Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Reading, Feeling, Faulkner

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Reading, Feeling, Faulkner

Article excerpt

IN THE MIDST OF LAMENTING THE DOMINANCE OF HISTORICIST PRACTICES in literary studies, Marjorie Garber mentions anachronism, that phenomenon when time has gone awry. In texts, Garber goes on to say, anachronism indicates the irrelevant gaffe, a "vulgar error" that does not amount to any real significance. It doesn't really matter when a character utters a phrase that would have had no meaning in her historical moment or when the text features an item that is out of time, for neither causes more than a ripple in the text's workings or production of meaning. This irrelevance does not hold, however, when it comes to readers, for current practice in literary studies will not let anachronistic reading off the hook. Those whose reading is untimely in this way "do not read historically," or worse, are said to "deliberately and joyously flout chronology and sequence." Anachronistic readers fail because they do not confirm the centrality of periodicity; they do not place literature in its proper context, history. They practice "historical incorrectness" (198).

For Garber, these judgments miss what is elementally fascinating about anachronism. Anachronism happens quite regularly, she writes, because texts and readers often do not fall into the sequencing apparently demanded by history. One only has to recall Shakespeare's manipulations, or even more common, what happens when a reader's time is not that of the text she encounters, to understand just how central anachronism is to the literary experience. For this reason, Garber argues that neither texts nor what readers make of them can be measured solely against the correctness of history. She suggests instead that the anachronistic has its own understanding of what it means to be in time. In so doing, she recalls that "dialogues with the dead" date as far back as Lucian and are as contemporary as Steve Allen. Allen's Meeting of Minds, for instance, features what she calls "anachronistic interchange" by staging debates between figures from history (200). (1) Hailed by at least one television critic as "the ultimate talk show" ("Meeting"), Meeting of Minds thus featured Aristotle, Sun Yat-Sen, Niccolo Machiavelli, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning in one episode, while another brought Attila the Hun, Emily Dickinson, Galileo, and Charles Darwin together for good company and ostensibly even better conversation (Garber 200). A populist view of history informed these episodes, Garber suggests, one in which icons appear as regular people. The show turned makers of history into guests at Allen's table. It turned history into a gathering.

For Allen's viewers, anachronism enables an intimate or at least friendly relation to history: they get to witness Attila chatting up Emily. In what follows, I argue that a similar anachronism is at work in the Summer of Faulkner campaign Oprah Winfrey launched in 2005.2 A first for Oprah's Book Club, the campaign went on-line shortly after the club's first controversy--the so-called Franzen incident in 2001--had been followed by a period of uncertainty marked by the club's disbanding in 2002 and subsequent reincarnation a year later. The turn to a specific reading campaign came in the wake of that resurrection, situated neatly in the midst of its canonical turn towards "classics" that would, as Oprah asserted to her viewers, reinvigorate the literary value of their reading together. Through reading the novels of Pearl Buck, John Steinbeck, and Leo Tolstoy, Oprah's readers were urged to participate in literary history by stamping that canonicity with the OBC imprimatur. In their reading, therefore, bound by their identifications with one another and with Winfrey, Oprah's readers magnified even as they unraveled the canonical status of those works and authors defined as "classic."

Introducing Faulkner into this mix for an unprecedented three-month stint intensified this line of thinking. For if Oprah could not exhume Faulkner, or bring him onstage to press him with juicy questions as she had done with contemporary authors, she could, thanks to the club's anachronistic thinking, make him present to its readers. …

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