William Faulkner, the South's finest novelist, was fascinated by the history of his native land. Jean-Paul Sartre once compared a Faulkner character to a passenger in a speeding car. Only instead of looking forward into the future, the character faces backward, gazing with wonder and dismay at the past as it hurtles by.
Southern history helped to shape Faulkner's life and art. He was born in Mississippi in 1897 -- roughly a generation after the surrender at Appomattox, 20 years after the withdrawal of Federal troops, only one year after the landmark Plessy decision that legalized "Jim Crow," the ostensibly separate-but-equal accommodations. The Old South was dead, and the New South of industry was struggling to be born.
Faced with this bitter history of military defeat, humiliating occupation ("Reconstruction" was a hideous misnomer) and a shattered economy, many Southerners fled, lured by supposed prosperity and new beginnings in the North. Among them, a number of Southern writers moved elsewhere in the belief that they could best discuss their native land from afar.
Faulkner disagreed. With the major exceptions of his sojourns to Hollywood as a scriptwriter and his final years in Charlottesville, Va., he remained in his place of birth. He created Yoknapatawpha County -- this "little postage stamp," he called it memorably, that traveled to considerable acclaim throughout America and the world. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1950.
He was not always appreciated at home. Early on, some neighbors dubbed him "Count-No-Count." An uncle accused him "writing those dirty books for Yankees."
Faulkner was beset by personal problems. His marriage was rocky, and his wife once threw a manuscript out of the window of a car. A storied drinker, he extolled the unchanging quality of Jack Daniel's and believed that "there's a lot of nourishment in an acre of corn."
Like many other American authors, Faulkner sometimes found it difficult to pay the bills. The poet John Berryman taught in a prep school, where he was given an office in the men's room. Faulkner took a job in the post office and was fired for neglecting his duties. "I reckon I'll be at the beck and call of folks with money all my life," he remarked uncontritely, "but thank God I won't ever again have to be at the beck and call of every . . . who's got two cents to buy a stamp."
The artist whose canon celebrates perseverance resolutely kept writing. In 1928, he created Caddy Compson, "a beautiful and tragic little girl" wearing muddy drawers who climbs a tree (the tree of knowledge) to witness a sight forbidden by the adult world: grandmother Damuddy lying dead in an upstairs bedroom. That was the novel "The Sound and the Fury," and he explained that "the entire story . . . seemed to explode on the paper before me."
This was his artistic epiphany. During the next eight years, probably the most remarkable period of individual productivity in American literature, Faulkner wrote "Sanctuary," "As I Lay Dying," "Light in August" and "Absalom, Absalom."
Later, he created "The Bear," for me his finest work. Over the course of decades, humble in the face of the great story he had to tell -- the conflict between cowardice and ignorance and wanton violence on the one hand, courage and knowledge and personal courtesy on the other -- he not only endured but prevailed.
As Joel Williamson demonstrates in this provocative, exhaustively researched and well-written study, Faulkner finally proved neither an apologist for the ills of his native land nor a doomsayer. Dr. Williamson is a professor in the humanities at the University of North Carolina and author of the highly acclaimed "The Crucible of Race" (1984), which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in history.
"William Faulkner and Southern History" proves especially enlightening in its discussion of racial matters. Some of Faulkner's most memorable characters are black, and, like the African Americans, he felt an outsider in his native land. "Intruder in the Dust," Dr. Williamson writes, "marked Faulkner as a pioneer in the Civil Rights movement in the South."
Finally, though, the novelist proved more enlightened than the man, who "moved from a moderately liberal to a radically conservative posture." Dr. Williamson explains that in racial matters "Faulkner's confusion mirrored the confusion of the South as a whole over the centuries."
This volume's title may suggest to some readers that it is a critical study primarily expository in nature. Actually, two of the book's three major sections are narratives that assess both his life and work.
Part One, "Ancestry," provides a good deal of new information about Faulkner's forebears. Deftly weaving social, military and political history -- matters such as gender, race, class, violence and community -- Dr. Williamson details the "kinship between fact and faction." He proves quite convincingly that "the culture that made William Faulkner . . . is totally complementary to the one that he made in his fiction."
Section Two, "Biography," is considerably the longest (yet still far shorter than the encyclopedic life by Joseph Blotner) -- and corrects the legends that Faulkner created about himself. He portrayed himself as a pilot wounded in World War I, a tough guy who ran contraband for the Mob, a Bohemian writer, a patrician gentleman, a ladies' man and a working farmer. To varying degrees, all were products of his considerable imagination.
Such imagination helps to account for the depth of his writing. Dr. Williamson suggests that Faulkner "could be almost anything, take almost any view within the compass afforded him by his culture." In "The Sound and the Fury," for example, Faulkner uses four points of view: those of Benjy the idiot, Question the pilgrim, Jason the cynic and Dilsey the survivor. Had the novel been narrated more conventionally, it would have been far less resonant. His ability to witness the Southern experience from a variety of perspectives allows him to see it clearly and see it whole.
In the book's final and briefest section, titled "The Writing," Dr. Williamson discusses the central conflict between the world of nature and the world of man. The volume closes, as it begins, with the myth of the Garden of Eden. Not conventionally religious, Faulkner drew heavily upon the Bible throughout his canon. The writing process, he recognized early, provided his personal salvation. But he asked repeatedly how humankind was to live after the fall from grace, after innocence has been lost and the garden desecrated. Some tried to return to a pristine world forever fled. Others came to acknowledge human limitation and live accordingly.
"The Reivers," which Faulkner finished in 1961, the year before his death, presents the comic pilgrim's progress of 11-year-old Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Priest. He helps to "borrow" a car for the trip to Memphis, the region's Sodom, gets cut in a whorehouse brawl, and becomes involved in horse racing. His rite of initiation completed, he returns to Mississippi and prepares to be whipped by his father -- conventional punishment for his conduct.
However, the grandfather, a secular saint redolent of whiskey and tobacco, intervenes and sends the father off. Offering not punishment or absolution but understanding, the grandfather tells Lucius how he can live with his sins. "A gentleman can live through anything," the wise old man remarks. "He faces anything. A gentleman accepts the responsibility of his actions and bears the burden of their consequences. . . ."
When Lucius stops crying, the grandfather explains that "a gentleman cries too, but he always washes his face." This is quintessential Faulkner -- the seemingly simple remark that captures the truths of the human heart and generates a visceral response from the reader.
In the end, Faulkner celebrates our flawed but immensely human universe. It is, perhaps, our imperfection that best enhances understanding of those "old universal truths" set forth in his Nobel Prize Address: "love and honor and pride and pity and compassion and sacrifice." In certain ways, Faulkner seems to suggest, it was a fortunate fall indeed.
(Dr. Fitzpatrick is the author of "H. L. Mencken" and co-author of "The Complete Sentence Workout Book." He lives in Baltimore.)
Title: "William Faulkner and Southern History"
Author: Joel Williamson
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Length, price: 509 pages, $35