Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner: A review
September 25, 1897 - July 6, 1962
This is the book which many critics pick as Faulkner's masterpiece. Moreover, it was greatly influenced by that other acknowledged masterpiece of the early twentieth century, Joyce's Ulysses. An essay that I recently read about Absalom, Absalom! in The New York Times - which, in fact, impelled me to read the book again - said of the two works that "each in its way is a provincial Modernist novel about a young man trying to awaken from history." As one of the few and the proud who has actually read both books, I find that a very apt description.
In fact, Faulkner has been on my mind since we visited his home, Rowan Oak, when we passed through Oxford, Mississippi on a road trip last month, and, as it happens, today, July 6, is the fiftieth anniversary of his death, so this week seemed an appropriate time to return to this dense and complex book and read it again. It is still a daunting read, but somewhat more intelligible, perhaps because of all the living I have done in the intervening years.
The book employs two of my pet peeves in its construction. First, the writer ignores common, accepted punctuation practices. Second, he uses run-on sentences that go sometimes for a whole page and the reader finds herself having to stop, go back, and re-read in order to follow the flow of the story. Normally, this would annoy the heck out of me, but somehow it just seems natural here and I find that I can tolerate it. In fact, I can't imagine the story being written in any other fashion.
This is Faulkner's famous "stream of consciousness" writing, and, of all his books, I think this one is the most extreme example of that style. The "young man who is trying to awaken from history" here is Quentin Compson and he is our listener/narrator. We hear the story of Thomas Sutpen and his progeny through Quentin's ears, read it through his eyes, are privy to his thoughts as he tries to make sense of it all, and listen as he relates the tale to his friend, Shreve, at Harvard in 1910.
The story and Thomas Sutpen had their beginnings in the West Virginia mountains in 1807. Sutpen was one of several children of a poor white family of Scotch-English ancestry. As a young teenager, Sutpen ran away to the West Indies, ending up in Haiti, where he began to make his fortune as an overseer for a French planter on a sugar cane plantation. Eventually, he married the daughter of the planter and they had a son, Charles, but then he found that his wife was not as she had been presented to him; that she was, in fact, part black and he divorced her and left her and his son behind.
Later, he made his way, with a group of slaves apparently from Haiti, to Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi and he bought land and built his own plantation, where he raised cotton. He married a local girl, Ellen Coldfield, and had two children, Henry and Judith. He also had a daughter, Clytemnestra (Clytie), with one of his slaves.
All of this happened in the early to mid-1800s and as the 1860s and Civil War loom, Henry heads off to the ten-year-old University of Mississippi where he meets a young man named Charles Bon. They become friends and he brings Charles home to meet his family during the Christmas holidays. Judith seems smitten with him and soon there is an understanding in the community that the two are engaged.
Then comes the war and Henry and Charles join an infantry unit from the University. Meanwhile, Thomas Sutpen, too, joins up and becomes a major and later a colonel in another infantry unit. Ellen, Judith, and Clytie are left to survive on the plantation alone. The slaves that had run the place take their first opportunity to flee north with a Yankee unit. The women are left with a handyman named Wash Jones, a squatter on the plantation, as their sole assistance.
All the major characters do survive the war, but, in the interim, Henry has come to the realization that Charles Bon, his friend, is actually his half-brother and that he cannot let his sister marry him. The novel revolves, in a very non-linear fashion, around the resolution of this conflict and the consequences of that resolution.
At one point during the war, Henry and Charles are on the battlefield during a lull and Henry has told Charles that "you shall not" marry Judith and Charles says, "Who will stop me, Henry?" Then:
His hand vanishes beneath the blanket and reappears, holding his pistol by the barrel, the butt extended toward Henry.One of the things which modern readers often find distressing about this novel, as well as works by Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, Dos Passos, and perhaps most famously Mark Twain, is the use of the ugly word "nigger," and yet, in the period about which Faulkner was writing, it was certainly a word commonly used among white people and it is used freely - some would say overused - throughout this book. I think, to give Faulkner the benefit of a doubt, he was making a point. In Absalom, Absalom! he was confronting the seminal conundrum of the South, the intimate familial relationships of the black and white races and yet the deep and seemingly impenetrable social divide between the two. And through his writing, he was trying to force Mississippi and the South to confront that divide, to see it for what it was, an artificial construct created by humans that needed to be deconstructed by humans.
"Then do it now," he says.
Henry looks at the pistol; now he is not only panting, he is trembling [...]
"You are my brother."
"No I'm not. I'm the nigger that's going to sleep with your sister. Unless you stop me, Henry."
Faulkner famously wrote, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." That is really the point that he made in all of his books and that he made most eloquently here. The past lives in us and through us. The historical consciousness informs our lives even when we are not aware of it. Racism is a part of that historical consciousness for Americans, not only for Southerners. That fact alone makes this book, first published in 1936, still relevant today.
At the end of the book, as Quentin Compson has reached the end of the tale told to his friend Shreve - who is from Canada - in a Harvard dormitory room on a cold night in 1910, Shreve says:
"Now I want you to tell me just one thing more. Why do you hate the South?"I don't.
"I dont hate it," Quentin said, quickly, at once, immediately; "I dont hate it," he said. I dont hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark; I dont. I dont! I dont hate it! I dont hate it!