William Cuthbert Faulkner was an American writer known for his significant contributions to modernist literature through his novels and short stories. His most celebrated works are his novels written around the outbreak of World War II, these include The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, and Absalom, Absalom!
Unlike his contemporaries, such as Ernest Hemingway who wrote using a minimalist style, Faulkner was known for his experimental writing style in which he paid meticulous attention to details like cadence and diction. Because of his profound content and unique style of writing, in 1949 Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for “his powerful and artistically unique contribution to the modern American novel.”
However, despite his significant contributions to American literature, Faulkner is still a controversial figure in history due to his seemingly mixed messages on race. In person, Faulkner was an acute racist who openly opposed desegregation, supported lynch mobs, and lamented the South’s defeat in the Civil War. Yet, in his work, particularly in his novels, Faulkner seemed to acknowledge the atrocities of slavery and lamented not the South’s loss in the war but its devastation in the aftermath.
Growing Up in the ‘Lost Cause’ Era
Born in 1897 in Mississippi to an upper-middle-class family, Faulkner grew up hearing stories about the Civil War, slavery, and the Ku Klux Klan. These stories included tales about Confederate “heroes” like Faulkner’s own great-grandfather and namesake, William Clark Falkner, who was enshrined as a family legacy in Faulkner’s home.
One could tell from how Faulkner spoke about political issues at the time that his childhood influenced him deeply, especially regarding matters surrounding Reconstruction and race. Faulkner grew up using racial slurs and thoroughly opposed what he referred to as “compulsory integration” of the South by the North.
In letters and articles written to various magazines, Faulkner often cautioned desegregation advocates to “go slow now,” and wrote about he longed for the return of slavery in the form of a “benevolent autocracy” in which “Negroes would be better off because they’d have someone to look after them.”
These letters written by Faulkner are horrible in themselves, but his most scandalous comments come from a handful of drunken interviews given to the press.
After decades of obscurity, around the 1950s, Faulkner became a relatively sizable literary celebrity and was therefore sought after by journalists looking for comment on the recent desegregation efforts by someone with a Southern perspective.
In a drunken interview in 1956, when asked about federally mandated desegregation, Faulkner disturbingly stated there would be another civil war and he knew which he would fight on.
“If it came to fighting,” he said, “I’d fight for Mississippi against the United States even if it meant going out into the street and shooting Negroes.” This interview came around the time the federal government began deploying him as an international ambassador for democracy and human rights.
After this interview, Faulkner later disavowed these statements, and while this certainly does not condone what he said, it definitely reveals Faulkner’s long history of giving mixed messages when it comes to race and the Civil War. This sort of white Southern guilt comes out more in his works, particularly his novels.
For example, Faulkner’s novels The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom! both feature the Compson family, descendants of a fallen plantation aristocracy who are so obsessed with the past that they are doomed to constantly repeat it. Faulkner’s depiction of the Confederate forces fighting also has a sense of repetition and loss, and not necessarily the glorification you would see in a Southern history textbook.
Faulkner, in his writing, also did not stray away from the atrocities of slavery, including sexual violence. Whereas other “plantation fiction” novels simply alluded to the sexual exploitation of Black women that resulted in children who were themselves enslaved, Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and Go Down, Moses feature it as the main plot of the novels as he explores these “shadow families.”
Of course, some speculate Faulkner did not use themes such as these out of genuine want to help reveal the horrors of slavery, and rather in an attempt to relieve his guilt.
Whatever the case may be Faulkner’s, hypocrisy concerning such matters are evident in both his speech and his writing as he constantly had to walk back whatever thing he said or wrote.
So, is William Faulkner a racist? Yes, absolutely. But, his mixed and complicated feelings on issues of race make themselves known in his writing, though that’s no consolation whatsoever.
As Casey Cep from The New Yorker says, “It’s too late to cancel Faulkner; he already canceled himself.”
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