Southern Expressionism: Apocalyptic Hillscapes, Racial Panoramas, and Lustmord in William Faulkner's Light in August

Article excerpt

Joe Christmas, after walking through Light in August's Jefferson and Freedman Town, comes to view these segregated communities as one panorama for the first time from a hilltop overlooking Jefferson's industrial district, just hours before descending to murder Joanna Burden in Freedman Town. William Faulkner renders Christmas's hillscape as a quite literally abysmal vision, an "open window" technique that parallels what German Expressionist painters had also used in order for their modern cityscapes to appear more volatile--for Christmas does indeed stand upon the precipice of his own unique racial abyss. As a consequence, rather than offsetting his alienation, the perspective Christmas has gained serves only to heighten his sense of racial isolation more acutely, and through this largely expressionistic technique Faulkner creates in Joe Christmas a southern version of Expressionism's "New Man": a Lustmorder (sexual murderer) who misdirects his impotent rage at his emasculated self and ambiguous identity into misogynistic violence. In this way, Light in August moves southern literature beyond the gothic into a far more modernist incarnation: Southern Expressionism.

Although his contact with modernist paintings was limited to those he viewed in 1925 during his brief stay in Paris, Faulkner's artistic career in this period, as evidenced in works like The Marionettes (drama, 1921) and Vision of Spring (poetry, 1921) was still that of a visual artist and poet combined. As Judith Sensibar observes in her study of his poetry, both the language and images in Faulkner's illustrated texts demonstrate his belief in "the intimate relationship between vision and artistic creativity" (133). Faulkner, like Horace, viewed art and poetry as sister arts. In fact, his mother Maude, an artist in her own right, had encouraged her son to become a painter rather than a writer. So it is no surprise that his letters home reveal this emphasis. "But now we have a nice [hotel], in Montparnasse," Faulkner wrote his mother in Paris. "On the left bank of the Seine, where the painters live" (Selected Letters II). His tenure on the Left Bank seems markedly different from that of other expatriate writers of his generation, especially since Faulkner met with so few of them. He hardly mentioned them in his letters to home (letters which at times were, fittingly, illuminated with illustrations). Faulkner would later go on to write of the Chicago art students he had "fallen in with" (22), and about the various museums he toured and exhibitions he attended. He wrote his mother:

    I have spent afternoon after afternoon in the Louvre--(that Carnegie
   a hot sport) and in the Luxembourg; I have seen Rodin's museum,
and 2
   private collections of Matisse and Picasso (who are yet alive and
   painting) as well as numberless young and struggling moderns. And
   Cezanne! That man dipped his brush in light like Tobe Caruthers would
   his in red lead to paint a lamp-post." (24) 

Although Faulkner's experiments with picture-books of poetry ended once he began writing prose, the impression these artists left, especially that of Cezanne's landscapes, was significant enough to be lasting.

Such encounters with modern art might have been limited--as far as we know, Faulkner did not ever view any of the Expressionists--however, his own stylistic experiments with landscapes were not. A "Faulknerian landscape," Francois Pitavy notes, "is above all the image of a state of mind" (92). Previous scholarship has examined the gothic and cubist principles at work in Faulkner's novels; however, far less attention has been given to his expressionism. Bleikasten writes that "Faulkner's harsh stylization reminds one almost irresistibly of the splashes of vivid color, the bold brutal brushstrokes or knifestrokes of the Fauves and the Expressionists" ("Faulkner" 182). This highly expressionistic style conveys the anxiety and violence that surrounds Yoknapawtapha's Freedman Town. …


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