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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Lessons from Faulkner

In these blogs I've mentioned several times that I have begun reading classic American novels from the early 20th century. This month I grabbed Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury from Gail's bookshelf. She had read it in high school; I had not previously read anything by Faulkner.

Aside from the exasperating pleasure of coping with Faulkner's style, I was surprised by how familiar the setting, the dialog, and the issues in the book were to me. Northern Mississippi as Faulkner described it is much like Butler County in south Alabama where my ancestors lived from the 1820s to the 1900s. The characters in the book, and Faulkner himself, were contemporaries of my grandparents and great-grandparents whose mannerisms, cadences, and figures of speech I remember clearly. I thought of them as I read conversations in the book. Also, Faulkner articulated not only the absolute separation between the white and the black but also the more subtle yet unyielding separation between the wealthy white and the indigent white. Then and now, that’s an important struggle to be mindful of when thinking critically about the rural South.

But most poignantly for me, Faulkner’s theme was the aftermath of righteous judgment inflicted upon the South for its manifold sins – an era when Southern values had been proved to be irreversibly corrupt, the failure of whites to find and abide by a new system of values was causing successive generations of them to stumble, and redemption was at best an uncertain possibility. This interpretation of the Southern condition turned out to be both accurate in its day and forward-looking. It took another 30 years after the book for the Civil Rights movement to make headway and for a replacement system of values to begin to emerge in the South, however slowly and unevenly.

The Sound and the Fury cautions us that blind adherence to widely accepted principles – even principles like honor and duty that might appear to be impeccable – can have morally ambiguous if not disastrous consequences. (A similar message came from fictional Col. Nathan Jessup in A Few Good Men.) Southerners who don’t deny their connection to the 19th century know that principles are not infallible, that evil can dominate society, and that wars can be lost. I hope that Southern writers never stop representing this history to the entire nation as a prophylactic against our overconfidence and smugness.