Thursday, August 28, 2014

Writers and Society—1: William Faulkner (1956)

From the Writers and Society series published in the April 1956 issue of Forum

This series of articles is meant to be an introduction to some novelists of this century and their work, through socialist eyes. This is not to say that some, or even any, novelists write from a socialist point of view, but it is no coincidence that the problems of capitalism which the socialist is most concerned with are often written about by modern novelists to great effect.

As Coster has pointed out in his articles on Marxism and Literature, the economic background and social circumstances explain to a large extent the nature and content of the literature of the time, and literature, in its turn, tells us much about the society of the period. For this reason there is much to be gained from a study of the novel, as one's insight into the thoughts and feelings of the people of their respective periods depends largely upon the novels, plays and stories of the time.

It is perhaps in the United States that the twentieth-century novel has had its most prolific flowering, so perhaps that would be the best place to commence our survey.

William Faulkner is a novelist who has achieved a certain amount of fame (and criticism) in our day. he was born in Mississippi in 1897 and, after working in a bank as a young man, became in turn a lieutenant in the air force, a farm worker, a coal heaver, a crew member of a fishing trawler, a newspaper reporter, a deck-hand, and eventually settled down on a farm in Mississippi.

He has written a number of novels, the majority of them dealing with "The South," those troubled states below the Mason-Dixon line that contain a large negro minority. It is not perhaps, the South of Uncle Tom's Cabin or Tales of Judge Priest but it is certainly the South of Scottsboro' Boy and of reality, a seething cauldron of humanity which has erupted at various times into lynching parties; prison riots; race murders; and the Ku Klux Klan, in addition to the other problems of capitalism that we know so well - unemployment, poverty and disease. Faulkner portrays these problems and evils in vivid colours in his novels and deals with them with absolute sincerity and with tremendous power and conviction.

Faulkner has, however, the desire to express himself in a more vivid manner than straightforward prose allows him, and accordingly he has experimented in various ways in his novels. For instance, his latest novel, Requiem for a Num, which is an extremely fine story of a Negress, who is executed for the murder of a white baby, contains between the chapters of the story itself large amounts of "abstract" prose which veers between clearness and downright incomprehensibility.

His first novel, Soldier's Pay, is written in a clear straightforward prose style that has considerable impact. It is a story of soldiers demobilised after the 1914-18 war, and their struggle to get adjusted to the changed world around them. This novel probably represents the best introduction to Faulkner's work.

Perhaps his most well-known novel is Sanctuary (published in Penguins) which deals with a group of criminals, misfits and mentally deranged people living in the deep South. A white girl is raped and a negro murdered, and an innocent man is tried and found guilty of the two crimes (due to the evidence given by the raped girl) and eventually dragged from the gaol and burned by the mob. In this novel Faulkner almost makes the reader feel the experiences of his characters and, in the dialogue and particularly in the tortured thoughts of the lawyer who is defending the accused, one can see Faulkner's deep insight into the social problems of the South.

Again in The Sound and the Fury there appears this insight and compassion for humanity. It is a story of a depressed Southern white family with negro servants whose members struggle along in an ever-growing sea of problems. The novel contains some of Faulkner's most successful experiments in "impressionist" writing, part of the text representing the thoughts of an inarticulate feeble-minded member of the family. Another novel, Intruder in the Dust (filmed by M.G.M. in 1949) tells of an old negro who is arrested for a murder of which he is innocent, and the attempts of a white lawyer and an old white woman to exonerate him. This novel throws light on the colour problem and also deals with the kind of life that is led by a number of the white farmers in the South, and the poverty both of their means of living and their thinking.

A number of the novels, such as Sanctuary, Requiem for a Nun, Sartoris, and others, and also many of the short stories are set in the same locale, "Yoknapatawpha Country," and the plots and the characters are often interwoven. Not all of Faulkner's novels are in this setting however, or even in the South. One of his novels, Pylon, describes the miserable existence of the pilots and mechanics of "air-circuses" in the 'thirties and is written from the view of a physically emaciated and mentally unstable newspaper reporter. As in a number of the novels, the story ends in tragedy, but there is no doubt that, as with all of Faulkner's writing, it was written to stimulate and to make the reader wonder about humanity and its evils and capabilities.

William Faulkner has expressed the purpose behind his writings in his speech of acceptance for the Nobel Prize for literature in 1949. He described his writing as being "a life's work in the agony and sweat of all the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before." Whilst it cannot be suggested that Faulkner is a socialist, it is obvious nevertheless that his approach to mankind is constructive, and at some points similar to the socialist's own.

The main fault in the general trend of Faulkner's thought, if one can pick out a general trend, is his somewhat narrow parochialism. He is still infected with the ideology of the "homogeneous South" that should have disappeared with General Lee's surrender. He seems to want to turn the clock back to those chivalrous slave-ridden days that were irrevocably lost when Fort Sumpter was fired upon in 1861.

He is, first and foremost, a Southerner, and his convictions are so bound up with the pre-Civil War mentality of the South, that he has gone so far as to state that he would be prepared to fight against the North in another civil war if the Southerner's rights were threatened. In a remarkable interview with the Sunday Times (4/3/56), Faulkner said: "I grant you that it is bad that there should be a minority people who because of their colour don't have the right to social equality and to justice. But it is bad that Americans should be fighting Americans. That is what will happen, because the Southern whites are back in the spirit of 1860. There could easily be another civil war and the South would be whipped gain."

Edmund Wilson, in an admirable essay, "William Faulkner and the Civil Rights Program," dealing with this aspect of Faulkner's writing, pointed out that however much faith Faulkner placed in the Southern "Liberals," it is to a large extent the outside pressure of Northern opinion that forces the South to think seriously about the negro problem. Faulkner however, looks upon the problem in a different light. He regards John Brown, the Civil War, and the Supreme Court decision on segregated schools as retrograde steps so far as the Negroes are concerned. The bitterness and racial intolerance aroused by reconstruction after the civil war will be equalled, he would say, by the bitterness aroused by the Court's decision. He can see the evils of the colour problem (and indeed, his novels contain sympathetic and stimulating treatment of the subject) but he insists that if bitterness, bloodshed and race-riots are to be avoided, the South must be left to find its own solution, and not have ready-made solutions imposed on them by the North.

At least Faulkner can see quite clearly the economic basis of the problem - "To produce cotton we have a system of peonage. That is absolutely what is at the bottom of the situation. I would say that a planter who has a thousand acres wants to keep the Negro in a position of debt-peonage and to do it he is going to violate his daughter. But all he wants at the back of it is a system of peonage to produce his cotton at the highest rate of profit." What he cannot see is that the movement against race-prejudice has an equally economic background. If because of labour-shortage, Negroes are employed in skilled jobs in factories on an equal footing with with workers, then race-prejudice must tend to break down. South Africa is a case in point. The feudal Boer farmer and their allies are attempting to keep the coloured people subjugated, whereas the capitalists are using their influence to end segregation (not from any liberal convictions but from necessity), and if South Africa is to become an efficient capitalist nation, it will be the anti-segregation group that will win out.

In fact it is capitalism itself which at appropriate periods breaks down the barrier, and not the efforts of liberal-minded whites, North or South. The Civil War was caused through the South's refusal to recognise realities and see that as far as the United States was concerned, Northern capitalist industry was the norm and dominant influence, and the feudal Southern cotton plantations were outmoded. The present trouble spring from the same sort of ideology, the Southern whites this time refusing to accept that capitalism needs (at least in time of boom and labour shortage) efficient unsegregated workers, black or white. Race prejudice will tend to break down with the termination of the Negroes' subjugation as a race and their general merging into the undifferentiated working class. The Supreme Court decision in essence, therefore, is not the culmination of a campaign of liberal opinion, but is merely the rubber stamp on a process that capitalism itself has brought about.

Nevertheless, this cannot detract from the high quality of Faulkner's writing and should not prevent socialists from getting a great deal of pleasure and mental profit from his work. After all, every socialist is, or should be ready to learn more about the world in which he lives, and there is no doubt that there is something to be learnt from the works of novelists such as William Faulkner.

Recommended books: - Soldier's Pay; Sartoris; The Sound and The Fury; Sanctuary; Light in August; Pylon; Intruder in the Dust; Requiem for a Nun; As I Lay Dying; Knight's Gambit (short stories); Collected Stories.
Albert Ivimey




1 comment:

Imposs1904 said...

Forum was the internal journal of the SPGB, that was published from about 1952-1957. The author of the article, AWI, is/was Albert Ivemy, a member of the old Hackney Branch of the SPGB.