Faulkner in the Twenty-First Century: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha, 2000

By Robert W. Hamblin; Ann J. Abadie | Go to book overview

Absalom, Absalom!
The Difference between White Men
and White Men
WALTER BENN MICHAELS

In the fall of 1859, Charles Taliaferro, a central character in Stark Young's So Red the Rose (the number two bestseller of 1934), rides up from his father's plantation in Amite County to the University of Mississippi. His classmates that year, if fiction were real, would have included Charles Bon and Henry Sutpen, one coming from New Orleans, the other from Jefferson. All three, of course, would spend the next years not at the University but in the Civil War. Those that returned—Charles doesn't but at least one of Young's other heroes does—would come back to plantations threatened by Northern imperialism and black rebellion. It is the response to this threat—the response to Reconstruction—that lies at the heart of the Southern novel of the end of the nineteenth and the very beginning of the twentieth century. As Stark Young himself put it in his contribution to I'll Take My Stand, “the course of Southern civilization” was brought to a halt in 1867, not with the defeat of the Confederacy but with the establishment of “negro suffrage” (328). 1 It is Reconstruction that the conservative writers of the Plantation tradition (like Thomas Nelson Page) set out to overcome by imagining that it could be set aside and some version of the Old South put back in its place. For the more important and more influential radical writers of the South, however, Reconstruction was imagined as a crisis that was also an opportunity. As I have argued elsewhere, in books like Thomas Dixon's The Clansman and Ellen Glasgow's Voice of the People, the battle against Reconstruction is understood not as an attempt to rescue some modicum of what had been but to create something new. 2 For Dixon and Glasgow, it is not a modified version of the slave patriarchy and the family black and white that must be restored; it is a new apartheid that must be created. In the work of these Progressive writers, racism replaces slavery, and, insofar as slavery is understood to have divided not only North and South but rich and poor, racism becomes a way to reconcile them. The racist novel of the

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