Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

William Faulkner's Rural Modernism

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

William Faulkner's Rural Modernism

Article excerpt

"THE CITY AS SITE OF MODERN LIFE IS A CLICHE BY NOW," PAULA RABINOWITZ observes in a recent essay on American modernism, and the idea of the city as the locus of modern literature is similarly entrenched (261). For certain modernist authors, the city is the story--one thinks of James Joyce's Dublin or John Dos Passos's New York City. Scholars, defining modernism with reference to these writers' works, have in the main reinforced this association between the metropolis and the modern. Raymond Williams, for example, insists that "there are decisive links between the practices and ideas of the avant-garde movements of the twentieth century and the specific conditions and relationships of the twentieth-century metropolis" (37).

How then do we account for William Faulkner, eminent modernist, in light of reigning conceptions of modernism? Faulkner's major works focus on rural life: the town of Mottson, not the metropolis; the farmer, rather than the flapper or the flaneur. In As I Lay Dying (1930), the darkly humorous story of the poor white Bundren family's journey from farm to town to bury its matriarch Addie, Faulkner uses the experimental forms associated with modernism to depict the impact of the sociocultural era called modernity, and the processes of urbanization and industrialization known as modernization, on poor whites in the rural South. As I Lay Dying makes clear that Faulkner's rural modernism has not simply a geographic logic but also a sociopolitical significance. Rural modernism critiques the conflation of the urban and the modern, in part by revealing how the country is used as a foil against which urban modernity is defined. Understanding the novel's engagement with rural life in the modern era redefines the relationship of Faulkner's work to the literature and politics of its Depression-era context, exposes the social and aesthetic import of rural obsolescence, and suggests a means of rethinking modernism writ large.

Poor White Perennial Obsolescence

In much of Faulkner's fiction, the socioeconomic movement of the protagonists is related to their movement in space and time. (1) As I Lay Dying differs from the other major works in representing characters not in flux but frozen, thus representing neither ascent nor decline, neither progress nor regress, but rather a confluence of forms of stasis--spatial, temporal, and social. Throughout the Bundrens' journey, the passage of time is marked most notably by the advancement of corporeal putrefaction: the potency of the stench from Addie's coffin and the ever-increasing number of buzzards; otherwise, frequent obstacles create the feeling that progress is not taking place. This seemingly static expedition fixes the Bundrens within a narrative of changelessness and suspension--a narrative representative of their social and economic immobility. Eschewing linear time--by, for example, presenting several different narrators' accounts of the same scene--creates a paradoxical sense of cyclically arrested development. This formal and thematic impression of suspension and repetition establishes a symbiotic relationship between the novel's form and content: the funeral journey's many time-consuming obstacles and the novel's presentation of single scenes from multiple narrative perspectives give textual form to the social stasis of the Bundrens.

Recognizing the social salience of stasis reconciles polar interpretations of the text by bridging the ostensibly irreconcilable divide between the notion of the novel as "an almost timeless fable" without political import (Bleikasten 132) and the contention that Faulkner, as "class-conscious as any Marxist," offers in As I Lay Dying a social and economic critique of the society he depicts (Cook 39). The novel's timelessness is a component of its class critique, because this temporal stasis mirrors the social stasis of the protagonists. However, not all readers agree that the Bundrens are socially immobile. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.