Case Study in Social Neurosis; Quentin Compson and the Lost Cause

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On June 2, 1910 a confused nineteen-year old Mississippian, two six-pound flat irons in his suit pockets, plunged into the Charles River near the Harvard campus. Quentin Compson left one suicide note before taking his life: for Shreve McCannon, his Harvard roommate. Its contents remain unknown. All we know of Quentin's motivation emanates from his monologue in The Sound and the Fury: anxiety over his sister's promiscuity, his father's alcoholic and acquiescently pessimistic weltanshauung, and his own ineffectual attempts to impose moral order on a changing world. Understanding Quentin, however, demands an understanding of the social and historical conditions which produced this "half-baked Galahad." Quentin's time and place exposed him to two powerful leavens which consumed his thoughts and helped destroy him: the Lost Cause and his father's cynicism. Of these, the least explored in critical writing is the Lost Cause's impact upon the young man.

"[U]nlike the nation, the South has known defeat and failure," wrote historian C. Vann Woodward in 1968, "long periods of frustration and poverty, as well as human slavery and its long aftermath of racial injustice." These travails produced "the South's un-American experience of history" (Woodward 229, 231). This disparity between the American and the Southern experiences looms dramatically in the fifty years following the Civil War, when living testimony to the antebellum and Civil War South walked the streets of such towns as Jefferson, Mississippi. The Lost Cause evolved from the antebellum South and came of age in the decades after Appomattox. It glorified wartime sacrifices and antebellum social mores. The Lost Cause represented Southern efforts to come to terms with defeat and the new American nation which rose from the ashes of war. Defeated on the battlefield, Southerners prepared for a battle of ideas in the reconstructed nation. A post-war regional identity condensed around "Confederate tradition," becoming a cult of "public memory, a component of the region's cultural system, supported by various organizations and rituals." The enthusiastic celebration of the Confederate past did not begin until the late 1880s, but gained momentum and power during the last decade of the 19th Century. Though most scholarship on the Lost Cause argues that its influence faded with the passing of the Confederate generation, it is instructive to realize that the Confederate memory proved remarkably adaptable and influential in society and politics. This new identity, so heavily based upon a dead one, provided social unity to Southern whites in a time of political and social upheaval brought on by the demise of the yeomanry and challenges to Democratic dominance. In later social upheavals--the debate over civil rights for example--the residuals of the Lost Cause ethic blossomed into symbolic resistance. According to Gaines Foster, the Lost Cause's practitioners endorsed a deferential society based upon white supremacy, social order, and moral purity. This social neurosis infected most of those living in the South; it provided identity, stability, and clear moral definitions for deep into the Twentieth Century (Wilson 7-8; Foster 4-6, 194-96).

Both Faulkner and Quentin Compson were born in this period; both testified of its excesses and its impacts on their lives. Faulkner admitted: "Ishmael is the witness in Moby Dick as I am Quentin in The Sound and The Fury" (Zender 18, 62). Jackson Benson forcefully argues that Quentin represents an emotional "self-portrait" of William Faulkner. "Quentin appears to have been created out of mixed feelings, and the relationship of Faulkner to his central character seems to involve both distance and identification," Benson writes. Faulkner recognized and identified with Quentin's investment in Southern society, even as he himself grew beyond its narrow confines. Moreover, Faulkner recognized the significance of history behind The Sound and The Fury in an unpublished introduction written in 1933: " [T]he South . …