Skip to main content


Faulkner at 100

By Noel Polk | HUMANITIES, September/October 1997 | Volume 18, Number 5

If there is a single defining presence in American literature of the twentieth century, it is Faulkner; of writers in English language literatures, perhaps only James Joyce and William Shakespeare are his peers in their literary achievement and in their influence over both their own generation and the ones that followed them.

William Faulkner would have been one hundred years old on September 25, 1997. Celebrations have been planned throughout the world: Paris, Rennes, Venice, Beijing, New Orleans, Toronto, at his birthplace, in New Albany, Mississippi, and his hometown of Oxford.

As a Mississippian myself, one who has spent more than thirty years studying his work, I have recently been less and less interested in Faulkner the international literary figure than in Faulkner the local man, the citizen, living in and, to a large extent, writing about a state and a region which, for a variety of right and wrong reasons, came and perhaps for some continues to represent all that has been problematic -- no: abhorrent and ugly -- in American political life.

Faulkner lived a good deal of his life in opposition to many of the things Mississippi has come to represent; his life and a good deal of his work are frontal assaults on its middle-class pretensions, its cultural backwardness, and its racist politics.

Mississippians, of course, resented their collective portrayal in his works, and returned his implicit criticism with a combination of indifference and calumny. It swallowed hard and reacted negatively when he analyzed its racist traditions in Light in August (1932), Absalom, Absalom! (1936), Go Down, Moses (1942), and Intruder in the Dust (1948); but when in the mid fifties he carried his criticism to the public arena, "official" Mississippi began to return the antagonism with all the power its newspapers and pulpits, bully and religious, could muster. During his lifetime and for some years beyond, official Mississippi was hard put indeed to find anything nice to say about him either publicly or privately, and there were times when a public ceremony in his home state connected with him and his work would have more likely been an assembly to burn his books than to have his portrait hung or his books discussed. Faulkner has long since had the last laugh, and it may be too easy, this side of the tumultuous days of the Civil Rights movement, to undervalue his personal struggle in taking the public stands he took. If we do, though, we will miss a good deal of the significance of his life and work as it grew out of the complex combination of powerful emotions that Mississippi evoked in him and, thanks to him, in us. Indeed, Faulkner scholars and readers in other countries tell me that part of his continuing appeal to them lies precisely in his love of and his commitment to his own country, so that part of what makes him international seems to be his very localness in Mississippi.

In a 1933 essay, Faulkner suggested that a writer in Mississippi had two alternatives: to escape or to indict. He tried the former by simply leaving as frequently as he could: to Canada, where he enlisted in the Royal Air Force, in an unsuccessful effort to get into World War I; to New Haven and New York in the early twenties; to New Orleans and Europe in the mid twenties; to Hollywood sporadically to try to make a living when his novels weren't selling. He often indicted his home region in several novels and stories, which frequently depicted the South's and Mississippi's people as backward, violent, oppressive, and ignorant.

Yet escape Mississippi he could not, either in his fiction or in his personal life -- drawn to it as he was because it was home and because it provided the specific energy for much of his fiction. The conflicts that Mississippi caused in him were so terrific that readers and critics have surely been right to assume that Quentin Compson's torment at the end of Absalom, Absalom! is also Faulkner's: Asked by his Harvard roommate why he hates the South, Quentin responds "I dont. I dont! I dont hate it! I dont hate it!" His most famous character describes a state of mind that cannot admit that it loves what it hates or that it hates what it loves.

But Faulkner knew, or learned, that to escape or to indict is not to engage or to understand, and it seems to me that one of the most important threads running through his work is the gradual expansion of his willingness to engage rather than simply to repudiate his home region. All of his fiction, but especially his late work, is marked by an unrelenting insistence that his fictional characters face their own and their culture's powerful complexities and deal with them rather than try to escape them.

These concerns found their way inexorably into his life as a citizen. During the years between 1952 and 1957 he spent a great deal of time and energy in speeches, essays, and public letters, often delivered at great peril to himself, that addressed the social and political issues of his day; the burgeoning Civil Rights movement, the Cold War, and our increasing reliance on technology. He tried to use his influence as a Nobel laureate to persuade his fellow Southerners and Mississippians to practice what their country preached: liberty and justice for all. I do not want to recite here the record of Faulkner's public quarrels with Mississippi, which are well documented.

But I would like to discuss briefly his more personal struggle, which he documented in one of his most moving and little-known pieces, the 1953 quasi-autobiographical "Mississippi," sui generis in form and content, which testifies to his growing capacity for engagement with his state that allowed him, unlike Quentin Compson, both to love it and hate it at the same time. At the time of his most public and energetic attacks upon Mississippi's institutions he was feeling most deeply his love for his home.

The protagonist of "Mississippi" is Faulkner the citizen, not Faulkner the artist. He makes this distinction clear throughout by referring to the citizen in the third person, and by refusing to speak of his career as a writer, although we're never very far from that career, since "Mississippi" moves freely and fluidly back and forth between Faulkner's two Mississippis, his created one and his real one, as if to demonstrate just how thin the line separating them is, how inextricable they are from each other.

"Mississippi"'s opening pages outline the state from its beginnings through the Civil War, Emancipation, and Reconstruction, on into the end of the nineteenth century when the boy is born into that powerful flood of history. Though he would be a child of the twentieth century, the forces shaping his life were very much those of the nineteenth. The boy remembers hearing about the Civil War even before he hears about Santa Claus at Christmas. The first character he speaks of from his childhood is Mammy Callie, the family nurse, an ex-slave who refused to leave the Faulkners after Emancipation and who was to survive into Faulkner's forty-third year, a constant reminder of the significance of the Civil War and Reconstruction in the South not as mere historical circumstances, but as ever-present, daily realities.

Aside from the protagonist, Mammy Callie is "Mississippi"'s most important character. Her life runs through the essay as a moving counterpoint to the boy's own maturation. She plays a little game with the family of constantly reminding them that they owe her eighty-nine dollars in back wages, wages -- the dollars at any rate -- that have been offered over and over again and which she has refused to accept. This debt becomes Faulkner's gentle, unforced metaphor for all that white Mississippi owes to its black citizens, that it will never repay, partly because Mammy Callie, the Negro, does not really want the debt wiped out, and partly because what is owed is not really something that can be repaid. Mammy Callie sees the child into his life, and "Mississippi" reaches its elegiac end as the middle-aging protagonist delivers her funeral oration.

Her death is the thematic climax of "Mississippi," and in her life and death as Faulkner presents them are encapsulated all the things his citizen protagonist has learned in his progression from infancy to middle age how -- that is, one can be so completely a victim of color, of law, of economics, of simple geography, even, as Mammy Callie had been and still find room to love even that which had victimized her, and how it might be possible for him, the middle-aging, both to hate the people and the system that had victimized Mammy Callie and simultaneously to follow her example in being able to find even in her oppressors, and his, something to love.

"Mississippi" moves to closure as the man returns from travel to find himself "home again, his native land; he was born of it and his bones will sleep in it...." His first articulation of his reconciliation with his state is a recognition that love and hate are not mutually exclusive, not even contradictory: "loving it even while hating some of it," he writes. Hating the greed, the waste of the lumbermen and the land speculators who change the face of the landscape by cutting down the big trees for timber, moving the big woods father and farther away from the areas he hunted in as a child. "But most of all," he writes,

he hated the intolerance and injustice: the lynching of Negroes not for the crimes they committed but because their skins were black (they were becoming fewer and fewer and soon there would be no more of them but the evil would have been done and irrevocable because there should never have been any); the inequality: the poor schools they had then when they had any, the hovels they had to live in unless they wanted to live outdoors: who could worship the white man's God but not in the white man's church; pay taxes in the white man's courthouse but couldn't vote in it or for it; working by the white man's clock but having to take his pay by the white man's counting . . .; the bigotry which could send to Washington some of the senators and congressmen we sent there and which could erect in a town no bigger than Jefferson five separate denominations of churches but set aside not one square foot of ground where children could play and old people could sit and watch them.

"Mississippi" concludes with Mammy Callie's death, the gathering of her children, her laying out, and the middle-aging's funeral sermon, all building toward the essay's final paragraphs, Faulkner's second and more complex articulation of the relationship between love and hate, a more profound revelation than the first. "Loving all of it," he writes, "even while he had to hate some of it because he knows now that you dont love because: you love despite; not for the virtues, but despite the faults."

This is a far cry indeed from Quentin Compson's anguished "I dont hate it" of nearly twenty years earlier, and it reflects all the distilled wisdom of Faulkner's own fifty-six years of agonizing over the turmoil of Mississippi and of what he called "the human heart in conflict with itself." It is also a specific rejection of the sentimentality of escape or indictment, which were both too simple and too unsatisfying as responses to a very complex problem, a forced resolution of a complexity which admits of no resolution.

In Faulkner's view, love is not a passive response to that which chooses us. It is, more completely, an active response to something that we choose. It is large enough to include both escape and indictment, even hate and anger, in its range of acceptable emotions. To be able to love despite was Mammy Callie's virtue. Faulkner's acceptance of this revelation represents his fullest engagement, artistic and personal, with his native land. Backward though it was, oppressive, unsophisticated, and frequently infuriating, Mississippi and its people were nevertheless, with all their shortcomings, his own. "Mississippi," written during the heat of his very public and bitter indictments of the parts of the state that he hated, testified to how much they were his and he was theirs.

Now, on his one hundredth birthday, Mississippi is at least partly what he made of us, since readers in Paris and Beijing and Tbilisi can hardly separate what we have been and are from what he wrote about us; nor can readers in Mississippi ever be other than what he, by showing us our worst and our best selves too, has helped us become.

About the Author

Noel Polk is professor of English at the University of Southern Mississippi. His books include Children of the Dark House: Text and Context in Faulkner (1996). He has directed several NEH-supported summer seminars for schoolteachers on the works of William Faulkner.

Funding Information