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Rethinking Faulkner in the “Black Lives Matter” Era

Gorra and Rollyson Books on Faulkner Cover Images
Left: The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War. Michael Gorra. New York: Liveright, 2020. Pp. 448. $18.95 (paper). Right: The Life of William Faulkner, 2 vols. Carl Rollyson. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2020. Pp. 656. $69.90 (cloth).

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has done an enormous amount of work to educate Americans and the rest of the world about how deeply embedded white supremacy is in our institutions, including cultural ones like art and literature. It has also demanded that we center the voices and perspectives of nonwhite people. So why is William Faulkner having another moment, right when it feels like we have heard quite enough of white people’s takes on race relations? And why is he still at the top of our pantheon of authors when so many other perfectly suitable successors, such as Toni Morrison, have emerged since Faulkner’s death fifty years ago?

Just in the last two years, a new two-volume life of Faulkner (by veteran biographer Carl Rollyson) and a major critical study aimed at a nonacademic audience (by Michael Gorra) have appeared, and, at least in the case of Gorra’s book, received a great deal of attention beyond English departments. But these two books, and the attention they have received, prompt us to reflect a bit more on how our understanding of Faulkner and his work have changed. They also should spur us to consider whether Faulkner should remain at the center of American literary history, and if so, why. And to do this, we have to listen to voices beyond those white male scholars like Rollyson and Gorra (and, to be fair, myself) who have historically dominated this conversation.

Joseph Blotner began researching his biography of William Faulkner soon after he helped lure the Mississippi novelist to the University of Virginia in 1957. Faulkner and the World War II veteran Blotner shared war stories in a convivial Charlottesville group they called, tellingly, the “Confederate War Officers Club” (even though Blotner was a New Jerseyan, and Faulkner’s Great War service in the Canadian branch of the Royal Air Force never got him closer to combat than Lake Ontario). The two became close, and after Faulkner died in 1962, his family formally asked Blotner to write the authorized biography.

Published in 1974 in two volumes, over 2100 pages, and almost four kilos, Blotner’s biography is performatively authoritative. Like Richard Ellman’s similarly definitive, capacious, and dust-dry 1959 biography of James Joyce, it set the terms by which this author’s life—and, by extension, his central place in modern literature—would be understood.

And it should be understood only by the work, Blotner insisted. For all of its quotidian detail about restaurant menus and airline timetables, the biography always steered readers’ attention to Faulkner’s novels. They were what was interesting, not him. This was a canonical modernist principle, of course, decreed by T. S. Eliot in the 1920s when he said that the true artist undergoes an “extinction of personality,” and that only the text was of importance.[1]

Eliot might have wanted that to be true about himself, but it sure didn’t apply to Faulkner, or Joyce, for that matter. Much like Joyce, Faulkner was a bizarre character, lying about himself incessantly and prone to near-suicidal alcoholic binges. He invented a history as a war-hero aviator, then showed off his questionable flying skills (leading indirectly to his own brother’s death). He wanted to be seen as a respectable Southern gentleman farmer, but cheated on his wife, spent every cent as soon as he came into it, and avoided his family for months at a time in Hollywood.

Faulkner’s life story is familiar enough to have been parodied in Barton Fink, one of the Coen brothers’ pastiche films. After a diligent literary apprenticeship, Faulkner wrote his great works of the 1920s and 1930s mostly in professional obscurity: almost nobody read The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom!, and they quickly sank from notice. Resentful and in need of money, Faulkner then slapped together the nastiest pulp potboiler he could summon (Sanctuary), which made him a truckload of money he quickly squandered. Broke again, he turned to Hollywood, where he did piecework on films like Mildred Pierce and To Have and Have Not. And drank. The literary respect he craved finally came when Malcolm Cowley assembled The Portable Faulkner in 1947, an anthology demonstrating that all of Faulkner’s work was a magnificent, intricate whole, a panoramic portrait of the rise and fall of the Old South. As the accolades and prizes came in, Faulkner settled into the life of a literary eminence even as his creative powers faded.

It wasn’t quite that simple, of course. But as Faulkner became the Great American Novelist of the twentieth century, his person and personality were minimized (if not actually “extinguished”) and replaced by a persona. Cowley may have started it, and Blotner completed it, but the project couldn’t have succeeded without a Southerner giving it a boost: Kentuckian Cleanth Brooks, the most influential literary critic of his day. Brooks mostly wrote about older poetry, analyzing it with his characteristic “New Critical” approach that denied the relevance of biography, but in 1963 he published William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country, a study that applied this “text-only” lens to Faulkner’s fiction.

Tellingly, for a study published the very year of the March on Washington, of George Wallace blocking the doors at the University of Alabama, of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four little Black girls, Brooks barely mentions segregation or the Civil War or racial terror. What was most significant about Faulkner’s work was not its anatomization of the “Lost Cause” myth, its revelations of fortunes and families built on rape and slavery, its depiction of how a society based on racial superiority rots from the inside. No: for Brooks, this was mistaking fiction for “sociology.”[2] Faulkner’s achievement was fundamentally structural, the emotions and images and symbols in tension with each other, the architectonics of their intricate relationships rivalling those of the most sublime poems.

Cowley, Brooks, and Blotner made the impossible possible: they convinced readers and scholars and critics that Faulkner the man and Faulkner the artist stood separate from each other, and that “Yoknapatawpha County,” this simulacrum Mississippi of racial terror, of the heedless exploitation of the land, of incest and sexual violence, of poverty and alcoholism, of the vicious ruling the ignorant, and of all-permeating white superiority was… just an elegant, majestic work of imagination.

That’s just not possible anymore. We can no longer dismiss the real facts of Southern society as merely a stage set to Faulkner’s fiction, no more essential to his works than “Verona” or “Athens” are to Shakespeare’s. There is probably no white writer, with the possible exception of “plantation fiction” authors such as Thomas Nelson Page and Thomas Dixon, whose work is so saturated in Southern white supremacy—whether it is being celebrated, documented, or undermined—as Faulkner. It is Faulkner’s fundamental subject.

And he has benefited from this richer reading. It has become ever clearer how Faulkner exposed, unflinchingly explored, and ultimately indicted the pathological anxieties of white men over matters of race and sexuality. He understood in his very bones how law, custom, and daily practice generated and enforced an all-encompassing system privileging one race and denying the humanity of another, and his fiction deplores how this system warped the souls of members of his own race. (I’m surprised that conservative politicians haven’t attacked his works for promulgating critical race theory.)

His fiction does this, most Faulkner critics and readers would agree. But his life? That’s a very different matter. He lived and thought very much as an upper-class Southern man of his time. Moreover, to say that Faulkner’s fiction is insightful about the psychological and social damage white superiority does to white people is not to say that Faulkner’s depictions of nonwhite people have any of the psychological depth or sympathy or reality of his white characters. The BLM era insists that we foreground the perspectives of Black people—that white people cede the privilege of narration for a time and listen, to learn how oppression and subjugation have felt to others and begin to work to dismantle this system. This isn’t what Faulkner is doing.

So, to return to the question I asked 1500 words ago, what to do with Faulkner today? How might these two new high-profile works, both by white male scholars, redirect the trajectory of Faulkner’s reputation? And perhaps more importantly, what do the kinds of scholars who have rarely been heard in Faulkner studies think about where their field is and where it is going, as American society tries to confront its baked-in systems of racial superiority?

Oddly, given the centrality of the Civil War to the Southern psyche, Faulkner almost never writes directly about it. Even in his works that are set at that time, the conflict is largely offstage, and characters rarely talk much about it. Perhaps it is like water to fish, in David Foster Wallace’s image: so pervasive that it goes unnoticed. But everywhere in Faulkner’s work is the effect on the South of the war, the defeat, and the struggle to re-establish, as much as possible, its antebellum society.

What, then, did Faulkner actually think about the war, and how did he fictionalize it? It’s a question that almost seems too obvious to ask, and so few critics have done so. This is what makes Gorra’s The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War so original and so rewarding. In this book, Gorra is doing the low-level spadework, cataloguing almost all of Faulkner’s mentions of and allusions to the war, that makes it possible for us to try and answer those questions.

Gorra’s study, though, is more than literary archaeology. It is throughout shadowed by the issue of the moment: how has our society allowed this Southern view of the Civil War, this unceasing campaign to enshrine white supremacy not just in the South but across the nation, to prevail, and how can we start to undo it? Although present at the edges as he wrote the book, this question became more and more urgent as Gorra completed The Saddest Words. “My editor pressed me,” Gorra recounted, “as I was revising my book in the summer and fall of 2019, to think harder about how my approach was different, to take up some issues that had been sort of on the edges, such as appropriation or Faulkner’s use of Black vernacular.”[3]

The book was released just a few weeks after George Floyd’s death in spring 2020, and its reception reflected the agonized mood of the nation. Pieces in the Washington Post, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal explicitly linked Faulkner’s Civil War and BLM, and former Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust wrote a high-profile feature on the book for the Atlantic (although her review, according to Gorra, had been arranged before Floyd’s murder). And the book does seem uncannily to speak to the moment—not to the immediate crisis of police murders of Black people, but to how white supremacy and its concomitant devaluation of Black life makes such things unremarkable, expected.

Gorra is a subtle and wide-ranging critic who moves easily between close reading, biography, and cultural history, as in his Pulitzer-finalist Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece (2012). He describes his book as “a critical narrative in which Faulkner’s chronicle of his imagined land will find itself entwined with our country’s history,” and it succeeds brilliantly.[4] By sifting through not just Faulkner’s life and publishing career but also the history of Lafayette County, Mississippi, and New Orleans, the works of Mark Twain and Theodore Dreiser and Kate Chopin, and the evolving critical conversation about Faulkner’s work from the 1930s to the present, Gorra gives a foundation for his elegant readings of the great novels (particularly Absalom, Absalom! and Go Down, Moses) as well as the lesser ones (such as the Snopes trilogy) and his interpretation of what they say about Faulkner’s view of the Civil War and its repercussions.

And his book quite persuasively concludes that Faulkner was, one might say, “woke despite himself.” His fiction meticulously and perceptively lays out how a culture of white supremacy is built and enforced on the level of family, town, and county, and how it will ultimately destroy that society. This, despite the fact that when he was speaking as Faulkner, his opinions on these issues were utterly conventional for a white southern man of his time. The “pen made him honest, but only when he was writing fiction,” as Gorra put it to me.[5]

Rollyson’s biography will likely never supplant Blotner’s as the go-to source for scholars, although it’s similarly ambitious. And unfortunately, its two-volumeness will likely dissuade lay readers from taking it on. Publishers, Rollyson admitted, spotted this problem—“every single trade house” turned it down before the University of Virginia Press picked it up, even though Rollyson has a long track record as a biographer.[6]

Nor did Rollyson’s biography get much public notice outside scholarly circles. Although this is partly because most major review outlets avoid university-press titles, Rollyson also blames the “zeitgeist”—what he sees as today’s reflexive need to justify talking about Faulkner before talking about Faulkner. (Like in this article, for instance.) Faust’s Atlantic review of Gorra’s book, he points out, “was titled ‘What To Do With Faulkner?’ as if we have to apologize for reading and writing about him. Ten or twenty years ago, major newspapers and magazines would have reviewed my biography. None of them have done so now.”

So why write another Faulkner biography that falls into a gap between those two intended markets? Is it just, as he says in his preface, “new facts, new interpretations”?[7] While giving full credit to Blotner and other biographers including Jay Parini, Judith Sensibar, and Philip Weinstein, Rollyson nonetheless sees them all as lacking “the deep biographical threads that unify the subject’s life and the biography written about him.”[8] Instead, Rollyson sets his task as uncovering “how William Faulkner made literature out of his life, a literature of and from himself.”

Rollyson is indeed working with new facts, found especially in the papers of Faulkner’s stepson Malcolm, interviews with Faulkner’s longtime paramour, Meta Carpenter, and the extensive personal and critical materials collected by Faulkner scholar Carvel Collins. These new materials, most of them relating to Faulkner’s private life, make this biography far more personal than Blotner’s or Parini’s. Rollyson credits Sensibar’s 2010 Faulkner and Love: The Women Who Shaped His Art (which argues that Faulkner’s wife Estelle, his mother Maud, and Caroline Barr, his “mammy” or the Black woman who cared for him as a boy), were the touchstones of his life) with “point[ing] me in the right direction” in its focus on Estelle’s central importance. Rollyson’s Estelle is indeed a compelling presence: from an Oxford family of higher social status than Faulkner’s, Estelle married and lived in Shanghai, where she had two children. She was a fiction writer of some talent, as well, and Rollyson is especially good on the couple’s angry alcoholic symbiosis.

Rollyson adds to Sensibar’s triad Meta Carpenter, a Twentieth Century-Fox script girl originally from North Mississippi. As a fifteen-year-old, Meta had seen the eminent author once, at an Easter ball in Oxford, but their second encounter (and first meeting) wouldn’t be for another thirteen years. Arriving hungover at the studio lot in December 1935 to meet with Howard Hawks regarding a World War I picture called Wooden Crosses, Faulkner greeted Meta with a “Mornin’, Miss Carpenter.” She declined his repeated invitations to dine at Musso & Frank’s, then finally relented. They carried on together for eighteen years. Despite the fact that she wrote a memoir about her time with him, her role in Faulkner’s life has never been fully appreciated, and Rollyson mines not just her published work but also taped interviews with her.

Blotner dismissed Faulkner’s Hollywood writing as hack piecework, but Rollyson capitalizes on the work of recent scholars who have been more curious about it. Much of the first half of the second volume consists of extended summaries of Faulkner’s screenplays—not only those that were ultimately produced like The Big Sleep, but also many that expired in development hell or where Faulkner’s contributions to the final picture were ultimately minimal. Rollyson convincingly shows that in the aggregate, these screenplays exhibit Faulkner’s outstanding sense of plotting and his cinematic eye: he had an innate sense for the interplay of script, direction, cinematography, and art design that other writers-in-exile such as F. Scott Fitzgerald lacked. Rollyson doesn’t claim that these screenplays are accomplishments on the order of his novels, but they clearly show his versatility as a storyteller. He may have been a genius, but he was also a pro.

The Civil Rights movement could bring out the worst in Faulkner. At best, he echoed the white liberal “go slow” message that Martin Luther King excoriated in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” At other times, like some cartoon colonel, he decried “Federal” encroachment in Mississippi. (It could have been worse: in a 1931 letter to the Memphis Commercial Appeal, he had even defended lynching.) Typical was a 1958 talk at the University of Virginia—given to three student honor societies, and thus to an all-male, all-white, and likely all-aristocratic group—in which he speculated that “perhaps the Negro is not yet capable of more than a second-class citizenship. His tragedy may be that so far he is competent for equality only in the ratio of his white blood… He must learn to cease forever more thinking like a Negro and acting like a Negro.”[9] And then he called for the integration of public schools. For Rollyson, this is Faulkner’s “usual paradoxical fashion” of talking to Southern audiences: performing as one of them, and using that common ground to push them for change.[10] Unfortunately, it’s also abjectly racist.

Rollyson is especially good at tracing how Faulkner’s depictions of race, particularly the fixity of racial categories, change through his great period. Black and white are self-evidently separate in 1929’s Sound and the Fury and in its predecessor Compson story “That Evening Sun”—indeed, the distinctness of the two, and how a small white child internalizes that precept, is the theme of the piece. But by 1931, Light in August’s biracial Joe Christmas shows that Faulkner had come to realize that “race is a category that is itself unstable.”[11] Absalom, Absalom! (1936) and Go Down, Moses (1941) take this further, hinging on the uncompromising rules and tissue-thin lies that a white supremacist society must hold to in order to preserve its structural integrity when property-owning white fathers confront their multiracial progeny.

But where Gorra sees a bifurcation between the man and the work—the man an utterly conventional Southerner of his time, the work a sophisticated and incisive analysis of a deeply sick society—Rollyson’s Faulkner is more integrated, and integrationist. Unlike his staunchly segregationist family, “Faulkner advocated integration [and] supported the Montgomery bus boycott… but he could sound condescending.” (His 1958 comments at Virginia go far beyond “condescending,” but I suspect Rollyson would attribute that to Faulkner trying to ingratiate himself with his racist audience.) Rollyson shows how Faulkner would subtly challenge some of the racial codes that structured Oxford’s daily life by, for instance, holding Barr’s funeral in his own living room, or financing the college education of a promising young Black janitor at Ole Miss (who, obviously, could not attend classes at his place of employment, so was sent to Alcorn A&M). But even those gestures are redolent of racial superiority. Barr’s family resented that he symbolically claimed her after her death instead of eulogizing her in her own home or her own church; and serving as the white savior for one Black man, while laudable, does nothing to challenge the system that oppresses the entire Black population of the state. Indeed, it probably strengthens it, by showing that the lucky and extraordinary do have the ability to advance.

So this is what the white guys have had to say. From “not much to see here, what are you getting so worked up about?” to “pretty woke for a white guy, even if he didn’t always know it.” But as with literary study in general, it has been the white guys who get to set the rules. Is this the only way, then, that the larger culture can be prodded to examine Faulkner’s place in it, to be led there by the voices of white men, and older white men at that? Or does Faulkner maintain such a privileged place in our literary history solely because those older white men—less oblivious or defiant or disingenuous, certainly, than Brooks and Blotner—are still the most influential voices?

To answer this, I reached out to the next generation of Faulkner scholars: scholars of color, women scholars, queer scholars. And they let me know that they are asking these questions, urgently. These younger scholars don’t see their task as just tearing down the work of their predecessors, but they want to return to “first principles,” as it were, and ask whether Faulkner’s status derives from biased assumptions that have come to be accepted as fact: that Faulkner’s importance stems in part from how he embodied the Great Tortured American Male Novelist role pioneered by Melville; that the white straight male perspective on issues of identity is the “objective” position; that the complexity and sophistication of his fiction outweigh its shortcomings in depicting nonwhite characters. Phillip Gordon of the University of Wisconsin at Platteville, a queer scholar, doesn’t think “early Faulkner scholars were necessarily committed to a nationalist approach to Faulkner that framed his greatness as intentionally white, male, heterosexual, cisgender. I do, however, think that many of them made assumptions about his greatness based on implicit biases for these categories” and that contemporary Faulkner scholars like himself see their task as questioning these assumptions. Jo Davis-McElligatt of the University of North Texas, a queer Black woman as well as an officer in the William Faulkner Society, goes beyond this, observing that “we are flirting with an anti-Faulkner movement now, even among Faulkner scholars—why do we need Faulkner now, why does he need to occupy such a central position?”[12]

Dealing with the racism and racial insensitivity exhibited not just in Faulkner’s work but in Faulkner studies as an industry is a central project for these scholars. “Older Faulkner scholars wanted to justify the racism—to circumvent the obvious fact that he was just an ordinary Southern racist with no interest in black life,” Davis-McElligatt observes. But now, “discussion of his boring, puerile, ordinary racism isn’t forbidden.” Racially charged language is a major issue for those who study and teach Faulkner, of course, because Faulkner’s characters and Faulkner himself so freely use it, but only recently have scholarly societies acknowledged that they shouldn’t do so in their meetings. Laura Wilson, a recently minted Ph.D. (from Ole Miss, natch) who currently holds a research fellowship at Fisk University, praises the new policy of the “Faulkner Studies in the UK” consortium and, now, the annual “Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha” conference in Oxford that the N-word should not be spoken aloud in presentations or discussion.

The old excuses—“this is how it was back then”—are no longer good enough. “To overlook Faulkner’s reactionary statements and pass them off as simply being ‘of his time,’ frankly, is not good enough,” Ahmed Honeini of Royal Holloway, University of London, insists. “Direct acknowledgment of these issues, a concerted effort to support antiracist, anti-oppressive research on Faulkner, and the inclusion of scholars who reflect the full diversity of Faulkner Studies in terms of race and ethnicity, is the best step forward.”

Because much of the work of explicating Faulkner has already been done, and single-author studies are out of fashion, contemporary scholarship on the author often takes the Southern studies approach, asking how Faulkner and his work fit into the matrix of writers and artists and thinkers who did their work in and were shaped by the American South. Wilson and others reject the idea, once unquestioned in Faulkner studies, that Faulkner is Southern literature’s axis around whom all other writers orbit. Instead, she is looking at how Black writers like Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ralph Ellison form a kind of constellation of writing about the South. “Faulkner can maybe take a back seat for a while and be that ‘other voice’ while we prioritize these other writers,” Wilson remarks.

But this assumption of Faulkner’s centrality is so axiomatic in Southern literary studies that Southern writers who use Faulkner’s techniques inevitably get read as aspiring Faulkners. “People reduce Jesmyn Ward’s [2017 National Book Award-winning novel] Sing, Unburied, Sing to being a rewriting of As I Lay Dying, but it’s not,” Davis-McElligatt complains. “We need to make a distinction between narrative experiment and the actual substance of these things.”

It’s clear, though, that Faulkner’s work retains a powerful pull, even for these revisionist scholars. Despite her misgivings, Davis-McElligatt still finds Faulkner’s work “the most satisfying read I’ve ever had on the narrative and prose level.” For Tennessee native Gordon, “the rhythm of Faulkner’s sentences and the subject of his fiction just always felt so close to the world I grew up in.” Gordon also “assumed Faulkner was queer when I first read his novels; it felt like only someone with a queer perspective could write like that about a place he was from.”

Similarly, Honeini found himself awed by Faulkner’s “grandiosity” on first encountering The Sound and the Fury: “once I read Faulkner, Fitzgerald, whose Great Gatsby had been my favorite book, became a non-entity to me… As a British scholar from a Middle Eastern background, there should be no conceivable reason why I am drawn to Faulkner,” Honeini adds. “Yet, despite this disjunction between my own background and Faulkner’s South, his works have always shown me that ‘the agony and the sweat of the human spirit’ is a universal language we can all understand, from the depths of Mississippi to the urban sprawl of London.”

I see this myself in a Faulkner and Joyce class that I teach about every three years: some students find him pointlessly difficult, some are turned off by the racism, but some develop an enduring fascination with his work. Caitlyn Hunter, currently a Ph.D. student at Duquesne and the Emerging Black Writer in Residence at Chatham University, created a digital map of all of Faulkner’s Black characters as her final project for my class, because the intricate relations of Black and white in Yoknapatawpha reminded her of those of her own small hometown in St. Mary’s County, Maryland. Through this map, she explains, “you see the nuances of how Black characters are parts of families not just in servitude. I was trying to visually show how close a proximity they had not just as field hands or mammies but as being important to this part of town.”

Like Rollyson and Gorra, these younger scholars agree that despite any personal racist sentiments he harbored, Faulkner ably and perceptively dissected the roots, mechanisms, and effects on white people of structural racism in a small Southern community. But they differ strongly on Faulkner’s representation of people who were not like him.

Hunter, for one, finds his depictions of Black characters convincing. In characters like Nancy (from “That Evening Sun”) or Rider (from “Pantaloon in Black”), she holds, we see an attempt to capture “that psyche that Twain or Harper Lee or Capote weren’t doing—he creates this tone of empathy that we are allowed to feel for these characters in a way that’s different than Jim in Huck Finn. I think about something Baldwin said: we are quick to dismiss him because he is white, but there is literary value in the way he portrays black characters that gives them personhood and purpose.”

Others disagree. Although he thinks that Faulkner uncannily provides a queer perspective in his fiction, Gordon feels that “we should not read his works to understand either a Black experience or a woman’s experience.” Davis-McElligatt eloquently dismisses the idea, often implicit in the work of white Faulkner scholars, that “talking about race is the same thing as talking about Blackness, that talking about whiteness is the same thing as talking about Blackness.” “I don't believe that F[aulkner] knew anything at all about Black people or Black life,” she flatly states. “I think he knew a lot about whiteness, white terror, white hate. But he had absolutely no ability to comprehend Black future, and the Civil Rights movement was about change. In his work, Black people have no past, they come from nowhere, they are going nowhere, they don’t change. I think a true engagement with Black futures not only terrified him, but was impossible for him to comprehend. Just recognizing that white people have the capacity to destroy doesn’t make you a Blackness guru.”

Faulkner himself may have agreed, and in his 1958 Virginia talk implicitly concedes the point: “The white man can never know the Negro, because the white man has forced the Negro to be always a Negro rather than another human being in their dealings, and therefore the Negro cannot afford, does not dare, to be open with the white man and let the white man know what he, the Negro, thinks.”[13]

Black Lives Matter asks not just that we identify and root out racist structures, but that we privilege Black voices and Black lives in ways that we never have before. That might make white people uncomfortable—and might demand that we shelve, for a while or for good, some of our treasured cultural artifacts. “This moment asks us to centralize Black experience, and Faulkner doesn’t allow us to do that,” Davis-McElligatt concludes. “Maybe we shouldn’t be reading him anymore.”


[1] T. S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” in The Sacred Wood and Major Early Essays (New York: Dover, 1998), 27–33, 30.

[2] Cleanth Brooks, William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1963), 4.

[3] Michael Gorra, in discussion with the author, 25 May 2021.

[4] Gorra, The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War (New York: Liveright, 2020), 9.

[5] Gorra, in discussion with the author, 25 May 2021.

[6] Carl Rollyson, email to the author, 16 July 2021. All Rollyson quotes from this email unless otherwise indicated.

[7] Rollyson, The Life of William Faulkner, vol. 1: The Past Is Never Dead, 1897–1934 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2020), ix.

[8] Rollyson, “A Life Told by a Critic,” University Bookman, Summer 2017, 11.

[9] See Faulkner at Virginia: Transcript of audio recording WFAUDIO20_2. Accessed October 15, 2021. https://faulkner.lib.virginia.edu/display/wfaudio20_2#wfaudio20_2.10

[10] Rollyson, The Life of William Faulkner, vol. 2: This Alarming Paradox, 1935–1962 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2020), 485.

[11] Rollyson, The Life of William Faulkner, vol. 1, 368.

[12] Quotes from here to the end of the essay from the following sources: Jo Davis-McElligatt, in discussion with the author, 9 July 2021; Phillip Gordon, email to the author, 6 July 2021; Ahmed Honeini, email to the author, 12 July 2021; Caitlyn Hunter, in discussion with the author, 13 July 2021; Laura Wilson, in discussion with the author, 1 July 2021.

[13] See Faulkner at Virginia: Transcript of audio recording WFAUDIO20_2. Accessed October 15, 2021. https://faulkner.lib.virginia.edu/display/wfaudio20_2#wfaudio20_2.10