Faulkner and The American South: All the Rest is 2nd Best

As a professor of literature and an active book editor, I appreciate great writers such as William Faulkner. I’m quite certain you can find some people who’ll disagree, but many scholars contend that among American authors, only Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville are in Faulkner’s league. In a prose style unlike any other, Faulkner created a massive body of work, distinguished not only for its literary qualities, but for the breadth and depth of its engagement with the human condition. Perhaps his most impressive achievement is that he created an entire world or what Balzac called “a cosmos in miniature.”

Constructing one archetypal county in the American South from the days of Indian possession, through the Civil War to the early 20th century, Faulkner populated it with over 1100 characters who mix and mingle throughout all of his stories. Taken altogether, his novels and stories transcend literature and rise to the level of cultural artifact—a living, breathing chronicle of the South’s soul and soil, its socio-historical reality. Mere history books pale in comparison to the authentic flavor and feel of Faulkner’s moving, soaring saga.

Faulkner’s own family epitomized the fate of the South: once prominent and proud, they suffered a progressive generational decline into poverty and disrepair. His great grandfather was a politician and colonel; his grandfather a lawyer; his father a livery stable owner. Born in 1897, Faulkner entered the Southern world in its doldrums—wallowing in a decadent 30+ year slide downhill from defeat in the Civil War. As heredity and environment are wont to do with both artists and mere earth-bound mortals, they profoundly affected Faulkner’s perception of the world and influenced his selection of subject matter and themes. Of the Southern aristocrat’s world of faded glory, Faulkner admired its courage, gallantry, and code of conduct, but deplored the slavery system upon which it was built. Ultimately, he saw the South as a tragedy—doomed by its fatal flaw.