William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!

Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! Random House, 1936.

Summary of Work
This work is a frame narrative, with Rosa, the sister-in-law to Thomas Sutpen, telling the story of the Sutpen family to the Compson boy because she hopes he will write the story down, and he believes that it will show why God let the South lose the war, because of the infamy of people like Thomas Sutpen. Quentin Compson, the grandson of Sutpen’s friend General Compson, is getting ready to go to Harvard when he is summoned to talk with Sutpen’s sister-in-law, and she tells him about how Sutpen destroyed his own family and hers as well.

In the mid 1800s, Thomas Sutpen buys a hundred square miles of land in the Jefferson, Mississippi area from an indian tribe and clears the land, builds a home, and plants cotton. Many see him as some sort of barbarian or demon, because Sutpen often holds fights between the slaves, and he often participated in them. He marries a local merchant’s daughter, Ellen, and soon he becomes a member of the planter aristocracy and has a son and daughter. The children do not change Sutpen, who still hosts fights and participates, and one evening the children view it, Henry in terror, and Judith in fascination. Judith is angry to have to leave the scene, and Ellen realizes that Judith has her father’s temperament. Upon her death bed, she asks her sister to look after Judith, even though Judith is older than Rosa.

Quentin’s father confirms this story, stating similar details, but including that upon deciding to marry, he went to church, left town, came back with a bunch of finery for his home, and then went to court Ellen. However, the men of the town, believing that Sutpen had gotten his money from criminal activity, found him after he had proposed to Ellen and arrested him, and Compson and another friend had to get him out of jail. Two months later he was married. Ellen was dismayed on her wedding day, and of a hundred people invited, only ten people attended the wedding, and on the way out of the church, the couple were hit with rubbish as they walked. When Quentin asks about why Rosa is telling this story, Compson tells him that she was raised by an aunt after her father killed himself in order to not go to the war, and she hated her father for her mother’s death. Rosa was the one who came back to try and save Judith from the Sutpin fate, and she sought to do that by perhaps marrying Sutpin, she just twenty years old at the time. According to Compson, she was taking care of Judith and Clytie, Sutpen’s daughter by a slave girl, when Sutpen came home from the war.

Compson also explains to his son that before Rosa moved to the Sutpen home, she went sporadically to the Sutpen home with family members, and as Sutpen became the richest planter in the country and therefore became socially accepted, her sister Ellen first started taking her on fancy shopping trips and hosting parties, and then slowly became estranged from Rosa. It was also at this time that Sutpen was taking off to new Orleans in search of Charles Bon, his son by a black woman, although at the time people did not know it. As Compson tells it, the word about Bon being Henry and Judith’s half brother came from Sutpen’s slaves rather than from a family member. Rosa was largely left in the dark, unaware of the blood relation of Judith’s fiancee Bon until much later, and after the war when the Sutpen plantation was largely ruined and they didn’t know who was alive and who was dead, she at first refused to come to the plantation because she was uncertain of the situation.

That evening, Compson continued the story, handing Quentin a letter that Bon had written many years previous to Judith. He then talks about how Henry, Sutpen’s son by Ellen, goes to college at the University of Mississippi and becomes friends with Charles Bon, bringing him home for Christmas one year. Charles falls in love with his sister Judith, and he asks her to marry him, but by this time, Sutpen has realized that Charles is his son, and Judith’s half brother, and so they cannot marry. This is particularly important because his wife from that time was an octoroon, and he had abandoned her and the child afterward. The situation was one that he became entangled with her when he was at an octoroon ball, a space for octoroon women to attract wealthy white men as either husbands or benefactors. Henry is outraged when his father tells him, refusing to believe that Charles could have known this and still decided to ask his sister to marry him. Henry, in that outrage, gives up his birthright and runs to New Orleans with Charles, where they enlist in the army to fight in the Civil War for the Confederacy. Bon quickly rises to the rank of lieutenant, and he is regularly talking to Henry about the situation; Henry tells him not to write to Judith because he hasn’t decided if it is okay for him to marry her yet, and he also has sexual feelings for Bon, and is conflicted about the incest. Sutpen also fights in the war as a colonel, and he finds his son to tell him again that Charles is his half brother and that he is also a black man. When Sutpen explains Charles’ race, Henry goes to find Charles and murder him before he marries Judith, and he does murder him at the gate of the Sutpen plantation.

Rosa tells Quentin that when Sutpen returned, he went right about rebuilding the plantation, not even surprised or upset about Bon’s death and Judith’s reaction. He hardly recognized Rosa, and she soon found herself engaged to him. However, when he found the plantation to be unsalvageable, he insulted her so badly that she left the plantation and lived off of stealing food from her neighbor’s gardens, refusing to accept help. She also says that she thinks that someone other than Clytie is living in the manor there at the plantation, although she is not sure whom it is.

When Quentin goes back to Harvard, he tells his roommate Shreve the story, including the later years of Sutpen’s life. Sutpen becomes an alcoholic and has an affair with a teenage girl, Milly. Milly gets pregnant, and after the birth of their daughter, who dies along with Milly, Wash Jones, Milly’s grandfather, murders Sutpen. Judith dies of yellow fever along with other members of the family, and Clytie raises the son of Charles Bon, found in New Orleans after he visited his father’s grave. His son is strange and works what is left of the Sutpen land.

Mr. Compson also told Quentin about how he learned Sutpen’s actual life story from him when they were hunting for a fugitive architect who had run away from Sutpen’s plantation. Sutpen was from a poor family and quickly learned he wanted money and land, and so set out for the Caribbean and made his name in the sugar plantation business, and he married a plantation owner’s daughter. It was only after they had a child together that he learned of her African blood, and so he left with twenty slaves and built the plantation. When Sutpen’s son came back to haunt him, he had a choice: remain quiet and let his dynasty continue on or speak out. He chose to speak to Henry, and when the word brother failed, he determined that the word race would not, and he was correct. After that, he could never rebuild his dying legacy. When he left Milly with her child in a stable, that was when Wash Jones lost his mind, killed his granddaughter and great granddaughter, killed Sutpen, and then went around killing others with a scythe until he was arrested.

Quentin Compson can’t stop thinking about the story, and he and Shreve speculate on the other people’s perspectives of the story, particularly Charles Bon’s. The evening after he and Shreve speculate, he can’t sleep as he remembers going back to the plantation with Sutpen’s sister-in-law, and there they unexpectedly meet Henry, who is an old man waiting to die. They go back to get an ambulance to go get Henry, but before they can get in, Clytie, the child of Sutpen and a slave woman who is now an old woman herself, burns the house down and kills them both before they can get him, which brings the Sutpen family legacy to an end. In the end, Quentin, obsessing, tries to tell himself that he doesn’t hate the South.

Discussion of Work
The plot line of this work, quickly summarized, would seem rather simple and make for a short story: man moves to the South, builds a plantation, marries and has children, his past comes back to haunt him, and it destroys the entire family. And yet, the story is not that straightforward, because we are not getting the narrative from the main character, Thomas Sutpen. Instead, we are getting the story through a pieced together history which includes plenty of speculation both from the people telling the story and the people it’s being told to. Narrative is obscured by its nonlinear telling, with certain pieces  of information being given either earlier or later in the story, leaving the reader to piece together the full tale both on their own and with Quentin, who is the most akin to the reader.

Miscegenation is the main issue of the work, of particular importance because of its placement in the US South. Sutpen seems less than human, dangerous, or animalistic throughout the work, more so as he ages. As the story is told of his strange relationship with his slaves, he occupies a liminal space between white and black, even though he is a white man. As the narrators detail it, Sutpen himself goes into decline the moment that he marries an octoroon, because he has been legally intimate with her and has a legitimate son by her; it is this miscegenation that leads to potential incest. Still, the issue of miscegenation is by far of greater importance not only to Sutpen and his son Henry, but to everyone who is telling the story. The obsession with race, even to the tracking of the “one drop” of black blood, makes clear to readers that Faulkner is showing them that the South’s racial prejudice and obsession is what leads to the Southern aristocracy’s downfall more than any other failing in their society. Even the black community members in the story feel this, as Clytie is the one who burns down the house, and Wash Jones is the one who goes on a killing spree after Sutpen leaves his granddaughter. Black people are still objects to Sutpen, as they are to all the white people in the community, and the inability to see them as human beings leads not only to their downfall, but to the destruction of the black people’s humanity: constantly treated as animals or subhuman, they can only tolerate the South for so long before they snap and destroy themselves or are destroyed by the white community surrounding them.

 

Richard Chase, The American Novel and Its Tradition

Chase, Richard. The American Novel and Its Tradition. Doubleday, 1957.

Summary of Work
Richard Chase seeks to discuss the development of the American novel as it diverged from the English novel. He states that it is very important to make a distinction between the two traditions, as the English novel seeks to derive social order out of the disparate elements or plot points in the novel and is largely a novel of manners that adheres to social expectations and the unities, whereas the American novel is much more focused on exploring the possibilities and realities of specific, narrow situations and much less interested in wresting order out of the chaos of those events. The American novel, Chase says, has therefore regularly not been a novel as the term has been generally defined, but instead a romance. He states that the novel is a work which focuses mainly on character and the development of that character, whereas the romance focuses mainly on action or plot and has very little character development. The narrators of the novel are more often omniscient and able to display a proper scenery and social sphere that the character develops within, but the romance utilizes a very narrow section of society simply as a backdrop, and the personal motivations and thoughts of the characters take center stage as they go through the plot. This view of the novel is largely the viewpoint of Henry James, the American novelist whom Chase finds to be the greatest American novelist in the history of the American novel. He also gives a brief commentary on melodrama, which is the height of extremes and dualities, saying that the American novel often indulges in such language in order to further plot or explore extreme or peculiar situations.

Of Hawthorne and his work, particularly The Scarlet Letter, Chase says that it is firmly in the category of romance and not the novel, particularly because of the lack of scenery except as backdrop to the main characters in the novel; furthermore, he finds that there is no character development, but rather the characters serve largely as psychological forms and allegory, and they do not change their natures throughout the work. Like James, Chase finds these facts to be somewhat the faults of the novel, although the creation of a psychological novel is, Chase admits, an important and quality development for the American novel. He compares symbol and allegory at this point, stating that allegory functions in its purest form when the readers know what each particular part of the story represents so that they can always refer back to that representation, which is never changing: this is Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. On the other hand, symbols are a fusion of many meanings, and those meanings change throughout the course of the novel; therefore, the A on Hester Prynne’s chest could be seen as a symbol, but more importantly, the whale in Melville’s Moby Dick is a symbol.

Of Melville’s masterwork Moby Dick, Chase states that while it starts out with high promises of realism to be a novel, it falls into the category of romance, not a novel, and despite its certainly masterful pieces within the whole work, there are many parts that are poorly flung together to fit the emotional fits that befit Ahab and the romance tale of his obsession. Yet in Moby Dick lies a central tenet of American literature: a life of contradictions through experience and a life of ironic perception. These features appear throughout the development of the American novel, and Melville’s work is a perfect example of that. He also terms Moby Dick an epic romance, more akin to the poetry of Homer than the structure of the prose novel because of the melodrama and otherworldly elements it contains.

Chase attributes the development of regionalized language and straightforward diction to the novels of Mark Twain, particularly that of Huckleberry Finn. He states that the colloquial language of the novel forever changed the way American writers approached their characters, swaying from the formal English language and into the representation of the spoken language. Yet even here, Chase asserts that the novel is more of a tragi-comic romance than it is a novel, given the focus on the action and the interior narrative of Huck than on the social atmosphere around him and the unifying of social issues.

Next he discusses novels of manners, which deal with how to navigate social class and fix problematic characters or behaviors, or, if they cannot be fixed, to cast them out. He claims that Jane Austen, while not the most masterful writer, is the master of the purest form of the novel of manners. American novelists, by comparison, Chase finds sorely lacking in ability. He claims that F. Scott Fitzgerald is a second, possibly third rate author who nevertheless he will discuss because he is one of the only people who have successfully attempted a novel of manners in the US. He discusses The Great Gatsby in this sense, calling attention to the discussion of scene and character and the reverse development of Gatsby from an experienced rags to riches man back to a child with idyllic imaginations, while all around him he struggles to integrate into a rich society that has a set of rules he cannot meet or follow, which in combination with his imaginings, leads to his death. Despite the success as a novel of manners, Chase finds Fitzgerald’s style lacking, and he is stymied by the fact that Henry James thought that Fitzgerald did the most for the American novel since Mark Twain.

Finally, Chase discusses three novels by William Faulkner, who he considers to be the second or third best American novelist, second only to James and perhaps third depending on how one compares Mark Twain to Faulkner. The majority of this final chapter is dedicated to The Sound and the Fury, discussing how Faulkner managed to (mostly) successfully provide unique language styles to each of his characters as they tell their part of the story while at the same time offering solid character development over plot, where the plot happens because of character development. Chase finds no language more masterful than Faulkner’s when he knows what his character sounds like, and he also demonstrates the best of American prose with his crafting of Benjy’s narrative through the eyes of an idiot. It shows obsessions, character development, tragedy, and most importantly to befit James’s and Chase’s definition of the novel, provides a creation of order and unity through Dilsey, who is the only character capable of keeping the Compson family from falling apart at the end of its 200-year stint in the South. Furthermore, Chase claims that the only reason that this novel is the greatest novel written up to the point of his writing is because there have been novelists who came before to establish certain mechanical elements or traditions, and that finally there is enough American history available to create a proper background and scenery for character development to take center stage in the American novel. Chase finds the work a transcendence of romance to create an amalgamation of realism, romance, and the qualities of the novel that James laid down.

Discussion of Work
Chase’s book provides important information about how the American novel is viewed in comparison with the English novel; his introduction, which defines specific differences between English and American, novels is useful because it provides a framework from which to view American novels and their development over a century of writing. However, Chase falls prey to worshipping Henry James, finding no issues with him or his writing, seemingly unquestioning of the structure as pure and perfect in form for all to follow. In doing so, he excludes many masterworks from the title of “novel,” instead relegating them to what is implicitly considered and insinuated a lesser form.

His treatment of Hawthorne, Melville, Faulkner, and especially Fitzgerald are full of backhanded compliments or appraisals: it fits perfectly the, “well, they did this or that, but they still will never measure up to James” form that he establishes from the beginning of the novel. The blind spot essentially disables him from seeing, even as he describes the incredible feats of Faulkner, how Faulkner will come to transcend James in their importance of the development of the novel in the twentieth century. It also disables him from understanding how the language of Fitzgerald would come to be recognized as some of the most carefully and well-crafted language and writing of the Jazz Age.

Another failing of this work is that it completely ignores and excludes authors of color. He does mention that Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man exists in passing, but only to state that the tradition he is speaking of has influenced it. He doesn’t even mention anything about the work. Certainly, the development of the American novel was heavily influenced by the writing that came out of the traditions of African American communities, let alone other communities of color. Faulkner would be as much influenced by the stories and cultural traditions of communities of color as he was by Mark Twain, as is evident in his portrayal of the character Dilsey in his work and his intricate discussions of the race issues inherent in the Southern mind. Perhaps these things are overlooked because throughout his work, Chase is insistent that morals and moral teachings and lessons are not meant to be read in the American novel: the American novel is simply an exploration of history and moral lessons that the characters deal with in all their contradictory experiences.

Philip Stevick, The American Short Story 1900 – 1945

Stevick, Philip, Ed. The American Short Story 1900 – 1945. Twayne, 1984.

Summary of Work
This collection of essays overviews the evolution of the American short story through the first half of the twentieth century. Starting with a discussion of a moving into an era of technology and mechanical instruments when previously life had been devoid of many things people of today take for granted (like bathtubs), Philip Stevick says that the writers of the first half of the century became fixated on the issues that came with such modernization and invention.

The first essay discusses the work of Henry James, Edith Wharton, and Willa Cather. While writing styles differed slightly as did topics, all of these authors dealt with how to portray the importance of specific morals in light of a more mechanical world. Cather also made the focus of her work the indomitable spirit of the American pioneers. The short stories worked to form a more general identity of what it meant to be an American and what morals should never be relinquished because they would lead to tragic, heartless, mechanical ends. The chapter concludes with an author that the whole rest of the collection will not stop discussing: Sherwood Anderson.

Although Sherwood Anderson insisted that his work Winesberg, Ohio was a novel, it also served very much as a collection or series of short stories that were seemingly formless, although artfully crafted. Dealing with specific individuals seen through the eyes of the journalist George Willard, the stories deal with more than just morals: they deal with individuals and insist on displaying the loneliness and sexuality of the characters. Those last two, loneliness and sexuality, had yet to be talked about so explicitly in American short story writing, and from the moment Anderson started writing about them so openly, the short story would never be the same.

The era of the 1920s saw a more structured and formulaic short story, with earlier writers lamenting the mechanical way that stories were written in order to gain popular acclaim. Fitzgerald was a master of this formulaic story, crafting his stories to sell and so he would have money while he worked on his novels. Hemingway came to start writing at this time, influenced by Anderson, and he wrote in a straight-to-the-point, short-sentenced prose that took Anderson’s formless story a step further: his stories were also pointless, showing only pieces or vignettes of a story that led nowhere. Yet his stories painted complex pictures of his characters and revealed that a story could defy form and still be artful. His work would come to shape the next generation of writers, who would write more like journalists than formulaic popular writers.

Then, in the period of the 1930s, there was a return from realism and social realism to the romanticism of the nineteenth century. The stories told could be considered strange or exotic or highly emotional, as might be seen in some of the stories told by authors such as Richard Wright and William Faulkner. Wright is part of what the authors detail as a revealing of an invisible group of writers, the African American population. The focus for Wright and many of the writers of this period is the creation of the character as an individual and the deconstruction of the notion of a national identity that could apply to every character. One of the ways this featured in writing of the period was an insistent on writing dialects specific to region. William Faulkner, also strongly influenced by Anderson, was first a novelist and then a short story writer, and yet he forever changed the short story and novel in America the way James Joyce did in Great Britain. Many of his short stories were long and prosaic, the exact opposite of Hemingway, and he strove not for brevity and journalism with an iceberg principle, but instead the creation of legend. His short stories very often became chapters in his novel, and he, building off of Anderson’s work, created an intricate set of stories that build the legend of Yoknapatawpha County and the characters living within it. His form of American Gothic shaped writers who came after him, and indeed, no one wanted to try to better his form, as Flannery O’Connor would state in the 1960s.

Overall, the thread that tied all of these authors together despite their disparate styles was regionalism. The American short story came to represent specific regional cultures throughout the nation, and it did so whether the story was formulaic, journalistic, formless, or legend. Anderson, Hemingway, and Faulkner would come to be the lasting names that defined the evolution of the short story for the first half of the twentieth century, and they became the building blocks for the second half of the century.

Discussion of Work
For the most part, this work gives a good, brief but thorough overview of the development of the short story by discussing the careers of the longest-lasting authors of the time period. While it goes by decade, another quality feature of this critical work is that it admits that the decades are perhaps not the best indicators of a switch in style or literary movement, particularly considering that there were wide variations of what people called realism or social realism, and that was because each author had a different life experience that defined what they saw as “real” to write about. This is why Sherwood Anderson plays a major role in the discussion of each of the authors that come to influence the development of the short story.

The major failing I see in this work is the near complete erasure of minority authors who made an impact on the writing of the time period. The whole of the Harlem Renaissance writers are passed over, with only brief mention of Wright and Langston Hughes, and only briefly mentioned names like W.E.B. Du Bois. The criticism is far more focused on the development of the short story in terms of its development through white authors. While such a development is surely important, to claim that it will be a thorough discussion of the development and history of the American short story, it must deal with these authors of color.

The work also brushes over a discussion of modernism, preferring to label the 1930s as an era of a return to romanticism, which simplifies the narrative in order to place someone like Faulkner firmly outside of the movement, whether or not that is in and of itself a true statement. What is said of modernism is that Gertrude Stein was at first accepted for her experimentalism and then later spurned for what seemed to strange and mechanical. Otherwise, the discussion of realism, social realism, and naturalism in the literature of the midwest and the South are well covered in the discussion of the authors’ careers.