Literature of the Antebellum South
The historical epoch concerning the American South from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the eruption of the Civil War in 1861 is usually designated “antebellum,” or simply referred to as the period of the Old South. While the region stretching north to south from Virginia to Florida and east to west from Georgia to Texas represents a vast area of considerable geographical diversity, in the first six decades of the nineteenth century it was bound by a number of important social, economic, and political factors. Principal among these was the existence of black slavery, a practice that sustained the primarily rural and agricultural South. After about 1820, few in the Southern experience could avoid the presence of slavery. Cotton, the region's largest cash crop, was grown throughout the expanse of the South on enormous plantations and required vast amounts of inexpensive labor in order to be profitable for planters. As slavery became an established institution, it began to elicit concern in the remainder of the United States where it was illegal. Additional regional differences, such as the decentralized, agrarian existence of the Old South, which differed sharply from that of the more industrialized, urbanized, and commercial North, also divided the nation. Antebellum writers made much of these dissimilarities by describing the South's economic and cultural “distinctiveness,” creating myths of the region's pastoral splendor and tirelessly defending the values of Southern society and the institutionalized practice of slavery. Such ideas eventually found their way into the prevailing fictional forms of the antebellum South: the historical romance, the domestic and sentimental novel, and the tale of backcountry humor. Meanwhile, Southern poetry at this time was generally the province of amateur gentlemen-poets and frequently expressed only conventional themes and forms. Because of these limitations, many subsequent commentators have observed that the antebellum period was remarkable for its lack of significant literary production. Nevertheless, a few writers are considered exceptional, including Edgar Allan Poe, acknowledged as the Old South's sole writer of genius; William Gilmore Simms, the prolific and representative antebellum author; and Henry Timrod, a gifted poet of the Civil War era.
The cornerstone of antebellum fiction was the historical romance. Novels concerning plantation life, sentimental love affairs, and backwoods adventures dominated the interest of the Southern reading public for decades. The historical romance genre owes an enormous debt to the wildly popular Waverley novels of the Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott, whose romantic narrative style spawned innumerable imitators in Europe and America. Among these novelists in the South, the Virginian George Tucker set the standard with The Valley of Shenandoah; or, Memoirs of the Graysons (1824), a somewhat melodramatic family saga featuring exaggerated language and conventional characters. Tucker's formula proved successful, and many other novelists, including William Alexander Caruthers, Nathaniel Beverly Tucker, John Esten Cooke, and John Pendleton Kennedy, produced works in a similar manner. Of these writers, Kennedy is generally recognized as the most gifted. His prototypical plantation romance Swallow Barn; or, A Sojourn in the Old Dominion (1832) defined the tropes of this picturesque and popular form that would endure well into the twentieth century. Like Tucker's novel, Swallow Barn took much from older fictional traditions. Its narrative features a Northern traveler who records his generally delighted reactions to the South—a device used effectively by Tucker as well as William Wirt in his popular 1803 volume of fictionalized essays entitled The Letters of the British Spy. In his subsequent novels, Kennedy also made skilled use of the elements of the historical adventure genre; his two novels Horse-Shoe Robinson (1835) and Rob of the Bowl: A Legend of St. Inigoe's (1835) look back romantically to Revolutionary War-era South Carolina and seventeenth-century Maryland, respectively. William A. Caruthers's The Cavaliers of Virginia; or, The Recluse of Jamestown (1834-35) fits a similar mold as it recounts the historical Bacon's Rebellion of 1676, while adding the familiar trappings of Gothic fiction. In The Knights of the Horseshoe (1845), Caruthers returned to colonial Virginia for another lively, heroic adventure. Of Beverly Tucker's major novels, George Balcombe (1836) is a frontier romance mostly set in backcountry Missouri, while The Partisan Leader: A Tale of the Future, published secretly in 1836, is an imaginative, allegorical look thirteen years hence after the Confederacy has seceded from the Union. While describing entertaining adventures and presenting a host of conventional types—the gentleman planter, the Southern belle, the opportunistic Northerner—the romances of George and Beverly Tucker, Kennedy, Caruthers, Cooke, and others conveyed to audiences the major themes of the Old South experience. Principal among these was one of the resounding and most enduring myths in Southern fiction: the image of the South as a pastoral paradise and a spiritually regenerative community. Likewise, as war with the North approached at mid-century, these and other apologetic writers increased their efforts to glorify and idealize the agrarian values of plantation life, facilely juxtaposing them with the greedy, materialistic, and commercial ethos of the North.
Antebellum short fiction was primarily the domain of the southwestern humorist. Augustus Baldwin Longstreet was probably the most renowned of these writers. His Georgia Scenes, Characters, Incidents, Etc. in the First Half Century of the Republic (1835) achieved national prominence as it amusingly described life in the South's hinterlands. Other important humorist collections include William Tappan Thompson's Major Jones's Scenes in Georgia (1843), James Jones Hooper's The Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs (1845), and Joseph G. Baldwin's Flush Times of Alabama and Mississippi (1853). These compilations of popular, exaggerated, sometimes preposterous, but witty sketches of the Southern backcountry regions first appeared in local newspapers and regional periodicals but later were printed in national magazines such as the Southern Literary Messenger and the New York journal Spirit of the Times. Most of these humor writers were skilled amateurs who considered themselves professional lawyers, politicians, or journalists first, and authors second. One exception to the typical, Old South rule of literary amateurism, however, was William Gilmore Simms, a devoted writer who, critics have discerned, was a prominent literary spokesman for his region and age. Simms's collected works of fiction, poetry, criticism, and history comprise more than eighty volumes. Taken as a whole, these works are suffused with the antebellum spirit and feature Simms's fervent support of Southern values and culture. The Yemassee (1835) is generally regarded as his finest novel, detailing events of the early eighteenth-century wars between European settlers and Native Americans in Carolina. The subjects of Simms's historical romances range from the American Revolution (The Partisan, 1835) to life on the Southern frontier (Guy Rivers, 1834). Usually told with a directness that some commentators found distasteful, Simms's works were well known throughout the antebellum period, and if not esteemed as the most innovative publications of their age, continue to be regarded as the embodiment of regional Southern writing in the middle of the nineteenth-century.
The most influential literary periodical of the Old South was undoubtedly the Richmond-based Southern Literary Messenger. Published between 1834 and 1864, the Messenger established literary tastes for more than a decade longer than its closest competitor, the Southern Quarterly Review, in an age that saw scores of periodicals come and go. The Messenger published the work of the established poets of the early antebellum period, including Richard Henry Wilde, Edward Coate Pinkney, Thomas Holley Chivers, and Philip Pendleton Cooke. The verse of these writers was rather conventional and artificial, bound to earlier traditions rather than original in form or content. Still, critics have observed that a few of these poetic expressions, such as Wilde's romantic lyric “Lament of the Captive,” demonstrate both technical and aesthetic proficiency. Other writers, including William Gilmore Simms, Edgar Allan Poe, and Henry Timrod, also made significant contributions to the poetry of the Old South. Simms, most notably in his evocative “The Edge of the Swamp,” shared much in terms of style and sensibility with his earlier counterparts. Edgar Allan Poe, meanwhile, stands apart from his contemporaries of the Old South as the writer who demonstrated unrivaled artistic skill and a transcendent literary genius. While critics unquestionably perceive Poe as a writer of world significance, some contention does remain as to his “Southernness.” Though born in Boston, he considered himself a Virginian. Unlike Simms and many of his contemporaries, however, Poe generally eschewed political and ideological endorsements of the South, focusing his efforts on the aesthetic qualities of composition in order to produce haunting poetry and enigmatic, psychological short fiction. As a lyric poet he created such renowned pieces as “To Helen” and “The Raven.” Poe's brilliance in fiction can be seen in his mastery of the short story form, his seminal contribution to the detective genre (notably “The Gold Bug,” 1843), and his manipulation of the symbolic and grotesque to achieve heightened thematic and visceral effects, perhaps best illustrated in his 1839 tale “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Poe also worked briefly as an editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, contributing to a four-fold increase in the periodical's readership. After Poe, Henry Timrod is generally considered the finest of the antebellum poets. Many of his greatest works were composed to glorify the birth of a new nation, the Confederacy, at the dawn of the Civil War, and are now seen as moving elegies to Southern defeat.
Women writers also made significant contributions to the literature of the antebellum South, acknowledged now by modern critics after decades of relative neglect. Although born in the North, Caroline Howard Gilman adopted Charleston, South Carolina, as her home and lived there throughout her literary career. She established and edited a literary magazine, Southern Rose, wrote poetry, and produced several notable works of fiction, including two sentimental novels, Recollections of a [New England] Housekeeper (1834) and Recollections of a Southern Matron (1838). Female novelists also offered their versions of the romance narrative, typified in the volumes of E. D. E. N. Southworth and Caroline Lee Hentz. Southworth's Retribution; or, The Vale of Shadows (1849) is an overblown tale of passion set on a Virginia plantation at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Other works by Southworth include The Curse of Clifton (1852) and a string of sensationalistic novels typically featuring melodramatic plots and dynamic heroines. Among Caroline Hentz's ten novels of the 1850s are such works as Ernest Linwood (1856), which examines the effects of unrestrained passion, and Eoline; or, Magnolia Vale (1852), a romance recounting the exploits of its independently minded young protagonist. Hentz's 1851 novel, The Northern Planter's Bride, is also included among her most well-known works, primarily because of its status as a fictional response to the Northern anti-slavery writings of the period.
Ubiquitous in the Old South, slavery was a significant subject for a number of antebellum Southern writers. The issue of enslaved blacks in the South had increasingly polarized the nation during the nineteenth century. The growing abolitionist movement in the North had a profound effect on Southern literature by mid-century, with writers penning numerous works of propaganda in order to combat the steady stream of anti-slavery material that was widely read and circulated in the North. While the white and generally affluent literary establishments of Richmond, Charleston, and New Orleans continued to defend the South and its reliance on slave labor in fiction, speeches, and essays, an alternative and opposing form of expression crystallized in the new genre of the slave narrative, giving voice to former slaves who had escaped to freedom in the North. Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself (1861) details her combined struggle as a woman, a mother, and a slave in the Old South and describes seven years spent living in her grandmother's tiny attic. The dismal and degrading existence of a slave was also recorded in The Narrative of William Wells Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Written by Himself (1847). Brown went on to produce fictional works as well, notably his novel Clotel; or, The President's Daughter (1853), based on the life of an illegitimate daughter of President Thomas Jefferson and one of his slaves. Numbered among the most outstanding attempts by a former slave to impress the dehumanizing effects of slavery on white readers, the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, by Himself (1845), remains a centerpiece of the slave narrative genre.
FAULKNER did not at all mind speaking out about the world in which he lived. At one time or another he complained of many features of our American life style: of our haste, of our activism—though we all said that we approved of culture, we couldn’t find the time to read a book or listen to music or look at a picture—of our commercialism, of business so often pursued merely for the sake of business, of our tendency to reduce nearly all human relations to the cash nexus, of our huckstering salesmanship, and of the value we placed on respectability. One of the characters in “The Wild Palms,” Harry Wilbourne, makes a notable comment on the subject of respectability. He tells a friend that it is idleness that breeds all of America’s real virtues, virtues such as “contemplation, equableness, laziness, letting other people alone,” whereas it is such prime virtues as thrift and independence that breed all the special modern vices, which are “fanaticism, smugness, meddling, fear, and worst of all, respectability.”
Closely allied to this fear of what your neighbors may think of you is something that sounds like its direct opposite: your own nagging desire to know the worst about your neighbor— the wish to find out all about his private life—and a willingness, if necessary, to violate his privacy.
The vices I have named are precisely those that any artist might be expected to reprehend. Artists tend to be unconventional, even bohemian. Naturally, they decry the moral furniture of a typical bourgeois household: a commercial ethic, an urge to keep up with the Joneses, an undue regard for respectability, an itch to pry into our neighbor’s private life, and a concern to sell oneself to the public, to have a good “image,” rather than to be oneself.
The modern vice that most outraged Faulkner, however, was the violation of one’s private life. Its enormity had been brought home to him by attempted violations of his own privacy. These attempts came to a head in 1953 with the publication in Life Magazine of “The Private World of William Faulkner.” Though Faulkner had begged the editors of Life to desist, they could not be persuaded to leave him alone. Faulkner took the matter sufficiently to heart to devote to it one of his rare full-dress essays. It bears the title: “On Privacy.” It constitutes his most elaborate and considered attack on the value system of contemporary America.
In the essay, however, Faulkner undertakes to rise above his personal problem and take a large, overall view. What had happened to him, he tells the reader, was what had also happened on a level of much graver seriousness to more important figures such as, for instance, Charles Lindbergh and J.Robert Oppenheimer. Though the nation had rejoiced in Lindbergh’s great achievement, it had not been able to protect his child, and when the child was kidnapped, it had not shielded his grief but had exploited it. Good manners and decency had been engulfed by the urge to make money by pandering to the public’s greediness for the sensational.
It is worth noting that Faulkner chose as a subtitle for his essay on privacy “The American Dream: What Happened to It.” Our republic had been born out of a dream. It had been founded to guarantee to every citizen freedom from oppression by the arbitrary power of princes, whether of church or state; yet though the nation had been born out of a revolt against one kind of enslavement, it had capitulated to another—the individual’s enslavement by a mindless and venal mob. Pushy newspaper men, yellow-press journalism (even when printed on slick paper in a prestigious weekly magazine), political witch-hunting—these, in Faulkner’s view, were no mere pimples on the body politic; rather, they evidenced a deep and malignant growth.
With the defeat of the South in 1865, the older régime did not abruptly cease to exist. Attitudes, ways of living, customs, and values survived—some good, some bad. Hence, in Faulkner’s novels about Southern life in the first third of our century, many of the qualities of the Old South are still alive. Miss Jenny Du Pre, who had experienced the Civil War, did not die until 1930, and thus remained to counsel and sometimes judge the twentieth-century members of her clan. Bayard Sartoris, who saw the War as a boy and lived through the difficult Reconstruction period, did not die until 1919.So much for representatives of the old planter stock who lived on into the new time.
As for the poor whites of settlements such as Frenchman’s Bend, their lives remained substantially unaltered until after the First World War. They owned no slaves to be freed, and if their economic lot did not suffer drastically because of the outcome of the Civil War, it certainly did not improve. They were small farmers and sawmill hands, and though they would have resented being called peasants, they hardly attained even to the state of a strong yeomanry.
For the blacks and for the poorer whites, the American Dream had remained a largely unfulfilled promise. Southerners in general, even those in better economic circumstances, had intellectual reservations about the American Dream. As C.Vann Woodward has well said: “In that most optimistic of centuries in the most optimistic part of the world, the South remained basically pessimistic in its social outlook and its moral philosophy.”
Though the Founding Fathers had looked forward to a radiant future—”Long may our land be bright / With freedom’s holy light”—for the South it hadn’t quite worked out that way. For Faulkner in 1955, the American dream seemed to risk becoming the American nightmare. Salient features of this worsening condition as reflected in his novels are the loss of the wilderness and man’s close contact with nature, the loosening of the bonds of community, the weakening of the old heroic virtues, whether those of the old planter stock or of the yeomanry, and the rise of a nakedly commercial ethic.
In “Delta Autumn,” Faulkner’s emphasis is on the violation of nature, the reduction of its beauty and mystery to a fixed cash value. In “The Hamlet,” this theme had been developed even further through the activities of the anti-hero of the book, the unspeakable Flem Snopes, chief of that predatory clan whose family name has now entered the language as a common noun meaning an underbred rapacious rascal. Flem Snopes is the poor but dishonest boy who made good in a spectacular rise from rags to riches. No business venture is beneath his notice if it promises to yield a profit. Since he possesses not even a vestigial sense of pity to embarrass him, not even widows and orphans can escape his rapacity. Honor, of course, is irrelevant to Flem, and on him even the ties of blood and kinship exert no restraint. Furthermore, he is a man without appetites or temptations. He lacks such vices as might distract him from money-making. He is impotent; he doesn’t drink or smoke. His only vice is the love of money. It is a vice, not a passion, for Flem is not a warm-blooded animal. Nothing warmer than plain ice-water flows through his veins.
Flem is one of Faulkner’s most wonderful creations: an inhuman, human calculating machine—the very embodiment of the commercial spirit. Yet it would be a mistake to conclude that Faulkner as a man scorned money, or that he assumed as a matter of course that all business men were rogues. Faulkner has placed, in the same novel with Flem, V.K.Ratliff, the itinerant sewing-machine agent, who loves to bargain, is successful enough as a trader, and takes a heartfelt delight in meeting a foeman worthy of his steel. Ratliff is a man of the plain people, keenly intelligent, for all his lack of formal education. He is an excellent judge of character, has a fine vein of humor, and is a wonderful raconteur. One of the best of his yarns is his hilarious account of how Ab Snopes, Flem’s father, was bested in a horse trade by that legendary trader, Pat Stamper of West Tennessee. More important for our purposes here, Ratliff is a man of honor, who would scorn to take advantage of the foolish, the poor, or the helpless. In “The Hamlet” Ratliff becomes something like the conscience of the county.
If Faulkner does not sourly dismiss all business men as base and contemptible, neither does he associate a huckstering commercialism with the poorer whites. In fact, Faulkner’s most truly evil character, a man so eaten up with the love of money that he will steal from his seventeen-year-old niece, comes of plantation stock. Jason Compson has ancestors who were governors and generals, but he is mean-spirited. He actually enjoys inflicting pain.
The commentators on Faulkner who are in the habit of praising those Faulknerian characters who are willing to repudiate the heritage of the Old South ought to take note of Jason Compson and draw in their horns a bit. For if any character in Faulkner makes a root-and-branch disavowal of his personal and sectional heritage, it is Jason Compson. What, he asks, have his honored ancestors done for him? He is all for a realistic approach to a world in which he has come to believe that only the dollar counts. For Jason, even romantic love is reduced to the cash nexus. He confides that what he really likes is a good, clean, honest whore. With that kind of woman you know where you stand.
About all that Jason retains from his Southern heritage is a fine flow of rhetoric, which, hardened and made acrid by his cynicism and urged on by his rapacious vitality, is something to hear. When his employer balks at using some sharp business practices, Jason sneers: “I’m glad I haven’t got the sort of conscience I’ve got to nurse like a sick puppy all the time.” Jason knows whereof he speaks: his conscience can digest almost anything.
Faulkner regarded as ominous the rise of the predatory Snopeses who had begun, with the help of such eager recruits to Snopesism as Jason Compson, to prey upon the old order. Faulkner once remarked to Malcolm Cowley that the question for the South was whether the Snopeses would take over the country. Later, he told the students at the University of Virginia that he was “terrified” of the Snopeses. Flem Snopes’s lust for money obliterated all claims of family, clan, friendship, honor, and affections of every kind. But ties of this sort may also, of course, be frayed and weakened by other forces, and the loss of these ties—whatever the cause—was to Faulkner the important matter. For with the disappearance of such ties, there is a loss of community, and where community is lost, the individual becomes alienated. In the worst cases, the individual finds himself confronting not other human beings but a great impersonal machine, a faceless and anonymous force.
A few sentences above I have used the term “community,” but what is a community? W.H.Auden has provided us with a helpful definition. It is more than a crowd—a crowd is a group of individuals who come together purely at random. An accident occurs and a crowd gathers, completely heterogeneous human beings, brought together merely by propinquity and curiosity. A community is also more than a society. A society is a group of individuals related by function: so many butchers, so many bakers, so many tailors and candle-stick makers. The individual members in a society find it mutually profitable to live in a relation of symbiosis. But a community is something more than a society: it is a group of people held together by common likes and dislikes, loves and hates held in common, shared values. Where there is a loss of shared values, communities may break down into mere societies or even be reduced to mobs. The loss isominous, for when men cease to love the same things, the culture itself is disintegrating.
The dissolution of community, the loss of the sense of participation in shared beliefs, is a matter of record in this country—and in Western Europe too. Many of the great works of the last fifty years—in fiction and in poetry—have to do with the breakup of an older order and the individual’s attempt to deal with a fragmented world. Much of the work of Pound, Joyce, and Eliot, for example, reflects this cultural situation. Robert Penn Warren furnishes a useful summary. He describes the modern world as one of “moral confusion.” It suffers “from a lack of discipline, of sanction, of community of values, or a sense of mission. . . . It is a world in which the individual has lost his relation to society, the world of the power state in which man is the victim of abstraction and mechanism, or at least at moments feels himself to be.”
Faulkner was quite aware of how some of the great twentieth-century masters had handled the theme of alienation, and he shows his debt to them in such early novels as “Soldiers’ Pay” and “Mosquitoes,” But whereas in writers such as Joyce and Eliot the alienated hero usually suffers his frustration in some great world city, Faulkner had, already in his third novel, silhouetted his despairing hero against a background of stability—against a traditional society in a small town in Mississippi—a society that was also an organic community, close-knit, provincial, even parochial. The very fact of its status as a community made its own ironic commentary on the hero’s experience of meaninglessness.
One of Faulkner’s masterpieces, “Light in August,” will furnish perhaps the clearest illustration of Faulkner’s method for treating the alien, the exile, the rootless individual. Joe Christmas begins his conscious life in an orphanage, acquires as foster parents a stern Calvinistic evangelical and his beaten-down and submissive wife, and finally bursts out of this dour household, to try to find out who he is and to what he really belongs.
His various experiences have warped him away from nature, away from womankind, away from any kind of community—even from humanity itself. For example, because of the circumstances of his early childhood, he does not know whether he is white or partially black. He easily passes for white, and there is in fact no decisive evidence in the novel that he has any blood that is not white. But though he has tried to live at one time as a white man and at another time as a black man, he cannot accommodate to either rôle. In the end, he rejects both. In rejecting both communities, however, he rejects the possibility of ever becoming fully human.
What does Joe Christmas really want? More than once in the closing weeks of his life he remarks that all that he wants “dont seem like a whole lot to ask.” Sometimes the desired thing seems to be peace, just to be let be; just not having “to carry my life like it was a basket of eggs.” Yet the novel as a whole suggests that what Joe really wanted was something more special and complicated: he wanted to find himself, to be himself, to live his own life without external pressures and restraint.
Yet if complete liberty to be himself is what Joe meant when he remarked “That dont seem like a whole lot to ask,” he had deluded himself. For in our present culture it has proved to be more and more difficult to discover who one is and to fulfill that self in complete freedom. Even men far less handicapped than Christmas have found it so.
A very concise and lucid account of the precise nature of this difficulty is to be found in a long essay by Richard N. Goodwin, entitled “Reflections: The American Condition.” Though Mr. Goodwin’s “reflections” range over a great number of topics, I shall cite only that portion of his essay that is most pertinent to Faulkner’s criticism of the modern world: that is, that in which Goodwin discusses the individual in relation to his community—the individual’s freedom considered as an absolute end in itself and freedom as an aspect of the individual’s fulfillment of himself.
Goodwin points out that more than one thinker of the nineteenth century saw that “only within a community” could the individual find a social environment in which he could live a fulfilled life. The assertion may strike the ears of some of us as startling, for we all are thoroughly imbued with an ideology which “equates liberty with the absence of all bonds, all commitments, all restraints upon individual action.” This ideology, Goodwin says, manifests itself quite clearly in the present-day “dissolution of the human connections traditionally sustained by social institutions such as family, community, common social purpose, and accepted moral authority.”
Yet these frequently disparaged institutions of family and community, so Goodwin argues, constitute in fact the very “means by which individuals in society can join to create order and rule themselves.” The phrase “rule themselves” is highly important. Lacking a common purpose and shared values, men cannot rule themselves; for when men really have no purposes in common, order is lost and true self-rule is rendered impossible. Individuals freed from all ties with their fellows have in common only wants, needs, and appetites. They thus become vulnerable to the pressures of the demagogue, the political manipulator, or the impersonal bureaucracies that today so effectually organize our activities.
In order to illuminate this crucial issue, I want to quote a little further from Goodwin. He insists that the purposes of the true individual are not mere individual preferences and opinions, but purposes which are “consistent with [those] of his fellows.[The true individual] seeks to satisfy his own wants and to cultivate his own faculties in a manner that is consonant with the well-being of others.” Goodwin reminds us that Plato, in “The Republic,” asserts that the greatest good is the “bond of unity” in which “there is community of pleasures and pains”—in which “all the citizens are glad or grieved on the same occasions of joy and sorrow.”
Goodwin adds his own comment: “Within such a “bond of unity” the apparent contradiction in our description of freedom is resolved. If one exists as part of an organic community, its wants and necessities are not external [to one’s self]. . . . The will of the individual [belonging to such a community] contains the social will, which is, then, an instrument of personal fulfillment rather than of external coercion.” In short, true freedom is to be found only in the fulfillment of purposes common to, and shared by, other human beings.
Faulkner’s story of Joe Christmas can thus be read as an account of a thoroughly alienated individual, a modern Ishmael who lives in chronic revolt against every kind of community, a man who feels that communal ties are simply shackles on his cherished independence, which is the only thing that gives meaning to his life. Joe’s misconceived defense of his freedom turns out to be destructive—most of all to himself. But, of course, Faulkner’s “Light in August” is not a political tract, but a study of a human being, in this case a man much more sinned against than sinning; who, if he is sick, has been mortally infected, and through no special fault of his own, with the disease of our times.
Mr. Goodwin’s essay not only throws light on the connection of true freedom to the community. He offers a plausible explanation for the problem posed by Faulkner in his essay “On Privacy.” There, as I have observed earlier, Faulkner remarks on the irony of the fact that, though the American nation had been created out of a desire to guarantee to every citizen freedom from the encroachments of arbitrary power, that very liberty had, in the course of two centuries, somehow led to the destruction of the inner core of man’s liberty. “The American air,” Faulkner there wrote, “which was once the living breath of liberty,” has “now become one vast down-crowding pressure to abolish [freedom], by destroying man’s individuality. . . .”
Faulkner’s point is uncannily close to Goodwin’s. Here is Goodwin: “. . .the ideology of individualism is [today] so powerful that we still look on bonds as restraints; on values as opinions or prejudices; on customs as impositions.
The remaining structures of shared experience—the ties that make it possible for people to live with and through, and not merely alongside, one another—are assaulted as unjust obstacles in the way of liberty, as impediments to the free assertions of the self.” Thus, Goodwin concludes, the “new consciousness” associated with the revolt against the old tyrannies of church and state, “now inevitably becomes the enemy of human freedom.” To sum up: the individual’s attempt to throw off every kind of restraint has developed through a logic of its own from a liberating to a destructive force which, by dissolving the community, has left the individual alienated and robbed of his humanity.
Were Faulkner alive, he might very well have accepted Goodwin’s essay as a detailed explanation of the question asked by the subtitle of his own essay “On Privacy.” The subtitle, one remembers, reads “The American Dream: What Happened to it?”
Conversely, Mr. Goodwin might have very appropriately used Faulkner’s subtitle as the subtitle of his own essay, for, like Faulkner’s, his essay is an attempt to explain what went wrong with the American dream. Goodwin traces the rise of individualism not merely, as Faulkner does, back to the days of America’s Founding Fathers in the late eighteenth century, but to the late Middle Ages. Thus, Goodwin’s analysis will throw additional light on Faulkner’s account of what happened to the American dream. In the Middle Ages, as Goodwin points out, the cash nexus scarcely existed. Medieval society was essentially a barter society. Men paid in kind or in service what they owed to their superiors. Cash settlements came later, only toward the breakup of the Middle Ages, and along with the rise of a middle class. The expansion of trade and the use of money payments brought to medieval society a welcome liberation, and with the development of better techniques in agriculture and manufactures, brought also a higher standard of living. But one has to set down on the debit side of the ledger facts such as these: there was a shift away from personal and concrete obligations to more abstract relations, those typically represented by money settlements. In the twentieth-century world, this development has gone so far that the individual frequently feels that he no longer has any personal relation to his employer nor any communication with him except through the computer. The loss of concrete and personal relationships, whatever the compensations gained elsewhere, is a genuine loss. As Goodwin sums up: “We citizens of the advanced-industrial, space-age West . . . .live under the domination of an individualism whose conquest has been so thorough that it has torn the thread of individual life from the fabric of humanity. . . . The new consciousness through which the Renaissance attacked the injustices, the stagnation, and the material misery of the Middle Ages now, inevitably, suffocates human freedom.”
The culture of the Old South stands in sharp contrast to this new consciousness. Though the Old South was not medieval, it was a society based on the land; it was paternalistic, and if not a society at the barter level, certainly one that lagged far behind the economic development of Western Europe and of the northeastern states of America. Life on the Southern frontier—and nearly everywhere else in the South after its defeat in the Civil War—was poor, provincial, pinched, and harsh. Yet it fostered highly concrete and personal relationships. If, for instance, you injured someone, it was hard to conceal from yourself the fact that you had done so. If you exploited a person, the fact of exploitation was quite naked. A slave was actually called a slave. A man’s de facto wage-slavery was not, as so frequently in Victorian England and nineteenth-century New England, denied under the pretence that the person exploited was a free citizen who had the right to change his job and might do so if he found that he was unhappy with the bargain he had made.
It is small wonder, then, that Faulkner, writing out of this land-based, paternalistic, backward-looking, highly conservative society, should have possessed a special sensitivity to such matters as the dissolution of the old personal and concrete relationships, the shift to the cash nexus, the pressure of purely economic considerations, and the increasing stress on selling yourself to your boss or to the public, rather than simply being yourself. Eugene Genovese’s “The World the Slaveholders Made” and “The Political Economy of Slavery” provide a massive documentation of the strength and pervasive character of paternalism in the Old South.
The abstract quality of space-age America goes back, however, to the very beginnings of the republic. Goodwin points out that our Founding Fathers took the “models” for their idea of the new nation from “centuries past”—such as the Republic of Rome or from the ideological constructions of eighteenth-century thinkers, particularly those of France and England.”To be French or British,” Goodwin says, “or Chinese or Egyptian is to be part of a cluster of events and beliefs transmitted across centuries. The American idea [on the other hand] could not be formed from such continuity. . . .[We Americans] could form a stabilizing association only with an idea derived from national character and direction. . . .[Our] national idea differed from that of other nations in a crucial quality: It had to be constantly renewed, always made contemporary.” It had to be constantly renewed because it was not the product of history and lived experience, but the reflex of an abstract idea that one must prove over and over if it is to be kept viable and relevant.
The American national idea so described differs markedly from the Southerner’s idea of the South. For the Southern idea of itself is—or at least was yesterday—firmly anchored in history. It had grown out of experiences endured by the region as a whole, and it reflects memories of guilt, loss, and defeat, and not merely bright promises for the future. It has the emotional force of lived experience as distinguished from an abstract ideal to which one simply aspires. Not surprisingly, the world reflected in Faulkner’s novels is drenched in history; it is knit together by a sense of community, and almost instinctively moves to resist whatever it regards as pressure from the world outside itself.
This is not at all to say that Faulkner judges his Southern world to be perfect. As a man and as an artist, Faulkner has been very sharp on his region’s faults. My argument is simply that his native region has provided him with a point of vantage from which to assess the characteristic failures of modernity.
Goodwin’s essential confirmation of Faulkner’s criticism of the modern world is highly pertinent to the matter of Faulkner’s credibility. For Goodwin’s indictment can hardly be dismissed as the peevish grumbling of a mere novelist, or the prejudices of a north Mississippi squire, whose ancestors were slaveholders. Goodwin is a Bostonian, a summa cum laude graduate of the Harvard law school, and an adviser and speech writer for the late President Kennedy.
Some might feel that Goodwin’s essay is powerful to Faulkner’s hurt. For, set beside his masterful discussion, Faulkner’s most considered essay on the subject is likely to appear awkward and fumbling.”On Privacy” is highly personal and almost turgidly concrete. But to put Faulkner’s essay into competition with Goodwin’s “Reflections” would be to miss the point entirely. Lucid exposition is Goodwin’s métier. Faulkner’s true métier is fiction.
Every great novelist has his wisdom, but he imparts it in his own mode. He doesn’t make statements and offer arguments. He dramatizes fictional characters. His judgments are normally implicit, not explicit. But they engage human interest in a way in which the abstract statements of the political scientist never can. They make their appeal to the imagination. They carry dramatic force.
The work of the great literary artist, as a matter of fact, has never been more necessary than now. In a world which increasingly resembles the innards of a vast IBM machine, a world in which the human integers are likely to feel themselves dehumanized and left at the mercy of forces which, even when benign, are impersonal, we need the rich particularity and the imaginative reach of the literary artist. What he gives us is not life itself, but perhaps the next best thing to life itself: a simulacrum of life that helps us to come to terms with ourselves, to understand our history, and to get a firmer grasp on reality and truth.
I use the word truth advisedly, for by truth Faulkner did not mean statistical averages or graphs showing the growth of the gross national product. One of his characters in “The Bear” says to his younger kinsman: “Truth is one. It doesn’t change. It covers all things which touch the heart—honor and pride and pity and justice and courage and love. . . . They all touch the heart and what the heart holds to becomes the truth, as far as we know truth.”
This is the passage that Faulkner, years later, was to echo in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, but one remembers that Wordsworth and Keats also speak of truth in almost the same terms.
Yet note that Faulkner writes: “What the heart holds to becomes truth, as far as we know truth.” That last proviso is all important. The truth that the artist is concerned with is always truth accommodated to the human heart, truth, not about mathematical equations or the stellar galaxies, but about the human being, his limitations and his capacities. It is for such truth that we go to the great artist, and at his best, Faulkner is a very great artist indeed.