I recently reread Light in August, published by William Faulkner in 1932. I experienced it as a parading and indictment of the stunning racism and misogyny of the white southerners at its center and I wrote a blog post sharing those views. I later mentioned the book to my friend Samuel, an African-American man in his 80s. I wondered if he’d read it because he’s a great person to discuss books with. Samuel hadn’t read the book because he’d heard over the years that Faulkner was very racist, but he decided to read it now despite that. After confronting the book’s many strikingly racist characters, Samuel did some research on Faulkner the man and encountered many indisputably racist statements Faulkner made, often in defense of Southern culture and history. For example, he stated, “As long as there’s a middle road, all right, I’ll be on it. But if it came to fighting I’d fight for Mississippi against the United States even if it meant going out into the street and shooting Negroes … I will go on saying that the Southerners are wrong and that their position is untenable, but if I have to make the same choice Robert E. Lee made then I’ll make it.”


I told Samuel that in the comments I posted in this blog, I was responding to the text alone and not to the writer’s biography, no matter how disturbing that might be. But subsequent to our conversation I have been imagining the life experience brought to the book by an African-American person raised in the South during Jim Crow attending segregated schools and personally experiencing the demeaning bigotry and terrifying violence regularly served up. Doing that, I found it hard to imagine—were that my history—that I could encounter Faulkner’s characters with their deeply offensive racist speech and actions and not feel personally angered and unsettled. I realized, too, that my own less dangerous life experience might make it hard for me to imagine that Faulkner’s display of racist characters and actions was not a critique—how could that be?

When I revisited my response to Faulkner’s book, I tried to imagine a writer who could present himself socially as a conflicted but undeniable racist yet create stories that holds up for critique and disgust the racists of his era and community. I think that kind of split is possible, though uncommon, however it is not easy to conceive of the complex array of mental states that would produce it.
Evan Kindley’s New Republic (August 18, 2020) piece, “William Faulkner’s Southern Guilt” discusses Michael Gorra’s book on Faulkner, The Saddest Words (2020, Liveright). Kindley zeros in on Gorra’s treatment of Faulkner’s racism. Kindley extracts from Gorra’s text a clause that spoke to me as a fiction writer, …something happened when he faced a fictional page.” I realize how non-specific that phrase is and how little it settles the mystery of how and what happened in Faulkner’s mind. Kindley critiques Gorra’s position that, in Kindley’s words, “[Faulkner’s] artistic commitment to realism undermined the prejudices that he otherwise accepted: In simply depicting the folkways of white supremacy without flinching, the argument goes, he held them up to scrutiny and revealed their inherent ludicrousness.”
The notion of Faulkner’s inner split between racist citizenry and incisive novelist does not cleanse him of his racism. For some, the racist note within the soundtrack of his life drowns out all others and degrades his fiction. Kindley and others cite James Baldwin’s (1956, Partisan Review) comments about Faulkner in which Baldwin derides the not-so-subtle ennobling of the defeated and morally corrupt but somehow, to Faulkner, still deeply beloved Old South.
The fullest understanding of Faulkner emerges from peering through both lenses: the one that looks at the fiction apart from the writer and the one that integrates the two worlds and lets each inform the other.
Undoubtedly, Samuel and I bring different eyes and psyches to Faulkner’s book (what two people dot?) and likely it is inevitable that we walk away with different feelings about it, but our discussion of the book was enlightening and moving.