Faulkner Criticism: A Partial View

Article excerpt

Henry Claridge, ed. William Faulkner: Critical Assessments. 4 vols. The Banks, Mountfield: Helm, 1999. xlix + 2632 pp.

William Faulkner: Critical Assessments, edited by Henry Claridge, is easily the largest collection of Faulkner criticism ever compiled. Numbering 2632 pages and bound handsomely in four volumes, the collection contains 243 essays, all but one previously published, the earliest a 1927 review of Mosquitoes by Conrad Aiken and the latest a 1999 essay by Andrew Sievewright. Included are reviews of all the novels, commentary by Faulkner's contemporaries, general perspectives on the work as a whole, and personal recollections of and interviews with Faulkner. The bulk of the collection consists of critical analyses of each of Faulkner's novels and is followed by three groups of "thematic assessments": Faulkner and the South, Faulkner and race, and Faulkner and the French. The value of having this amount of material in one place is undeniable, both for seasoned Faulkner scholars and for those just starting out on their study of Faulkner.

Even in so ample a collection as this, clearly an editor must omit a good deal, and normally one would not cavil (too much) over the absence of some personal favorites. But in this case omission has not been merely a matter of an editor having to choose among good and better essays; Claridge has explicitly adopted a particular strategy of omission, based entirely on chronology rather than merit. He has chosen to reduce seriously representation of "the more recent criticism of Faulkner" -defining "more recent" as anything published after Faulkner's death in 1962. He has made this choice primarily on the grounds of accessibility-the assumption that recent material is more easily available-although he adds the opinion that "some advantage naturally accrues to those who are 'first in the queue' and whose relationship to the writer under discussion is not custodial or proprietorial" (1: 6).1

Having made no surveys of college library holdings, I cannot comment on the accuracy of the first assumption, but availability of recent criticism should not necessarily be the decisive factor. One of the great values of a collection of this sort, as the general editor of the series, Graham Clarke, writes, is to enable readers "to trace the changing pattern of interpretation and ... view ... how the sense of a text, or the value of an author is re-assessed according to critical developments" (1: 1). As a tool for readers to acquire a sense of that "changing pattern," this collection is severely limited, given the under-representation of the last twenty years of Faulkner criticism. Devoting at least part of one of the four volumes to representative essays from 1975-1995 would have increased immeasurably its usefulness.

Claridge's second and third assumptions I find equally questionable. I can think of no inherent "advantage" the first commentator on Faulkner has over the tenth. Literary criticism (unlike literature itself) tends to move cumulatively, necessarily adding to what has gone before. More important, it raises new issues that speak to contemporary interests and needs that are not inherently of greater-or lesserimportance.

As for "custodial" or "proprietorial" treatment of the author, the criticism of the last twenty years has been nothing if not adversarial, not only to Faulkner's work but to literature in general. Much of that criticism is based on a general practice of "reading against the text," one form of which is the deconstructive attempt to attend to all the possible play of a text's system of verbal signs, rigorously unpacking it for hidden contradictions and ungrounded hierarchies. Another is the historicist effort to enlarge the reading arena to include the contexts of texts, the relevant political and social issues that criticism can use to expose a text's concealed biases, shift the structural balance from center to periphery, at times "rewrite" texts in order to give voice to characters and cultures they have chosen to keep (almost) silent. …