Academic journal article The Faulkner Journal

"This Is Jefferson's Trouble": An Alternative Reading of Community in Light in August

Academic journal article The Faulkner Journal

"This Is Jefferson's Trouble": An Alternative Reading of Community in Light in August

Article excerpt

A pregnant country girl travels across the South, looking for the father of her child; a rootless drifter takes up residence in an abandoned slave quarters; a defrocked minister waits by a dark window for ghost cavalry; a spinster, isolated and haunted, lives between the white and black races in a dark house; a footloose, lazy young man looks for an easy living; a settled bachelor approaching middle age stumbles into love; a dangerously immature young man dreams of military glory and civil order. These characters come together (rather, fail to come together) in Iefferson, in August, when the light flickers "as though it came not from just today but from back in the old classic times" (FU 199).' Light in August is comedy and tragedy, linear and non-linear narrative; the time frame may be ten days or thirty years. The reader is welladvised by David Minier that the search for unity and meaning in Light in August is one, single activity (94). The present reading of the novel suggests that unity and meaning coalesce around a scene in chapter 19, the chapter that includes the hunt for Joe Christmas. Midway through this chapter, Percy Grimm suggests to his American Legion volunteers that he (Grimm) should wear his National Guard uniform, "So they can see that Uncle Sam is present in more than spirit" (453). An anonymous voice "quickly, immediately" responds, "But he's not. . . . This is Jefferson's trouble, not Washington's" (453-54). The voice speaks as people speak from deep conviction (as many voices speak in Light in August) "quickly, immediately," without pausing to reflect. On one rhetorical level, this anonymous voice is the community rejecting Grimm's presumption of political authority that exceeds community boundaries. On a deeper rhetorical level, however, this voice subtly observes that the comedy and tragedy that happen in the town of Jefferson are the "troubles" of Thomas Jefferson; that observed, Light in August may be read as Faulkner's critique of a Jeffersonian legacy in Southern culture - most specifically, its racial implications.

The Jeffersonian legacy in the twentieth-century South has long been associated with the Southern Agrarians, whose conservative reaction to modernity was embodied in I'll Take My Stand, a collection of essays published in 1930, two years before Light in August. In the introduction to their collection, these twelve Southerners declare that their symposium depends on "the good fortune of some deeper agreement ... to achieve its unity" (xxxvii); this "deeper agreement" is the "theory of agrarianism" which holds that "the culture of the soil is the best and most sensitive of vocations" (xlvii). /'// Take My Stand, though it contains no specific program, is a call to action.2 The Agrarians were politically active for a time in the 1920s and 1930s, a period which ended in damaged reputations when members of the group were associated with the fascist-leaning American Review. In the following decades, many of the Agrarians reinterpreted their earlier stands, repudiating the impulse for political action and restating political intention as metaphor.3 They became the elite of a revitalized Southern intellectual establishment, the New Criticism. From these positions of cultural power, they played an important part in the formulation of Faulkner's literary reputation in the United States in the years following World War II.4 By the 1960s, the New Criticism had claimed Faulkner as one of its own: a Jeffersonian and Agrarian (at heart) whose anti-industrial, anti-modernist, anti-urban stance and primitive poetics worked within a Christian framework to celebrate the ideology of Jeffersonian agrarianism.5

Peter Nicolaisen has taken up the subject of a Faulkner-Jefferson dialogue, and comes to a decidedly different conclusion. In "William Faulkner's Dialogue with Thomas Jefferson," he notes that characteristic of Faulkner's work is its dissenting position in a philosophical triangle with Jefferson and the Agrarians. …

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