Academic journal article The Faulkner Journal

Black Feminism and the Canon: Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! and Morrison's Beloved as Gothic Romances

Academic journal article The Faulkner Journal

Black Feminism and the Canon: Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! and Morrison's Beloved as Gothic Romances

Article excerpt

In the 1940s, when the New Critics first established the canonical status of William Faulkner's work, they claimed that it reveals what Robert Penn Warren called the "moral confusion" of the "modern world," which can "look back nostalgically upon the old world of traditional values and feel loss and perhaps despair" (112). In the 1990s, when the success of the black feminist Toni Morrison had generated important new studies of her work and Faulkner's, scholars suggest that, as Carol A. Kolmerton says, "Read together, the fiction of Faulkner and Morrison offers a richly varied and profoundly moving meditation on racial, cultural, and gender issues in twentieth-century America" (xi).1 Although such rereadings of Faulkner have appeared before, the new studies of Faulkner and Morrison pose more acutely a troublesome contradiction in his reception-how can his work "look back nostalgically" upon the Old South's "world of traditional values" and still offer a "richly varied and profoundly moving meditation on racial, cultural, and gender issues"?

What such contradictory accounts of Faulkner's and Morrison's work show is that the cultural politics of the New Criticism, which first established Faulkner's reputation in the 1940s, and that of Black Studies, especially black feminism, which recognized Morrison's value in the 1980s, differ markedly. That is, the New Criticism supported the Southern Agrarian movement and the modernist avant-garde and condemned the "progress," industry, liberalism, science, wealth, bureaucracy, and democratic equality of the Yankee North (Jancovich 71-101), whereas black feminism describes the history of African American women, including their experience of oppression and liberation, and their neglect and misconstruction by established black and white scholars or critics. To explain the impact of this historical transformation, I will suggest that to read Morrison as a great artist is to revise or revalue Faulkner and her other precursors; at the same time, to revise her precursors is to underwrite her status as an original artist. Gothic romances like Bram Stacker's Dracula and Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights provide the intertextual conventions in terms of which I will explain the revaluation of Morrison's Beloved and Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! in particular. Although Absalom, Absalom! has been lauded as the greatest American novel (Kuyk 2), I will suggest that Beloved is a more profound romance than Absalom, Absalom! because Beloved depicts a more significant horror and because it repudiates Absalom, Absaloml's modernist pessimism and affirms the African American community and its traditions. Traditional critics repudiate such generic interpretations on the grounds that Faulkner and Morrison transcend what Philip Weinstein calls their "distinctive racial and gender positioning" and, far from railing "their potential,... achieve it, becoming Faulkner and Morrison" (162). My revaluation opposes such conventional notions of literature's formal autonomy and acknowledges the changing conditions of modern literary study.

The conventions of gothic romances include multiple narrators, tormented lovers, dominating figures, spiritual exorcisms, and haunted houses. More importantly, insofar as the conventions herald the triumph of good over evil or the victory of divine providence, the gothic romance assumes that history or providence, not the romantic imagination, improves social life. An epistolary novel, Dracula, which includes the diverse narratives of Lucy, Mina, Jonathan Harker, Van HeIsing, and others, produces a remarkably coherent account in which the vampire finds peace, and western civilization is saved, when Lord Godalming or Quincy Morris drives a stake through a vampire's heart. In Wuthering Heights, the narrators, who include Lockwood, the London resident, and Nelly Dean, the practical servant, also produce a remarkably coherent account. In it the frustrated passion of Heathcliff and Catherine, whose death ends her torment but not Heathcliff's; the degradation and revenge of Heathcliff, who gradually comes to dominate the Grange and the Heights; and the triumphs of Cathy and Hareton, the second generation, show that in a providential sense the history of the Linton and Earnshaw families, not the romantic imagination, explains their improvement. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.