The "human heart in conflict with itself" that Faulkner cited in his Noble Prize speech described his own.
A chronic alcoholic and dissolute dreamer, Faulkner produced an astonishing body of work, including several of American literature's greatest novels.
At times a Southern "moderate" on civil rights, receiving the opprobrium of James Baldwin for advising blacks to "go slow," Faulkner also expressed some of the region's most virulent statements of white-supremacist defiance.
Smith College professor and literary critic Michael Gorra ventures to understand Faulkner's contradictions in "The Saddest Words: William Faulkner's Civil War."
Gorra demonstrates how Faulkner's novels in their searing indictments of Southern racism achieved greatness beyond his personal weaknesses and seeks to uphold the books’ value as the nation strives for racial healing.
“The Saddest Words” takes a much wider scope than its misleading subtitle. Along with analysis of Faulkner's work, the book blends biography, Civil War and Reconstruction history, travel writing and social and political commentary.
While Gorra valiantly strives to cover so much ground, he often falters. The book reads like several incomplete ones thrown together.
Gorra makes a particularly jarring reference in discussing how Faulkner's books mainly take place in his fictional Yoknapatawpha County.
"Oh of course his characters know about that other world - they go to Memphis or New Orleans or even New England, and some of them run away to Texas," Gorra writes. "But nothing that happens there ever really counts; it's just a rumble of thunder at the outer edge of hearing."
In writing the last sentence, Gorra must have temporarily forgotten that one of the major events of Faulkner's work, Quentin Compson's suicide, occurred in Cambridge, Mass.
How did Gorra allow that confounding sentence to get into print?
Countering his glaring lapse, Gorra in his meandering summaries of "Absalom, Absalom" and "The Sound and the Fury" gives a full explication of Compson's death.
One interesting biographical revelation is how well Faulkner succeeded in writing short stories for "The Saturday Evening Post" and other popular magazines. In Gorra's telling, Faulkner was almost as prolific as F. Scott Fitzgerald in pulling in magazine commissions.
The magazine stories Faulkner turned out go against Gorra's thesis of Faulkner's unflinching honesty in portraying the South's weaknesses. The stories, later strung together in "The Unvanquished" and "Go Down Moses," follow the myth of the Lost Cause and the South freeing itself from corrupt black rule during Reconstruction. As "Gone With the Wind" proved, the nation by the 1930s accepted the South's romantic fantasies.
Gorra presents the standard account of Faulkner's Hollywood experience, finding nothing new. The author does show how Faulkner's Hollywood work detracted from his fiction writing.
While Gorra claims to present a fresh appraisal of Faulkner's novels, his analyses also seem conventional. Gorra's summaries are worthwhile, but would be better presented in a separate volume. A young reader would receive more useful information from Cliff Notes.
And, as Casey Cep noted in The New Yorker, his Civil War chronologies don't reach the level of standard battlefield guides.
William Faulkner's Civil War of the subtitle is the one that ranged within Faulkner's soul. Gorra makes a conscientious effort to understand those battles, but gets disoriented along the way.