Originally published in The Sewanee Review Vol. 72, No. 1 (Winter, 1964), pp. 146-150
William Faulkner wrote romances, not novels; of this those who study and write about Mr. Faulkner are now, it seems, agreed. Had our great-grandmothers read his fiction, they would have been astonished by this critical consensus. But “romance” is an elusive word, subject to periodic metamorphosis of meaning; the history of literary criticism records several. Now, shored up by a new raison d’ etre and a new definition as “almost allegory,” the old term is once again very much in fashion. And thanks to Northrop Frye, Daniel Hoffman, Richard Chase, and others of their fraternity, we can rest assured that a romance is a very respectable thing for a novel to be–especially an American novel. For the romance is a dark, inward kind of book, more concerned with stylized metaphysical sets of mind and psychological archetypes than with real people moving in a recognizable social con-text. Its subject is man’s soul, not manners. And because of the American novelist’s preoccupation with the inner life, some students of American fiction go so far as to insist that the romance is the native art form of Puritan-influenced America and the natural vehicle for the American novelist’s obsessive probing of the minds of his characters.
If Peter Swiggart, in his new full-length treatment of the Faulkner corpus, is not the first critic to link the gentleman from Mississippi with the romance tradition in American fiction, he has assuredly attached to that identification more significance than those who had come to Faulkner before him. With the assumption that Faulkner as a novelist–and as a moralist–has more in common with Hawthorne and Melville than with most of his “realistic” contemporaries, Mr. Swiggart begins. According to him, Faulkner’s “use of characterization as a direct means of expressing moral and social concern” and his “emphasis on man’s unchanging moral nature in contrast to [his] changing environment” mark him as a romancer. Swiggart contends that most of Faulkner’s characters function in his fables as dramatic explorations in depth of the consequences of a particular vision of life, that Faulkner is not so much interested in the actions his novels play out as in the working of minds beholding or participating in these actions. In other words, his fables are sequences of situations designed primarily to explore characters and to allow them to “illustrate their symbolic or allegorical function.” For conclusive support of his approach. Swiggart quotes Faulkner’s remark in his Nobel prize speech that the writer should concern himself with “the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths, lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed.”
Having established (given his definition of the term) that Faulkner writes romances, Swiggart devotes the rest of the first section of his book to a most convincing explanation of how the narrative techniques at his subject’s disposal are employed by him to intensify the reader’s awareness of the inner lives of his characters; a discussion of Faulkner’s themes and his “social myth”; a brief criticism of Faulkner’s less significant, pre-1938 fiction. The middle section of Swiggart’s book deals in separate essays with what he thinks are Faulkner’s most successful works of art: The Sound and the Fury; As I Lay Dying; Light in August; and Absalom, Absalom! The last portion of the book treats of Faulkner’s later works and of the discursive non-dramatic quality and flat characterization of much of that latter fiction. This artistic decline he attributes to Faulkner’s growing concern with ”social problems,” to the Nobel prize award, and to Faulkner criticism (which has emphasized the novelist’s role as social historian). He coneludes with a coda on The Reivers, apparently written as an afterthought.
The most valuable and impressive sections of The Art of Faulkner’s Novels deal with Faulkner’s unusual narrative techniques. In one Swiggart describes the function of the over-voice, of the omnipresence of Mr. Faulkner in his novels, and explains why we are not disturbed by or even fully aware of it. Another section examines carefully Faulkner’s peculiar internal monologues, that only appear to be interior and are in fact a tl1ud person disguise of the over-voice. Still another discusses Faulkner’s manipulation of point of view and his use of narration as a means of dramatizing the “stylized worlds” of his narrators. And throughout the book Swiggart traces first the development and then the disappearance of Faulkner’s skill in making “the opposition between man and his social world” a matter of “dramatic organization” instead of abstract allegory. However, he is less convincing in his interpretation of Faulkner’s themes.
According to Mr. Swiggart, “the manner in which the Puritan mind projects its distorted moral and social vision upon the world is Faulkner’s major thematic concern.” The antithesis of such “Puritanism” (which Swiggart identifies with pride in reason) is a certain primitive naturalness. Faulkner’s “primitives” are not “mirrors in which the excesses of the Puritan are viewed.” They are embodiments of an alternative to the willful obsession and monomaniacal self-destructiveness which “insists on organizing and controlling human experience by rational means.”
Swiggart is correct in maintaining that something like the conflict he describes is at the heart of Faulkner’s vision. But he has made a most unfortunate choice of terms in his description of that conflict. Pride, and not reason, is the characteristic weakness of Faulkner’s obsessed and self-destructive characters. Pride may take the form of an excessive confidence in the power of man’s reason; but rationality and pride are not identical. Nor is unreflective primitive naturalness the antithesis of pride. The proud and presumptuous in Faulkner are those who cannot “endure.” And by “endurance” he means something more than strength of will and stoic stubbornness. Endurance requires of those who practice it the judgment and the courage to define themselves in terms of their insufficiencies while yet resisting the temptation to fatalism. The enduring accept creaturehood and have what Tillich calls “the courage to be”. Like the true Puritan the enduring in Faulkner see man in the light of his limitations. Before a numinous and theologically suggestive nature, mysterious and “other,” they are humble—as is the Puritan before his God of thunder.
Faulkner’s doctrine of nature is not overtly theological; but the conception of man and of the occasion of man’s difficulty implicit in his works is more “Puritan” than is Sutpen’s empire-building or Joe Christmas’ refusal to see himself as a natural man—which Swiggart calls Puritan.
Swiggart’s use of other terms is equally disturbing. Although he recognizes Faulkner’s conservatism (p. 25), he insists on calling it “social pessimism” and notes in one place that “liberal critics justly object” to Faulkner’s “negative point of view.” Elsewhere, as I have remarked above, he speaks of Faulkner’s interest in “social problems.” He would have done better had he gone to Christian ethics and/or natural law instead of to sociology and liberal politics for an idiom to use in giving exposition to Faulkner’s world-view.
In the fare of his verbal and conceptual difficulties, Swiggart does a fine job of explicating several of Faulkner’s novels. His discussion of The Fable (in which he recognizes that the corporal is not the novel’s only hero, and why) is one of the best. He has a good deal that is sound to say about Light in August. And despite his insistence that Dilsey is a primitive and that Sutpen is typical of all of Faulkner’s aristocrats, male and female (imagine calling Granny Millard or Miss Jenny Du Pre nouveau riche), the sections on The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom! are most perceptive.
However, the problem of perspective that mars Swiggart’s treatment of Faulkner’s central theme also frustrates the workings of his basically sound critical instincts in his analysis of other Faulkner novels. His insistence that “primitivism” is the alternative to “Puritan rationalism” suggested by the structural tension upon which Faulkner builds his novels leads him to ignore Ike McCaslin’s failure to implement the moral perspective he develops in the forest sections of “The Bear”; indeed, Swiggart pays far too little attention to Go Down, Moses, the book which reveals most clearly the moral and philosophical norms governing the Yoknapatawpha cycle. His misconception of Faulkner’s relationship to the aristocratic tradition of the Old South leads him to misunderstand and undervalue The Unvanquished; he fails to see the bildungsroman quality given that novel by the developing character of Bayard Sartoris and ignores the way in which Granny Millard and Colonel Sartoris function as foils to young Bayard. Bayard does not reject the ethic he has inherited; he restores it. Sutpen, out of ignorance, becomes a caricature of this ethic. But Charles Mallison and Miss Habersham (in Intruder in the Dust) and Gavin Stevens- (in several books) act (or try to act) it out. Therefore Faulkner is not, as Swiggart imagines, reversing himself when he has the old gentleman who narrates The Reivers “accept the underlying values” of the society he- recalls for his grandson. It is always from the inside that Faulkner examines (critically only at times) what Swiggart speaks of as “the moral rigidity of the Deep South aristocracy.” Faulkner has measured his gentlemen by their own ideal of what they were supposed to be. It is time that he be extended a similar courtesy.
In the past fifteen years Faulkner has been approached from almost every direction. And this is, in part, as it should be; for contemporary psychology, literary history, philosophy, and sociology illuminate and help explain some aspects of Faulkner’s work. Yet the authority, the prestige of this same “outside” criticism, stands in the way of full assessment. And even more of an obstacle is the apparent hostility of many American critics to what Mr. Faulkner has to say. He has yet to be approached on his own terms; and until he is, not only his themes but also the art with which he develops them will be misunderstood. Faulkner’s ambiguities must be faced as ambiguities; the fundamental conservatism of his outlook must be, not simply recognized, but built upon; the relationship of his use of the over-voice to the oral roots of his narrative art must be established; his habit of giving comic treatment more often to characters he admires than to those he would reject must be explained; the special way in which he uses certain words (such as “endure”) that play a major role in his thinking must be examined; and Swiggart’s discussion of the effect of self-consciousness and public inquisition on the work of the mature Faulkner must be carried further.
The Art of Faulkner’s Novels should make us a great deal more aware of what is to be done in Faulkner studies and has probably helped us to move a considerable way toward the doing. I suspect the book will seem even better to us when we have divested ourselves of the peculiar ideological Puritanisms of our time and have built upon the insights Mr. Swiggart has given us.