Posthumously, William Faulkner has achieved a celebrity that, if we take him at his word, he despised and eschewed, but which seems inseparable from modem commercial culture. Every second man in the street, who can’t remember who is currently Vice-President, recognizes Faulkner’s name as that of a famous writer. Every lumpen intellectual who once read The Sound and the Fury in a sophomore lit class feels qualified to “explain” Faulkner. Worse, Faulkner has become an industry. His home can be toured, at certain times, for a fee. Minor literati who met him once at lunch in New York or Hollywood can, with but slight embroidery, sell their recollections to the Sunday supplements. An academic press that publishes a book with Faulkner in the title will probably break even on library sales alone. Faulkner supports a whole scholarly phalanx, and there are undoubtedly people around who have made more money explicating and analyzing him than he ever made creating works of genius. (Admittedly, it is also true that several great scholars, who are perhaps as rare as great writers, have devoted careers to him, in both Europe and America.)
When a cultural phenomenon becomes as large as William Faulkner, liberals must be equipped to orient themselves to it. They must know what liberalism is supposed to say about the phenomenon, a process not unlike the way adolescents learn about Jordache jeans and members of fraternal orders acquire passwords and intricate handshakes. This need has created an entire school of literary criticism, of which Faulkner’s Search for a South is an example.
The easiest tactic would be simply to postulate that Faulkner was a liberal. Aren’t all wise and good men? Walter Taylor has taken a more honest, difficult, and sophisticated path. He admits that, after all, Faulkner was not a liberal. He flunked the ultimate litmus test—his attitudes toward Southern history and the race question never quite coincided with the attitudes decreed by liberal convention. But since these are the only possible attitudes for wise and good men, their absence in Faulkner presents an interesting phenomenon for scholarly description and explanation. Faulkner failed to find the South described by liberal convention. It is inadmissible that he may not have been looking for it. Therefore, that he did not find it is an interesting “failure” to be accounted for.
Thus, the “failure” that Faulkner himself sometimes spoke about, which generally has been interpreted as a felt failure of artistic realization, has metamorphosed, for Taylor, into a “failure” to find the right South. He kept searching for it but could never quite find it, according to Taylor, because of his commitment to the condescending, paternalistic outlook that tum-of-the-century Mississippi “aristocrats” developed as a counterweight to the unabashed racism of the “poor whites.” This commitment was all the more poignant and ambiguous because of Faulkner’s family’s dubious position within the “aristocracy.” Taylor makes his case with considerable skill and enterprise. However, to too great a degree one has to be willing to be persuaded by speculative biographical evidence like the following:
[T]he Faulkners would never know whether they were Cavaliers or rednecks, and not knowing would affect them profoundly. . . For thirteenyear-old Bill Faulkner, trying to understand the family heritage must have been frustrating. . . As Faulkner grew older, he must have grown increasingly aware that Vardaman’s victory [over the ‘aristocrats’ in Mississippi politics] was a pivotal event in his life.. . . To twenty-five-year-old Faulkner, on the threshold of his career as a novelist, the episode [a scandal involving a politician who was once his grandfather’s law partner] must have spoken volumes [emphasis added].
The trouble is, those of us who are not liberals feel restricted to writing biography from documentary evidence and to criticizing literature from a text. Further, Taylor’s interpretation works only if we accept a simplistic scenario of Southern history as a conflict between “aristocrats” and “poor whites.” (Any of Faulkner’s works which cannot be made to conform to this scenario, like The Unvanquished or The Reivers, must be dismissed as “a mire of paternalistic propaganda,” or “smug nostalgia,” or “a parrotlike recreation of the Old Order’s official rationale.”) But one of the things that can be learned from Faulkner—or from anywhere else in Southern literature or history that one wants to look—is that the South has always been made up of a variety of middle classes as well as “aristocrats” and “poor whites.” This is the beginning of all wisdom as far as the South is concerned, and it can be denied only under the strongest ideological imperative.
The effort to construe Southern history entirely in terms of the bipolar conflict of aristocrat and redneck leads to some strange twists in this work. For instance, we must accept that “aristocrats” have been “Cavaliers” and “poor whites” have been “Puritans.” Southern poor whites traditionally have been blamed for every sin in the decalogue, but to find them characterized as the chief repositories of American “Puritanism” (a tortured term, here undefined), especially when construing a text, Light in August, which clearly deals with Northern Calvinists, is bizarre.
But at a more fundamental level, it seems to me, this treatment of Faulkner hopelessly blurs the line between a writer’s life and times and his work. It is true, as Taylor quotes Ralph Ellison, that there is an “inescapable connection between the writer and the beliefs and attitudes current in his culture.” But isn’t the point of great literature that the connection is not simple, but rather complicated and original? One cannot understand any great literature until one understands that it is, in the first instance, vision and not opinion, description and not argument. Taylor is a Mississippian who has put the shame of his Southern origins behind him by adopting the conventional liberal view toward them. For him, Faulkner “failed” because he did not take the same route. But why must we assume that Faulkner ever wanted to find the South that Taylor has found, or that we would remember him if he had? May we not be forgiven for preferring the South that Faulkner did find, painful and ambivalent as it was for him and for us, to the more comforting but far less instructive one that he failed to find?
In essence, then, this work is merely another exercise in labeling that tells us more about the labeler than the labelee. It is one more installment in the Southern confession of sin, of which too much has already been inflicted upon the world.
Thomas Wolfe might be taken as the pioneer practitioner of the Southern confessional, but that would be only superficially true. While Wolfe wrote works that could be called confessional and his content was in part Southern, there was nothing intrinsically Southern about his confessional style. It was, rather, personal, and he often managed to turn his pain into artistic vision rather than political platitude. Secondly, Wolfe’s confessional could not be fully Southern because he was not. Like Mark Twain, Wolfe was a fringe Southerner. The Asheville of his boyhood was an unrooted tourist haven. He knew the South the way one knows a city that one has passed through on a highway. Ever after the city looms in your mind characterized by the first glimpse of grimy industries and slums. You do not know how it really is to the people who belong there. That was pretty much Twain’s and Wolfe’s relation to the South—a gypsy one. Twain knew the South by the ugly backsides of river towns, under the bluff. Wolfe could never entirely separate the idea of the South from mountain boardinghouses for tubercular tourists and the villas of rich interlopers. His idea of the South was not so much wrong as incomplete. Which is not to say that it could not achieve at times a compelling power and interest.
Welcome to Our City was performed twice at a Harvard workshop theater in 1923, to local acclaim. A text of the script of that performance is here published for the first time (an abridgment of a different version, which Wolfe failed to market on Broadway, was published in 1957 in Esquire). This publication thus fulfills a scholarly purpose, enlarging the available knowledge of Wolfe and of the literature of the 1920’s.
The title of the play is ironic. Superficially, the play is a conventional 1920’s attack on boosterism, a theatrical Main Street with a Southern setting. It is, in effect, about a scheme of politicians and real-estate men in a small Southern city to snatch the central district from its traditional black residents.
Attacks on boosterism have rather faded with time and with the restoration of the notion that the decades hated by liberals (the 1920’s and 1950’s) were actually good times for us common folk. And intelligent people no longer take seriously reformers who believe that all would be right with the world if only we could clear the slums and suppress the fundamentalists. What makes Wolfe’s play more than a dated, conventional attack on boosterism is its Southern setting. He has explosively wedded the race question to the genre. Further, the Southern context renders the elements of conflict ambivalent in another way. In Sinclair Lewis’s Midwest we find a clear confrontation between boosterism (greed and convention) on the one hand, and enlightenment (idealism and cosmopolitanism) on the other. But in the South, not only does the conflict of black and white complicate matters, but boosterism is itself complicated by an alliance-conflict with the remnants of the Old Order. In this situation, enlightenment is at times an ally of boosterism. Wolfe wrote before the stereotypes, in the South at least, had achieved finality. Thus a progressive professor appears as a member of the booster coalition, and idealism, albeit a flawed and compromised version, is at least partly represented by an “Old Colonel” character, the remnant of a regime older and perhaps better than boosterism. Main Street was never this complicated.
Wolfe’s treatment of the confrontation of races also preceded the hardening of stereotypes that began to take place in the 1930’s and had become inviolable orthodoxy by the end of World War II. His blacks, like his Southern whites, are not sentimental heroes but tragically flawed characters. Neither blacks nor Southern whites will find themselves portrayed in a way that promotes a glow of warm contentment. Wolfe keeps his distance from both, and many of his characters are cruel caricatures. True, each one is a genuine and recognizable Southern type, but there is such an absence of positive types that a rounded picture does not emerge. Nevertheless, there is a brutal integrity in his observations.
Wolfe perhaps comes closer to a tragic, rather than a satiric, effect in his rendering of the interior racial dialogue of the South, a centuries-old phenomenon that has almost always been sentimentalized in American lore and literature. In the last scene, following the inevitable violent climax, an aging patrician and a reluctantly radical black patriarch are left to confront each other. “I belong to a day that is past!” laments the patrician. “An’ wheah do I belong?” responds the black man. Wolfe’s bitter detachment and lack of easy sentimentality doubtless explains why the play was never produced on Broadway and why it has remained largely unknown.