Academic journal article The Faulkner Journal

The City Specter: William Faulkner and the Threat of Urban Encroachment

Academic journal article The Faulkner Journal

The City Specter: William Faulkner and the Threat of Urban Encroachment

Article excerpt

Beginning with Sartoris I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it. . . . It opened up a gold mine of other peoples, so I created a cosmos of my own.

-William Faulkner, "The Art of Fiction XII" (52)

This famous quotation from William Faulkner's 1956 interview with Jean Stein for the Paris Review sets forth a spatial model for Yoknapatawpha County that is both insular and granthose. By proclaiming his region's self-containment in a postage stamp, the writer, like a few of his most memorable characters and several of his most fervent advocates, appears to promote the idea of Northern Mississippi as a singular place cordoned off from the world, detached from the rising century's preoccupation with city life and the social upheavals that went along with it.1 This particular spatial interpretation is one that attracted many of Faulkner's Agrarian critics, who expressly sought a "valorization of rural life" that by the strength of its merit would condemn the metropolis outright - a doubly bound aim that Susan Willis, in her essay, "Aesthetics of the Rural Slum," describes as the textbook definition of antimodernization (84). Using Cleanth Brooks as her example of a New Critic who was limited by this kind of agrarian ideology, Willis describes how this sequestration of the rural from the urban is problematic because it leaves the rural as "nothing more than the city's binary opposite" (85).

Far from existing in true isolation, however, the integral strength and poetic effect of Yoknapatawpha's rural insularity is, in fact, founded in its prevalent and increasingly open confrontations with the modern metropolis's emergent paradigms.2 Faulkner's successful presentation of "modern" consciousness in rural subjects engages northern Mississippi not as an alternative universe, sequestered from time, but as a conjunction of the rural in dialectic with the urban from which Faulkner could dramatize the modes of resistance and accommodation to modernity that his characters inevitably undertake. In other words, instead of merely seeing the rural South as a counter narrative to Northern industrialization, as the Agrarians prefer, Yoknapatawpha should be considered as a critical representation of how we might more fully imagine the development of early- twentieth-century urbanism in the United States. Faulkner's "rural" writing demonstrates that modernity is not something that purely, or even figuratively, happened in the city and to the rural; it emerged when these ideologically bound geographies sought and/or were forced to confront one another.

In spite of the habitual sleepiness of Jefferson, many of the ecological disturbances to the cosmos are evidence of what Philip Weinstein classifies as "vintage early twentieth-century modernism" - the effects of the "too-fast" (cars, airplanes, industrial modernization, and moral expethency) waging assault on the "too-slow" (traditional modes of transportation, production, and social relations [21]). Citing tragic speed enthusiasts Bayard Sartoris and Temple Drake and perpetual stragglers Benjy and Quentin Compson, Weinstein places Yoknapatawpha's residents among the rarified pantheon of high modernist - velocity-troubled - protagonists. Within such a configuration, Faulkner's country folk sit remarkably comfortably alongside more cosmopolitan figures such as Prufrock, Dalloway, and Dedalus.

Yet, if it is Faulkner's concern with the variable pace of time that identifies him as part of a canonized literary movement, what sets him apart is the vigorous attention he pays to the repercussions of modernism on the too-slow side of the equation. What does it mean for a slow-moving region to confront an infectious national need for speed? Leigh Anne Duck, in her book, The Nations Region, sees this confrontation as a modernist emanation of the gothic. She differentiates this from the traditional eighteenth-century modes of the genre by pointing out that, instead of the typical psychosocial horrors being contained in "distinct chronotopes," "modernist texts represent gothic emergences - sudden perceptions of haunted or shifting time, spectral or vertiginous space - within a recognizable, even mimetic, social space" (151). …

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