With Faulkner & Why

Few literary writers astonish and affect me upon rereading quite like William Faulkner. I am rereading several of his books and stories. I came across multiple passages in The Reivers this week that demonstrate why Faulkner still moves me:

“ . . . Fortune is a fickle jade, who never withholds but gives, either good or bad: more of the former than you ever believe (perhaps with justice) that you deserve; more of the latter than you can handle” (Faulkner, The Reivers, 48). 

Faulkner’s character speaking here posits the idea that Fortune (Lady Luck, Lady Fortuna, the Wheel of Fortune motif) dispenses more good than bad. This astonishes the individual who understands it. But Fortune also dispenses bad, too, and the individual cannot handle it–but he almost always does anyway, enduring amidst onslaughts, earning heroic, often tragic, status.

It is, of course, an easy category mistake to assume that each individual character in a literary writer’s books speaks for the author’s worldview. Doppelgangers exist in literature, of course, but the wise reader will not read each text assuming each character is such. Huck was not Twain; Tom was not Twain. But each boy would have been unthinkable were it not for Twain’s genius. The characters are just that–characters in a unified story. They battle with one another. They illustrate what Faulkner called “the human heart in conflict with itself.”

But Faulkner drops provocative gems like the one above and this one throughout his works, and they offer no end of rumination for the one who reads closely. Here is another example from the same novel:

Because there are some things, some of the hard facts of life, that you dont (sic.) forget, no matter how old you are. There is a ditch, a chasm; as a boy you crossed it on a footing. You come creeping and doddering back at thirty-five or forty and the footing is gone; you may not even remember the footing but at least you dont (sic.) step onto that empty gravity that footing once spanned” (Faulkner, The Reivers, 5). 

This sort of observation moves me, still. Why? Faulkner seems to so focus upon the importance of time. His characters often grapple with the effects of time–chronological time, yes, but also psychological time. How the individual views and understands and shapes time and history, these are forces at play in many of his characters.

Faulkner gets pigeonholed often by those who don’t read him closely as just writing about the defeated South during Reconstruction, or about the “white trash” (the Snopes family, for example) and poor Negroes of Mississippi in late 1800s and early 20th centuries. He did use those tropes, of course, but so much more is going on in his books. He deals with the individual–whether male or female, young or old or middle-aged, white or black, etc.–who is torn, who is both a recipient of the history into which he has been born and reared but is also “doomed” (one of Faulkner’s favorite words) to make his way in the present. He is thereby shaping the future, but the history he inherited and the history he is shaping meet in the crucible of the individual life in calendar time.

I remain with you, Faulkner. I love your commitment, your stories that explore the individual, your meticulous focus to express the inexpressible beauty and tragedy of it all.

Tonight as it rains in my little postage stamp of the South, I will have one of your books in my lap. I will read about the doomed men and women, boys and girls, Mississippi stalwarts all, who endured. Exploring their stories, made possible by you, makes me remember what great literature accomplishes.

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