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Fictions of Labour: William Faulkner and the South's Long Revolution by Richard Godden. Cambridge UP 1998

ISBN 0 521 56142 6 £37.50 $59.95 (hbk)

 

1997 was the centennial year of William Faulkner’s birth. Commemorative conferences and celebrations of the author were held in his birthplace of New Albany, Mississippi, his hometown of Oxford, Mississippi, and further afield in Missouri, Virginia, New Orleans, Nottingham, France, China, the Republic of Georgia and Moscow. At ‘Ole Miss’ last July, two dozen scholars (Faulknerians) gathered to deliver assessments on Faulkner’s place in American literature, to discuss the value and legacy of his work and to consider ‘new’ dimensions of his life and writings. New collections of photographs exploring ‘Faulkner’s world’ were unveiled for exhibition and publication. And, almost inevitably, anticipating the upsurge of public and academic interest in the great author, a ‘new’ range of critical studies (what have been helpfully promoted as ‘handbooks for interpreting Faulkner’s greatest works") was launched. In other words, business as usual, the ‘Faulkner industry’ rolls on and now with the added commercial value of a numerically significant date.

Therefore, both predictably and rhetorically, I make no apologies for making plain my initial response to this text, why?

Godden’s defense "for adding to the exegetic pile," is that few Faulknerians have considered the novels from the standpoint of their commentary on the meaning and problems of labor relations in the South. Using the confessed narrow focus of just three Faulkner novels (with the curious omission of As I Lay Dying on the grounds that the Bundrens "lack historical typicality"), Godden is "preoccupied with how a revolution at the center of the southern economy releases from the forms of life that have made that economy typifying contradictions whose resolution takes shape as narrative options and stylistic habits that are, quite literally, forced out of a historically and pervasive structure of feeling." It’s that simple, really!

Surprisingly, after recognizing many of the close readings of Faulkner to be "generally conducted under some version of a celebratory modernist rubric," Godden has reproduced much the same alienating blend of criticism. Promising to be a potent cocktail of close reading and historical context, the work loses force and coherence in long sections devoted to ‘settling’ arcane Faulknerian debates, the seemingly endless re-statement of the central thesis (Godden’s identification of a social trauma which is always reducible to a labor trauma) and is further disappointing in generalizing about labor conditions and labor relations ‘in the South’ (Mississippi, as both Faulkner’s home state and the state with arguably the most peculiar labor relations in the Southern region since Emancipation, never warrants special mention, nor does any other state in Godden’s amorphous South). The book does have some value in positing elaborate solutions to the intricate narrative complexities of The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom , but such flashes of poetic brilliance are outweighed by the consistently difficult and self-regarding prose. Students should make full use of the index.

Fictions of Labor is a heady blend of historicisms that will undoubtedly leave most nonFaulknerians cold, if not bewildered. New readers and non-specialists need not despair nor be deterred, there are many ‘easier’ and more cogent contextualizing studies of these great and, yes, difficult novels. There are also numerous clearer starting points for an analysis of the problems of labor and race in the Reconstruction and 1930’s South. Some of these texts, which are histories, might well "hurt" a little, but what hurts more (at least for me) is laborious and elitist literary criticism.

Stephen C Kenny, Liverpool John Moores University.

 

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