English Professor Philip Weinstein Discusses Inspiration for Award-Winning Book on William Faulkner
Fifty years after William Faulkner's death, English literature professor Philip Weinstein argues that the Nobel Prize-winning author's views on race are not just central to understanding his work, but also abidingly pertinent to American society today. In Becoming Faulkner: The Art and Life of William Faulkner, out this spring in paperback, Weinstein says that Faulkner refused to shy away from the damage that racism caused, and examines how Faulkner's tortured personal life informed his creative one. Published by Oxford University Press, Becoming Faulkner is the recipient of the 2011 C. Hugh Holman Award, the highest honor bestowed by the Society for Study of Southern Literature.
"Faulkner's best work never passes off racism as normal," says Weinstein, a wellregarded authority on the author. "It always explores its consequences, shows how unjustifiable it is, and the damage it does to blacks and whites." That work includes Absalom, Absalom, Go Down, Moses and Light in August, which celebrates its 80th anniversary this year.
Weinstein says that reconciling Faulkner's racial sensitivity with longstanding criticism of some of his public statements about and portrayals in his work of blacks is part of an ongoing conversation - one that helps us to understand slavery's continuing impact on American society.
"Slavery has been the thorn in the side of our national identity since the get-go," Weinstein says. "We're in better shape, and we'd be foolish to think things haven't changed. But its consequences are still with us."
Raised in Tennessee, Weinstein attended public school at the same time the U.S. Supreme Court decided Brown v. the Board of Education. When a high school chemistry teacher said that integration of the public schools would lead to violence and Weinstein inquired why, the teacher assaulted his character. "You don't ask the question again when you get that kind of attack," Weinstein says. "At 18, I left the South, went away to the Northeast, and have stayed away - except for returning to Faulkner."
Weinstein, who joined Swarthmore's faculty in 1971, is the Alexander Griswold Cummins Professor of English and teaches seminars in modern comparative literature, as well as courses in American and British fiction. The recipient of several NEH Fellowships, his comparative interests-centered on Kafka, Proust, and Faulkner-are most fully explored in his Unknowing: The Work of Modernist Fiction (2005). But Faulkner is his abiding focus and he is the author of two previous works that center on him: Faulkner's Subject: A Cosmos No One Owns (1992), What Else But Love? The Ordeal of Race in Faulkner and Morrison (1996).
Peter: Thank you all for coming. It's my pleasure to introduce Phil Weinstein today, who will give a faculty lecture to the community. And I'd like to introduce him by talking a little bit about Phil as a colleague, and also Phil's career as a scholar and teacher at Swarthmore 'cause I think the context of that will be very important for you to understand the importance of Phil's work that he's currently doing, a biography of Faulkner.
So there's some extra chairs over there if you need them, and some refreshments in the back. Phil has published a good many books, beginning with a book on Henry James, and then a book on Faulkner, and then a book on Faulkner and Morrison, and also two books that assay a broader history of the novel, especially modernism's role within that history. The first was Semantics of Desire: Changing Models of identity from Dickens to Joyce, and then the book Unknowing, The Work of Modernist Fiction.
And Phil's new project is a biography of Faulkner from which we'll hear excerpts today, I believe. With this book Phil intends to reach a broader audience beyond academia, and he will do so by making a daring move. He will write his usual jargon-free and beautifully modulated prose, but he'll reject the comforting illusion that most biographies give us of a life developing progressively and steadily, even if mishaps occur, towards a conclusive meaning and resolution that is the aim of biography to show us.
Phil's biography, Becoming Faulkner, wants to capture how, quote, "Faulkner might not have become Faulkner." As Phil says in part in part of the manuscript that he gave me, quote, "Retrospection magically transforms the messy scene of ongoing present time into the congealed order that it later appears to always have been heading for," unquote. Phil wants to help us understand, to place us in those moments when Faulkner struggled, just as his characters endlessly do.
Our complacent retrospective sense of Faulkner's greatness inevitably obscures the turbulence Faulkner wrote that eventually made him matter to the world. An only born teacher with long experience was making students and readers comfortable, even attracted, to paradox, could pull this off. At least that's what I think. You can listen today and judge for yourself.
Before I turn the podium over to Phil though, I'd like to offer a few reflections on the whole of Phil's career at Swarthmore as a scholar and teacher, for while Phil's career is a model of successful achievement in retrospect, I think that obscures how hard Phil has worked to tussle with the complexities of literary text. It's a little like Jacob wrestling with the angel. You can't be blessed by the angel unless you wrestle first, long and hard, and if you survive as Jacob did, you may receive a new name for yourself as, metaphorically speaking, Phil has done.
Phil's capacious sense of the whole of Faulkner's work was present from the very beginning, in his very first article on Faulkner's career, published in 1977 in Studies in American Fiction, it was called Precarious Sanctuaries: Protection and Exposure in Faulkner's Fiction. This early essay is full of lucid observations on individual novels and a sharp sense of the curve of Faulkner's career as a whole. While his greatest works come only in mid-career, "Ultimately," Phil says, "Faulkner moves from the shock of unassemitable experience to the savor of experience digested and recollected. At midpoint are Absalom, Absalom!, and Go Down, Moses, and some other key works, those narratives that fuse self alienating exposure with self-reconstituting commemoration," unquote.
Phil would mine the rich ore of insights in this early essay for several decades, as would Faulkner's criticism as a whole, a worldwide effort to help us understand why Faulkner matters, in which Phil has played a major role. But Phil also progressed by revising and rethinking. Some of the key moves his first Faulkner essay made, particularly on why Faulkner's great period is linked to Faulkner's dangerous rethinking of the meaning of race for the south and for America race, especially the problems caused by the obsession with white purity, is important to Phil's first essay on Faulkner's career, but it's hardly central.
That changes with Phil's primary book on Faulkner, and of course, also his book on Faulkner and Morrison, two works whose ideas were first tested in Swarthmore classrooms. Phil and others have shown that by the late 1920s the problem of race for Faulkner decidedly did not mean the black problem, as white supremacists were fond of calling it, but what James Baldwin and others were later to name as the white problem at the heart of America's convulsive racial history.
If whites so needed to contrast themselves to blacks and other races as their inferiors, it meant that without such comparisons they did not not know who they were, much less could honorably imagine who they might become. We now understand that Faulkner's infinite inventiveness in his great middle period was driven by his need to fragment, or rupture, familiar southern narratives validating white supremacy, and under-riding it's versions of the American past. Faulkner did this, Phil shows, by heightening the anxieties and traumas that those narratives try to suppress.
Phil's Faulkner books are part of a much larger project. Unknowing the Work of Modernist Fiction builds on the semantics of desire and represents the fruits of several decades of teaching courses in comparative literature. It's Phil's most ambitious book, for it places what Phil calls the deconstructive work of modernist fiction within the larger context of both the enlightenment and more contemporary development known as post-colonialism and post-modernism.
I'd like to give you Phil's thesis about the importance of unknowing, for it's worth understanding for it's own sake, and as a way of introducing Phil's talk today. In Phil's reading, the great figures of the western enlightenment philosophy from Descartes, to Bacon, to Locke, to Kant, posits the emergence of a unified individual self that progressively come to know itself, and come to know the world around it. Fictional narratives did not really follow developments in enlightenment natural philosophy. They put what it posits to test in narrative, asking and then illustrating what it would be like to live in time and place by such rules.
Fictional literature, then, is the co-creator, with natural philosophy, of the enlightenment world, and of all literature it is, for Phil, what comes to be called realist fiction, that plays the most important role. Realism measures on a day to day basis how well it's heroes and heroins learn from experiments in living. As the opening of Dickinson's David Copperfield says, "Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by somebody else, these pages must show."
Further, Phil demonstrates in Unknowing, how the plot resolutions of realist fiction, the hidden, and often surprising, end towards which the narrative circuitously moves underwrites the developing coherence of everything prior to it, so that in the end, retrospectively, we can better see and understand the contributions of all the parts to the creation of the realized whole, the protagonist's accomplishments and stature, at the novel's end. We are left with synthesis, not shattered fragments.
In the great modernist fiction writers, including Conrad, Joyce, Proust, Kafka, Wolff, and especially Faulkner, enlightenment narratives of a coherent self regressing to know and possess itself and it's world are doubted, thwarted, and undone just as, not coincidentally, theories of the progress of history towards the fulfillment of enlightenment, as the ideals were themselves put under stress by history, especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
These authors teach us, often painfully, to face this undoing. As the critic Fredric Jameson has said, "History is what hurts." But Phil shows us that the great modernists also gave us strategies for survival, strategies that begin by noticing that there is a problem, thus Joyce's Stephen Dedalus laments, "History is the nightmare from which I am trying to awake."
I must add that I'm less persuaded by Phil's analysis in Unknowing of contemporary postcolonial and postmodernist fiction. I'm not sure his sharp division between the postcolonial and the postmodern is as sustainable as he claims, nor would I agree that the western postmodernism, even at it's finest incarnations as in fictions. Pynchon's novels, for instance, is mostly a techno [inaudible 00:10:04] parody, and [inaudible 00:10:05] flights of fancy and pyrotechnics. I'm even somewhat uneasy with the terms by which Phil defines the postcolonial powers of writers such as Garcia Marquez and Morrison.
Now, I would certainly agree with Phil that these two writers set the loom of narrative differently than the modernist, and I honor in particular the brilliance of Phil's readings of A Hundred Years of Solitude and Beloved, but I wonder if it's adequate to stress that to be, for Garcia Marquez's Buendias is to move securely within space, time, and identity, is adequate to that novel, much less to suggest that recent fictions use of folk and oral narrative forms means that it refuses the epistemological drive, the thwarted will to know, that is so central to Faulkner's tragic fiction.
As Phil's book also shows, Garcia Marquez and Morrison sought to render the ways in which post-slavery societies in North and Latin America are still in torment because of the legacies of colonial slavery. Garcia Marquez work traces the effects not just of the Buendias' self confidence, but also of what he calls solitude. One of his names for the devastating, historical hauntings caused by the enlightenment prerogatives that gave the quest of freedom and development to some at the cost of blood and tears for others.
I want to close by stressing and celebrating what I take to be the heart of Phil's achievement. He made us know the necessity of unknowing. If we don't, we won't be honest with ourselves about our history and our current predicament. Several gratuitous thinkers of the 20th century have been crucial for Phil as a teacher and as a scholar, including Walter Benjamin and Emmanuel Levinas, but none of these is arguably as important as Freud, and over the course of his many books and articles Phil has given readings of Freud that put together, make a case for him as a great modernist writer of prose equal to the others mentioned.
In particular I urge you to think about Freud's key distinction between a narrative as fetish and a narrative as the work of mourning, or in German, [foreign language 00:12:25]. Phil's work has done much to help us understand the importance of these two concepts, and they in turn have given crucial impetus to Phil's own historical project. Stories that act as fetishes give us false but very satisfying sense of wholeness. They deny trauma and the need for mourning by displacing these outside, or away from us and our story, via processes of infinite deferral and denial. Freud's work of mourning, in contrast, does the hard labor of getting us finally to face loss by naming and then renaming it, figuring it so that each time we may, at least that is the hope, get close to incorporating it within ourselves.
It's what Phil has come to call, "The work of unknowing." As Phil shows, Quentin, and [inaudible 00:13:21] in Absalom have to sort through the labyrinthian narrative fetishes, false answers of earlier storytellers, in order to approach the semblance of an answer. They can do so only by making sure the mystery and trauma of [inaudible 00:13:32] legacy is theirs to be lived by them eternally, not treated as a puzzle to be solved safely at a distance. Phil has been a most energetic investigator and storyteller helping us to know the collective past that we didn't even realize we needed to face.
He strengthens us by showing us why we have to distrust the temptations of closure that narrative offers. If resolution is the mark of realism, and the defining move of modernism is shock, the signature of the best literary criticism explicating these areas would be resolving for us why that shock had to occur, and why we can survive it only if, like buildings designed to sway in earthquakes, we will not fight those shocks, but let them resonate through us. Phil's work has that signature, and that's why it's invaluable. Please welcome Phil to the podium today.
Phil: Thank you Peter. That's quite an introduction. It's unnerving to hear yourself introduced like that. That makes you want to meet the person being described. We need to talk further. We have much that we share, and I learned, I think, a couple of things about where I was going that I wouldn't have been able quite to articulate before, but that discussion is not what I want to talk about today.
A few years ago I succumbed to an invitation to write a biography of Faulkner. I'm not a biographer. I kept saying that to this agent. I did say if I were to write one it would seek to center on an interweaving of the life and the work that so far none of his biographers had managed to write, I thought, and it would be short, under 300 pages. This past year on leave I took my shot at that book and got it written. So I'm gonna read from the third chapter, the chapter on race. The book is called Becoming Faulkner, and along the lines that Peter was proposing, it interrogates the notion of becoming. Essentially it claims that we know what a becoming is only by looking after it and seeing that something has become. It doesn't feel like that while it's happening.
I've no new biographical information to propose, and I'm not really even trying to offer brand new readings of the novels, but I want to bring the life and the work together dialectically as circulating, each of them, around trouble and time, unpreparedness for what time brings, assault, and outrage. So each chapter opens on trouble in Faulkner's life and goes on to explore the kinds of trouble he learned to write in his best work connected to those life troubles but not predictable by them.
He stumbled often. His life was a mess in may ways. His great work centers on stumbling and he makes his readers stumble. This connection is not accidental. I've wanted for some time now to learn how to reach a non-expert audience, and at the same time say serious things about difficult literature. That's what I've tried to do in this book, and if what I say today doesn't reach you, you're a virtually ideal audience, then I guess I'm the one in trouble and not Faulkner. So here goes.
Dark Twins, Faulkner and race. He had apparently been drinking very heavily and the outrageous words tumbled out, "If I have to choose between the United States Government and Mississippi then I'll choose Mississippi. If it came to fighting I'd fight for Mississippi against the United States, even if it meant going out into the street and shooting Negros." So spoke Faulkner in a New York interview with Russel Howe. It was early 1956. Civil rights turmoil was approaching a boiling point.
A young black woman named Autherine Lucy had been accepted into the University of Alabama. Southerners were already rioting at the prospect, but a federal court ordered the university to admit her nevertheless. Faulkner desperately wanted Lucy and the integrationist who stood behind her to back off. He thought she would not enter the university alive. Word of his desire to speak got out and the reporter set up an interview. The interviewer, Russel Howell, might have been amazed to hear America's foremost novelist, however intoxicated, speak as he did.
Well, the interview appeared in print. Faulkner was horrified at his own words. He had seen no prior draft. He immediately wrote a letter to the reporter explaining that the statements attributed to him were, quote, "Ones which no sober man would make, nor any sane man believe." Off balance in that charged interview moment, he felt betrayed by the mirror image of his own quoted voice. A month later he would claim that Howell's interview was more a misconstruction that a misquotation.
Even though accurately reported, as Howell strenuously insisted, the views expressed in that interview were not his, Faulkner's words, but not his thoughts. Not really Faulkner. Something more than incoherence is at work here. Dark Twins, the title of this talk, is a phrase Faulkner used in his second novel, Mosquitoes, to characterize the intricate bond between an author's life and his work. A book is a writer's secret life, the dark twin of a man. You can't reconcile them.
The phrase conveys a pairing that is intimate and inalienable, yet foreign and impassable. The two entities are bonded by way of a barrier that estranges the one from the other, and with respect to race, a realm already implied by dark, the phrase may suggest a similar, vexed bonding, Faulkner's abiding twinship with blacks, and his no less abiding difference from them by way of his whiteness. The dark face that he as a southerner sees in the mirror proposed by race cannot be his own, and yet he fleetingly glimpses himself there as well.
Though broadly, for several centuries in the south, the two races have been intertwined and cordoned off, at once inseparable and unreconcilable, scandalously connected by mixed blood though segregated by law. Most of his countrymen denied the twinship, insisting instead on the unbridgeable difference of darkness, but Faulkner, caught in a weave of racial realities he could neither master nor escape, moved through this uncertain territory like a man careening between the poles of blindness and insight, deeply fissured within. He found himself making incompatible utterances, each true to incompatible convictions.
Recurrently he appeared and heard himself as not Faulkner. He knew at once too much and not enough. His lifelong immersion in a sea of race enacts this paradox in a range of ways. The default pole in Faulkner's paradoxical racial stance is this identification: He is not his dark twin. Shooting Negroes is an utterance, however accidental and unintended, whose hostility cannot be explained away. It's hard to imagine his saying shooting whites, no matter how drunk he was.
Somewhere inside his psyche, inculcated there and confirmed by his region's truisms, he could envision shooting Negroes. His words to how, in that same interview, further reveal an incapacity to enter black lives. Remember, he's drunk a little bit when he's saying this. "I've known Negroes all my life," he proclaimed, "Negroes work my land for me. I know how they feel." Warming to his theme he added that, if it came to violence, "My Negro boys down on the plantation would fight against the north with me. If I say to them, 'Go get your shotguns boys,' they'll come."
The master slave model is patent. He's the master of the plantation, they it's obedient workers. He's the man. They're the boys. He gives orders, they follow suit. This widely shared fantasy failed the south in the civil war when black slaves, given the chance, fled in huge numbers from their astonished southern masters, and the fantasy is all the more outrageous when sounded in 1956. Even drunk, he had to have known that neither his home, Rowan Oak, nor his farm, Greenfield Farm, was a plantation.
Or is it that in foundational matters the passage of time itself turns illusory, that beneath and behind the 20th century southerner's home and farm there lurks the destroyed yet indestructible Antebellum plantation? Shortly before the Howell interview Faulkner made another widely quoted racial statement. "Go slow now," he had appealed to black leaders in an article appearing in Life magazine, "Stop now for a time, for a moment," he urged them.
Brown vs. The Board of Education, decided by The Supreme Court in 1954, had given the black leaders leverage, offering Lucy's admission to the University of Alabama was legally unstoppable. You have the power now, he wrote, but it is a power to be restrained. Other race focused statements during the mid 1950s intimated that when he said, "Go slow,' he meant really slow.
Questioned in a 1955 interview in Japan, he glossed the change sanctioned by Brown as follows, "That will take a little time. The negro himself has got to be patient and sensible, but it will come, as I see it, and maybe in 300 years." 300 years. Elsewhere he would speak of 500 years. He was urging blacks to adopt a pace of political change that could only appear to them as glacial. Abstractly he wanted black emancipation. He knew, and publicly proclaimed, that Jefferson's 1776 Declaration of Independence, followed by Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, meant no less.
But on the ground in the south, such emancipation was unimaginable. Go slow actually meant don't, not yet, not until we are ready. He knew his region's white people to well to believe that they were anywhere near ready, and speech after speech, letter after letter, during the 1950s, he urged patience on blacks and a change of mind on whites, not a change of heart. He had spent his life paying attention to, and making sense of, white hearts in the south. He knew the anger and frustration seething there.
An outburst of uncontrollable racial violence was what he feared, forcibly admitting Autherine Lucy into the University of Alabama would release it. At heart, for him, it was the white south at risk, not it's black people. At a Southern Historical Association conference in Memphis in 1955 he said the following, "We will not sit quietly by and see our native land, the south, not just Mississippi but all the south, wreck and ruin itself twice in less than a hundred years over the negro question."
In private correspondence he was more colloquial, his stance more forthright. He wrote a concerned fellow Mississippian of his fear that, "For the second time in a hundred years we southerners will have destroyed our native land just because of niggers." Just because of niggers. The word just, not to speak of niggers, resonates with centuries of inculcated racism. Why won't they be patient, wait out a change in white behavior and politics that is admittedly overdue but that will in time arrive?
White hearts could not be forced to change, but black hearts, and again one here sees this identification, black hearts could be made to alter more swiftly. He came to believe that integration would become possible only if Negroes ceased to be Negroes. During his year of teaching at the University of Virginia 1957, 1958, he pronounced the following, "Perhaps the negro is not yet capable of more than second class citizenship. His tragedy may be that so far he is competent for equality only in the ratio of his white blood. He must learn to cease forevermore thinking like a negro, and acting like a negro. His burden will be that, because of his race and color, it will not suffice him to think and act like just any white man. He must think and act like the best among white men."
Well, even granting that Faulkner was speaking to white organizations at a white university, this speech distorted the realities it backhandedly recognized. Faulkner granted a history of miscegenation only to imagine it's unintended benefits for blacks. He focused not on the scandal of white abuse, but on the fantasized potential that the resulting fraction of white blood in black veins would in time enable more, just as white brutality was erased in this vision of miscegenation, so was it erased in his insistence that black behavior be equal to the best of white behavior.
The same distortions had appeared a year earlier in his letters to the leaders of the negro race. There he urged those leaders to say to their followers, "We must learn to deserve equality so that we can hold and keep it after we get it." Deserve equality. Faulkner's phrasing rejected Jefferson's insistence on equality as a self-evident truth in need of no prior deserving. Not so for blacks. Faulkner was willing to mortgage their equality to demonstrated proofs of merit.
And missing from these utterances was the capacity to enter empathically into black lives, to envisage those lives as already precious and in need of support on their own terms. For him and pronouncements such as this one, no equality for blacks until they looked just like whites, and smelled more like whites too, quote, "But always he advised black leaders to tell their people, 'Let us practice cleanliness in our contacts with the white man.'"
If such obtuseness about racial turmoil were the last word concerning Faulkner's dark twinship it would be mainly a matter of much darkness and little twinning, the pull of dis-identification would be triumphant. Most black leaders and white radicals read him thus, and they ended by expecting little from this famous southerner. Even if it meant going out into the street and shooting Negroes, Faulkner had found himself saying in 1956, "It may be hard in the 21st century in America to recall the race fueled violence that blanketed the southern landscape like immovable summer heat during the first half of the 20th century."
One of Faulkner's finest stories, Dry September, opens on a note that bonds implacable weather with inexorable violence. Through the blood September twilight aftermath of 62 rainless days it had gone like a fire in dry grass the rumor, the story, whatever it was, something about Miss Minnie Cooper and a negro. Faulkner wrote that story in 1931. 25 years earlier Memphis was widely recognized as murder capital of America.
So much of Memphis's routine violence was racial that it's leading newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, thought fit in 1906 to exhort it's readership as follows, "This thing of killing Negroes without cause is being overdone. White men who kill Negroes as a pastime usually end up killing white men. The norms running through this editorial that newspapers live and die by shared norms testify to the casual entrenchment of southern racism."
The editorial assumes that all readers of the paper are white, that white killing blacks is being overdone as a pastime, like irresponsibly killing game beyond the limits of the hunting season, and that the disturbing consequence of such foolish behavior and the reason for the editorial, is that white men could end up getting killed. Murdered blacks claim editorial notice only insofar as overdoing the practice could lead to future white deaths.
But what racist conventions explain the stunning callousness of these norms? To approach that question adequately goes way beyond what I could do, or certainly what I have the time to do here. It involves the history beginning over four centuries ago with the middle passage and new world slavery, but a much shortened version may start with the quietly racial organization of social space in the 20th century south quietly. This ordering system imposed by whites and more or less tolerated by blacks often functioned smoothly.
I grew up in such a quietly segregated Memphis 50 years after it's being dubbed murder capital of America. In the mid 1950s Memphis proudly sported a new title apparently won in nation wide competition, "Cleanest city in America." That appellation would become searingly ironic a decade later when Martin Luther King, intervening in a protracted garbage collector's strike, was gunned down at the Lorraine Motel in downtown Memphis. Killing Negroes continued unabated, but this time the cause was not in doubt.
Ever since Plessy versus Ferguson, the landmark supreme court decision upholding segregation in 1896, separate but equal, whites and blacks had lived in elaborately stratified worlds. As C Vann Woodward noted, the proliferation of Jim Crow laws throughout the south before and following Plessy, underwrote a racial barrier extending to virtually all forms of public transportation, to sports and recreations, to hospitals, orphanages, prisons, and asylums, and ultimately to funeral homes, morgues, and cemeteries, from cradle to grave.
Yet the two races so kept apart also rubbed shoulders constantly. Restaurants, trains, buses, drinking fountains, swimming pools, public toilets, might be quarantined into segregated spaces, but in country stores, at Saturday markets, in private homes, not to mention other territories devoted to commerce, whites and blacks shared social space. Faulkner was born into a world that confidently organized his experience of blacks, how he would engage them, when and where he would see them. The scene of racial segregation did not always operate smoothly.
From the 1890s through the 1930s Mississippi's James Var daman and Theodore Bilbo exploited powerfully a white anxiety that liberated blacks would be dangerous blacks. These two politicians channeled and rode a wave of racial anger often referred to as the rise of the rednecks. Plantation patricians, men who had to be careful in their treatment of blacks, however contemptuous their thoughts about them, since black workers were required to make their cotton profitable, increasingly gave way to populous leaders exploiting the incense, thoughts, and fears of poor whites.
Soon after Var daman became governor in 1903 he declared, "6,000 years ago the negro was the same in his native jungle that he is today." A year later Var daman expanded on his subject," You can scarcely pick up a newspaper whose pages are not blackened with the account of an unmentionable crime committed by a negro brute, and this crime I want to impress upon you, is but the manifestation of the Negro's aspiration for social equality, encouraged largely by the character of free education en vogue."
The rumor, the story, whatever it was, something about Miss Minnie Cooper and a Negro. Decades of post-Bellum southern racial practice had made such rumors commonplace, their credibility immediately to be granted, but Faulkner tried many years later to make the case for a single system of public education in Mississippi for whites and blacks alike. He was up against an almost impenetrable thicket of long nurtured apprehension and resistance, and fanned to it's most vicious form of expression, such hostility would flare into the ritual violence of lynchings. Faulkner claimed he had never witnessed one.
There's no reason to doubt him, but Mississippi led the nation in lynchings during this period. In the 20 years from 1889 to 1909 at least 293 blacks where lynched there, more than in any other state in the union. One of the most notorious lynchings, that of Nelse Patten, occurred in Oxford Mississippi, Faulkner's town, in 1908. Patten was thought to have murdered a woman named Mattie McMillan with a razor blade. He fled the scene but was soon caught by outraged whites.
Historian Joel Williamson has shown how journalists and politicians fed the flames of an ensuing racial fury. First reported as a white woman, Mattie was within hours referred to as a white lady. At first she was killed, but within hours the papers reported her as assaulted and killed. Furious Oxford citizens caught Patton and stubbornly refused to let the law take it's course. Brick by brick, for many hours and by many hands, they tore down the symbolic courthouse to get at Patten, extricate him from the protections guaranteed by law. They riddled his body with bullets, and strung him up naked and mutilated on a telephone pole where his body remained on display all night.
10 year old William Faulkner slept only 1,000 yards away from the courthouse that night. He didn't have to have seen that ritual dismembering to remember it's impact for the rest of his life. I cast Faulkner's immersion in American race relations in the oppositional terms of blindness and insight, dis-identification, and identification. That's probably too stark. Neither the blindness nor the insight operated alone, uncomplicated by it's other. Instead Faulkner's views and feelings oscillated stunningly between the two poles.
His twinship with blacks remained dark, occluded, troubled. It also became at times radiant. More, and this is not a popular position, his troubled relation to racial turmoil is revealing in ways that simply being right could never be. No white southerner of the mid 20th century saw race with innocent eyes, but what they saw was race as their heritage conditioned them to experience it. One sees by way of the cultural training that makes seeing possible. Now this is not all that one can see, and so no act of seeing is predictable in advance, condemned to stereotype.
Faulkner did not access racial turmoil as a non-white or non-southerner might. How could he? But he did bring to us particular access, all that his racial and regional experience, along with his global travels during the 1950s, and his imagination permitted him to grasp. His stance suffered recurrently from blindness, and it was recurrently inconsistent. It didn't reduce to those limitations. Stumbling is not only error, though it always is error, and there are dimensions of mid-century racial turmoil that you would have had to have been there and stumble through to grasp at all.
In his letter to a northern editor Faulkner identified one of those dimensions. Aligned with neither the citizen's counsel nor the NAACP, he described himself as being in the middle, seeking to ward off disasters, disasters arising from either of the two extremes. Grace Hale has persuasively argued that the middle position Faulkner clung to, and which would not survive Brown versus The Board of Education, was southern white liberalism. After Brown in 1954, the die was cast. You were either for integration or against it.
Most southern white liberals reluctantly retreated to a white moderate position. They wanted to avoid violence, but when the chips were down they would not turn against the prerogatives of a society founded on segregation, so Faulkner found himself even more isolated as he refused to endorse either extreme. He had no platform to stand on, no socially shared position to argue from, and that stance reveals both the strength and the limits of his racial understanding.
Faulkner's post-Nobel Price travels for the state department in the 1950s opened his eyes to how the rest of the world was watching America struggle with it's race problem. A patriot before the cold war, Faulkner had become more emphatically one during the cold war, and he could not bear the possibility of Russian exploitation of America's failure to grant equality to one tenth of it's people. "To live anywhere in the world of AD 1955," he announced to the Southern Historical Association, "and be against equality because of race or color is like living in Alaska and being against snow."
Perhaps it took his travels to make him realize that after the costly and exhausting war against Hitler, it was outrageous to oppose human equality, but his Oxford friends and family opposed it. His brother John pointedly wrote to the Oxford Eagle attacking Faulkner's arguments. They were never to understand his apparent apostasy. They knew he didn't want to live on an equal basis with blacks any more than they did, and they hated his pretending that he did. He was not pretending that he did, but he could not affirm any other position than equality in mid 20th century America.
His countrymen hated not only what they took to be his posturing, many of them hated him as well. When he publicly asserted that the evidence supporting the death penalty for Willie McGee, a black man convicted of raping a white woman, was insufficient to justify that decision, he was attacked as either a deluded writer seduced by his imagination, or someone seditiously aligned with the communists. A year earlier he had courageously criticized in public a Mississippi court's decision to spare white Leon Turner from the death penalty.
No one doubted that Turner had murdered three black children, but the jury couldn't bring themselves to execute a white man for this crime. Faulkner knew how swiftly the jurors would have decided otherwise had the race of the killer and the victims been reversed, and he wrote the commercial appeal that Turner, when eventually released, would at some point murder another child, who, it is to be hoped, and with grief and despair one says it, will this time at least be of his own color.
Later in September 1955, news of the savage murder and mutilation of young Emmett Till reached Faulkner in Rome. Having just completed an enlightening three weeks visit sponsored by the state department in Japan, Faulkner could not bear to hear this news from home. For the next few days he wrote and re-wrote a statement he would release to the American press.
"Perhaps we will find out now whether we are to survive or not," he said, "Perhaps the purpose of this sorry and tragic error committed in my native Mississippi is to prove to us whether or not we deserve to survive, because if we in America have reached that point in our desperate culture when we must murder children no matter for what reason or for what color, we don't deserve to survive, and probably won't."
During this turbulent period he seems at times to have feared for his own life. To his Danish friend Elsa Johnson he wrote in June 1955, "I can see the possible time when I will have to leave my native state, something as the Jew had to flee from Germany during Hitler." Man in the middle. Historians are probably correct to see that, politically, this was the disappearing position once Brown became American law.
White liberal guilt would hardly light the way to a post civil rights future. For that it would take wide scale agitation, coordinated marches, tactical confrontations, multiple strategies. It would take mass media coverage, and above all it would take courageous black leadership. Ultimately, in ways Faulkner was never positioned to understand, it would be blacks themselves, by the thousands and thousands, who masterminded the strenuous nationwide campaign to emancipate blacks.
Why did he so exercise himself in a cause he must have recognized as unwinnable on his terms? Perhaps his most revealing answer came in an essay he wrote in 1954 on Mississippi. There, and barely concealed autobiographical terms, he revisited his lifelong experience of his native land. He was born of it, and his bones will sleep in it, loving it, even while hating some of it. You love what you hate. You love it to spite what you hate about it. What you hate is too deeply rooted to disappear just because you wish it would.
What you hate was not far to find. But most of all he hated the intolerance and injustice, the lynching of Negros not for the crimes they committed, but because their skis were black. The middle is where no effective racial politics could be constructed in the mid 1950s, but it was where, stumbling and contradicting himself, seeing too many competing realities to get them into a single vision, Faulkner found himself. He didn't want to be there, but the crises was urgent. He had to engage it. He knew in his novelistic bones that race trouble in America wasn't going away soon, no matter what the politics for addressing it.
His much maligned phrase, "Go slow now," meant all the reactionary things it has been glossed to mean, but it meant something more. The national malady of violent racism permitted now specific remedy to cure it once and for all. No governmental antibiotics existed for ills in the body politic, ills that had been here since the first slave ship arrived over four centuries ago, ills so long established as to seem virtually constituent of American reality.
Regions, let alone countries, don't remake themselves in a month or a year. Politicians often will not think in long range terms for reasons both good and bad. Novelists do. The human heart in conflict with itself, as Faulkner put it in his 1950 Nobel Price speech, operates outside of the instrumental terms of problem and resolution. Dramas of the heart are perennial, they're not about winners and losers.
As he put away his speeches and his public letters in the later 1950s, he must have felt an immense sense of frustration and fatigue. There was so much work on race still to be done, but he lacked the heart and energy to pursue it further. He knew no one was looking to him for it. Could he have realized that his supreme contribution to the understanding of racial turmoil in his native land had already been made?
It lay behind him in his finest novels, and I want to turn for a few minutes now to Light in August. This was published in 1932, and it's Faulkner's breakthrough novel about racial turmoil. It's as though he sat up in bed after a nightmare one night and asked himself, "What would it feel like if I suddenly found myself to be one of them? What would I feel like?" There was no question of what they would feel like. The novel didn't ask who, as a community living in segregated freed man's districts of every town in the south, who they might be, no empathic entry into southern blackness, almost no blacks in the novel at all. What was required was that the one suffering from race relations be white.
A man trapped in a weave of racial rumor about his identity at it's core genetic level. He had to be unable to know what blood ran in his veins. This narrow optic brought to focus and extraordinary insight. Beneath the surface confidence of southern whites ran a racial insecurity bordering on hysteria. If a drop of black blood was thought to make a white man black, who might no unknowingly carry this topic drop? No one could see the internal wreckage that drop would have wrought. Invisibly infected carriers might be anywhere.
Such anxiety might be enough to make many a white man in the segregated south have trouble going back to sleep once he'd sat bolt upright and wondered, "What if I were black and didn't know it?" White in August, like all of Faulkner's great work, is hard to read because it's materials do not unfold in familiar fashion. None of the opening chapters seems to prepare it's readers for the one that comes next. Preparing one for what comes next is the role of tradition itself, and the very unfolding of Light in August sets off an alarm. Tradition is useless here. You will not be ready for what is coming, nor will you know who to follow when it arrives.
Seemingly minor, this deviation from standard novel practice is major. From Clarissa Harlowe, through Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, Jake Barnes, great novels of western fiction tell us early on who matters more and who less, where to train our eye. They economize our passage through the time of reading, reassuring us that we still have to remain alert, at least we're on the right track. Faulkner takes five chapters and introduces a trio of possible protagonists, Lena, Byron, Hightower, before he settles in on Joe Christmas.
He also insinuates that though we come to know Christmas intimately, we do not know a cardinal fact of his existence; his racial identity. Joe does not know this either. In Faulkner's previous novels, such not knowing would be of no importance. None of them engages racial identity as a question. Light in August does. It's pages do little else, with astonishing consequences. How can racial identity be a serious question in a novel with almost no black characters, and yet racial hysteria, like a bomb threat, can flare up uncontrollably, with neither blacks nor bombs anywhere to be found.
In an essay entitled Stranger in the Village, James Baldwin explains the logic of this hysteria, "At the root of the American Negro problem," Baldwin writes, "Is the necessity of the American white man to find a way of living with a Negro in order to live with himself. The Negro in America," a phrase with hyphens, "is a form of insanity which overtakes white men." Dark twins. It's as though the American white man has been surreptitiously infected with negro-ness. The insanity such infection releases is white alone. My figurative speech invokes the blood which is Light in August's obsessive concern.
Joe Christmas is incapable of finding a way of living with the Negro in order to live with himself, and this because he senses his dark twin living in-ejectably blood coiled beneath his skin. Now how does Christmas come to believe this? How does Faulkner let us find out? The first scene where we realize Christmas may be black occurs some 70 pages into the book, far enough along for readers to feel tricked, which is to say to resent the authors not giving us in advance this racial information we want.
We're 50 pages already into Christmas's company. We deserve better. This resentment, and I think it's deliberately fostered by Faulkner's procedures, boomerangs on us once we ask what's at stake, and our having to know first off about character's racial pedigree. Here is the scene in question. Joe Brown, Christmas's erstwhile partner and cabin sharer, is being grilled as he explains to an angry public what he's been doing with Christmas. Christmas is suspected of having slit a white woman's throat, Joanna Burden's, set fire to her house, and fled. A thousand dollar reward has been offered to anyone who can identify the killer, and Brown wants to collect it.
The riled town, however, wants to know, what was Brown doing at the scene of the fire? Another character, Byron Bunch, narrates what comes next. "'I reckon he was desperate by then. I reckon he could not only see that thousand dollars gettin' further away from him, but that he could begin to see somebody else gettin' it, because they said it was just like he'd been savin' what he told 'em next for just such a time as this, like he had known that if it come to a pinch this would save him.'
'That's right,' he says, 'Go on, accuse me. Accuse the white man that's tryin' to help you with what he knows. Choose the white man and let the nigger go free. Choose the white and let the nigger run.' 'Nigger,' the sheriff said, 'Nigger?' 'It's like he knew we had them then, like nothing they could believe he had done would be as bad as what he could tell that somebody else had done.'
'You're so smart,' he says, 'Folks in this town is so smart. Fooled for three years, calling him a foreigner for three years. Soon as I watched him for three days I knew he wasn't no more a foreigner than I am. I knew before he even told me himself.'" And then watching him now, and looking now and then at one another. "'Now you better be careful what you're saying if it's a white man you're talking about,' the Marshall said, 'I don't care if he's a murderer or not.'
"'A nigger," the Marshall said, ' I always thought there was something funny about that fella.'" Well five times, hurled into that space of contestation, the word nigger magically reconfigures the stakes involved. Brown exits from the scene of suspicion as Christmas comes to fill, to overfill, that space by himself, all eyes, with previously blurred vision now corrected to 20/20, are turned on this absent figure. Nigger is bad enough. What is intolerable is that none of them spotted him in advance.
The Marshall warningly trots out to Brown, the south's hierarchy of crimes. To murder someone is less culpable than to call a white man a nigger. Subsequent recognitions click into place. "'I always thought there was something funny about that feller,' the Marshall says, 'His access to this recognition is revealing. The lack of clarity he and his countrymen felt during their actual of Christmas has been satisfyingly dispelled.'"
Now they know what that was all about. Retrospective judgment silently reconfigures earlier experience so that it fits later prejudice. Uncertainty gets corrected into fixed and fatal conviction, and it doesn't stop there. Joanna Burden, while alive, a strange Yankee woman living alone in their vicinity, becomes, once dead, a martyr to southern honor, the victim black bestiality. Quote, "Among them were those who believed aloud that it was an anonymous Negro crime committed not by a negro, but by capital n Negro, and who knew, believed, and hoped that she had been ravished too, at least once before her throat was cut, and at least once afterwards.
Nigger carries with it an entire sub-human narrative, and as as for Brown, wielder of the great term nigger, we can infer that he too was lying about his process of recognition. He also was blind to Christmas's racial identity, until Christmas informed him otherwise, but he's forgotten that he is lying about it, so soothing is it to rewrite earlier blindness into later enlightenment, except that it is not enlightenment.
No one knows if Christmas is black, and in none of this not knowing will prevent the citizens of Jefferson from killing and castrating him. We as readers are alone sure that we do not know, and it's not satisfying to have such knowledge. The novel wryly reveals that accurate knowledge doesn't effect irrational behavior anyway. The racial identity of Joe Christmas' father, the man who impregnated Milly Hines, a fellow with the circus, that identity is forever uncertain, as Byron explains to Hightower, "Milly told him, her father Doc Hines, that the man was Mexican. Maybe that's what the fellow told the gal. I don't know. He ain't never said how he found out, like that never made any difference, and I reckon it didn't after the next night."
Never made any difference because after the next night the man was dead anyway, gunned down by an insanely racist Doc Hines. Inner conviction explodes into lethal action. Obsessed with the boy's satanic black blood, Hines took him to a white Memphis orphanage and became janitor there, never letting the boy out of his sight. If the children at the orphanage code the new boys' difference as nigger, not so unlikely on a playground in the early 20th century south, the figure who focuses their abuse is the ever vigilant grandfather janitor.
It's as though, in a twist on the Calvinist god balefully scrutinizing his human subjects, Hines unceasingly looks Joe's black difference into him, niggers him, a penetration from which the boy will not recover. Deformed by Hines, brutalized by his stepfather McEachern, betrayed by his first love Bobbie, a waitress, Christmas finds himself years later in Joanna Burden's house, eventually in her bed. As readers we know, it's one of the first things we do learn in the book, that this relationship ended with Joanna's throat being slit.
We've known this since the early pages. The town has obscenely dilated on it, embroidering the scenario according to their fantasies. Few things are more brilliant in Light in August, and Faulkner's withholding this violent event itself, even as no one doubts that it occurred. Rather than give us the deed, Faulkner twice gives us the threshold scene, Joe outside Joanna's door hearing the clock sound midnight, knowing that, "Something is going to happen to me," and making his way into her house one last time.
200 pages into the book, Faulkner finally unfolds the scene itself, what they say to each other, what they do, and there we learn, we alone, no one else in the novel is privy to this scene, there we learn that she is lying in wait for him, an ancient and loaded twin barrelled pistol in her hand. She has in mind a double suicide since the affair is ruined, and he will not become a good negro worker in her behalf. And he watches as she pulls the trigger point blank and the gun misfires. Rather than let her fire again, he reaches for his knife, slits her throat, and flees.
Now even in Mississippi in the 1930s, a killing that transpired like that would be legally a case of self defense. Like our other unshared knowledge about events in this novel, knowing this does us no good. Joe must die the death, receive the castration, because in all white eyes he is in essence, and therefore in behavior, a nigger, rapist, murderer.
Although Christmas outwits his pursuers, he chooses finally to turn himself in. "I am tired of running, of having to carry my life like it was a basket of eggs." He makes sure that the day he starts trying to do so is a Friday. On Saturday he succeeds in getting recognized and caught. I spoke earlier of Light in August's brilliant moves. This is, I think, the most brilliant of all.
Faulkner turns over the narrative of Christmas's capture to an anonymous townsmen who speaks to other anonymous townsmen as follows, "He don't look any more like a nigger than I do. But it must have been the nigger blood in him. It looked like he had set out to get himself caught like the man might set out to get married. He had got clean away for a whole week, when yesterday morning he come into [Mottstown 01:06:38] in broad daylight on a Saturday with the town full of folks.
"He went into a white barbershop like a white man, and because he looked like a white man they never suspected him. They shaved him and cut his hair, and he paid them and walked out, and right into a store and bought a new shirt and a tie, and a straw hat, and then he walked the streets in broad daylight like he owned the town. Walking back and forth with people passing him a dozen times and not knowing it, until Halliday saw him, and ran up and grabbed him and said, 'Ain't your name Christmas,' and the nigger said that it was. He never denied it. He never did anything.
"He never acted like either a nigger or a white man, and that was it. That's what made the folks so mad. For him to be a murderer and all dressed up and walking the town like he dared them to touch him when he ought to have been skulking and hiding in the woods, muddy, and dirty, and running. It's like he never even knew he was a murderer let alone a nigger too."
A culture's racist vernacular speaks here with great conviction. In this vernacular niggers are all too likely to be rapist murderers who skulk and hide in the woods, typically dirty as well, recognizable as such. One recalls the speeches Faulkner made 25 years earlier when he reminded black people that, to deserve equality they should act, dress, and smell like white people. In Light in August there is no room for such condescension. The novelist imaginatively knew in 1932 what the letter writer of the 1950s seems to have forgotten.
Joe Christmas does not need to be reminded how to dress. With exquisite irony he bestrides the town as though he owned it, a white barbershop, a new shirt and tie, and hat, an unhurried parading through Mottstown. His moves eloquently counter white expectations point for point. He does not say a word. His performance says it for him. "I look like you, perhaps better than you. I am clothed, tall, and self possessed. I enter and exit your segregated spaces, your barbershops and stores, and you do not see my difference. You do not see it because it does exist. It takes you forever to catch up with me.
"I've invented the silent speech, but something like it broils inside this mob of enraged whites." Inchoately they are registering his insult, and they grasp that he is mocking the racial conventions that underwrite their sanity. "The negro in America is a form of insanity which overtakes white men," Baldwin wrote, "Light in August is the first of Faulkner's masterpieces to express the fallout of that insanity."
In his most compelling fictions of race Faulkner recognized himself uncomfortably, guiltily, responsively, in the mirror of black distress at which he gazed. He knew he was complicit, that his entire life in the south entailed ineffaceable complicities. Both the solution to the race dilemma in America, should one ever be put into practice, would not be proposed by him. Rather than solutions, his work at it's best would act as an unnerving dark twin intimating to it's white reader, "Yes, you too are in this mirror. You will need to find a way to live with yourself insofar as you see yourself here."
Light in August, Absalom, Absalom!, and Go Down Moses constitute the most capacious mirror Faulkner was able to construct. It's not a magic mirror, and nothing we see reflected in it is likely to give much cause for satisfaction, but none of his white peers in the 20th century in America even attempted to see and say what he saw when he gazed into it.