Faulkner's Literary Historiography: Color, Photography, and the Accessible Past

By Lurie, Peter | Philological Quarterly, Spring-Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Faulkner's Literary Historiography: Color, Photography, and the Accessible Past


Lurie, Peter, Philological Quarterly


IN APRIL OF 1935, the Eastman-Kodak company released what would become the most widely recognized color film stock in the world. At the time, Kodachrome was marketed with the burgeoning mass of amateur photographers in mind, a group who would benefit especially from Kodachrome's flexibility and use in what were already popular roll-film cameras. These included the Leica, a German-made "minicamera" that became an enormously successful part of the amateur photo business, even during the early years of the Depression (and notwithstanding its cost). (1) These cameras also played a role in the development in the middle 1930s of the picture magazines, most notably Look and Life, publications that, as cultural historians have amply demonstrated, played a key role in the development of a genuinely national identity and a commensurate emphasis on seeing. (2) As the Kodak corporation knew, and practitioners of the new stock soon learned, Kodachrome also produced the greatest resolution and duration of any color film that had appeared before it--and practically since. This remained true about Kodachrome until 1990, when Fuji introduced its Process e-6 Fujichrome, the first color film stock considered to have a sharper resolution and finer grain than Kodachrome. In fact, Kodachrome's color-retention was so fine that the company kept this fact a secret into the 1970s for concern that consumers would not buy the other versions of color film that Kodak also developed in the thirties, such as Ektachrome and Kodacolor. (3)

Following its presentation to a mass market, Kodachrome also quickly became the color stock of choice among professional photographers and journalists. Els Rijper has gathered some of the most (literally) indelible of these images from the historical period bracketing World War II in his book, Kodachrome. More immediately, however, Kodachrome also became widely used by advertisers who wished, understandably, to exploit the stock's deep saturation and capacities for retinal agitation (and attendant potential for erotic cathexis) on their target buyers.

In the same year that Kodachrome appeared, William Faulkner published his nocturnal, and thus not especially colorful or saturated novel, Pylon. He had set aside writing Absalom, Absalom! (1936) in this period because, Faulkner claimed, he needed to clarify his thinking about this longer, if not also more ambitious work. Ambitious in its scale and length, as well as in its efforts--new to Faulkner at this point in his career--to engage directly the origins and legacies of Southern history. Prior to these works, Faulkner had published Sartoris, his first Yoknapatawpha novel that, like others set in his fictional county, was concerned with the history of Southern families like the Sartorises. Yet the book that became Flags in the Dust does not train the same critical and questioning eye on the role in Southern history of race and slavery as do Faulkner's later and major works such as Absalom, Go Down, Moses (1942), or, before them, Light in August (1932), Faulkner's first novel specifically about race. Like those published just before it, Sanctuary (1931), As I Lay Dying (1930), and The Sound and the Fury (1929), Light in August treated a time period that was roughly contemporaneous to the period of its composition.

These facts about the production of Faulkner's major fiction are familiar to nearly all of his readers. What may be less well known, however, is the consonance they have with the introduction of the first widely disseminated color transparency film. Important to this trajectory is the move to what becomes Faulkner's overtly sociohistorical fiction, the difference between what critics have often recognized as Faulkner's formalist-aestheticist modernism in his earlier novels and his more historical fiction in works from the middle 1930s. Part of this development included a shift in representational practice on Faulkner's part, one that moved from a highly colorful pattern of description in novels like The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying, and that preceded Kodachrome, to a method that resembled the formal and chromatic properties of an arguably more historical photographic mode. …

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