “spread,” as it were, of the Lost Cause narrative. The tireless spouting of self-justification and falsification epitomized by The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind was the culture Faulkner grew up in, and the culture he repudiated by leaving a great gap in his work where the Civil War should have been. In his serious novels, he abjured all those scenes of Confederate gallantry and dash, all those gleaming bayonets, and instead showed us the talkative and absurd white Southerners who came after, who told incoherent and untrue stories of their own history, stories full of holes.