A thousand-page book, like a thousand-foot ship, must not disappoint; unfortunately, Karl Frederick’s William Faulkner is the QE II of American literary biography. “This book attempts,” Professor Karl states in his foreword, “to integrate the latest in biographical information with Faulkner’s own large body of work in fiction and poetry.” He adds that, “It will not replace Joseph Blotner’s monumental two-volume biography of Faulkner, which is an altogether different kind of book,” but does not deign to mention the more recently published William Faulkner: The Man and the Artist (Harper & Row, 1987) by Stephen B. Oates—an (atrocious) exercise in what its author described as “pure biography,” making use of “psychological insights” in order “to shape the whole of Faulkner’s life so as to suggest its essence.” Especially by comparison with Oates’s vulgarly pretentious aim, Professor Karl’s agenda may strike the sympathetic reader as a refreshingly straightforward alternative to Professor Blotner’s old-fashioned (impure?) biographical approach. In this frame of mind, it is possible to pass uncritically over Professor Karl’s subsequent words, when he says, “This study is in the deepest [!] sense a biography: not only a presentation of the relevant facts of the subject’s life, but an effort to understand and interpret that life psychologically, emotionally, and literally.” The word “biography,” apparently, has been purifying and deepening itself lately, to the point where—like the word “democracy”—it has become susceptible of personal definition. (Or perhaps it is simpler than that. “Well, how long was the Mauretania?” “790 feet.” “The Acquitania?” “901 feet.” “Well, let’s make this one a thousand feet and see what happens.” This from The Queen Mary by Neil Potter and Jack Frost.)
It is possible, I think, without signing away one’s life to the New Criticism, to agree with M.E. Bradford that a profound mystery exists between the life of the artist and the life of his art, the integrity of which needs to be respected for reasons going even beyond its inscrutability. That, on the theoretical level, is my primary complaint against William Faulkner: American Writer; on the practical level, there is the further problem that Professor Karl’s method of demonstrating the biographical wellsprings of literature requires that he recapitulate the story line, and reintroduce the principal characters, of even the most minor of Faulkner’s works. To a reader no more than moderately familiar with the Faulkner corpus, the procedure is tedious in the extreme, and grows more so as the stack of turned pages mounts steadily beneath his passive left hand. William Faulkner himself explained his failure to read Gone With the Wind by insisting that no story requires a thousand pages for its telling; and though in refutation of his argument we have War and Peace, the simple fact is that Tolstoy—unlike Karl, who is a careless, imprecise, and often confusing writer—for the most part wrote good sentences. Even if we grant that the ship should be as long as it must be, the stipulation that the plates be cleanly riveted and that the lines draw the eye still obtains.
There are other problems with William Faulkner: American Writer, almost all of them subsumable under what has to be seen as the overarching one, which is Professor Karl’s completely uncritical enthusiasm for that artistic movement known as Modernism, itself the subject of an earlier and most interesting work (Modern and Modernism: The Sovereignty of the Artist 1885-1925, 1985) by the same author. While it is beyond question that the innovative, fundamentally subjective techniques of literary Modernism have produced what are—particularly by comparison with so much of the literary production of Postmodernism— masterpieces, it is certainly going too far to see in Modernism the scientifically certified apex of several millennia of literary evolution. Evelyn Waugh, for example, who set out quite deliberately in the opposite, “retrograde” direction, had artistically sound reasons for doing so, as George McCartney has demonstrated. Given his aesthetic formulation, Waugh was by no means philistine in regarding James Joyce—the Joyce who wrote Ulysses anyway—as “barmy”; nor is The Sound and the Fury at any level a novel superior to Waugh’s masterpiece, A Handful of Dust. As a book should be as long as it needs to be, so should it be written in the style its subject, material, and author require, the Modernist being simply one among many possible lying to hand. Professor Karl, however, does not see it this way: for him. Modernism is the shining way, not capable of supercession until something still more innovative comes along. Thus he insists on regarding Faulkner as probably the greatest American novelist of the 20th century (as probably he was) because he adapted the techniques of European Modernism both to his native soil and his native talent. When, after Absalom, Absalom! (1936), Faulkner by and large ceased to employ those innovations—and certainly to extend them—he entered upon what Karl can only see as a long period of gradual creative decline. That the later novels may in fact represent a falling-off of Faulkner’s talent is not the point; what is crucial is that Karl sees progressive innovation as a touchstone of great art, without seeming to consider that innovation may be unsuited to various literary subjects and materials, and to the voices that these generate. When after Absalom! Faulkner became, roughly speaking, a vadic poet of sorts, the voices and techniques that had been suitable to The Sound and the Fury became simply inapplicable to the work at hand. Whether or not the innovator in Faulkner was aware of that fact, the artist surely was.
The question of William Faulkner’s religious belief—or the want thereof—is a vexed one. Professor Karl is at pains to stress the “spiritual” aspect of Faulkner’s writing—Old Ben, The Wilderness, the paramount virtue of endurance—while at the same time downplaying his avoidance of doctrine, church, and formalized belief. Karl’s emphasis is consonant with his idea of “the sovereignty of the artist,” who becomes thereby a kind of priest, withholding to himself and kindred sophisticates the artistic vision that so often functions as the Modernist equivalent of the religious one. Here, however, Karl misreads his subject. Addressing a class at the University of Virginia in 1957, Faulkner remarked, “Why the Christian religion has never harmed me. I hope I have never harmed it. I have the sort of provincial Christian background which one takes for granted without thinking too much about it, probably. That I’m probably—within my own rights I’m a good Christian—whether it would please anybody else’s standard or not I don’t know.” Concerning his own standard, William Faulkner himself was clearly in some doubt; yet two facts are incontrovertible. The first is—Karl refers to it—that along with Shakespeare, the Old Testament was Faulkner’s favorite reading matter, and that, as his fiction attests, he was well versed in it. The second is that Faulkner realized, ultimately, that art and the artist are not sovereign. What other, final, explanation is possible for his lifelong inclination to play every other role than that of the writer? This “imposter,” as Professor Karl calls him, may have been such; but his impostures appear to have been prompted by genuine humility and self-knowledge, rather than their opposites. Faulkner, the consummate artist, knew just how unsovereign artists actually are. Like other major writers—one thinks of Hemingway, the big game hunter—he felt, at times, that an artist was among the most insignificant, if not actually contemptible, things to be. Like Tolstoy, he preferred very often to think of himself as a farmer instead.
In one respect—and one only—is the artist vassal, not suzerain, for Professor Karl; and that is in his relationship to progressive opinion. Throughout his text, Karl is at pains to Americanize Faulkner—which is to say, to transmogrify him from a white Mississippian of his time into an eccentric kindred spirit (but a kindred spirit all the same) of the (white) Northeastern liberal of Karl’s contemporary milieu; when the portrait-frame, subjected to such unnatural pressures, begins to bend and warp (as it does whenever Faulkner’s problematic attitudes toward the question of race arise), Karl simply apologizes for the discrepancy, and cites the fact that, after all, Faulkner was a white Mississippian, etc., etc. . . . How sad that a man who has spent years researching and writing a thousand-plus-page book about another man, of another place and time, should seem to consider his labors justified only to the extent that his subject’s ideas concerning race, religion, women, and what we today call global democracy dovetail with the prevailing orthodoxy. Because, otherwise, why worry such old bones?
[William Faulkner: American Writer, by Frederick R. Karl (New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson) 1,131 pp., $37.50]