In January 1936, William Faulkner had just completed his latest novel and begun his latest drinking binge. He handed the new manuscript to a friend and said, "I want you to read this. ... I think it's the best novel yet written by an American."
It sounded like the bourbon talking, but Faulkner was right. Still is. The fellow whom Faulkner had met while working for Warner Bros. held in his hands the world's only copy of what would become - after some revision -"Absalom, Absalom!", the publication of which should have by now settled the question of what is The Great American Novel. It is Faulkner's ninth and best novel, "Absalom, Absalom!"
Novelist Frank Norris wrote in 1902 that The Great American Novel was pure myth, a hybrid creature that could never exist. He argued well, but too soon, years before the appearance of "Absalom," which would have proved him wrong.
Norris might not have understood it for what it was. Apparently no one else did. On Oct. 26, 1936, the book was published by Random House to reviews that only generously would be called mixed. Time magazine considered it Faulkner's best work, but most everyone else found it variously boring, baffling, unreadable, impressive in its technique but murky in meaning. As Herman Melville's big whaling novel was poorly received nearly a century before, Faulkner reached the pinnacle of his career with "Absalom" but almost nobody grasped the magnitude of the achievement.
Literary opinion has since caught up with Faulkner. That's the good news. The bad news is that events in America have since validated the tragic vision of "Absalom," in which a scene near the climax shows a mentally retarded mixed-race teen-ager howling outside the burning hulk of a Southern plantation house. The youth is a great-grandson of the white man who built the plantation, who decades earlier repudiated his part-black wife and son. This moral failure dooms the man and his family.
As long as the consequences of racism continue to unfold in American courtrooms, prisons, cities and work places, Faulkner's metaphors will apply. "Absalom" describes a karmic soup that permeates contemporary American culture .
Surely "Absalom" - relaying events in Mississippi, New Orleans, West Virginia, Haiti and Cambridge, Mass. between the 1830s and 1909 - was not meant as a socio-political statement about the horrors of urban American life. When he began writing the book in 1934 Faulkner wrote his publisher: "Roughly, the theme is a man who outraged the land, and the land then turned and destroyed the man's family."
Yet the "Old South" images of "Absalom" are haunting. It is a great novel in its historic span, elliptical revelation, layer by layer, of Mississippi pioneer Thomas Sutpen's doomed ambition. All that and its distinctively American essence make it The Great American Novel .
The novel is murder mystery, Greek tragedy, historical drama, Freudian family nightmare and Gothic ghost story. It's a tale in which the real "action" is the storytelling. Much of the drama lies in the four narrators' struggle to grasp the truth. The reader struggles with them as they recall, inquire, tell, speculate about events that occurred as long as 75 years before. Scholar Colleen E. Donnelly wrote that "Absalom" becomes "a novel about the making of history rather than a history itself."
"Absalom, Absalom!" - the title is derived from the Old Testament Book of Samuel - tells of Thomas Sutpen, to whom we are introduced by his 64-year-old sister-in-law, Rosa Coldfield. We have not yet heard his name when we first glimpse this mysterious figure in Miss Rosa's hellish vision:
"Out of quiet thunderclap he would abrupt (man-horse-demon) upon a scene peaceful and decorous as a schoolprize water color, faint sulphur-reek still in hair clothes and beard ..." The demon, we soon learn, is Sutpen, who descended upon Yoknapatawpha County, Miss. in 1833, bought 100 square miles of virgin forest outside of the center of the town of Jefferson and built a plantation.
His plan is to father male heirs, establish a dynasty and avenge an insult he suffered years before as a poor boy in Virginia. On an errand to a grand plantation house, the boy Sutpen had been met at the front door by a black servant in formal clothes and ordered to go around to the back door. At that moment, the course of Sutpen's life is determined. He will set right this cosmic injustice, this denial of his humanity. He will own a plantation. He will erase a mark of his own history and take revenge on nothing short of time itself.
Sutpen pursues his design with the monomania of Ahab and the hubris of Gatsby, who also believed in his power to eradicate the past. But the past returns to haunt Sutpen in the person of Charles Bon, a son Sutpen rejected years before when he discovered his mother was part black. It is Bon's grandson, Jim Bond, who howls in despair outside the burning mansion.
Sutpen is more definitely American than either Ahab or Gatsby by virtue of his pioneer innocence, his failure to see, as Faulkner scholar Gary Lee Stonum put it, that "the land is not a tabula rasa." These notions of the land as "subject to human fabrication" and of time as "option, rather than as the measure of our entropic situation" are deeply rooted in American character, wrote John J. McDermott, a William James scholar and authority on American thought. "Absalom" draws these together in a narrative in which the driving force is race. The novel, wrote Faulkner scholar Frederick R. Karl, "links all the great American themes."
No other book usually mentioned in conversation about The Great American Novel does this. "Huck Finn" and "Pudd'nhead Wilson" tackle the question of race with no critique of frontier myth and without a sense of historic span. "Invisible Man" shows the brutality of racism from a black perspective - a view missing from "Absalom" - but absent the grand historic vision and daring formal approach. "Absalom" has not the elegance of "Portrait of a Lady," but neither does Henry James' book excavate the roots of American myth. "Uncle Tom's Cabin" falls short of "Absalom" in the depth of its characters and its technique.
Faulkner's formal experimentation in this book almost anticipates the development of computer hypertext novels in which the reader helps shape the story. At times he gives readers more information than they are prepared to understand. At other times he withholds key information. Literature professor Carolyn Porter says Faulkner "implicates his reader as a participant in the telling of a story, a strategy which seeks to alter the reader's relationship to the novel much as a cubist painting alters the viewer's relation to illusionist space."
The novel presents a tapestry in which past and present are woven together. Throughout the book those famously long Faulknerian sentences draw the past into the present. Faulkner explained this as his attempt to show the complexity of human experience and motivation: "A man, a character in a story at any moment of action is not just himself as he is then, he is all that made him."
In his three-page essay in 1902, Frank Norris summarily dismissed the notion of A Great American Novel, much less The Great American Novel. It could not exist, he said, because America was too diverse, its geographic regions too particular in their culture and concern. The argument might have made sense then. Today Americans know we can no more define racism or slavery as regional sins than Sutpen could deny Charles Bon. The howling of the Jim Bonds is too loud everywhere, the metaphorical smoke from the burning mansion too widespread on the evening news.
Arthur Hirsch is a staff writer in The Sun features department. He's been reading books by and about William Faulkner for the last 20 years and recently made a reporting trip to Oxford, Miss.
Pub Date: 11/16/97