THE SADDEST WORDS
William Faulkner’s Civil War
By Michael Gorra
In July, at his memorial service at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the Honorable John Lewis was eulogized by three presidents. The sitting president was not among them. His absence was yet another assertion of the anti-Black hostility and xenophobia fouling the polity with renewed vigor. We lament the current social climate as though it were anomalous, an outbreak of pestilence, when in reality these iniquities reverberate through our American centuries. We need a prophet — a voice to call up the nation’s oldest stories, a reckoning with what was so that we might understand what is. In “The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War,” part literary biography, part Civil War history, Michael Gorra presents a cogent case for Faulkner as one such prophet.
Gorra’s premise is this: Through the spectacular specificity of Faulkner’s novels set in his invented Yoknapatawpha County, he “tells about the South,” as he wrote in “Absalom, Absalom!” — from the King Cotton years of slavery, through the Civil War and into the 19th century. In so doing, Faulkner tells America. Faulkner’s work, Gorra writes, “contains the richest gallery of characters in all of American literature, and in his handling of time and consciousness Faulkner stands as one of his century’s most restless experimenters.” The magnitude of Faulkner’s subject matter is matched only by the immensity of his gifts.
It bears mentioning here that I come to Gorra’s book with certain biases. I am a novelist tasked with reviewing a scholarly analysis of a novelist’s work. This is akin to asking the electrician to take a look at the plumbing. Scholars and novelists have fundamental differences about how to understand works of fiction. The best fiction is, to some degree, ineffable — no matter how deeply she digs, the reader of a masterly work cannot precisely explain what she has experienced. Faulkner’s is among the most masterly work American literature has produced. My allegiances lie with the mysteries, and I bristle a bit at analysis that breaks the spell, so to speak.
Through the ineffable, through his relentless drive to describe what cannot be said directly, Faulkner plunges us into the harrowing canyons of the nation’s past. Toni Morrison, his fellow Nobel laureate, wrote that she read Faulkner to “find out about this country and that artistic articulation of its past that was not available in history, which is what art and fiction can do but history sometimes refuses to do.” In spending relatively little time with the literary aspects of Faulkner’s novels — the astounding characterization, his brilliance with metaphor and his dazzling descriptions of perception and physicality — Gorra misses an opportunity to tell a fuller story of the sublime interplay of aesthetics and theme in Faulkner’s work. This is doubly unfortunate because Gorra writes so beautifully when he turns his attention to Faulkner’s artistry, as in this description of “Absalom, Absalom!”: “This prose has that same overheated fecundity, its modifiers piled recklessly, rank with too much meaning.”
But these are relatively small complaints. Gorra’s well-conceived, exhaustively researched book probes history’s refusals. He begins with “Intruder in the Dust” and one character’s striking reverie about the moments before the ill-fated charge that led to the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg. Faulkner writes, “For every Southern boy” there is a fantasy about the instant before loss became inevitable, the “still not yet” when “it’s all in the balance.” This fixation on the horizon of defeat, Gorra maintains, is part of the collective delusion the South called the Lost Cause. The noble suffering of genteel Southern ladies, the Confederacy led by “gallant men of principle,” slavery as a necessary and essentially benign institution — these elements distort into a mythologized Southern history, what Gorra describes as a “Valhalla” that “snapped the threads of time itself, so reluctant has their society been to accept that war’s verdict.”
That verdict, of course, was the end of slavery, mourned and avenged ever after. Faulkner did not shrink from this reality. As Gorra writes, “Few historians and fewer novelists of his day saw the hobbling vainglorious past so clearly, and few of them made slavery so central to their accounts of the war.” Those vainglorious texts include “The Clansman” (1905), chock-full of Negro rapists, pure white women and a heroic Ku Klux Klan — and the inspiration for the film “The Birth of a Nation” (1915). In the years after, antebellum fairy tales proliferated, works like “Gone With the Wind,” with its hoop skirts and happy darkies. By the time of that novel’s publication in the 1930s, North and South alike had recast the war as a battle over states’ rights, clearing a path for white supremacy to gallop forward into Jim Crow and beyond.
In his urgency to make the case for Faulkner’s merits, however, Gorra overcorrects with regard to his faults. What to do about the Faulkner who famously said of the civil rights struggle: “Go slow now.” And worse: “If it came to fighting I’d fight for Mississippi against the United States even if it meant going out into the streets and shooting Negroes.” Gorra isn’t an apologist, but he does go to great lengths to avoid saying the obvious. He mentions Faulkner’s infamous alcoholism as a factor that may have influenced his more incendiary comments. Of Faulkner’s often lacking depictions of Black characters, Gorra writes, “Still that absence isn’t precisely a lacuna, a hole in his thinking. … Once again we need to ask what Faulkner isn’t writing here. We need to read for the unspoken, for the stories that peep around the edges of the ones he’s chosen to tell.” The thing is, I don’t expect Faulkner to properly inhabit Blackness. His triumph is his inhabitation of whiteness, his searing articulations of its ruination, brutality and shame.
Gorra mounts a further defense by separating the man from the writing, as though the writing “made him better than he was; it made the books better than the man.” But that’s a dodge — and, most significantly, it’s not the point. Of course William Faulkner, Mississippi-born in 1897, great-grandson of a slave-owning Confederate colonel, was a racist. But in Faulkner, as is the case in all of America, racism is not the conclusion to any argument. It does not preclude further discussion; it demands it.
Gorra is right when he claims “much can and must be said about Faulkner’s limitations, and yet no white writer in our literature thought longer and harder about that problem, the one that the Civil War’s aftermath had set in place.” Faulkner could engage these subjects with such bold brilliance precisely because he was — geographically, historically, racially — in the maw of the beast.
This tangle aside, Gorra’s book is rich in insight. In its final chapters, Gorra compares America’s monuments to the Confederacy with Germany’s memorials to the Holocaust. It would be unthinkable to most Americans if such memorials celebrated the Third Reich, yet monuments to the Confederacy and its legacy of slavery are ubiquitous — their presence tolerated, in some cases revered, until very recently; still more evidence that the past is with us as it was in Faulkner’s time, poisoning our generations like radioactivity in the soil. Gorra’s book, as he writes in his preface, is “an act of citizenship,” timely and essential as we confront, once again, the question of who is a citizen and who among us should enjoy its privileges.