Academic journal article The Faulkner Journal

Forward Movement: William Faulkner's "Letter to the North," W. E. B. Du Bois's Challenge, and the Reivers

Academic journal article The Faulkner Journal

Forward Movement: William Faulkner's "Letter to the North," W. E. B. Du Bois's Challenge, and the Reivers

Article excerpt

On March 5, 1956, Life magazines major, four-page photo-story on the weeks news was titled, "A Bold Boycott Goes On: Montgomery Negroes Keep up Protest as Leaders Are Arrested."1 Mostly photos with captions, the story's brief, two-paragraph text ends by referring readers to a piece a few pages later: "For one celebrated Southerner's personal views on how to check this rise [in racial hostility], turn to pages 51, 52." This piece, more commonly known by Faulkner's title, "Letter to a Northern Editor," is titled in Life almost like an answer to "A Bold Boycott Goes On": "A Letter to the North: William Faulkner, the South's Foremost Writer Warns on Integration-Stop Now for a Moment," and it was accompanied by large photos of Faulkner himself and his great-grandfather's monument. Appearing in the nation's most popular magazine at a time when Life had an average weekly paid circulation of over 5.7 million copies, this "Letter" may have been more widely read during Faulkner's lifetime than anything else he wrote. It was echoed and applauded in both of the two editorials in the next issue, "Three Imports of Ike's Decision" (Eisenhower's decision to run for re-election) and "Go Slow, Now," and it was thus a culmination of the most public phase of Faulkner's career.2 But it also marked a kind of collapse, especially when considered in conjunction with the publication that same month of Faulkner's interview with Russell Howe, which quoted Faulkner as saying, "if it came to fighting I'd fight for Mississippi against the United States even if it meant going out into the street and shooting Negroes," a statement re-quoted in The New York Times, Newsweek and Time (Faulkner, "Interview with Russell Howe" 261; Polsgrove 15-16; Williamson 309). One person who challenged Faulkner's comments most directly, and to whom Faulkner responded directly, was W. E. B. Du Bois, who proposed a public debate about Faulkners "go slow" advice-to be held, Du Bois proposed, on the courthouse steps where Emmett Tills murderers had been tried and acquitted by an all-white jury only a few months before. Such challenges by Du Bois and others seem to have contributed to significant changes in how Faulkner was coming to terms with the Civil Rights Movement and possibilities of social change, including changes in what Jean-Paul Sartre had described in 1939 as Faulkners "metaphysic of time" (18), and these changes may be most developed in Faulkner's last and largely retrospective novel, The Reivers, published six years later in 1962.

The infamous Howe interview had appeared in Londons Sunday Times on March 4, 1956, the day before Faulkners "Letter" in Life, and it would be published in the US in The Reporter on March 22. In the following months Faulkner tried to deny and repudiate his most outrageous statements in the interview- and also to attribute them to heavy drinking. While many apparently accepted these explanations, many others, of course, did not, most notably those he was warning to "go slow" or even to "stop now for a moment," including writers like Ralph Ellison, John Oliver Killens, James Baldwin, and many others (see Polsgrove 16; Bone; Baldwin). Faulkners "Letter to the North" in Life, though less explosively worded, offers most of the same advice and arguments as in the Howe interview. But in the absence of pointed questions from an interviewer like Howe (or a debater like Du Bois), Faulkners "Letter" seems to minimize the political stakes of his position and advice, calling attention instead to its artfully balanced oppositions. As described by Life's editorial, the "Letter" merely "eloquently te_72.tified" to Faulkner's and many other "antisegregationist Southerners'" beliefs ("Go Slow, Now"). His "Letter" demonstrates, that is, what Walter Benjamin has described as the more general "aestheticization of politics" (qtd. in Castronovo 1450) that W. E. B. Du Bois became committed to challenging in his role as editor of the NAACP's Crisis magazine, as well as in much of his other writing-challenging this aestheticization of politics by instead politicizing aesthetics. …

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