You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.

William Faulkner’s Southern Guilt

In disastrous interviews and his most famous novels, he struggled to reckon with racism and white supremacy.


In February 1956, William Faulkner, blind drunk, gave an infamous interview. After toiling for decades in relative obscurity, Faulkner had become a literary celebrity—he had won the Nobel Prize seven years earlier—and as the civil rights movement gathered steam, he was increasingly sought after by journalists to provide a Southern perspective on race relations. Faulkner was already on record as a liberal opponent of white supremacy. A year earlier, he had reacted to the lynching of Emmett Till by writing, “If we in America have reached that point in our desperate culture when we must murder children, no matter for what reason or what color, we don’t deserve to survive, and probably won’t.”

The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War
by Michael Gorra
Liveright, 448 pp., $39.95

But Faulkner was worried about the pace of change in the South, and the vehemence and violence of white resistance to integration following the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision. In March 1956, he published an article in Life magazine cautioning advocates of desegregation to “go slow now.” In the drunken interview the month before, he had gone even further. If federally mandated integration were to proceed, he insisted, the Southern states would revolt. “The government will send its troops and we’ll be back at 1860.” More disturbingly, he signaled where his own ultimate allegiances would lie:

As long as there’s a middle road, all right, I’ll be on it. But if it came to fighting I’d fight for Mississippi against the United States even if it meant going out into the street and shooting Negroes … I will go on saying that the Southerners are wrong and that their position is untenable, but if I have to make the same choice Robert E. Lee made then I’ll make it.

These statements, which Faulkner quickly disavowed, are more than a stain on a great writer’s reputation—though they are certainly that. They are also, according to the scholar Michael Gorra’s provocative and engrossing new book, The Saddest Words, an entry point into one of the secret themes of Faulkner’s oeuvre: the Civil War, and the collective madness that underlay the Southern resistance to abolition.

Gorra’s book comes at a moment when Confederate monuments are being pulled down across the country, and the legacy of the Civil War is being revisited again. But he presses a case—that Faulkner should be read, in spite of everything, as an anti-racist writer, or at least one who has something valuable to contribute to conversations on race today—that may be difficult to sustain in an environment where people are not only confronting the specter of the racist past but demanding decisive action in the racist present. Toward the end of The Saddest Words, Gorra quotes W.E.B. Du Bois’s famous declaration that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line” and contends that “no white writer in our literature thought longer and harder about that problem” than Faulkner. Yet in his zeal to show us that he thought about it, Gorra sometimes overrates what he thought about it.

The Civil War is everywhere and nowhere in Faulkner’s fiction. While the conflict is “an inescapable point of reference in his characters’ speech and lives,” Gorra observes, Faulkner only “rarely makes it an explicit subject.” Of his 20-odd books, only one—1938’s The Unvanquished—is entirely set in the 1860s, though many others refer or allude to that turbulent period. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” a character in 1951’s Requiem for a Nun famously declares. This haunted worldview, in Gorra’s telling, emerged from the lived experience of Reconstruction and the postbellum South more generally, where a variety of social and economic forces kept Southerners in a kind of anguished suspension.

After Emancipation, freedmen often worked for their old masters under conditions not far removed from slavery; white-supremacist terrorism kept them oppressed and disenfranchised even before the institution of Jim Crow laws in the 1870s ratified their subjugation. (The Unvanquished chillingly depicts such an act of terror, in which Colonel Sartoris, a Confederate soldier modeled on Faulkner’s great-grandfather, murders two white political organizers who are trying to mobilize the black vote.) For poor whites, like the rural Bundren family who are the protagonists of Faulkner’s short masterpiece As I Lay Dying, the “world remains stuck in time” because “there has never been the money to make anything new.… The future seems arrested, as if the war has fixed it in place.” And for scions of the fallen plantation aristocracy, like the Compson family who feature in both The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom!, postwar history evidences a steady, helpless decline. The Compsons’ fatalistic obsession with this past is reflected in these novels’ forbiddingly involuted structures, which Gorra describes as “marked by an endless recursion to what has already been done and said.”

The war for Faulkner is a sort of eternal recurrence. In his 1948 novel, Intruder in the Dust, a character named Gavin Stevens evokes Pickett’s Charge, the failed final assault by Confederate forces at the Battle of Gettysburg, often taken to be the moment at which the South’s overall defeat became assured. “It’s all now you see,” Stevens says. “Yesterday wont be over until tomorrow and tomorrow began ten thousand years ago”:

For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two oclock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out … and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin … yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen year old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain …

This speech is often read as a glorification of Southern military valor. It skates close to the rhetoric of “the Lost Cause,” which sprung up in the wake of the Confederacy’s defeat—and which, Gorra notes, was written into the history textbooks the young Faulkner is likely to have read growing up in Mississippi. Yet it’s not clear that Faulkner really is embracing that narrative: What makes the passage distinctive is its ambivalence. Does the cautious counterfactual “Maybe this time” imply the possibility of victory, a scenario in which the South triumphs at Gettysburg and thus wins the war? Or is the key phrase “There is still time for it not to begin”? Is the fantasy indulged by this hypothetical 14-year-old boy that the South stood down, that it surrendered, and never suffered the severe damages still to come? Faulkner toggles between a wish that the events of Southern history had turned out differently and a wish that they had never happened at all: between defiance and denial, pride and guilt. Just as in his 1956 interview, he is ready at a moment’s notice to be back at 1860, to return to a historical era that is also a source of shame, and to relive an event that he purported to wish had never occurred.

Faulkner was unusual for a Southern writer of his time in his equivocal attitude toward the antebellum past. Gorra contrasts him with predecessors like Thomas Nelson Page, author of “sad sweet tales about the Old South,” and Thomas W. Dixon, whose fearmongering white-supremacist novel The Clansman provided the basis for D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. In Faulkner’s own era, popular writers such as Stark Young and Margaret Mitchell did their part to revive nostalgia for plantation life, and conservative intellectuals like John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate juxtaposed an idyllic version of the South’s agrarian past with the cultural and ecological ravages of industrial modernity. Faulkner, according to Gorra, “doesn’t have the same romantic stake in defending the Old South as a system” as these writers. “His myth lies elsewhere, in his sense of a dim hot airless past that weighs upon the present.”

While Gorra is keen to separate Faulkner from more racist and revanchist Southern writers, he does not argue that he was a progressive, exactly. His thesis is both subtler and more tendentious. He admits that Faulkner was “all too often caught by the conventional thought and language of his time and station.” Yet “something happened when he faced a fictional page,” Gorra claims. His artistic commitment to realism undermined the prejudices that he otherwise accepted: In simply depicting the folkways of white supremacy without flinching, the argument goes, he held them up to scrutiny and revealed their inherent ludicrousness. In Faulkner’s early novel Flags in the Dust, for instance, a white Southerner offers some black musicians a drink from his jug of corn whiskey. As Gorra describes, “Their lips can’t touch the same rim, however, and nobody has a cup, so he takes the breather-cap off his car’s engine: ‘It’ll taste a little like oil for a drink or two, but you boys won’t notice it after that.’” It’s an incidental moment, but for Gorra the mere fact that Faulkner is able to see such indignities proves he was able to see through them.

A more lurid and disturbing example is the theme of sexual exploitation under slavery that runs throughout Faulkner’s work. The rape of enslaved women by their masters, rapes that frequently resulted in children who were themselves enslaved, was a fact of everyday life in the antebellum South—Faulkner’s own great-grandfather is believed to have fathered a child in this fashion—but one that “plantation fiction” discreetly elided. Faulkner, by contrast, made these atrocities central to the plots of books like Absalom, Absalom! and Go Down, Moses, both of which explore “shadow families.” In Go Down, Moses, a man named Ike McCaslin reads through the ledgers of his family’s plantation going back decades and pieces together that his grandfather, Carothers McCaslin, impregnated an enslaved woman named Tomey. But the crime was still more heinous, he learns, as Tomey was herself Carothers’s child, born to another enslaved woman named Eunice: In other words, he has raped his own daughter. (Eunice, Ike deduces, drowned herself in a creek shortly thereafter.) Carothers, whom Ike had always idolized, is now “an evil and unregenerate old man who could summon, because she was his property, a human being because she was old enough and female … and get a child on her and then dismiss her because she was of an inferior race.” Learning this, Ike is overcome by remorse and refuses his inheritance, righteously denouncing “that whole edifice intricate and complex and founded upon injustice and erected by ruthless rapacity and carried on even yet with at times downright savagery.”

Gorra thinks Faulkner was brave for confronting these things; he commends him for exposing the Old South’s hypocrisy and refusing the New South’s amnesia. Yet it must be said that what most horrifies Ike—and arguably his creator as well—is not the violation of enslaved women’s consent but the contamination of the family bloodline. Toward the end of Go Down, Moses, Ike, now past 70, himself spurns a mixed-race relative who has come to him for help. Gorra sees this as a regression: “Ike has lived in Mississippi too long.” He doesn’t see the continuities between “this old man” and “the young one hunched over those ledgers.” But is Ike’s behavior really so inconsistent? Faulkner never gives us a sense that Ike acts out of empathy for Tomey and Eunice, or a genuine desire to redress injustice against them. He simply wants to escape the taint of sin, both moral and genetic.

Faulkner, like Ike McCaslin, was deeply conscious of the guilt that he and other white Southerners harbored, the unpayable debt they owed the region’s black population. But is consciousness of guilt sufficient, in the absence of reparation? Faulkner was always willing to accuse his fellow Southerners (and, by extension, himself) of wrongdoing, and even evil. But he expected practically nothing of them, or of himself, when it came to making amends. All he could imagine was the recrudescence of old hatreds, and the persistence of old ills: 1860 on an endless loop.

“Faulkner knew that in his great-grandfather’s day he too would have served the Confederacy,” Gorra writes. He also “believed that the principle on which that cause was built was evil. His work lies in the space between, and at times the contradiction must have been unbearable; at times it must have approached a psychic war within.” As a psychological assessment, this seems right, and it helps grant dramatic tension to Faulkner’s narratives and a tragic complexity to his tormented characters. As a moral stance, though, it’s clearly deficient; and Gorra seems to want to give Faulkner credit for consistently acknowledging a problem that he did virtually nothing about.

It doesn’t take hindsight to see the inadequacy of this. One of the most trenchant responses to Faulkner’s comments on civil rights was James Baldwin’s 1956 essay “Faulkner and Desegregation,” first published in Partisan Review, which offers a clear-eyed critique not only of Faulkner’s political position but also, implicitly, of his fiction. Baldwin writes that Faulkner “concedes the madness and moral wrongness of the South but at the same time he raises it to the level of a mystique.” He insists that the white South can’t be forced to integrate, and must be left to work through its moral dilemmas in its own time; but “it is, I suppose, impertinent to ask just what Negroes are supposed to do while the South works out what, in Faulkner’s rhetoric, becomes something very closely resembling a high and noble tragedy.”

There was no better chronicler of white guilt than William Faulkner. His territory was the wrong side of history, and he knew every inch of it. But while Gorra wants to congratulate Faulkner for exposing Southern racism, Baldwin suggests that he in fact mystified it, aestheticized it, thus making it even harder to overcome than it needed to be. There is a kind of tragic sublimity, in Faulkner’s work, to the white South’s wrongness, to the magnitude of the guilt, and the extent of the attempt to deny or forget it. But a tragedy only ever ends one way; or perhaps, as Faulkner thought, it never ends at all. If we want things to change—if we want justice—guilt is not enough.