Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

The Wages of Pulp: The Use and Abuse of Fiction in William Faulkner's the Wild Palms

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

The Wages of Pulp: The Use and Abuse of Fiction in William Faulkner's the Wild Palms

Article excerpt

Pulp: something without strength or in a condition of fatigue or nervous exhaustion; a magazine or book using rough-surfaced paper made of wood pulp and often dealing with sensational material; tawdry or sensational writing.

Cunning: art, skill, dexterity; skill in devising or using indirect or subtle methods; ability to mislead, trap, or escape an enemy or opponent.

"I am the wages of pulp."

--Dorothy Allison, Skin: Talking About Sex, Class & Literature(1)

The Critical debate surrounding William Faulkner's The Wild Palms (1939)(2) centers around whether "Wild Palms" and "Old Man," which run in alternating chapters, form an integrated whole. While many early reviewers were not overly disturbed by, or even applauded, Faulkner's juxtaposition of these two stories, it later became a source of controversy, damaging the novel's reputation.(3) Initially, though, The Wild Palms enjoyed relative commercial and critical success. Tom Dardis observes that of the four Faulkner novels published between 1938 and 1942 only one "had anything approaching a reasonable sale. This was The Wild Palms of 1939, which actually reached the number eight slot on the New York Times Best Seller List and wound up selling about 15,000 copies."(4) Moreover, there was also a great deal of praise for the novel, with many claiming that it was one of Faulkner's best.(5) And those reviewers who had reservations about the novel tended to find it sinister but compelling, dwelling so much on its supposed perversions that they probably boosted its sales.(6)

The eventual decline of the novel's reputation can be attributed in large part to Malcolm Cowley's The Portable Faulkner (1946). Cowley's decision to include only "Old Man" gave credence to the notion that the comic story of the Tall Convict was separate from (and superior to) the pathetic saga of Harry and Charlotte.(7) Consequently, in 1948 there were separate publications of "Wild Palms" and "Old Man" and, even worse, in 1954 there was an edition which included both stories but did not alternate the chapters.(8) The novel's title, which was pushed on Faulkner by his publisher, also reinforces the idea that the stories are separate works which compete with instead of complement each other; furthermore, if critics have tended to regard "Old Man" as the aesthetically superior story, then the title confirms the equally accepted notion that "Wild Palms" is somehow more central to the novel's meaning.(9)

In his William Faulkner's The Wild Palms: A Study (1975), Thomas L. McHaney, following the lead of critics like Irving Howe, W. R. Moses, and Joseph J. Moldenhauer, attempts to establish the novel's basic unity.(10) McHaney's examination is invaluable, but he spends much of his time identifying the three "major strata of allusion that lie beneath, and give structure and meaning to, the connected plots."(11) This preoccupation with source material prevents McHaney from fully making his case that the "Wild Palms" and "Old Man" are something more than casually linked stories. Indeed, it is not until chapter 7 that he explains how the two stories work in tandem. And even McHaney, who makes the case for the essential "unity" of the novel, argues that "Wild Palms" contains the "main plot of the book" (pp. xiii-xiv). But if "Wild Palms" and "Old Man" do work in tandem, then neither story can be credited with presenting the main plot. Moreover, by alternating these two very different tales, Faulkner deliberately minimizes the role of plot and emphasizes the role of fiction-making and reading. The alternating chapters of The Wild Palms do not encourage the reader to ask "What happens next?" so much as two other questions: "How could these tales possibly be related?" and, most of all, "Why would a story (two stories?) be told this way?"

As McHaney and others have shown, the first of the two questions is the easier one to answer. While "Wild Palms" is a seamy story of illicit love and abortion, and "Old Man" is a comic, even mythic, tale of one man's battle with the violent forces of nature, both stories ultimately focus on individuals who renounce freedom, love, and responsibility for the security of confinement. …

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