September 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 5
The Novel of the Century
In William Faulkner’s greatest work, a bitter epic of violence and despair resolves itself on a note of love and longing
William Faulkner, the troubled alcoholic son of the poorest state in the Union, a Mississippi so obsessed by race that it refused to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, is the greatest American novelist of the twentieth century. He is also the one Southern writer who by his imaginative fervor most completely and deeply put the South back into the Union.
The lasting figures in literature come not from the successes and fashions of a season but from the depths in which the unpopular, the neglected, the outwardly defeated find the real life of their time and the characters who for all time embody it. That fine Southern novelist Walker Percy began his career with an existential novel, The Moviegoer (1951), which coolly communicated his dread of glittering society in the “New South.” When asked why there were now so many significant Southern writers, Percy replied, “Because we got beat.”
Faulkner never forgot that the South “got beat.” Light in August (published 1932, in the depths of a depression that hit the South hard) is my favorite Faulkner novel, one that will never be forgotten so long as Americans have the guts to face the resentment and hatred of blacks. The final irony in the lifelong agony of Joe Christmas, a possibly white man who is finally murdered and castrated as a black by a superpatriotic racist (Faulkner was later astonished to find that he had created a premature American Nazi), is that it was Joe’s own grandfather old Doc Hines who declared Joe a black because his mother had run off with a “Mexican.”
There is no end to the folly and horror enveloping Joe’s life because his grandfather has stigmatized the newborn as having “black blood.” On Christmas Day Doc Hines leaves the infant on the steps of an orphanage. This is not the first association with the Christ born in a stable of uncertain parentage who was also mockingly put to death in the crudest way. The orphanage staff, giddily celebrating the holiday, laughingly names the foundling Joe Christmas. Doc Hines is such a racist madman that not content with abandoning his grandson, he becomes a janitor in the orphanage so as “to keep his eye on him.” Black is evil. To be condemned from birth as black is to be derogated and suspected all one’s life long.
As a child Joe Christmas is punished for unwittingly observing sex between two members of the orphanage staff. As a boy he is apprenticed to an obsessively Calvinist farmer, McEachern, who beats him for the smallest infraction. Joe robs him and runs off to be with his lover, a prostitute. After her gangster friends beat him up, there follows one of the most vivid passages in modern American writing. It communicates the just-leashed violence of American life of which Joe is helplessly the creature.
“He stepped from the dark porch, into the moonlight, and with his bloody head and his empty stomach hot, savage, and courageous with whiskey, he entered the street which was to run for fifteen years.
“The whiskey died away in time and was renewed and died again, but the street ran on. From that night the thousand streets ran as one street, with imperceptible corners and changes of scene, broken by intervals of begged and stolen rides, on trains and trucks, and on country wagons with he at twenty and twentyfive and thirty sitting on the seat with his still, hard face and the clothes (even when soiled and worn) of a city man and the driver of the wagon not knowing who or what the passenger was and not daring to ask.”
Joe winds up in “Jefferson,” the pivotal Southern town in Faulkner’s work. Here Joanna Burden, who is the descendant of Northern abolitionists who settled in the South to befriend blacks but who has long withdrawn from the hostility of her neighbors, falls madly in love with Joe Christmas after he has confided that he may be a Negro. Faulkner the Southerner thinks Joanna a helpless, useless do-gooder on the eternal race question. With understandable irony directed at Joanna’s missionary attempts to “save” the Negro, Faulkner portrays Joe chafing against his sexual bondage to Joanna. He cannot bear her constantly praying over him between her sexual transports. Outraged that for her he is just another symbol of his supposed blackness, not an individual in his own right, he can get away only by murdering her. He runs and runs in a circle that resembles his own life—asleep from exhaustion even as he runs—until he is finally mutilated and murdered by Faulkner’s “premature Nazi,” who holds up the bloody knife and cries, “Now you’ll let white women alone, even in hell.”
But that is not the end of this great work. The peaceful, loving world Joe Christmas has never known as an everlasting victim, the Christ symbol “things are done to,” comes back to end the book with Lena Grove, who began it. Light in August opens unforgettably with Lena, a pregnant young woman from Alabama sitting beside a road in Mississippi, her feet in a ditch, her shoes in her hand, watching a wagon that is mounting the hill toward her with a noise that carries for a half-mile “across the hot still pinewiney silence of the August afternoon.”
In Paris at the end of the war, I heard Albert Camus praise this as full of “the dust and heat” that, as “another Southerner” from Algeria, he loved most in Faulkner. Lena has been on the road for a month, riding in a long succession of farm wagons or walking the hot, dusty roads with her shoes in her hand, trying to get to Jefferson. There, she firmly expects, she will find her lover working in a planing mill and ready to marry her, and there#8212;Jefferson for her is the big city—she will put her shoes on at last.
The lover of course runs away, but Lena is so wonderful, loving, and pure that another man at the planing mill turns out to be the one her heart really needs. All ends in a spirit of love and longing, after everything poor Joe Christmas has been put through, that is exalting. When Lena has her baby, Joe Christmas’s grandmother, who never really knew what her mad husband had done with his own grandson, imagines that the infant is her great-grandson and pitifully hopes for a second chance for Joe.
“I am not saying he never did what they say he did. Ought not to suffer for it like he made them that loved and lost suffer. But if folks could maybe just let him for one day. Like it hadn’t happened yet. Then it could be like he had just went on a trip and grew man grown and come back. If it could be like that for just one day.”
Faulkner’s knowledge of the human heart was equaled only by the range and depth of his imagination. How lucky we were to have him!