English Professor Philip Weinstein Discusses Inspiration for Award-Winning Book on William Faulkner

By Alisa Giardinelli
Philip Weinstein
Philip Weinstein, who joined Swarthmore's faculty in 1971, is the Alexander Griswold Cummins Professor of English.

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).