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Staff Pick: Joel Whitney

September 30, 2009

Joel_Whitney-small.jpg I recently finished William Faulkner’s 1929 Sartoris for the first time. I’d always been a fan of The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying, both written a year later (in what critics have dubbed Faulkner’s annus mirabilis). Sartoris had always eluded me. Critics argue that Sartoris is of interest mostly because it led to these other two books; and Robert Cantwell’s prologue to the sixth edition (1964) cites Sartoris as the beginning of Faulkner’s inspired Jefferson-set writings; he also quotes Faulkner as realizing, in the middle of writing the book, how “fine” a thing writing is. The beginning of an idea? Ok. But there are many reasons to read Sartoris, not the least of which are: its beautiful prose, its keen exploration of personality and genetic heredity, the U.S. history and family history that inform it, its generous sense of humor and its influence particularly on one other major writer from the Americas who came later.

Sartoris is the story of an aristocratic southern family in decline; the surviving Sartorises are living in the shadow of the legendary Colonel John. In the first scene, an old family friend gives Bayard his father’s pipe. He notices his late father’s teeth marks; and Faulkner describes Colonel John’s ghostly presence in the room as more real than these two living but deaf and decrepit old men. That same day, Old Bayard’s grandson, “young Bayard,” returns home from World War I, where he was a fighter pilot. Young Bayard too is haunted by a dead John Sartoris; for young Bayard had watched his brother John’s plane get shot down in the war. His guilt, and subsequent death wish—not to mention an old family tendency toward recklessness—spurs young Bayard to careen his new car (cars themselves are new here) over hills and around the tightest turns of Jefferson, Mississippi, half the time driving while drunk on moonshine. A fateful, but not surprising crash off a bridge keeps young Bayard in bed, and Narcissa Benbow nurses him; after he promises not to drive so fast anymore, they court, and he and Narcissa are married. On the day Narcissa and young Bayard’s son is born, whom Aunt Jenny wants to name John, the family learns of young Bayard’s death as a test pilot in an air field near Chicago.

In a passage describing the family legacy of recklessness, Faulkner writes:

    “Once he hunted a pack of fox hounds through a rustic tabernacle in which a Methodist revival was being held; and thirty minutes later (having caught the fox) he returned alone and rode his horse into the ensuing indignation meeting. In a spirit of fun, purely: he believed too firmly in Providence, as all his actions clearly showed, to have any religious convictions whatever.”

These are references to Faulkner family legends. Colonel William Falkner made a name for himself by playing a key role in capturing the uniform of the Union General John Pope, starting a railroad, fighting in several duels—though he didn’t believe in them—and launching a pair of newspapers on the popularity of his serialized fiction. The passage above cites yet another Bayard, one more senior even than “old Bayard” who starts the story (his uncle perhaps).

About five pages into Sartoris, or fewer, I wished there had been a family tree drawn into the frontispiece; I realized then that, with all the Bayards and Johns in the family, this book paid a great treasure in influence to another twentieth century masterpiece besides The Sound and the Fury, that other one also about the saga of family personality, and possibly the second most famous book in Spanish, Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. When I used to read that Márquez cited Faulkner as an influence, I could only think of the short stories. But here in Jefferson is Faulkner’s Macondo, his generations and generations of the same family with a set of recurring traits, pride and recklessness being key among them, not to mention a near comical display of honor; there are ghosts of the patriarchs (in the atmosphere and in the DNA) and, finally, that one strong central woman holding the wreckage of the family together (Ursula in Márquez, Aunt Jenny in Sartoris). If the ghost in the first scene of Sartoris seems like a strange way for the book to start, Cantwell reports, that sense of haunting, of the lingering spectral presence of the real Colonel Falkner, was something palpable still when Cantwell explored Oxford just before William Faulkner’s death. The same was said of Macondo/Aracataca—that it was not so much that the former was written from the latter, as merely transcribed and renamed.

Sartoris is eighty this year, and whatever critics have said: it holds up on its own merits as a solid book. I’m pleased to say this before all the excitement next year over the eightieth anniversary of The Sound and the Fury, which is more than a solid book. Assuming there is any excitement anymore for any great book turning eighty.

Bio: Joel is a founding editor of Guernica. His last article, “The Genocide Myth”:http://www.guernicamag.com/interviews/1031/the_genocide_myth/, appeared in Guernica’s May 2009 issue. Look for his interview with Grammy nominee Lila Downs in the upcoming October 1st issue.

Read his last recommendation “here”:http://www.guernicamag.com/blog/1173/staff_pick_joel_whitney_2/.

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