"All That Glitters": Reappraising "Golden Land"

Article excerpt

I think that the worst perversion of all is to retire to the ivory tower. Get down in the market place and stay there.

William Faulkner, Faulkner at West Point (55)

Every insight contains its own special kind of blindness.

Kenneth Burke, Attitudes Toward History (41)

I begin with a fairly simple question which raises several more complicated questions about how/if ideology determines the way we read and understand Faulkner: If, as several critics suggest, we are in danger of allowing a reductively "politically correct" ideology to dominate Faulkner studies, why isn't the 1935 short story "Golden Land" considered a prime example of either Faulkner's own homophobia or his commercial exploitation of a general public homophobia? After all, most critics read this story biographically, as indicative of the distaste Faulkner felt for, variously, Hollywood, screenwriting, popular culture, magazine writing, materialism, and modernity. And much of the "revulsion" found in the story-and critics' responses to it-is directed towards Ira Ewing's "perverse" children, Voyd and April. If the story is to be read autobiographically, as it so often is, then it would seem logical to assume that the homophobia present in the story is, to a large extent, Faulkner's, or at the very least that Faulkner makes problematic use of homophobia as a means to an end. Yet the few extended readings of this story that exist tend to ignore the issue altogether, which suggests that things are not quite so simple when it comes to Faulkner and ideology. If all the warnings about the ideological direction of Faulkner studies are true, "Golden Land" offers some complications worth considering, particularly in terms of how the high/low culture divide continues to hold sway in the field.

In what little critical attention it does receive, "Golden Land" is read fairly simplistically. Existing readings largely ignore its narrative complexity, its treatment of alternative sexualities, and its thematic parallels with the widely accepted "masterpiece" Absalom, Absalom!, which Faulkner was working on as he wrote "Golden Land." When such things are considered, Faulkner's use of sexuality is complicated considerably and it is difficult to support charges of his implicit or calculated homophobia. But given the way the story has been read, it is very significant that the issue of homophobia is never raised. A careful reading of the story-and the criticism about it-suggests that when we talk about how political ideology determines interpretation, we need also to reconsider how the accepted hierarchy of works factors in. Besides the more overt political ideologies at work in Faulkner criticism, there is a biographically determined ideology-the narrative of Faulkner's life and work-that shapes our responses, often times more powerfully because it remains uninterrogated. In the case of "Golden Land," the story's status as a non-Yoknapatawpha, non-Southern, commercially-driven magazine piece arguably has more to do with how it has been read than the political and social ideologies the story deals with.

In 1992, during the 19th Annual Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference, André Bleikasten fired another of his controversial broadsides across the bows of Faulkner criticism, asking the question, "Is 'ideology' still a useful concept for literary criticism or does it only serve to stir up futile arguments?" (Bleikasten 3). His own answer to this question is mixed-he acknowledges that relating "Faulkner's work to its various intertextual and extraliterary contexts, to reread it against the background of its reception and its successive interpretations" is a "worthy enterprise" (10). Yet in his frustration with the tendencies of some of the "showier" and more theoretical critical works on Faulkner, he articulates the complaints many other academics have expressed about the critical turn towards the explicitly ideological:

The barely hidden assumption [in this recent Faulkner criticism] is that literature is valuable only insofar as it represents the larger conflicts of society, and that it is the more valuable as it does so in the politically correct way, that is, contributes to the emancipation of the downtrodden minorities and to the attainment of the hallowed goals of "social transformation. …