Books: When the Dam Breaks

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Not since its brief awakening after the Civil War has Southern literary life been as lively as it is now. Not since that same period has Southern life changed as rapidly as it is now changing. Political and economic news from the South is confused and contradictory; but Southern literary news snaps and crackles with unexpected items—with new writers discovered and old writers coming back, new magazines popping up and every mail bringing to publishers' desks fresh evidence of the South's literary ferment. In England (where T. S. Eliot's Criterion has called The Southern Review, published at Baton Rouge, La., the best American literary magazine), in France (where William Faulkner is compared to Poe), in the U. S. (where Gone With the Wind has sold 1,750,000 copies), the literary rise of the South looks like the biggest thing in U. S. letters.

Central figure in any investigation of Southern literary life is William Faulkner. This short, reticent Southerner, sharp-eyed as a gambler, lives about as close to the heart of the South as it is possible to get—in Oxford, Miss., a county seat of 2,890 people, 62 miles southeast of Memphis. Historically speaking, nothing much has happened to Oxford since the Yankees burned it 75 years ago. It has a courthouse square, which Mississippi-born Artist John McCrady painted in Town Square (see cut). It has its Confederate monument on which a soldier stands stonily at ease. It has its old families and old legends, its tireless political disputes, its pleasant wooden dwellings, nice lawns, and some of the softest Southern accents in the South. It has new pavements and filling stations painted in tropical colors, new bright-fronted chain stores which are outward evidence of recent community change.

For most of his 41 years William Faulkner has observed the life that revolves around Oxford's courthouse square. For twelve years he has packed his observation into a series of bitter, imaginative, extraordinarily powerful but extremely uneven books. For the last nine years he has been successful, regarded by critics as the most talented but least predictable Southern writer, by his fellow townsmen as an enigma, by himself as a social historian, who hopes that by recording the minute changes in Oxford's life he can suggest the changes that are transforming the whole South.

This week he publishes his 15th book. Called The Wild Palms (Random House, $2.50), it is a wild, outraged and outrageous novel, which boils over with outlandish humor and grotesque incident. Part of it is a swift story, funny and slightly maddening. Part of it is involved psychological analysis mixed with melodrama, just plain maddening. In most of his previous books Faulkner has written of a mythical Southern town. In The Wild Palms he has a new hero, but he has not left the South. This time his hero is the Mississippi.

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