When I was in high school and college, the bees’ knees in the English Department was William Faulkner. Accordingly, I acquired paperback editions of everything of his that I could, even shelling out larger percentages of smaller allowances for hardbacks for the works that weren’t available in paper. And, since most of Faulkner’s novels take place in the fabled Yoknapatawpha county in northern Mississippi, and took as their subject a small number of families, I wanted to read them in chronological order, that is, the order in which the novels had been published.
Nineteen novels is a lot to read in one sitting, and, perhaps inevitably, I stopped about half way through, having read some of Faulkner’s more obscure works, and leaving some of his greatest works on the shelf. When we moved to Tucson last year, I drastically reduced the size of my bookshelf, and got rid of nearly all the fiction I had read. Which leaves me with a half-dozen or so Faulkner novels sitting on the new bookshelf, all in thirty-year-old paperback editions, their pages yellow with time. The books come from an age when blurbs weren’t necessary, so there’s no description of the novel anywhere, only “William Faulkner”, as if this were enough. It makes me nostalgic simply to look at it.
The writing also belongs to another time. It isn’t that nobody is writing challenging fiction today, or long rambling sentences (Infinite Jest, anyone?). It’s more the view of the South that Faulkner expressed in the mid-1930s. The novel I chose is The Unvanquished, which is set at the end of the Civil War, and it’s about as far away from contemporary Civil War novels as ribs from tofu. Faulkner’s stories reflect the ambivalence and confusion that must have been present, when people weren’t sure exactly what was happening. The scenes of slaves moving along the road at night, following Sherman’s march to the sea as if for salvation, and the Yankees who are omnipresent one day and completely gone the next, made The Unvanquished a moving read. And quite frankly, it probably took me thirty years to forget all of the Faulkner scholarship that was so much a part of the English Department all those years ago.