Books: The Curse & The Hope

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Agonized Search. All of these novels have a jolting brilliance and precision of characterization. Jason Compson, bitter, narrow and enraged by personal failings, is a merciless rendering of the type of Southerner who constantly vents his frustration with lines such as "What this country needs is white labor. Let these damn trifling niggers starve for a couple of years, then they'd see what a soft thing they have." Negro Novelist Ralph Ellison says that the enduring Dilsey Gibson reminds him of the real-life Rosa Parks, who touched off the Birmingham, Ala., bus boycott one day in 1955 when she refused to stand up for a white passenger because her feet hurt. Lucas Beauchamp catches to perfection the abrasive, unbending independence of a man like James Meredith, who integrated the University of Mississippi three months after Faulkner's death.

The novels also share another trait that seizes and deeply involves the reader: each is an extended and agonized search for truth. Faulkner at his best thus belongs with novelists like Proust or Dostoevsky. This trait in part explains Faulkner's enormous popularity abroad, particularly in such places as Japan and France, where the state of the soul is considered far more absorbing than sociology—least of all the sociology of a remote region such as the U.S. South. There they have viewed Faulkner's work as a series of morality tales, and long before the U.S. did, they understood his novels as dramatizations of a U.S. crisis of conscience that most Americans irritably denied existed.

Visible Conflict. Faulkner's overt, publicly voiced views on the Southern crisis are relatively rare and ambiguous. He was a writer above all, and perhaps he did not know what he thought until he had written it. His novels are a kind of diary of his own tormented inner struggle, an inadvertent self-portrait of a man making visible his own conflict of loyalties and good will.

Faulkner also kept himself one of the least public of writers. He rarely gave interviews, and when he did he was frequently gruff and uncooperative. He secluded himself in a classical Southern house that was an almost defiant backward clutch toward a lost way of life. He often refused to answer the phone. When the movie made from Intruder in the Dust was given its world premiere in Oxford, he announced, to the producers' horror, that he would not attend. He finally did appear at the theater only because someone had reached an aunt of his in Memphis, who thereupon told Faulkner that she was going to the premiere and expected him to escort her. With the negligent indifference of an aristocrat, he did not bother to wear a tie or shave off a three-day stubble.

Shooting in the Streets. After receiving the Nobel Prize in 1950, Faulkner reluctantly began to develop a sense of responsibility to his audience, and also as a spokesman for the South, though he could still be unpredictable and self-contradictory. His most notorious statement on the racial crisis came in the course of a rambling, angry Oxford interview in February 1956 with British Newsman Russell Warren Howe, who reported Faulkner as saying: "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."

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