Search the Bulletin

From Faulkner to Franzen

Philip Weinstein helps students see literature as a mirror for reality

By Sherri Kimmel

There are still hints of the South in Philip Weinstein—the slightly honeyed tone of his speech, his politeness and patience. Generations of seminar students have sat in his living room five minutes from campus listening to that voice—lifting up the lyrical words of William Faulkner and Toni Morrison, the nervy humor of Franz Kafka as a mirror to help them understand the intricacies of race, culture, alienation.

This spring semester will mark the end of an era, as the Alexander Griswold Professor of English teaches his last modernism seminar and his final class on Faulkner and Morrison. As if it weren’t enough to read Sula, Song of Solomon, and Beloved—which he calls the best work of American literature in the last 30 years—with Weinstein, there’s more in store for his students. Toni Morrison herself will attend class on the day of her campus lecture, April 7.


Philip Weinstein notes that his students have “creatively shaped every book I’ve written, as my book acknowledgments always mention, by exploring, elaborating, and challenging my ideas. They get me to grasp the complementary difference between my views and theirs.” Photo by Laurence Kesterson

For Weinstein, who’s been working to get her to campus for years, it’s quite a capper for a career that began here in 1971. A recipient of several National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships, he is the author of Unknowing: The Work of Modernist Fiction and three books on Faulkner, the latest of which, Becoming Faulkner, won the 2011 C. Hugh Holman Award, the highest honor bestowed by the Society for Study of Southern Literature.

Just before the start of fall classes, Bulletin editor Sherri Kimmel caught up with Weinstein in his third-floor office in the Lang Center for the Performing Arts. Following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

You are a white Southern male. How has that identity played into how you decided to pursue your career?

We grew up with a black maid who was not literally a mammy but who we thought of as our second mother. We were in a racial structure that made her available, and we paid her a little bit. And we loved her. We thought she loved us. I still think she did. But I now have to realize, maybe she didn’t. She had a white family she had to work for—clean up all of our messes—then she had her own home life, about which we had no interest. I’ve tried to write about that. When I was in the 10th grade in a perfectly segregated school, the chemistry teacher, a coach, talked about rape and violence, because Brown vs. the Board of Education had been passed a couple years earlier. He said, “When they come, that’s what’s going to happen.” I raised my hand and said, “Why do you think so?” He just looked at me and said, “You just must be a nigger lover.” I didn’t want to have that argument the rest of my life. I wanted to live my life around people who weren’t thinking that way about race. So I left the South at 18 and only go back via Faulkner—and to see my family.

You have a twin brother, Arnold, who teaches at Brown. You left Tennessee together to study at Princeton. Is it a coincidence that you both are Faulkner scholars? Was that an accident of genes?

I don’t know what that is. We teach the same writers. We both invented a course that was our signature course, his and mine. But we invented them separately. It just happened to be the same course, on Proust and Joyce and Faulkner. I’ve had former students in Boston who’ve listened to him on NPR and said, “His voice is just like yours.” The voice is the closest. I don’t think we do things the same way.

Are Faulkner’s views on race still pertinent to American society?

He’s got very little to teach anyone about race, from the ethical perspective of what you should do. He does show what the racial world in the early 20th-century South was like—how race was lived on both sides, but mainly on the white side as it tried to come to grips with black people. And that was turmoil. Faulkner understood what race did to the capacity for love, the capacity for trust, how it made white people worse than they had to be, and how blacks were demonized or crucified. I try to pay my racial debt by writing about him and teaching him. If you were white in the South, you have a racial debt.

Do you have more writings on Faulkner or Morrison in the works?

I don’t think so. I’m toying with a book on Jonathan Franzen [’81, not a former student of Weinstein’s but a faculty colleague in the early ’90s]. It will not be a heavily footnoted, scholarly book. It will be a report on who he is, with his tensions and complications. He’s become a comic novelist of very great talent, and he didn’t start out as one. His path toward maturation—which involved Swarthmore, a failed marriage, and a painful testing of his beliefs in his own superior grasp of things—is what makes him really interesting, makes it possible for him to write The Corrections and then Freedom.

So obviously he’s aware you’re doing this book.

Yes, and he knows that if the book is any good, it’ll be because I’m free to do my own best thinking and feeling about him. He also wouldn’t be interested in it if he thought I didn’t get a lot of what he’s doing. That’s what our correspondence has been about. I’ll send him three-page emails about what seemed to me interesting or strange or fabulous about Freedom or The Corrections. And he writes back. So I hope it works. It’s a post-Swarthmore focus I would like.

I met an alumna in Minnesota who said that taking your course changed her life. Your colleague Nora Johnson echoed this in her introduction to your lecture on Jonathan Franzen this spring. She frequently hears similar comments from alumni. What is going on in your classroom that creates this kind of effect?

I have only the simplest kind of response to that. The only thing I think I’ve got going that compels is I still have a passionate response to the literature that I care about, and I like trying to get others to find, in themselves, kindred responses. I’ve had a life devoted to literature. My whole adult life has been about teaching it to students, making sense of it, writing about it. Literature is my field of reality, because it’s about life. I’m getting students to see that this is not about some test later. There’s a mirror for your life or a possibility of your life that that work carries. The great work is always taking you to real things, often in ways that the habits we fall into and that the culture proposes can keep us from.

How have your interactions with students for more than 40 years changed your life?

What my students have done is made a kind of dialogue possible, and that’s been a 40-plus-year conversation. The seminar is where it’s at its most intimate. We sit around my living room. It’ll hold 12 students max. And we talk. Others really are the mirror that you live in. I needed to have these conversations, and I’m at the best place in the world to have them. I don’t have to persuade students every semester that literature matters. They know it does. They just want to know how to make it matter more. They’ve signed up because they want that intellectual and emotional adventure, and it takes them to have it with me for me to have it. I don’t know if that feels like an answer, but that’s all I can say.

To hear Weinstein discuss Faulkner’s immersion, as a man and as a writer, in a sea of racially unmanageable waters, click here.

Comments are closed.