Becoming Someone Else: Oprah Winfrey and Light in August

By Weinstein, Arnold | The Mississippi Quarterly, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

Becoming Someone Else: Oprah Winfrey and Light in August


Weinstein, Arnold, The Mississippi Quarterly


WHEN OPRAH ANNOUNCED, IN 2005, THAT HER SUMMER BOOK CLUB would focus on three novels of William Faulkner, I felt peculiarly vindicated. Of course there was some private vanity in this, since I was lucky enough to be asked to participate in the project, but the larger feeling of "rightness" came from my stubborn, decades-old conviction that Faulkner is a writer for the people, that his best work has an elemental power and depth that have little to do with the aesthetics of modernism or the frills of high art. I have spent my career teaching Faulkner that way: not merely to elite university students, but also to innumerable high school classes and to general literate audiences via my work with The Teaching Company. I have never pretended that he was easy, but I believe he reaches more deeply than any other American into the pit of consciousness--pit is a central motif in Light in August--where the pulsions of both body and culture (libido, race, gender) do their fierce dance. The personal and the social become interwoven in such a way that this corpus of novels written three quarters of a century ago reaches well beyond either Southern or modernist trappings. His work shows us still--even an us that has never lived in his conflicted and ghostridden South of long ago--who we are, as well as the company we keep and the bills we never stop paying. Why shouldn't "middle America" go to the bookstores and start reading Faulkner even today?

Most scholars would not agree with the large and breezy assertions I have just made. On the contrary, it was felt--and still is, in many quarters--that Faulkner and Oprah were a dicey mix, a contestatory pairing that was more likely to fizzle than to produce results. There is, of course, no way to know how many new readers came to Faulkner that summer, nor how much they took away from his novels. We can gauge the sales figures, but there is no metric for gauging understanding, or for knowing how many folks never got past the first few pages of these challenging narratives. To be sure, the Faulkner scholars have always known about the "popular" elements of his work: his stints in Hollywood as scriptwriter, his use of folkloric materials and gothic plots, his indebtedness to detective stories. But even those arguments are, in some sense, "highbrow," at home more in the academy than in the public library or bookstore or ordinary bookshelf. He may have elements of, say, Stephen King, but his books have never shed their aura of being off-putting, for the initiated.

While I recognize the value of historicizing Faulkner, I remain convinced--due to more than four decades of teaching the ever young--that books worth reading are dimensional and intimate and immediate in ways we need to understand. Of course they are of their moment, but they also speak to psychic and ideological matters that are of our moment as well. Entrapment in both body and mind is Hamlet's dilemma, Quentin Compson's and Joe Christmas's dilemma, and a familiar quandary for most thoughtful readers of any era. The cast-out child whose origins constitute fate meets us as far back as in Oedipus the King. The community as intermittently tonic and toxic, sustaining and destroying those within and outside it: these matters loom large in Defoe, Balzac, Dostoevsky, Conrad, and most of the great practitioners of fiction. Yet against this backdrop, Faulkner is special. He stretches our sense not just of literary performance and the uses of narrative and words, but also of what we take to be the human, what we think to be the contours of the individual. His novels resist easy access, because they annihilate the comfortable arrangements that traditional narrative frequently offers: unjumbled chronology, a world that stays in place, syntax of the sort we're taught in school. But given that his themes are trauma, belatedness, the convulsive energies of birthing, coupling, and dying, the maelstrom of thinking/feeling, the hatred and violence engendered by otherness (racial, sexual), it is scarcely surprising that he'd seem difficult. …

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