Louis Rubin Jr.
In the year 1936, which happened to be the seventy-fifth anniversary of the outbreak of the American Civil War, there were two works of fiction published which dealt importantly with that war, and which are still actively in print today. One of these novels is by all odds the best-selling popular historical novel ever published in America; the sales of Gone with the Wind have run into the tens of millions. The other, though it has never achieved the general popularity of Margaret Mitchell's novel, is the book which many consider the finest historical novel ever written by an American, and one of the great works of modern literature, William Faulkner Absalom, Absalom!
My guess would be that for every person who has read Absalom, Absalom! fifty have read Gone with the Wind. I have run into people who go through Miss Mitchell's novel almost annually--all 1,037 printed pages of it--and who could no more accept the suggestion that it has faults or blemishes than that the Holy Scriptures err. Such devoted readers grow angry at any criticism of their favorite novel: it is the work only of nitpickers, or even worse, of college professors.
Quality, of course, is no reputable index either of a book's literary merit or of its capacity for lasting beyond its immediate occasion; otherwise the year 1850, for example, would be literarily memorable not for the publication of Hawthorne The Scarlet Letter but of I. K. Marvel Reveries of a Bachelor, a Book of the Heart, which outsold it many times over, while it would be Maria Cummins' The Lamp-Lighter, now remembered only as the subject of a wicked stylistic parody by James Joyce, and not Thoreau Walden, which would cause us to look back with interest at the publishing season of 1854. All the same, I do not believe that Gone with the Wind was or is no more than a mere popular amusement; it has endured for four decades, and for all its literary clumsiness it is an important work of the imagination, with genuine insight into its time.
Of the literary excellence of Faulkner Absalom, Absalom! there now seems little question. Yet at the time of its first publication it____________________