Faulkner’s little 1929 book called Mayday languished unknown for half a century before its popular trade edition was finally published in 1976. Carvel Collins’ introduction is almost as long as Faulkner’s text. Which is okay.
Collins’ writings about Faulkner are not always satisfactory, as we saw in his 1962 introduction to William Faulkner: Early Prose and Poetry. He tends to drop more ramshackle hints here and there about his subject’s life than he provides a chronological and connected accounting of the biographical information that would be most useful to know. On the other hand, when he does finally settle down here, the thoughts and ideas he’s trying to convey about Mayday are interesting, albeit they are not always strictly creditable.
Collins’ main theme, when he eventually finds it, is that Faulkner used Mayday as a kind of template for his composition of the last section of The Sound and the Fury, which we may refer to as Quentin’s soliloquy. Indeed Collins does cite some intriguing parallels between the two texts. The metaphor can easily be extended beyond the breaking point, however. I recall an argument advanced in Faulkner in the University, for example, that The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying must be closely connected because they both feature a girl with serious life-problems, the girl has three brothers, and the parents have pressing concerns of their own ― a terminally pressing concern in the case of Addie Bundren. Collins makes a parallel argument here. He tells us that, as we find Quentin Compson’s case to be in The Sound and the Fury, the protagonist of Mayday, Galwyn of Arthgyl, is suspended between two brother-figures, the red design of Pain and the green design of Hunger (e.g., Jason and Benjy), while he pursues into futility his idealized woman-figure with long shining hair who reminds him of hyacinths in spring and honey and sunlight (Caddy). Now it’s true that we can look at these fundamental and recurring relationships as some kind of prime pattern that Faulkner kept exploring. But, we may also reflect, a small handful of characters like these are relatively easy for both reader and writer to keep track of and invest with plausible soul and dimensionality. It’s possible that we, or Collins, might perceive connections, or parallels, where no connections or parallels exist. Both perspectives are sound. I am not fully persuaded by Collins’ point of view, but I do find the notion intriguing.
I’m more skeptical when Collins goes on to apply Freud to The Sound and the Fury and extends this dubious theory backward into Mayday, however. Collins asserts that Benjy represents the id, Quentin the ego and Jason the superego. If Jason represents the superego, then either Collins or I have a fundamental misunderstanding of what that term is supposed to signify. I don’t have any problem with a critic analyzing a work from a Freudian perspective, or from a Marxist perspective or from a feminist perspective; I do find it laughable, however, to think that Faulkner deliberately concocted the characters of The Sound and the Fury to represent well-partitioned Freudian chambers of the mind. Nevertheless, it may be that Collins’ theory does make a little more sense in the case of Mayday, which after all is something frankly akin to a medieval allegory, or fairy tale. And yet even here the task of assigning Freud’s terms to Galwyn and his red and green design-companions is hardly a self-evident exercise; indeed, the red and the green are so interchangeable it is in fact impossible to know which one is more like Benjy and which one is more like Jason. Connotations associated with the words Hunger and Pain are probably helpful, but the characteristics (i.e., traits deriving from their characters) of these two bit-players cannot be said to map easily onto their alleged counterparts in that other book.
So Collins does dredge up a few ponderables in his introduction, but what is probably most important is his information concerning the degree to which Faulkner’s text leans heavily on the works of the Virginian James Branch Cabell; so heavily, Collins insinuates, that I feel a bit remiss talking about Mayday without tracking down and reading Cabell’s The Line of Love, and perhaps one or two other novels of his as well. But so be it. The theme of The Line of Love, Collins tells is, is that of the illusions of idealized, romantic love being inevitably overthrown by disillusioning reality. This theme is central to Mayday: I have no dispute with that.
Here I leave Collins for Faulkner.
It’s helpful to know the debt Faulkner owes to Cabell, because absent that knowledge this little book appears to be a real enigma. In style it is nothing like either the hapless poetry we’ve seen before now or the more well known Southern regionalist prose that is soon to come. Mayday is a curiosity, not a text we would expect to find under Faulkner’s name. It’s a rather bizarre fairy tale of uncertain interpretation. It is true that our hero Galwyn appears to be on a quest for the perfect woman ― for his soul mate. One by one, as he effects short-lived liaisons with fetching ladies, Galwyn is disillusioned as the unobtainable is obtained. Each would-be leading lady proves far too human and therefore tedious to him. One by one he leaves them behind. His accompanying sidekicks, Pain and Hunger, seem to offer very little support or insight during the quest: perhaps they should be seen less as sidekicks than as hangers-on. Pain and Hunger are the companions we all have during our various trips through the world, through life.
Bracketing the action of the tale are a pair of curious settings and encounters; or rather, more probably, the story is not linear but circular. Galwyn returns finally to his point of origin, and encounters again the same warden of the quest, Saint Francis, who was there at the beginning. Saint Francis stands as a tree by the River of Life wherein all the history of the world is recorded. Reading of this river I could not keep from conjuring up visions of a similar river in Hermann Hesse’s 1922 novel Siddhartha. In the space of these few handfuls of pages it seems that Galwyn has passed his entire allegorical life, moving away from birth and toward death. If for no other reason then with reference to the Canticle of the Sun, Faulkner has selected Saint Francis as the warden of the adventure in order that he may identify the final object of Galwyn’s life-quest as “Little sister Death.”
I must note that while Collins, coming at Faulkner’s allegory from a Christian tradition, makes much of Galwyn’s despair and suicide, I find neither here. Instead, Saint Francis requires Galwyn to make a choice, which strikes me as not being too Christian a concept. One path Galwyn may choose is to undergo an act of reincarnation in which he will retain no memory of his most recent life and its various disillusionments. He will start afresh at birth a tabula rasa. To know what experiences he can expect, one need only return to the first page of Mayday and start reading again. Presumably Galwyn has already made this choice many times at the ends of many previous lifetimes. The alternative path before Galwyn is to put an end to the endless cycling by finally merging with his romantic ideal. I see weariness in our hero, yes, but neither despair nor suicide. Instead, Galwyn chooses to put an end to the karmic cycles of rebirth and, according to another tradition, he achieves nirvana.
My question now is this. Having read Collins’ speculations, and having arrived at tentative conclusions of my own, when next I re-read The Sound and the Fury, will I see Quentin’s choice through the filter of an Eastern tradition?
So far I’m just a dabbler in William Faulkner, although I’m engaged in a Great Project which involves reading as much of his works, along with those of Ernest Hemingway, all simultaneously and in chronological order. By rights I should have come at this volume close to the end of that Great Project, but I was on a trip through Georgia and a tiny part of Tennessee and I bought this little book somewhere ― I think it was in Chattanooga. I bought so many books on this trip that I had to ship them home, but I needed something small and portable to bring back on the plane, and this was it.
Now when a celebrity is interviewed, say a rock star or an actor, it’s often pretty iffy when the questioner veers off into any area outside the celebrity’s immediate bailiwick. That is, why should celebrity status confer a legitimacy to one particular individual’s private opinions which should influence how we think or feel about global politics, say? Of course I admit the interest may vary quite a lot depending upon the insights, knowledge and wisdom of the person being interviewed ― rare enough qualities within the entertainment industry ― and sometimes the interviewee will offer a refreshingly original point of view which we haven’t heard before. That said, mostly this book is a long series of transcripts of various Q&A sessions conducted at the University of Virginia in 1957-1958, which finds Faulkner more or less at the height of his creative power; he had received his Nobel Prize in 1949. The book generally covers three areas of interest: Faulkner on writing, Faulkner on Southern history, and Faulkner on unrelated matters.
A book such as this may help us to understand Faulkner-the-man, or Faulkner-the-writer. Of course we always have the nagging question: Do we care about the works themselves or about the author who created them? Those are two different Things. Here we are afforded an extended view of Faulkner-the-man interacting with the public on a small scale, so we can hope that his expressed opinions are more candid and unguarded than they might be if he were writing an essay for publication. This is why I feel this book is of value.
So. Faulkner on writing. This is the concern that interests me most. Unfortunately, Faulkner has little insight to offer concerning his writing process. Mostly he gives us a few pat clichés again and again. An author writes from three sources: what he’s read before and steals, from personal experience and from imagination. Faulkner also asserts repeatedly that he is uninterested in writing about ideas but only about characters. This seems to mean he has no conscious ax to grind in a story or a novel, perhaps barely a theme, that if themes or symbols seep in, it is via an unconscious process which readers and critics only infer later, and which he almost always disavows. He also states a time or two that he believes all good writers write like he does, concerning themselves far more with characters than with ideas. I think this assumption of his untrue, although it provides him a useful barometer for comparing himself to other writers: if they write primarily about characters, they are “good” writers. Well, an important writer need not be brilliantly articulate about the writing process. If we wish to learn about how Faulkner writes, I don’t think we’re going to learn much listening to him talk about it.
I’ll skip ahead to Faulkner on unrelated matters, his answers to questions that don’t involve writing or Southern history but instead might be said to follow the form: Sir, you’re a celebrity, so how do you feel about subject X which has nothing to do with your writing? It might be seen as a sort of hero worship. What bothers me most about Faulkner’s handling of such questions is that he never once prefaces his replies with: Well, you know, I’m no authority on subject X, but . . . Instead, he answers these questions as seriously as any other question put to him, which at least implies that he feels that his celebrity status does confer on him some authority to hold forth on any question at all put to him. This is off-putting, but it also reveals how Faulkner sees himself and his relevance to society. Examples of answers to these questions include Faulkner’s opinions about how Europeans view Americans based on his trips overseas, and what America should do to encourage the rest of the world to like us more. It’s all faintly ridiculous. Maybe not even faintly.
It turns out that the most important part of the book is concerned with Faulkner on Southern history. This can be found in smatterings throughout, but the prime section is toward the end when Faulkner reads an essay titled “A Word to Virginians” on 20 February 1958. We must consider the date so we can put his words and thoughts in context as best as we can. These were trying times especially in the South as the Civil Rights Movement was well underway but still revving up. So far there had been Brown v Board of Education, the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Central High School at Little Rock. Now, throughout the book, Faulkner comes across as being more liberal than the mean for his region, as we might say. In his fiction he shows equal empathy for white and black, and he is no apologist for the Confederate cause in the Civil War nor preacher of the Lost Cause. One thing his fiction teaches us is how inadequate words like racist and racism and white supremacy and the like can be. It’s not that these words are illegitimate, but we have too few words to try to cover an enormous spectrum of attitudes and behaviors arising from a multitude of causes and personal and shared experiences. And yet . . . And yet. In this essay Faulkner calls for “mother” Virginia to offer leadership to the other Southern states through these trying times. Clearly he seeks for some form of progressive leadership, but just what that leadership role is to be he doesn’t say or really even hint at. One thing he’s not advocating is integration, which he predicts the South won’t “accept” for another fifty (!) years. Sadly, to depict the situation of uneducated blacks living among white Southerners, Faulkner compares them to a herd of wild horses cut loose and raising havoc in the town. He then claims this was a poor analogy he put in his essay, but after all the only reason he is present at the University of Virginia is because he is a respected writer, so this mea culpa is a non-starter. Most sadly of all, he states multiple times that “the Negro doesn’t want to mix with white people any more than white people want to mix with the Negro.” In the end what Faulkner appears to fear most is that segregation is going to be terminated by the federal government and not by Southern states, and in effect he calls for Southern states to find a solution to this problem before segregation is ended and integration is thrust upon them. And he never offers any notion of what such a solution would look like beyond educating blacks , as he puts it, to stop thinking like Negroes, and by inference to learn to think like respectable whites.
I’m not overly concerned with what Faulkner’s attitudes were for the sake of his personal reputation. I am, however, definitely surprised that his words do suggest such an extraordinary naiveté about the aspirations of black American Southerners who have been his neighbors and subjects of his fiction for his whole life. In fact I think this essay can only be read as professionally embarrassing, as it undermines our faith in his ability to understand the South which he wrote about. And if we start to doubt his grasp of what was going on in the South in his own day, then it may be that we begin to question how representative of authentic Southern history his body of work is.
Not that I necessarily do question this. But my take home lesson from this book is that Faulkner demonstrates at great length that he has little of use to say about writing, that he is profoundly unaware, even ignorant, of the historical tides about to sweep over the South, and that he has no qualms about pontificating on any other matters in which he has little or no expertise. None of which tells me anything about how well he can write fiction. This is a valuable and helpful book for anyone who, like me, is trying to understand Faulkner, in spite of its frustrations. Faulkner in the University paints a portrait of a fellow who was as a rule not a deep thinker; he might well be called a poseur. The greatness of his fiction, if it is great, we must try to comprehend by reading the texts themselves, not by looking to their author for any help.
I readily admit I wasn’t expecting too much from this little green paperback about James Joyce and his fiction; it’s a booklet of only 89 pages after all, plus end material, and it’s so small I could easily cart it about in my pocket and read it here and there at brief and intermittent interludes during a recent trip out of state. I was therefore surprised and pleasantly affected by John Gross’s sly and efficacious, even charming, style.
This is merely one installment from a popular 1970s series of publications on “Modern Masters”: study guides focused on writers and thinkers upon whom college students might be likely to be tested. This is a kind of precursor to more recent Notes of the Cliff or Spark variety, you might say, and in general that more ancient series is of a more refined and thoughtful order than what was to follow in ensuing decades, perhaps reflective of an era in which students were somewhat more concerned with learning for its own sake than simply and exclusively with passing tests.
In the first half of the book or so Gross provides us more with his own impressions of Joyce than with a tick-tock biography, painting us a non-chronological montage of the artist’s personality. Further on he does begin to take on Joyce’s artistic works in chronological order, and now this little reflective book grows a bit more formulaic, as we pass from Dubliners to Portrait to Ulysses and finally to Finnegans Wake, with the various lesser works included at their proper places. It seems to me that because Gross’s booklet is so short he is less successful here, but only because he lacks the space to tell his tale properly.
Still, this little guide booklet is, I think, a generally excellent one for ruminative undergraduates, perhaps, who are about to begin exploring Joyce’s infinitely complex world. Or, I might add, it is a friendly companion for those who are already familiar with Joyce, who only want a little light reading to carry with them on their next vacation.
It took a long time, but I finally finished reading Northrop Frye’s 1957 classic, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays, from cover to cover. It is, as Frye expressed in the opening paragraph, a work of “pure critical theory,” practically and appropriately biblical and epic in style and structure. Because anyone reading this review is likely to already have a good notion of the content of the Anatomy or, in the case of students for whom it is assigned reading, who soon enough shall, I will not belabor that matter here; instead, I’ll spend a few moments and words to try to locate the work in its proper celestial locus almost 60 years since its first publication.
The jargon-heavy Anatomy is a thick slab of critical theory marbled with little fat or garnish on the side. Frye approaches literature and its criticism as a physical universe unto itself, having some connection to the world we inhabit, but these connections are of little interest to him, or less. This all has to do with words and how they hook together, what kinds of patterns emerge from their concatenations, and what their attendant etymology is, and mythic allusions, as well as how cultures work and rework the old myths, always pressing their own stamp upon the myths and words, so the stories change even while they carry their most ancient meanings, or significations. Still, it is how we talk about stories or poems, or how we relate to them in the unfolding of time, that is of more concern to Frye, for criticism becomes for him something of a persisting cloud of dust raised upon the old roads of literature that is inseparable from the original item. Frye penetrates to pattern where others perceive only a hodgepodge of old fairytales and random psychological archetypes. He assembles these patterns laboriously into a structure which is become his theory, and it is for the student to decide whether to accept or reject Frye, or to take bits and pieces of his conclusions and adapt them to current use.
I am struck that the Anatomy appeared shortly before the heyday of the literary renaissance of the 1960s, and it’s easy to see why this book provided a timely roadmap for many who were to launch their own explorations of that other-dimensional spacetime of limitless literary possibility toward the end of that turbulent decade. But it is now 2015 as I write these words and the world has changed again, so that now the Anatomy almost feels like both a triumphant summation of centuries of literature and its scholarly criticism as well as a final fanfare before the darkness which was to come. For we every day sink deeper into a new Dark Age in which all that Frye clearly cherished and believed in is rejected by our modern society ― one bridles at calling it a culture ― as impractical, non-utilitarian and dangerously liberal. We live in a time in which free-thought is summarily rejected, in which we are to aspire to become useful tools of the state, to collect our pittance and go home and plug in to the bread-and-circus world series and pennant races and celebrity shenanigans de jour and cheer on the outrageous tantrums of our political party of choice. Reading literature for literature’s sake has become a sign of perversity, a symptom that one is improperly integrated into the social machine. Despite Frye’s careful arguments, he now seems impossibly old-fashioned, a relic of the past, a brief harbinger of a world-to-come that failed to thrive and to survive.
I am a scientist ― and an admirer of science ― by training, a cog in an industrial nightmare by vocation and a writer by choice. I would not be uplifted as an exemplar of the society in which I find myself. Unlike all those who surround me, seemingly, I believe our culture ― not this toxic society ― has now a more pressing need for broad liberal arts education than perhaps ever before. Any society that values monetary profit and ransacking the planet far above tending the needs of its constituent citizens is sick, and a return to the arts, including the literary arts and theories of their criticism, must surely be part of the requisite cure. So I believe that Frye may grow dusty on the shelves for years to come, or for decades to come, or maybe even longer, but one day Frye will be read again when the wheel has turned sufficiently. Then a more encompassing theory of criticism will be put forth, leaving much of the Anatomy behind, no doubt, but incorporating its mythic essence at least, and there will be a culture which will advance upon his work. Then, once again, the theories of literature and criticism will be reborn, and they will be appropriately valued.
Having myself a background in clinical microbiology and a more than passing preoccupation with the American Civil War, I found this article by Dr Michael D Brown of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, “The American Civil War as a biological phenomenon: did Salmonella or Sherman win the war for the North?” to be of interest; enough so in fact to prompt this quick blog response.
I neither question nor challenge the data Dr Brown sets forth with respect to infectious diseases and their prevalence and distribution during the Civil War. Although the widespread influence of infectious diseases are often cited in Civil War studies, this usually takes the form of a sentence or two early in an historical work, after which they are forgotten, relegated to background status with only an occasional reference to intermittent diarrheic outbreaks. Historians tend to be far more interested in generals and strategies than to microbial pathogens, giving the bugs short shrift for the role they do play in shaping and defining historical epochs.
I do, however, have some trouble with Dr Brown’s historical inferences drawn, and I’ll point out a few reasons why this is so.
The first has to do with a decision to go to war. As has been noted elsewhere, we don’t go to war with the army we want or wish to have, but with the army we do have. Victories afterward tend to be chalked up to superior leadership, superior morale, a can-do attitude, national exceptionalism, etc., while defeats can be attributed to an inadequate army, to insufficient supplying of that army, to failed national support or, should I say it, to such uncontrollable matters as infectious disease. When either set of arguments is advanced, what’s often omitted is that nations (or, in this case, rebels and their state governments) before and during the war make choices about their military and about their health care that have a direct bearing on the final outcome regardless of the role the microbes may play. Simply to assert ignorance of germ theory ― an historical truth ― is nonetheless a cop-out, particularly when the point is also made, as Dr Brown indeed states, that the North provided better health care for its soldiers than the South did, as this directly implies that in principle the South could have done better. These are human choices being made, or not being made, to deal with ongoing crises, and so one cannot simply blame the bugs and shrug.
If there were greater disease losses in the South than in the North, could or should the South have recognized that problem and addressed it more aggressively, particularly if, as Dr Brown suggests, it was infectious disease that was turning the tide of the war? Are we to believe that microorganisms were deliberately and differentially infecting the South and sparing the North? If, to a degree, we are to blame the South’s decision to conscript less healthy men ― boys and the elderly, or otherwise lacking immunity, as Dr Brown states ― then to what degree should the microorganisms be blamed, and to what degree should the blame fall on those deciding to conscript unsuitable men for service? These are decisions made by human beings to put other human beings at risk of being killed in battle, or by infectious diseases: the blame does not and can not begin and end with the microorganism.
Rather preposterously, I think ― this being, in my view, his weakest supporting argument ― Dr Brown suggests that the siege of Vicksburg might have turned out better for the city’s Confederate defenders had they not suffered so much from infectious disease. The entire point of besieging a city in 19th Century warfare was to cripple the occupants of that city until they surrendered by cutting off all supplies, essentially guaranteeing plummeting public health conditions, as Dr Brown states, “due to dysentery syndromes such as Salmonella and Shigella infections, a direct result of water contamination, poor and insufficient food, lack of appropriate clothing with subsequent exposure, and poor hygiene which resulted in infestations of insects and other vermin.” Rather than excusing Vicksburg’s loss due to infectious diseases, the better case to be made is that Grant assured Vicksburg’s loss by deliberately taking advantage of the inevitable toll infectious disease would take on the city. As to Grant being a general possessed of “somewhat tenuous stature in the Union Army” who might have been turned back at Champion Hill but for poor, sick Confederate soldiers, I doubt many serious students of the Vicksburg Campaign, or of the Civil War, or of Grant, can take this claim very seriously.
Finally, addressing the title of Dr Brown’s article, the answer is Sherman, not Salmonella. Because Joseph E Johnston could not and/or would not prevent Sherman from taking Atlanta, and because the Army of Tennessee subsequently withdrew from Georgia, Sherman was able to trample through that state as well as through the Carolinas, ultimately overcoming the Southern will and ability to continue fighting. Of course there were many other influencing factors as well, not the least of which was the Army of Northern Virginia being pinned down at Petersburg. No doubt Salmonella played a role at that point too, but the Confederates did fight very hard and nobly to prevent Sherman from taking Atlanta, and John Bell Hood did not advance into Tennessee because his men had diarrhea. The importance of infectious disease in determining the endgame of the war was relatively minor.
Tonight the 10th anniversary of the UA Science Lecture Series came to its conclusion. This year’s lecture series was entitled “Life in the Universe.” You can read summaries of each lecture here. If you’re interested in the preceding nine Lecture Series, you can learn about them here.
Lecture 1: What is Life?
Lecture 2: Planet Formation and the Origin of Life.
Lecture 3: Life on Earth: by Chance or by Law?
Lecture 4: Complexity and Evolvability: What Makes Life so Interesting?
Lecture 5: Searching for Life in the Solar System.
Lecture 6: Amazing Discoveries: A Billion Earth-Like Worlds.
Lecture 7: Intelligent Life Beyond Earth.