A. B. Bernd
25 October 1936
When an author remains breathless for almost 400 pages, he should by rights expect his readers to reach that state of fatigue of which breathlessness is a symptom. Yet such is the magic of William Faulkner's style and method that the reader becomes only a fellow-panter, eagerly turning chaotic pages to learn the next terrifying tragedy that will overwhelm a group of forbidding and inhuman neurotics.
For Faulkner has imagination and power-qualities requisite to good literature. His fund of invention seems endless-though limited to such abnormal persons as we customarily prefer not to know intimately. He wastes in a single novel a dozen minor incidents that would make masterful short stories in themselves--and, as a matter of fact, he has used one of his own best short stories, "Wash," which appeared in Harper's two or three years ago, as a major incident in this book.
His driving force is tremendous. His words catapult from his pen with such impetuous violence that the wonder is, not that he is able to arrange them in order (for in this novel, at last, Mr. Faulkner boldly throws grammar overboard and follows his own private rules of syntax), but that he can communicate his meaning as clearly as he does. Naturally there are lapses. Occasional strings of words seem as relevant as the major output of Gertrude Stein. But for the most part, their meaning, in spite of some difficulty with pronominal reference, is perceivable, and their construction lamentable.
Reading Faulkner is an experience. Grant him his right to his own peculiar language (and he is a highly capable master of it). Grant him his circuitous method. Grant him his technique of creating suspense, not by something inherent in his story, but by a highly artificial means of arranging his revelations. Make these concessions, and sit down for an evening with Absalom, Absalom! You will find yourself absorbed, aroused, profoundly stirred, completely removed from your familiar world into the semi-lunatic asylum which is Mr. Faulkner's Mississippi.
For here again, the Mississippian writes of that world which is his by right of creation as surely as Poictesme belongs to Mr. Cabell. (May I insert a note for any aspirant to an M.A. in American Lit? A comparison of Faulkner and Cabell as products of the old South--and both of them assuredly are--should make as stimulating a dissertation as ever passed across a full professor's desk.) The town is the familiar Jefferson, with Benbows and Sartorises lurking hazily in the distance.
The chief actors this time are the families, right-handed and left-handed, which sprang from the loins of Thomas Sutpen "born in West Virginia mountains, 1807 ... Major, then Colonel,--th Mississippi Infantry, C.S.A. Died, Sutpen's Hundred, 1869." Sutpen himself, seeking fortune in his youth, had wandered to Haiti and married a woman of alleged Spanish descent. Discovery of a flaw in her story caused him to desert her; and about 1833 he appeared in Jefferson, married a daughter of the town, and settled down to a turbulent and harried existence on a huge estate he had fraudulently wrested from the Indians.
Bizarre tragedy dogged his steps. Two children born of his American union, as well as the sole product of the West Indian affair, paid for the sins of their father. Everyone at all implicated in the unfolding of his life suffered--even the Confederate cause to which he devoted four years. An aura of hate surrounded him, a legacy of violence was all he could leave to a devastated world.
Essentially this is the familiar tale of the rise and fall of a Southern planter. Yet Mr. Faulkner has invested it with a freshness and new beauty by his heady style, his impatient flow of words and thoughts and figures, his unique narrative technique, no less than by his keen insight into human motives and his intense preoccupation with abnormal psychology. He writes like a man who is drunk, but he thinks like a coldly sober analyst. Racial and sexual relations dominate the world of his brain; and he penetrates them and exposes them as no other American writer does.
Incidentally, in this book, for the first time, he shows signs of going literary. He appends a chronology of the events in the tale, a genealogy of its characters, and a map of Jefferson and its surrounding territory (Area 2,400 sq. mi. Population, whites 6,298; Negroes, 9,313). On the map he shows the location of many incidents in Absalom, Absalom! , Sanctuary , Light in August and the other books: and he appends to it: "William Faulkner, Sole Owner and Proprietor." It is all a good deal like Mr. Cabell's Poictesme.