William Faulkner’s civil war: New book by Michael Gorra takes fresh look at seminal writer

  • Michael Gorra, author of a new book about William Faulkner, at his home in Northampton. The Smith College professor says Faulkner remains an important voice today for examining racial conflicts in the U.S. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Michael Gorra, author of a new book about William Faulkner, at his home in Northampton. The Smith College professor says Faulkner remains an important voice today for examining racial conflicts in the U.S. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Michael Gorra, author of a new book about William Faulkner, at his home in Northampton. The Smith College professor says Faulkner remains an important voice today for examining racial conflicts in the U.S. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Michael Gorra, author of a new book about William Faulkner, at his home in Northampton. The Smith College professor says Faulkner remains an important voice today for examining racial conflicts in the U.S. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • “The Saddest Words” by Michael Gorra mixes literary analysis, history and biography in examining the work of William Faulkner.

  • William Faulkner in 1954, the year before he won his first Pulitzer Prize (he won a second posthumously in 1963). Photo by Carl Van Vechten/Library of Congress

  • In novels such as “The Sound and the Fury,” William Faulkner used multiple characters and stream of consciousness narration to examine the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow laws in the South.

Staff Writer
Published: 10/15/2020 3:17:08 PM

Michael Gorra’s first real brush with William Faulkner came just over four decades ago when, as a recent Amherst College graduate, he was teaching a summer literature course at a private high school. On the syllabus was one of Faulkner’s early novels, “As I Lay Dying,” a story told with multiple narrators and a very fluid sense of time.

“I found it baffling,” Gorra, a longtime English professor at Smith College, said in a recent interview. “There were 15 different characters, all serving as narrators, and I had no idea when the story was set. I didn’t know what to make of it.”

But Gorra eventually warmed to the book, entranced by Faulker’s use of language and his evocation of the old American South. He moved on to read additional work by the Mississippi writer — “The Sound and the Fury,” “The Unvanquished,” Absalom, Absalom!” — and has now been teaching Faulkner for the bulk of his career.

And in his new book, Gorra, a longtime book reviewer who lives in Northampton, makes the case that Faulkner remains not only one of the greatest American 20th-century novelists but a vital read today for understanding the fractured history of the South, the U.S. Civil War and the racial problems that continue to hobble the nation.

“The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War,” by Liveright Publishing, offers a mix of literary analysis, history, biography and the author’s own observations on America’s continuing racial conflicts. It’s a follow-up of sorts to his 2012 book, “Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece,” a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in biography that examined James’ life through the lens of his novel “The Portrait of a Lady.”

“The Saddest Words” is a much broader study that explores Faulkner’s work as a whole, with a close focus on several novels and their characters; he also offers a look at the writer’s short stories and his work as a Hollywood script doctor and screenwriter.

Most importantly, Gorra details the way Faulkner wove the Civil War and the South’s painful legacies — slavery, Jim Crow laws, rape and miscegenation, the myth of the Civil War as an honorable “Lost Cause” — into his fiction in a way no white writer of his time did.

For instance, his novel “Absalom, Absalom!” of 1936, which many critics consider his greatest book, centers on the character of Thomas Supten, a white planter in the Civil War era with both white and mixed-blood children. Those children later meet and become friends without knowing their common paternity — and Supten’s choices on how to address these circumstances lead to tragedy.

“He really gave us a sense of our history and how it’s still with us,” said Gorra. “As he famously said, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’” And, as Gorra writes in his new book, Faulkner also saw the South as “cursed” by its past.

Also central to “The Saddest Words” is the distinction Gorra makes between Faulkner the writer and Faulkner the Southern white man (born in 1897) who grew up in the Jim Crow era, with all the prejudice and racism baked into that time. Faulkner, writes Gorra, “used racial epithets almost every day of his life” and in 1931 told an interviewer that “Southern Negroes would be better off under the conditions of slavery than they are today.”

But, Gorra maintains, Faulkner became more clear-minded in his writing, more critical of the white South and more sympathetic to the Black experience, very aware of how the South had failed to progress after the Civil War; he was not one to romanticize the conflict as a noble failure or traffic in the white Southern sense of victimhood.

“The pen made him honest, and from the beginning he skinned his eyes at the racial hierarchy in which a part of him never stopped believing,” Gorra writes.

“Some people believe there should be a fusion between (writers and their fiction),” Gorra said. “There’s a sense among some that a bad person’s writing is discredited. But I think the connection is more complicated than that.”

An ‘intensely local’ writer

That said, Gorra notes that Faulkner’s fiction rarely touches on the “punishing regime” that Blacks endured under slavery such as beatings and families being broken up by sales. Nor do his African American characters seem as well drawn as the white ones, Gorra notes, though other reviewers of “The Saddest Words” have noted that Faulkner’s Black characters do transcend the kind of racist stereotypes common to many white Southern writers of the time.

But Gorra also argues that Faulkner created a unique world with his stories by setting many of them in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County in northern Mississippi (with the town of Jefferson standing in for his own hometown of Oxford). By examining that world and its imagined history so closely, Gorra says, Faulkner built an enduring platform for looking at the South as whole: “He would enter his bid for greatness by becoming the most intensely local of American writers.”

Though there’s some basic biographical information about the author woven into “The Saddest Words,” Gorra says he chose to frame Faulkner’s views and writing within the history of the Civil War and the post-war South.

“He’s not that interesting as a subject of biography,” he said. “He didn’t keep a diary, he didn’t have a lot of close friends, so there weren’t a lot of letters … there’s not as much information to draw on” as for other people.

Gorra’s approach makes for an engaging read, as he revisits Civil War battles such as Gettysburg, Shiloh and Vicksburg that crop up in Faulkner’s books; letters and journals from the war; and the violence of the post-Reconstruction South, including several episodes in which whites openly murdered Blacks to disenfranchise them.

The author also examines the history of Confederate monuments — certainly a topical issue today — noting that most were built in the late 19th century, as Jim Crow took root in the South, and in the 1960s, when white backlash flared against the civil rights movement. As such, they were symbols of White supremacy as much as anything, Gorra writes, and Faulkner knew they promoted a false vision of the war: “(H)e believed that the principle on which that cause was built was evil.”

Faulkner’s own contradictions on race persisted up to his death in 1962. He believed segregation had to end in the South — and was vilified by many Southern whites as a consequence — but he frustrated Blacks with his calls for gradual desegregation. He also gave a notorious drunken interview in 1956 in which he said that if federal troops were sent to his home state to enforce desegregation, “I’d fight for Mississippi against the United States even if it meant going out into the street and shooting Negroes.”

But in the end, says Gorra, Faulkner is still a brilliant writer whose books provided a close and critical view of Southern history and whose work still speaks to the lingering stain of racism. There’s also Faulkner the stylist, the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winner whose language and fluid treatment of time echoed the work of James Joyce and Marcel Proust.

“He was a modernist writer who believed in storytelling,” said Gorra. “He had extraordinary range, and he could be very funny.”

And if Faulkner the writer and Faulkner the person cannot be reconciled, then those contradictions also reflect the continued schisms in American society over race, writes Gorra. And Faulkner’s own divisions “speak to us … of a battle in which the right side doesn’t always win and he fights others as a way of fighting himself; of the civil war within. The human heart against itself: it was always his best subject.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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