Academic journal article South: A Scholarly Journal

Fantasy and Haiti's Erasure in William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!

Academic journal article South: A Scholarly Journal

Fantasy and Haiti's Erasure in William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!

Article excerpt

In William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! (1936), a story otherwise bounded by clear and uncontroverted historical markers, the central character, Thomas Sutpen, embarks on a fantastical island excursion--an adventure that accomplishes two related but seemingly distinct things: first, the journey helps Sutpen to erase the social and economic disadvantages of his impoverished childhood that had marked him as inferior, and second, the journey operates to deny the Haitian revolutionary war of independence, writing out of existence the Western Hemisphere's first black national state. About two-dozen years ago scholars noticed and began to comment on this erasure. There were two problems to address: Faulkner's seeming lapse and that of earlier critics who--for a generation from 1936 until the mid 1980s--had combed the novel closely enough to comment in earnest on a range of matters, even questions as arcane as the likely and recorded troop movements of the Confederate army's 23rd Mississippi Infantry, without appearing to notice that historical Haiti was missing. On the question of Faulkner's intentions, some have argued that inadvertence accounts for the erasure of black revolution but Richard Godden has firmly refuted the simple-error view, noting "In the South, Haiti is synonymous with revolution, and ... it is not something about which Southern authors with an interest in antebellum history lightly make mistakes. Moreover, the evidence of Absalom, Absalom! suggests that Faulkner knows more than enough about San Domingo to put its revolution in the right century (686). Godden offers that, although Faulkner "rewrites one of the key facts" of nineteenth-century black American history, in what looks suspiciously like an act of literary counter-revolution" (686), Faulkner's true aim "prove(s) anything but counter-revolutionary" (686); Godden attributes to Faulkner a wish to "foreground the continuous potential for revolution within the institution of slavery" (689). He and many others see the shape of a design that complicates the structures of thinking around racial hierarchies. (2)

Given the general positive thrust of criticism making the case for Faulkner's intentional production of a non-historical Caribbean, it is not surprising that a new survey of U.S. national imaginaries that places Absalom, Absalom! in the center of a discussion of the "Great American Novel" would marginalize consideration of the Haitian erasure (Buell 209) or that a study widely considering the Haitian Revolution's twentieth century imprint on the literary imagination would decline to engage Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! and the implications of his invented Haiti (Kaisary). Trends in recent scholarship suggest that there is little left to say and nothing of enduring importance to tackle, when considering uses of silence, erasure, and the imagination in connection with Faulkner and Haiti. I argue that contrary to the trend in literary criticism, there is indeed a fruitful discussion yet to be had about Faulkner's erasure of Haiti. My claim is that through the use of a fantastical event, Sutpen's magical, single-and bare-handed defeat of rebellious blacks on a Haitian plantation, Faulkner accomplishes the re-shaping of his fictional characters' attention to events of recorded history and by that same maneuver also manages to manipulate readers of even the most expert kind.

This essay examines the mechanisms by which fantasy takes hold in Absalom, Absalom!, driving outcomes and organizing the primary patterns of the text. I use the word fantasy to denote an unrestrained and extravagant imaginative element belonging to that literary genre identified as fantasy and also to denote fabrications invented to fulfill psychological needs and desires. The amplifications, omissions, and insertions of non-mimetic elements, occasioned by a character's (or even the author's) deliberate or perhaps, just as often, un-mindful retreat to fantasy provide commentary on how people in the U. …

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