Faulkner's Indians and the Romantic Vision

By Sayre, Robert Woods | The Faulkner Journal, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Faulkner's Indians and the Romantic Vision


Sayre, Robert Woods, The Faulkner Journal


IT HAS OFTEN BEEN NOTICED that in some sense the work of William Faulkner can be characterized as "romantic," or at least that it evidences a strong romantic dimension. In the 1970s the eminent Faulknerian Joseph Blotner argued as much, and at least one Ph.D. thesis explored Faulkner's "Romantic Heritage"-his sources and affinities in nineteenth-century Anglo-European romanticism.1 Associations of Faulkner with romanticism have in many cases rested simply on current notions of the term, rather than on the construction of a concept. Recently, I have attempted to explore Faulkner's short fiction in terms of a theory of romanticism developed earlier with a co-author;2 but neither my own discussions of Faulknerian romanticism nor those of others have focused at any length on the place and particular significance of Faulkner's Indian material within his overall romantic problematics. The aim of the present essay, then, will be to explore the romantic dimension of Faulkner's Indians, situating the analysis both in the context of his wider romantic thematics and, beyond his own work, in the context of the historical tradition of romantic textualization of Indians.

The concept of romanticism that I take as foundational is sociohistorical, defining the romantic impulse as a vast cultural response to the conditions of "modernity" (and one that is coextensive with it, from the eighteenth century to the present): a refusal of the multi-faceted alienations of modern society in the name of values drawn from the past. Crucial to the romantic perspective is a (painfully) felt opposition between "past and present," to use the title of Carlyle's 1843 essay contrasting medieval with nineteenth-century England. The basic romantic gesture is at the same time a critique of the degraded present and a celebration of aspects of a pre-modern past or pasts (real or mythical, often idealized when real), without there necessarily being a desire, or a belief that it is possible, to return to a lost epoch and state of society. In Faulkner's fiction, romantic nostalgia is deeply involved with the antebellum South, yet the structure of this nostalgia is complex, involving a regressive series of "moments before," the last of which is the preEuropean America of native tribal culture. The ultimate repository of lost value for Faulkner is the Indian, and the meanings that he assigned to this figure can be traced in a group of texts in which the descendants of the aboriginal Yoknapatawpha inhabitants play a significant role.

It might seem paradoxical to claim that Indians occupy such a crucial position in Faulkner's work, when apparently they are marginal within it and perhaps artistically flawed as well. They appear in a relatively small part of the Faulknerian corpus, and it may not be accidental that this portion consists exclusively of short pieces: short stories (although a few were integrated into a "cycle," Go Down, Moses) and the entirely detachable prologues to Requiem for a Nun. Faulkner's Indian characters generally do not achieve the rich three-dimensionality of many other characters drawn from the rural society in which the author lived and which he knew intimately. With the possible exception of Sam Fathers, one might argue that they could not be sustained within the broader framework of a novel. Moreover, as has been pointed out, Faulkner's knowledge of the history and cultures of the Indian groups inhabiting the territory of the present state of Mississippi was thin to say the least, and in a number of important respects demonstrably faulty.3 Yet to dismiss Faulkner's Indians on the basis of these observations would be to miss the point. For Faulkner's largely imagined Indians are in fact fraught with symbolic and even allegorical significance; and the meanings that they symbolically and allegorically convey are romantic in nature, part of Faulkner's overall romantic vision and therefore in a real sense central to his work.

As romantic representations of North American "savages," Faulkner's Indian materials are part of a long tradition that is both fictional and non-fictional, expressed in novels, poems, and plays, but also in travel accounts, captivities and "histories" of Native Americans. …

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