Reading Faulkner by Richard Marius A Review

Image of Richard Marius from The Coming of Rain dust jacket (First edition, 1969), Gordon Studio

Richard Marius was born on July 29, 1933 in Martel, Tennessee, and grew up in Lenoir City, Tennessee. His father emigrated from Greece with a chemical engineering degree from Belgium. His mother was a journalist for the Knoxville News Sentinel.

The fifties and sixties were busy for Marius. He received a B.S. in journalism at the University of Tennessee in 1954. Four years later, he received a B.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky. He received his M.A. in 1959 and his Ph.D. in history in 1962 from Yale University. He was also heavily involved in social, political, and civil rights activism in the 1960s and early 1970s.

After receiving his Ph.D., Marius taught history at the University of Tennessee until he was appointed director of expository writing at Harvard University in 1978.

1969 Front cover

Marius’ first published novel was The Coming of Rain (1969). Friends of American Writers selected The Coming of Rain as the best first novel in 1969. The Book-of-the-Month Club chose the novel as an alternate selection in 1970. Marius later adapted The Coming of Rain into a stageplay as part of the Southern Writers’ Project.

He married Gail Smith in 1955, and they had two sons. The couple later divorced. He married Lanier Smythe in 1970 with whom he had one son. Richard Marius died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on November 5, 1999. His remains are buried at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Massachusetts, “near the graves of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Louisa May Alcott.”1)Richard Marius, Wikipedia

Selected Bibliography
The Coming of Rain (1969)
Luther (1974)
Bound for the Promised Land (1976)
Thomas More: A Biography (1984)
A Writer’s Companion (1985)
After the War (1992)
An Affair of Honor (2001)

Bio Sources
The South in Perspective: An Anthology of Southern Literature by Edward Francisco, Robert Vaughan, and Linda Francisco (Prentice Hall, 2001)
Richard Marius, Wikipedia
Richard Marius, Tennessee Encyclopedia
Richard Marius (1933-1999), Chapter 16, Edwin S. Gleaves of the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture



Reading Faulkner by Richard Marius
Reviewed by Edward Francisco

As a graduate student in the 1970s and college English instructor in the 1980s, I could scarcely ignore the tempestuous currents spawned by the literary and cultural movement known as Deconstruction. The brain child of contemporary French philosopher Jacques Derrida, Deconstruction challenged decades of academia’s approach to understanding literature. Deconstructionists argued that culture itself was a text. As such, the movement’s adherents assumed that all discourse, even historical narrative, is essentially disguised as self-revelatory messages. Being subjective, the text is indeterminate, having no fixed meaning, so when we read, we’re prone to misread (because nothing is as it seems). Despite an absence of textual meaning, Deconstructionists were somehow able to ferret out the subterranean motives and undisclosed agendas of some of the most recognized writers in the Western canon. In a short time, readers were cautioned not to lionize writers whose work was tainted by privilege and whose “truth” was as elusive as will-o-the-wisp. Unable to acknowledge the shadowy aspects of their literary output, authors required the assistance of Deconstructionists to peel away the onion, exposing layers of classism, racism, and misogyny lurking among the pages.

1924 William Faulkner publicity photo – Picryl

One particular author posthumously positioned in the crosshairs of this movement was Mississippi novelist and Nobel Laureate William Faulkner whose disparagement seemed justified on several grounds. Overnight, Faulkner became a pariah and a litmus test of one’s sensibility. To be an apologist for the author was tantamount to committing academic suicide. Ph.D. students were no longer encouraged to write dissertations about his work. College literature anthologies deliberately omitted selections from the Faulkner canon. Perception is persuasion in literary studies, and the perception of earlier readers who’d failed to notice the unsavory signifiers in Faulkner’s fiction only underscored the urgent need to eradiate the author’s noxious influence. Thus, no one actually needed to read Faulkner to pronounce judgment on him. Ready-made categories supplied that purpose, nor was the irony lost on some readers that the apostles of indeterminacy had determined Faulkner’s fate as a litterateur unworthy of attention based on the indeterminacy of his language amid accusations of racism.

Soon Faulkner became an embarrassment—especially to Southern students aspiring to teach literature in high school or college. Even as writers of color were praising Faulkner for his nuanced depiction of race relations in his native Mississippi, my peers and I were urged to feel shame for our effusive admiration for the author.

By 1990, the ascendency of Deconstruction was in decline but not without consequences. If people thought about Faulkner at all, it was often to ask why Faulkner was important.

It would undoubtedly take someone with nominal similarities to Faulkner to rescue the author from the simulacrum of oblivion. Historian, novelist, and Harvard professor, Richard C. Marius answered the call. An East Tennessean by birth, Marius failed to fulfill his mother’s expectation that he become a minister of the gospel, opting instead to pursue academic studies in history at the University of Tennessee, and afterward, at Yale University, where he received a Ph.D., writing his dissertation on the Renaissance and Reformation movements under the direction of Roland Bainton, for forty-two years professor of ecclesiastical history at Yale.

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Marius began his college teaching career at Gettysburg College, and later, at the University of Tennessee, the author’s alma mater, where he wrote his first novel, The Coming of Rain, set in eastern Tennessee. In 1978, he was tapped to be director of Expository Writing at Harvard University. During the academic year 1996-1997, Marius was asked by university officials to prepare a series of lectures about Faulkner’s novels for a seminar of undergraduate students. In 1999, Marius succumbed to pancreatic cancer before the lectures could be collected, edited, and published. Friends took on those tasks, submitting a complete manuscript to the University of Tennessee Press in 2006. The end result was Reading Faulkner, a collection of lectures on Faulkner’s first thirteen novels.

Marius understood the need for a rationale detailing his purpose in writing such a book:

Time and again I am asked by people, anxious and even embarrassed, “Why should I read William Faulkner?” or, “What book of Faulkner’s should I read first?” a question that carries with it the dreadful implication that the person who asks it has not read Faulkner at all. Both these questions come to me with much the same spirit that someone might ask for a recommendation of a dentist who might do a quick and not too painful root canal.
1926 Front cover

Aware that literary tastes are faddist and fleeting, Marius moderates his enthusiasm for Faulkner’s earliest novels, roughhewn productions for which he had no models to follow, with the possible exception of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesberg, Ohio. (Anderson offered to get the fledgling writer’s first novel, Soldiers’ Pay, published as long as Anderson didn’t have to read it.) Marius could be describing his own history as a small-town young man with literary aspirations when he describes the arc of Faulkner’s career as a paradigm for other Southern writers:

I should point out here one of the primary qualities of much southern literature. The writer merely by being a writer, being educated well enough to take up the profession of letters, becomes alienated from the society that otherwise holds him in its tight communal grasp. Both sides of this equation are essential. Until the past three decades, the South was a small-town society with the small towns as oases of commerce dependent on the farms lying around them. Both rural and small-town societies from time immemorial exercise sharp or heavy authority on the individual enforcing conformity, tolerating eccentricity only when it seems harmless.

Soldiers’ Pay came out in 1926, the same year that Ernest Hemingway published his first novel, The Sun Also Rises. Faulkner’s book received little notice; Hemingway’s tour de force was hugely successful. Soldiers’ Pay attempts to depict the widespread malaise following World War I. Falkner’s tale drips with gloominess. Marius describes the origin and evolution of the book’s title:

Soldiers’ Pay, the title Faulkner finally chose for his own first novel, is part of the mystique of the “lost generation.” He called it “Mayday” at first—the word that ships at sea send when they are sinking and need help fast. Soldiers’ Pay, as a title, reflects that the soldier’s pay is never sufficient to compensate the soldier for what he has suffered.

Marius points out that the book isn’t really about the presumed protagonist, Mahon:

Faulkner never writes a novel where there is one protagonist, one hero on whom the novel focuses throughout. He uses multiple points of view in this novel, writing in the third person, shifting from the minds of his characters in an omniscient way. These multiple points of view will be a feature of most of his fiction, and sometimes as in The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying he does multiple points of view in the first person, a technique that ipso facto eliminates the omniscient narrator.

Marius adds:

I want to make a suggestion here that I will come back to, that Faulkner in experimenting with multiple points of view is engaging in something like the striving of the cubist painters a little earlier, the effort to place all the dimensions of reality on a single plane, here the plane of our consciousness.

Marius’ description of Faulkner’s incipient literary experiments anticipates the novelist’s unique introduction of stream of consciousness technique (i.e., recording a character’s interior monologue) making Faulkner peerless among American writers of the time. Arguably only Anglo-Irish author James Joyce (Ulysses) and British novelist Virginia Woolf (Mrs. Dalloway) would ascend to the steep aerie occupied by Faulkner at the end of his career. (I’m aware, as was certainly Marius, that the 1922 publication of Joyce’s Ulysses signaled for some readers the death knell for the novel because Joyce had done in that book all a novel could be expected to do (I maintain that Faulkner demonstrated otherwise.))

Marius spends little time or space discussing Faulkner’s second novel, Mosquitoes. Marius explains the reason why:

1927 Front cover
Mosquitoes is generally considered Faulkner’s worst novel, and because we have so much to do in this course, I’m not going to spend much time on it. It is a novel where not much happens. A group of people are run aground in a yacht on Lake Pontchartrain outside of New Orleans, and they talk a lot. The Semitic man, Julius, in Mosquitoes, makes a comment that seems to apply to the [emerging] ideologies of the world. [Book quote follows.]
“After all, it doesn’t make any difference what you believe. Man is not only nourished by convictions, he is nourished by any conviction. Whatever you believe, you’ll always annoy some one, but you yourself will follow and bleed and die for it in the face of law, hell, or high water. And those who die for causes will perish for any cause, the more tawdry it is, the quicker they flock to it. And be quite happy at it, too. It’s a provision of providence to keep their time occupied” He sucked at his cigar but it was dead.
“Do you know who is the happiest man in the world today? Mussolini, of course. And do you know who are next? The poor devils he will get killed with his Caesar illusion. Don’t pity them, however; were it not Mussolini and his illusion, it would be someone else and his cause. I believe it is some grand cosmic scheme for fertilizing the earth. And it could be so much worse,” he added. “Who knows? They might all migrate to America and fall into the hands of Henry Ford.”

This nihilistic passage expresses the temper of the times for many following the Great War in Europe:

I would like to suggest that in the wake of World War I, great masses of people sought something to fill the horrible vacuum left by the collapse of old ideologies in the massacre and meaninglessness of the war. Some turned to communism, some to forms of Statism like Fascism and Naziism, all of them tending to divide the “masses” from the upper middle-classes and that part of the intelligentsia still devoted to the Western liberal traditions. To such people, leaders like Mussolini and Hitler seemed absurd, the target of jokes and satire.

After the first two novels, William Faulkner obeyed the mantra: “Go thou and do otherwise.” Not only would he focus exclusively on his “little postage stamp corner of the world” in and around Oxford, Mississippi, but he grappled with unsavory and taboo subjects, such as suicide, incest, and miscegenation. In a few years, his literary consciousness catapulted into a future of possibilities for prose fiction that Faulkner largely created. For this reason, Marius sees need to insert an interregnum into his analysis before exploring works from Faulkner’s most creative period. The title of Marius’ chapter is “Faulkner and Blacks: The Endemic Problem of Racism in American Society.”

Marius grasps the predicament confronting Faulkner as a Southerner and a writer:

In dealing with the problem in literature we have to deal with the N word, “nigger,” very probably the most obscene word in the English language for its cumulative associations of bondage, inferiority, and contempt when uttered by white people against blacks. The word has such terrible connotations that it has had an ironic effect on whites. White southerners believe that they are not prejudiced if they don’t use it. So for the writer, the use of the word poses a doubly ironic problem. Not to use it implies that the South and the nation as a whole were better about race than they were, and yet to use it may condemn the writer as racist.

As the inheritor of a skein of feudal complexities, the future Nobel Laureate couldn’t skirt the problem of signification conveyed by the N word. Marius, the historian and border South novelist, explains:

I don’t think we get much satisfaction in trying to find in Faulkner racial attitudes that would achieve the ideal of democracy where all men—and women—of whatever color and origin are considered equal, or if not considered individually equal are at least considered equal in their opportunities to be thought worthy of respect and capable of morality and intelligence on the same level of any other individual regardless of color.

Faulkner’s novels drip with a tainted history, nor is the reader likely to find an egalitarian impulse of the sort literary modernism often imparts. This circumstance shouldn’t prove surprising given Faulkner’s now famous maxim: “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” Despite some critics’ observations that the author was fixated on the past, Faulkner was no adherent to the old order but viewed clearly how the rot of racism contaminated every aspect of Southern history and experience. And, as his novels show, racism is the catalyst for the dynastic collapse of aristocratic families whose desperate effort to hold onto a façade of “respectability” ultimately accords them the status of clowns.

1929 Front cover

The first of these dynastic novels that Marius discusses is The Sound and the Fury, the title an allusion to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the soliloquy where the murderous king asserts that “Life’s but a walking shadow/ a tale/ told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/ signifying nothing.” Anyone professing Faulkner’s allegiance to the romantic nostalgia for the antebellum South fails to see that the collapse of the Old South created an existential vacuum of which Faulkner was the literary heir. The novel chronicles the decline of the Compson family, once a model of the wealthy, slave-owning Southern aristocracy before the Civil War. The characters aren’t so much stereotypes as grotesque caricatures of what they were once expected to be. Faulkner experiments with multiple points of view in the story. Section one is narrated through the sensibilities of thirty-three-year-old Benjy, youngest of the Compson children. Benjy is mentally challenged. Resultingly, his descriptions are literal, simplistic, and sensual. As with his brother Quentin, Benjy fixates on his sister, Caddy, and her emergent sexuality and promiscuity. Quentin is a doomed romantic. He worships a chivalric ideal of womanhood inseparable from virginity. Quentin is evidence that everything to the Compsons is either/or. Marius describes the inevitable consequences of adhering to this dichotomy:

. . . the Compsons is an either/or. If Caddy does not live up to the grand expectations of a southern lady, she is not a member of the family at all. If Benjy is not worthy of being a Bascomb, his name must be changed. And if Quentin cannot possess Caddy and cannot stop thinking of her body and the honor it represents, he must kill himself.

As a student of Harvard, Quentin is questioned by his roommate Shreve who is fascinated by the South and its aura of mystery. Aware of the tensions and contradictions riddling his native region, Quentin is crushed by the burden of defending the Lost Cause. His self-torture is exquisite as he rages against every fiber of his being, shouting, “I don’t hate the South! I don’t hate the South!” Completing this chapter of his family’s tragedy, he jumps into the Charles River and drowns.

The only Compson nominally succeeding is the money-grubbing Jason. His impulses reflect the vulgar actions and intentions of a rising class of the nouvous riches. As Marius observes, Jason drives the final nail in the Compson family coffin because he “sees sex entirely as biological release and never has any intention of having a child to carry on the Compson line.”

1930 Front cover

Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying is a dark comedy, grotesquely so. The book lacks a conventional plot; instead, the novel is narrated by fifteen characters over fifty-nine chapters. Hence, the reader is the unifying consciousness tasked with discovering a complete story from the sum of its disparate voices. The narrative is about the death of Addie Bundren and her poor rural family’s quest to honor her wish to be buried several hundred miles away in her hometown of Jefferson, Mississippi. The arduous nature of the journey shows the extent of Addie’s contempt for her family and her desire to punish them. (One critic notes that the name Bundren is an anagram of burden.)

Marius asserts that

The most powerful image in As I Lay Dying is the stench of Addie’s body, the horror that it causes as the coffin-laden wagon moves through the countryside. This is an image from the Middle Ages, the Renaissance—the memento mori—for no matter what glory and grandeur we ascend, we ultimately become food for worms. The novel has as much religion in it as any work of Faulkner’s—and religion is impotent against death.

In a Paris Review interview, Faulkner described how a good story could be told by pitting characters against the elements: earth, air, fire, and water. Throughout the course of this novel, Faulkner pits the family against all four—to stunning effect. In fact, the reader wonders at a universe so hostile to human aims. This novel guarantees a spot for Faulkner in the annals of absurdist literature.

1936 Front cover

Southern novelist, poet, essayist, and Pulitzer Prize recipient, Robert Penn Warren, observed once that “the epistemology of the world can be found in the pages of Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!.” The reader would be hasty to challenge this claim. Upon its publication in 1936, devotees of Faulkner were dazzled and confused by the novel’s experiments with style and viewpoint. As with other of Faulkner’s novels, Absalom, Absalom! depicts familial collapse. The title refers to the Biblical story of Absalom, a wayward son of King David, who was killed while fighting against the empire his father built.

Set in Mississippi in the nineteenth century, Absalom, Absalom! tells the story of Thomas Sutpen, a poor white man from West Virginia who rebels against his family, especially his alcoholic father, and migrates to Haiti and becomes the overseer of a plantation, marries and learns that his wife (and consequently his son whom he rejects) is of mixed race.

Determined to overcome his lowly origins, Sutpen moves to the Deep South in 1833 where he establishes his own slaveholding empire. His overbalanced sense of racial superiority poisons his relationships so that by the novel’s end, his plantation lies in ruins and his only living heir is a mentally deficient great-grandson of mixed blood.

In describing Sutpen, Marius offers the following assessment:

Sutpen is a sort of Nietzschean superman who refuses to accept the condition of his birth. We have already seen that Faulkner has in previous books depicted conventional morality as arbitrary, as conformity to society rather than substantially grounded in divine or human nature. He seems to have adopted for his characters both Darwin and Freud. Our human nature demands that we reproduce our species. In this effort Sutpen becomes one of the most Darwinian of his characters, but also biblical in that the Hebrew Bible offers immortality of a sort only to those who propagate children, especially sons.

Faulkner harbors no sentimentality regarding Sutpen and his struggles. After all, everyone operates under the pressures of family and history. Marius identifies the tipping point in the story:

At a certain moment when he has treated the supreme tragedy of the South in the story of Thomas Sutpen, Faulkner seems to draw back. He has in Absalom, Absalom! given us a South where incest can be excused but where a faint trace of African blood in Bon is enough to cause Henry to shoot him dead. This is bleak business, catastrophe indeed, and with how much catharsis? Perhaps the catharsis lies only in our release at having spoken the unspoken truth about the South. Racial issues in the South have always gone on among people in “polite society” as an undercurrent of murmuring, euphemism, jokes, and other forms of elliptical discourse where the bare, blunt meaning of what is said is partly concealed and seldom said in overt and unmistakable language. It is at last a sort of catharsis to have Faulkner say the truth clearly: the morality of the South is such that incest between brother and sister can be accepted, but marriage to a man with one-sixteenth African blood is such a taboo that any man who threatens to violate that taboo can be permissibly killed.

Ever the epistemologist, Faulkner seems consumed with how we know things. Talk is undependable, especially with its reliance on echo, rumor, and innuendo. When Faulkner gave a series of lectures at the University of Virginia in 1957, a student zeroed in on this theme when asking a question about Sutpen:

Q. Mr. Faulkner, in Absalom, Absalom! does anyone of the people who talks about Sutpen have the right view, or is it more or less a case of thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird with none of them right?
A. That’s it exactly. I think that no one individual can look at truth. It blinds you. You look at it and you see one phase of it. Someone else looks at it and sees a slightly awry phase of it. But taken all together, the truth is in what they saw though nobody saw the truth intact. So these are true as far as Miss Rosa and as Quentin saw it. Quentin’s father saw what he believed was truth, that was all he saw. But the old man was himself a little too big for people no greater in stature than Quentin and Miss Rosa and Mr. Compson to see all at once. It would have taken perhaps a wiser or more tolerant or more sensitive or more thoughtful person to seem him as he was. It was, as you say, thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird. But the truth, I would like to think, comes out, that when the reader has read all these thirteen different ways of looking at the blackbird, the reader has his own fourteenth image of that blackbird which I would like to think is the truth. (Gwynn and Blotner 273-274)

Richard Marius set himself a considerable task in preparing the lectures in Reading Faulkner for a class of undergraduate students. I can envision him scratching his head, asking himself, “What do they know? More importantly, what don’t they know?” Likely he found himself symbolically navigating between the extremes of Scylla and Charybdis—no mean feat. The value of this book lies in Marius’ studied analyses of Faulkner’s novels during the most creative period of the author’s life. Marius brings his considerable talents as a novelist, historian, and biographer to bear on some of the most salient themes in Faulkner’s canon. Equally, if not more, important is Professor Marius’ reminder that great literature repays our readings of texts on which we might conceivably meditate for eternity.


**Featured image: Brandi Redd, Unsplash


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