Austin Ratner

William Faulkner, the colossus of American modernism who often said he wrote “to depict the human heart in conflict with itself,” was not an overtly political writer, but I know what he would have made of our latest national demagogue, Donald Trump. Faulkner knew a redneck when he saw one and Trump is a redneck, even if he’s redder of cheek than neck and hails from Queens. Being a redneck is just a state of mind.

Faulkner’s friend Phil Stone encouraged him to address the troubling “rise of the redneck” in Mississippi in his fiction (Minter p. 27) and he eventually did, in his own refined way. Robert Cantwell, who interviewed Faulkner for Time magazine in 1938, commented on the historic opposition between the rednecks and the educated class in Mississippi, to which the Faulkners belonged:

The Faulkners moved to Oxford about 1900, at the beginning of the fight of the great demagogues, James Vardaman and Theodore Bilbo, against the old Bourbon aristocracy that had controlled Mississippi since Reconstruction days. The target of their attack was the traditional code and the standards of taste and intelligence that held the governing class together, and consequently they centered their fire on the institution that tried to sustain these standards, the University [of Mississippi]…. Inge ed. p. 37.

William and his brothers, meanwhile, attended Ole Miss. He, his father, and at least one brother held various jobs at the University. Those affiliations were enough to make them enemies of Vardaman and Bilbo, whose tactics, Cantwell says, “were such as to make one believe that their primary target was human reason” (Inge p. 38). To his point, Vardaman said lunatic things like this: “If it is necessary, every Negro in the state will be lynched; it will be done to maintain white supremacy.” Vardaman was elected governor of Mississippi in 1903 and U.S. Senator in 1911, when William Faulkner was 14.

Vardaman and the illiterate rednecks made a definite impression on Faulkner. In 1947, Faulkner told undergrads at the University that “he was certain about what was going to happen in his make-believe county, Yoknapatawpha: the Snopeses [fictional rednecks] would drive out the aristocracy.” (Inge ed. p. 77) Faulkner’s odyssey As I Lay Dying refers even more directly to the Vardaman uprising. The redneck farmer Anse Bundren’s youngest son in that novel is named … Vardaman.

The young Vardaman Bundren of As I Lay Dying is no villain, however. Faulkner writes every character with compassion and delicate realism. The subtle element of outrage in As I Lay Dying trains itself not against a group of people but against a troubling failure in a universal struggle within the human heart, just as Faulkner promised. As Cash Bundren says, “Sometimes I think it aint none of us pure crazy and aint none of us pure sane until the balance of us talks him that-a-way.” (As I Lay Dying, p. 233)

The human heart in conflict with itself: a rational part versus a part whose emotions distort the perception of reality and corrupt the thinking—a fearful, angry, and bigoted Trumpish part. Faulkner maps this intrapsychic conflict onto the Bundren family as they journey across rural Yoknapatawpha County to bury the family matriarch Addie Bundren. On one hand are the magical thinkers, like feckless widower Anse (who, after a case of heat stroke, believes he’ll die if he ever sweats) and his young child Vardaman Bundren (who is so ill-equipped to make rational sense of his mother’s death, he thinks she turned into a fish). On the other hand are two older, honorable Bundren sons: Darl, the poetic seer who looks deeply into the nature of things like Faulkner himself, and Cash, the “good carpenter” who possesses only one modest but progressive dream—to own a “graphophone” so he might listen to a little music.

Cash is as complex as any real person, but “the balance” of him is on the side of reason. A chapter from Cash’s point of view that justifies his use of beveling in the construction of his mother’s coffin is numbered like a scientific proof. Another brother, Jewel, is often described as having eyes like wood; his woodenness next to his brother’s carpentry (carpentry : wood :: thought : thing) seems to reinforce the dichotomy of a rational versus a concrete style of being. Cash tries to protect the family from Anse’s irrationality, but ultimately Anse’s cracked vision of the world drags them under like the flooded river drags under the Bundren family wagon.

There’s a sort of twisted slapstick comedy about Anse’s fumbling with Addie’s corpse, an almost Weekend at Bernie’s gallows humor to the injuries he inflicts on Cash and Darl on the journey to bury their mother. Anse is so determined to beat the buzzards to Jefferson with his wife’s rotting corpse that he rushes the family across a flooded river, drowns his mules, causes Cash to break his leg, then sets the broken leg in concrete instead of consulting a doctor (speaking of concrete thought). When Dr. Peabody finally treats the leg, which has been dangerously strangulated by the concrete splint, he’s furious at Anse and at Cash for listening to Anse:

“Concrete,” I said. “God Almighty, why didn’t Anse carry you to a sawmill and stick your leg in the saw? That would have cured it. Then you all could have stuck his head into the saw and cured a whole family…….” p. 240

Dr. Peabody arrives from the world of science and reason to a scene of utter Mississippi redneck madness, like Fortinbras at the end of Hamlet, too late to set things completely right, but not too late to give the madness a fine epitaph. If rednecks blamed their woes on the educated class, Faulkner associated the rednecks with the decay of the Old South, specifically a self-destructive decay in the faculties of reason and a backsliding against modernity and knowledge. It was his own capacity for close attention to reality that made Faulkner one of the great masters of modernist literature.

Enter your email for Austin Ratner's blog updates: