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Faulkner critics take careful aim -- and frequently miss their mark

In 1924 William Faulkner's three-year tenure as postmaster of the University of Mississippi came to an abrupt end when a postal inspector charged him with seven different categories of negligence, including the publication of a book of poetry, ``The Marble Faun,'' which he was said to have written while on duty at the post office. Upon resigning his position, the 27-year-old Faulkner remarked to friends: ``All my life I will probably be at the beck and call of somebody who's got money, but thank God I will never again have to be at the beck and call of every . . . who's got two cents to buy a stamp.''

Were he alive today, Faulkner might observe that he is at the beck and call of anyone who's got a pencil -- or a word processor -- and a doctoral dissertation to write.

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Faulkner scholars produce books and articles at a rate rivaling that of the Joyce industry (more than a dozen full-length studies in the past 12 months). However, few of the recently marketed Faulkner books make a substantial contribution to the reader's understanding of the scope, complexity, and depth of Faulkner's art: The majority fasten upon a single reductive concept, a narrow strip of material, and attempt to sweep everything else neatly under it.

In his early apprenticeship years -- circa 1916-1924, before he took Sherwood Anderson's advice and began writing about human nature and human relationships in terms of the people, the tradition, the soil he knew -- Faulkner wrote a good deal of highly derivative and frankly imitative fin de si`ecle and early modernist verse. Several volumes of this poetry have appeared in the years since Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950, modestly brought out by Faulkner critics who offered them merely for the record.

Now, Judith L. Sansibar's The Origins of Faulkner's Art (Austin: University of Texas Press. 209 pp., $22.50) accompanies yet another sequence of Faulkner's poems, A Vision in Spring, written in 1921, which are published together -- with an introduction by Sansibar -- for the first time (Austin: University of Texas Press, 88 pp., $14.95).

The energetic line-by-line analysis that Sansibar expends on these poems (which are at best vain, immature posturing on Faulkner's part) would be a harmless enough exercise, were it not for her determination to find in them the origins, ``the intention, the mode, the moral preoccupations of Faulkner's great fiction.'' Not only does Faulkner's imitative verse (``Who am I, thinks Pierrot, who am I/ To stretch my soul out rigid against the sky?'') fail to support the weight of this claim, but Sansibar's strenuous efforts to prove it do a serious disservice to the writer whose mature artistic aim was, as he once said, ``to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before.''

The preoccupation of Eric J. Sundquist's Faulkner: The House Divided (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 183 pp., $16.95) is miscegenation. Intelligent, well-written, well-argued, Sundquist's book is nevertheless dedicated to the single proposition that racial conflict is the crux of Faulkner's art, that ``only by speaking critically and historically about questions of racial conflict can Faulkner's power and significance be made to emerge.''

In arguing his position, Sundquist commits an error common to such narrowly focused studies: the works that support the position are extolled, those that do not, all but dismissed. (``The Sound and the Fury'' is therefore not considered to be one of Faulkner's most important novels.)

But the greater error is in allowing the facts of Faulkner's fictional realism (yes, Faulkner's fiction is set in the South and racial conflict is part of the scenery) to obscure the universal problems that his work explores: man in conflict with himself, with his fellow man, with his time and place. The sociological qualities of Faulkner's fiction are coincidental to the story, not the story itself, and certainly not the whole story.

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Far from apologizing for the limitations of their theories, both Sansibar and Sundquist indulge in a bit of chiding of their predecessors (de rigueur in contemporary criticism) for failure to treat these theories adequately. Cleanth Brooks, on the other hand, apologetically offers an unpretentious ``little book'' (William Faulkner: First Encounters, Yale University Press, 230 pp., $19.50) that performs a real service: that of making Faulkner's complex fiction readily accessible to the reader coming to him for the first time. Brooks does this not by reading between the lines, but by reading -- and by encouraging the novice to read -- the lines themselves.

In summarizing the main events and sketching the main characters of Faulkner's major works of fiction, Brooks avoids critical jargon and is not above pointing out the humor, such as when Mrs. Compson, in ``The Sound and the Fury,'' wails, ``Whoever God is he would not permit that [i.e., her niece Quentin's bringing, by her suicide, yet another scandal on the family] I'm a lady.'' It's all right to laugh, Brooks assures the newcomer; in Yoknapatawpha County (Faulkner's fictional world overlaid on his native northern Mississippi), the comic and the tragic live side by side.

The really interesting question about Faulkner's art is not its origin, but its demise. Faulkner began writing seriously in his teens; his last novel, ``The Reivers,'' was published only a month before he died, in 1962, at the age of 65. His 19 novels, more than 80 short stories, 4 volumes of poetry, 2 plays, half a dozen film scripts (including ``The Big Sleep''), and numerous sketches span a career of more than four decades of continuous productivity.

However, Faulkner's literary reputation rests on a relatively small number of novels produced within a relatively short period of time: from 1929 (``The Sound and the Fury'') to 1942 (``Go Down Moses''). In between, and for the most part in rapid succession, came ``As I Lay Dying,'' ``Light in August'' ``Absalom, Absalom!'' and ``The Hamlet.'' By the time Faulkner was belatedly awarded the Nobel Prize, his major achievement lay nearly a decade behind him.

What happened to Faulkner after 1942? The commonly held theory, that his genius deserted him (Faulkner himself expressed the fear that his power and fire were gone, leaving only empty craftsmanship), is not borne out by a rereading of his later novels. Even ``The Mansion,'' the least successful of the Snopes trilogy, affords sustained flashes of Faulkner at his most brilliant -- when he deals with the theme of moral complexity and attempts to understand human motive.

The chapters of ``The Mansion'' -- dominated by Mink Snopes, a murderer who is initially presented as ``just a different kind of Snopes the way a cottonmouth is a different kind of snake'' but who manages, against incredible odds, to attain nearly heroic stature -- are among the most powerful and credible ever written by Faulkner. But they compose less than one-third of the novel and are woven into a larger story of time and change that is a failure, structurally and thematically. The genius, it seems, is still there; it is the craftsman who has deserted.

Exactly why this happened is, of course, impossible to discover, but those interested in the question will welcome Volume 2 of Faulkner -- A Comprehensive Guide to the Brodsky Collection: the Letters, edited by Louis Daniel Brodsky and Robert W. Hamblin (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 334 pp., $35 cloth, $14.95 paper).

In addition to the 129 letters written by Faulkner (only one-fourth of which appeared in Joseph Blotner's ``The Selected Letters of William Faulkner''), the editors have included 50 letters written by Faulkner's wife, Estelle, and 99 by his early mentor and erstwhile friend, Phil Stone, all previously unpublished. The remainder of the more than 500 letters and telegrams in the collection were written by other family members, friends, literary critics, and professional associates who orbited within the Faulkner cosmos.

The result is a book that might have been designed by William Faulkner: a story told from many different points of view by narrators of varying degrees of reliability, with the truth emerging from the juxtaposition of their contributions. The Faulkner who emerges from these letters is not radically different from the Faulkner of Blotner's two-volume biography (a one-volume condensed version of which was published earlier this year), but one perceived in much fuller detail and greater depth.

Particularly illuminated are the last 15 years of Faulkner's life, a period severely marked by illness, advanced alcoholism, domestic turmoil, and chronic self-doubt, fed by the failure of several ill-fated liaisons with much younger women.

It is a beleaguered Faulkner, one trapped in a web of conflicting responsibilities, who writes to Saxe Commins (his close friend, confidant, and editor at Random House): ``I think now I may, to save my soul . . . save the work at least, quit the whole thing [his home], give it all to them, leave and be done with it.'' The refrain, ``I can't write here'' sounds repeatedly in his letters to Commins.

Estelle Faulkner's 45 letters to the Comminses, for the most part, strike a manipulatingly false note of stoicism: ``Unless it's [divorce] the only way to save Billy -- I must put Jill [the Faulkners' daughter] and her happiness first. . . . Please believe that I'm not thinking of myself -- only Bill, Jill, and Malcolm [Estelle's son by her first marriage].''

The letter in which Estelle claims to have discovered through Malcolm how deeply involved Faulkner was with the young writer Joan Williams (``Bill had Malcolm open and read her letters to him -- and Mac, shocked, gave them to me'') is sharply counterpointed by Faulkner's own letter to Commins: ``Hell's to pay here now. While I was hors de combat E. opened and read Joan Williams's letters to me. Now E. is drunk.''

And it is a deeply shocked Commins, summoned to Oxford by Estelle, who writes (to his wife, Dorothy) of finding Faulkner in a state of ``complete disintegration,'' his body battered by repeated falls down the stairs of Rowan Oak (the Faulkners' home), his speech mumbling and incoherent. All this is news to the reader of Blotner's reverent biography.

There are no neat conclusions to be drawn from the Brodsky letters. After all, Faulkner never was a stranger to adversity, and none of his masterpieces were produced in idyllic circumstances: ``The Sound and the Fury,'' his fourth novel, was written with the firm conviction that he would never be published again; ``As I Lay Dying'' was written while he was on night duty at the University power plant.

One can conclude, however, that it is no coincidence that the major preoccupation in Faulkner's fiction came to be the quest for honor in the midst of destruction and decay; that so many of Faulkner's characters are people who know defeat and despair, yet continue to struggle; and that the Christ figure who appears to one of the defeated characters in ``The Mansion'' tells him: ``What we want are folks that believe they can't, and then do it.''

Jane Ann Mullen is a free-lance writer living in University, Miss.

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