He was an uncompromising modernist, a great chronicler of the American South, and an inspiration—as well as immovable obstacle—for the generations of writers who followed. William Faulkner (1897–1962) stands as one of the greatest, and one of the most problematic figures in American literature.
Faulkner was Mississippi-born—a white man of his time and place who did not always rise above it. Yet his work also provides a burning account of the intersection of race, region, and remembrance: a probing analysis of a past that we have never yet put behind us. He set almost all his work in what he called an “apocryphal” territory, the imaginary Yoknapatawpha County in northern Mississippi. He carried characters and plot lines over from one book to another, as if the land itself were sprouting a story in which everything and everyone was connected.
Michael Gorra, professor of English language and literature at Smith College and author of The Saddest Words; William Faulkner’s Civil War, focuses on three of Faulkner’s greatest novels. (It is suggested you read each book before the class.)
October 20 As I Lay Dying (1930) uses 15 different first-person narrators to tell the story of the Bundren family, poor whites travelling through fire and flood to bury their matriarch in the county seat of Jefferson. It is the most accessible—and the most entirely successful—of Faulkner’s experiments with point of view and stream of consciousness
November 17 Sanctuary (1931) is one of the founding texts of Southern Gothic, a lurid, crime-ridden tale of bootleggers and brothels, as hard-boiled as they come and yet also unmistakably a masterpiece. It made Faulkner notorious, it scandalized and delighted his readers, and in its film version was one of the movies responsible for the introduction of Hollywood’s Production Code.
December 15 Go Down, Moses (1942) stands as Faulkner’s most profound account of the sin and the legacy of slavery, a novel about the burden of inheritance. That inheritance includes the land itself, and in its description of both hunting and the wilderness the novel now also ranks among the classics of American writing about the environment.
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