I was reading Alice Walker’s essay The Black Writer and the Southern Experience and in it she discusses discovering William Faulkner’s racism. She states,
My own slight attachment to William Faulkner was rudely broken by realizing, after reading statements he made in “Faulkner in the University,” that he believed whites superior morally to blacks; that whites had a duty (which at their convenience they would assume) to “bring blacks along” politically, since blacks, in Faulkner’s opinion, were “not ready” yet to function properly in a democratic society. He also thought that a black man’s intelligence is directly related to the amount of white blood he has.
In the following paragraph continues,
Unlike Tolstoy, Faulkner was not prepared to struggle to change the structure of the society he was born in. One might concede that in his fiction he did seek to examine the reasons for its decay, but unfortunately, as I have learned while trying to teach Faulkner to black students, it is not possible, from so short a range, to separate the man from his works.
Because I am not a person who can ‘separate the man from his works’, as I know some people are, I’m wondering if I should bother reading Faulkner. My dilemma exists because I write myself it’s important to me that I read and learn from history’s most talented writers, and Faulkner is herald as one of the 20th century’s greatest. However I know that I’m going to have great difficulty appreciating his work with the knowledge that he was racist. Does the brilliance and originality of his prose make up for this, even if only slightly?
11:53 am • 29 February 2012
Why I bumped into this blog entry on Tumblr is not important, even if there were a reason. The fact is that I did. When I did, I wanted to respond right then to the two questions posed by Candy Flipping, but that would have required me to register and participate in Tumblr–one cannot simply post a comment on a post in Tumblr, which is essentially a young person’s place anyway.
It is by no means my intention to ambush Candy Flipping in my own blog. I consider these to be cogent questions posed in a literate post that lacks only a bit of proofreading. So I shall respond here to that post, which passed quickly into the oblivion that is Tumblr with no response or even apparent notice there.
As for the first question, “Should I read Faulkner?,” my own response is that perhaps one should bother to read something by this Nobel Prize winner if one wishes to “read and learn from history’s most talented writers,” although were I an aspiring writer, I would certainly not try to emulate his style.
My response to the second question, “Does the brilliance and originality of his prose make up for [his racism], even if only slightly?,” is emphatically, no.
There then are my responses to two completely unrelated questions as succinctly and clearly as I can put them. The remainder of this is only idle chat.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
I well remember reading this essay by Alice Walker shortly after it appeared. Without locating it and checking, I have no doubt that Candy Flipping has transcribed those two paragraphs from it precisely. Secure in the knowledge that Alice Walker will not lose any sleep over what I say, I confess that I was not and still am not altogether happy with those two paragraphs, but I have subsequently made peace with them primarily through a close reading.
First, it is important to notice what Alice Walker does not say. She does not say that any of William Faulkner’s novels are racist on their face when considered standing alone. Nor has she ever to my knowledge. She could hardly say that in view of the fact that among the strongest, most admirable, and least enervated of William Faulkner’s characters are his black characters. I suspect that this is the one of the reasons for Ms. Walker’s previous “slight attachment” to Faulkner just as I suspect that she purposely understated that previous “slight attachment” here.
By way of contrast, the position Ms. Walker takes is fundamentally different than that taken, for example, by the great African novelist Chinua Achebe in his essay regarding Joseph Conrad‘s Heart of Darkness. Chinua Achebe cared not a whit about Joseph Conrad’s personal predilections. Rather, he considered Heart of Darkness to be a racist document on its face. He went on to propose that a great part of the Western Canon of literature, of which Heart of Darkness is clearly a part, is racist. Probably because of his expression of this view, he never received his Nobel Prize. Even the Nobel people have trouble setting aside an author’s personal opinions when judging his work. So now, back to Alice Walker.
Here Ms. Walker confesses that she is not able to set aside her detestation of those views expressed by Faulkner, the author, at the University of Virginia in her approach to his work. I understand that. I concede my own detestations of views of other authors in my approach to their work. What is most interesting is the qualifier Alice Walker employs, “. . . from so short a range . . . .“ Clearly, she is saying here that she is too close in time and place to the history of the United States of America in the area of race relations to “separate the man from his work.” This implies to me that with a viewpoint over a longer range, which of course she will never have*, she might be able to separate the man from his work. Clearly, from a longer range vantage point she has been able to separate Tolstoy, with his extremely problematic views on women, from Tolstoy’s work. Which, by the way, includes The Kreutzer Sonata.
I take no issue with Alice Walker on any of this. There is human tragedy in it, however, a human tragedy embodied in Candy Flipping’s statement that she herself is unable ever to separate the man from his works. As much as I advocate for a complete disregard of the personality who conceived of a novel when reading and considering that novel, I recognize that it is only an ideal. I fall short of the ideal myself. When a novel captures our interest and imagination, we feel a compulsion for no good reason to learn more about the person who wrote it. We want to see this person and hear her read from that novel as if hearing the words of the novel in her voice will somehow add to our experience of it. We want to ask the author questions about the “meaning” of the novel. (I go so far as to say that the worst person in the world to ask what a novel “means” is the author herself.) Worse than all this, however, is when we first learn something about an author that repulses us, and determine therefore to read nothing at all by her.
I say that is worse because generally speaking those novels that have become most important in my own life, the ones that I reread and that include works by William Faulkner, were written by authors whom I consider despicable individuals in one way or another or simply deranged, including William Faulkner. I say “generally speaking” because although The Color Purple, for example, has also become an important novel in my life, I have read no biography of Alice Walker. For all I know she is a well adjusted, wonderful, and noble person. Nevertheless, the greatest of our authors seem generally to be difficult people, an odd lot. Several of them came to realize this themselves and committed suicide in one way or another. Some chose guns; one stuck her head in an oven; one drowned herself; many chose the coward’s way and opted for drink.
I make no case that this is the reason that they are or were great authors. I want no part of that argument. I am saying, however, that to the extent that we allow our reaction to the personality and personal views of an author to shut the gate on our reading of her work, we then also shut the gate on the possibility of many a delightfully edgy and thought-provoking reading experience. If we read only works written by authors whom we have researched and consider to be sweethearts personally, then we get only a cloyingly sweet reading experience . . . if we are lucky.
Here is the casuistry with which I justify what I am saying. We consistently overestimate the importance of the author’s role in creating a work and consistently underestimate the importance of our own role as readers of that work. While an author is conceiving and executing a novel, that novel is certainly her novel. However, when an author allows her novel to be published, she is in a very real sense giving it up and offering it to us. If we take up the author on that offer and read the book, it then takes its form entirely in our minds, the minds of the readers. It has become completely and entirely our book then in that sense. The only thing that counts at that point is how that book takes shape in our own minds . . . so says the Solipsist. Whether or not the author beat her husband while writing the thing has no relevance to that whatsoever.
*But who knows? It is fair to say that many who could not separate Ezra Pound’s opinions sympathetic to fascism from his poetry at the time he expressed those opinions did ultimately, within the course of their lifetimes, accomplish that separation in their own minds.