Faulkner & Racism: The Great White Hope of Black Power

Faulkner was born in the Bible belt, into segregated white society. The tenets of his strict Calvinist-directed Christian faith were strained and twisted by the racism all around him. How could the idea of all men as brothers and equal in the eyes of the Lord be reconciled with the bigoted, double-standardized, violently derogatory attitude and actions of his fellow Whites toward Blacks? They couldn’t. Thus, Faulkner labored under a horrible moral dilemma not unlike Huck Finn’s: Whose side should he take? His society’s and family’s or God’s? Faulkner often played out this tragic dilemma through stories tortured by the Christian drama of sin, guilt and redemption. As many critics accuse him, Faulkner may well have been a racist, but he knew that about himself, he hated being so, and he struggled his entire life to overcome this inherited, ingrained malignancy.

These struggles found their literary shape in the characters and character of one small county in Mississippi that Faulkner named Yoknapatawpha. By the time he was 30 years old, Faulkner had sketched in his mind an entire mythological superstructure for his microcosmic Southern county. Apropos for the Pathos of his people—who include aristocrats, carpetbaggers, college boys, lawyers, clerks, farmers, bums, saints, sinners,  gangsters, con men, ladies, whores, gentlemen, bastards, and all varieties of Blacks (who, collectively, are his best human beings)—his stories, if segregated, fall short of adequately representing either the South in its entirety or the brilliance of his talent. However, taken all together—integrated, if you will—the stories create a patchwork quilt larger than life, greater than mere literature. They rise to an epic mythic status, no less an artistic achievement than Homer’s The Iliad & the Odyssey or Milton’s Paradise Lost. It’s a very good thing that timid book editors didn’t try to tamper with his bold and controversial books.

Some of Faulkner’s major novels include:

  • The Sound & the Fury (1929): This story of the decadent Compson family chills with its  psychological violence.
  • As I Lay Dying (1930): You can read more about this gothically dark comedic tragedy of sub‑normal poor‑whites in my article available at edit911.com.
  • Sanctuary (1931): This sadistic horror story traces the corruption of small town youth and the power of crime in the Prohibition era.
  • Light in August (1932): This story of forbidden love violently pits Black against White, man against woman.
  • Absalom! Absalom! (1936) records the downfall of the aristocratic Sutpen dynasty in a non-chronological, irrational narration.