Faulkner and Postmodernism: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha, 1999

Faulkner and Postmodernism: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha, 1999

Faulkner and Postmodernism: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha, 1999

Faulkner and Postmodernism: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha, 1999


Since the 1960s, William Faulkner, Mississippi's most famous author, has been recognized as a central figure of international modernism. But might Faulkner's fiction be understood in relation to Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow as well as James Joyce's Ulysses?

In eleven essays from the 1999 Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference, held at the University of Mississippi, Faulkner and Postmodernism examines William Faulkner and his fiction in light of postmodern literature, culture, and theory. The volume explores the variety of ways Faulkner's art can be used to measure similarities and differences between modernism and postmodernism.

Essays in the collection fall into three categories: those that use Faulkner's novels as a way to mark a period distinction between modernism and postmodernism, those that see postmodern tendencies in Faulkner's fiction, and those that read Faulkner through the lens of postmodern theory's contemporary legacy, the field of cultural studies.

In order to make their particular arguments, essays in the collection compare Faulkner to more contemporary novelists such as Ralph Ellison, Vladimir Nabokov, Thomas Pynchon, Walker Percy, Richard Ford, Toni Morrison, and Kathy Acker. But not all of the comparisons are to high culture artists, since even Elvis Presley becomes Faulkner's foil in one of the essays.

A variety of theoretical perspectives frame the work in this volume, from Fredric Jameson's pessimistic sense of postmodernism's possibilities to Linda Hutcheon's conviction that cultural critique can continue in postmodernism through innovative new forms such as metafiction. Despite the different theoretical premises and distinct conclusions of theindividual authors of these essays, Faulkner and Postmodernism proves once again that in the key debates surrounding twentieth-century fiction, Faulkner is a crucial figure.


Relating William Faulkner to postmodernism is a task complicated by the plethora of ways that postmodernism has been defined and periodized. There effectively are in play three distinct versions of postmodernism—the philosophical, the cultural, and the aesthetic. And while the time frame of the latter two can be reconciled to some extent, it does not square with that of philosophical postmodernism. Jürgen Habermas's philosophical modernity, for example, begins with Descartes's belief in the self-sufficiency of reason and continues through Kant and the Enlightenment; Habermas's postmodernism begins with Nietzsche's attack on reason. There is, therefore, at least a three-hundred-year gap between Habermas's modernity and aesthetic modernism, a situation rendered all the more complex inasmuch as certain versions of modernist aesthetics— surrealism, Dadaism, mythic intuitionism—would fall necessarily within Habermas's postmodernism. (That Jean François Lyotard locates the beginning of modernity with Nietzsche shows additionally how easily the terms of the philosophical debate can create confusion.)

When I moved to Purdue University in 1998, I discovered a different issue of definition and periodization—an overlap in the division of the graduate American literature curriculum in the break between what we call America II and America III. America II is defined as the period from the Civil War to 1940. America III, though, runs from 1930 to the present. As a colleague explained it to me, this odd configuration reflected a compromise in a dispute between the modernist and postmodern scholars over who would get William Faulkner. Despite Faulkner's usual identification as a high modernist, our period compromise at Purdue is not completely idiosyncratic, as I hope to make clear in this introduction.

The very term 'postmodernism,' however, still seems to many undergraduates an odd term, one that strains common sense. After all, we live in the modern world, don't we, so how can anything be designated as after the modern? But of course the 'modern' in modernism does not refer to the popular sense but to an aesthetic and a period of literary history. (That 'modernism' is contained in the word 'postmodernism' should signal that the two terms are not unrelated.) If modernism can be defined as the art's response to the alienating effects of modernization . . .

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