Uses of the Past in the Novels of William Faulkner

Uses of the Past in the Novels of William Faulkner

by Carl Rollyson


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Originally selected by Blotner and Litz for their Faulkner series, this pathbreaking monograph contains a comprehensive and provocative discussion of Faulkner's historical vision. Drawing on the rich literature of historiography (including the writings of R. G. Collingwood and Herbert Butterfield), and on a wide-ranging body of scholarship on the historical novel (including discussions of Scott, Thackeray, and Conrad), Rollyson shrewdly probes Faulkner's dynamic and changing uses of the past. Also taking advantage of his own work as a biographer, Rollyson has updated, revised, and expanded his original book-extending his dialogue with recent Faulkner critics.

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ISBN-13: 9781504029995
Publisher: Open Road Integrated Media LLC
Publication date: 09/28/2016
Pages: 298
Product dimensions: 5.98(w) x 9.02(h) x 0.67(d)

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Uses of the Past in the Novels of Williams Faulkner

By Carl Rollyson


Copyright © 2007 Carl Rollyson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-2991-9




This book attempts to define both the uniqueness of Faulkner's uses of the past and the extent to which those uses derive from, or are comparable to, the work of historians and historical novelists. In many respects, of course, his novels are not historical at all. Most of them are set in or near his own lifetime, none in the distant past, so that when we speak of the past in his work we are usually thinking of a time no more than three to four generations from his own, a time that was still partially present for him in the minds of old people or of the descendants of the white and black inhabitants of the antebellum South. Faulkner's novels are historical in the sense that their concern is frequently with characters who are obsessed with a personal, family, or regional past. The chief reasons for the predominance of the past in the minds of Faulkner's characters, for the tremendous historical depth which that predominance gives to his fiction, and for what he sees as the inherent limitations of regarding the past as the sole determinant of man's history are perhaps illuminated by Ortega y Gasset's suggestion:

The past is man's moment of identity ... nothing besides is inexorable and fatal. But, for the same reason, if man's only Eleatic [immutable] being is what he has been, this means that his authentic being, what in effect he is — and not merely "has been" — is distinct from the past, and consists precisely and formally in "being what one has not been," in non-Eleatic being.

In Flags in the Dust, for example, there are a number of moments in Miss Jenny's, old Bayard's, and old man Falls's accounts of the Civil War which make the past actions of the Sartorises seem inexorable and fatal. Young Bayard's life is blighted by his constant recurrence to the moment when his brother John jumped out of his plane and thumbed his nose at him, and in Light in August Hightower's present is silenced by the thundering of galloping horses out of his grandfather's past. But precisely because man tends to identify himself with his past and to see his past as the sole determinant of his being, the novels imply — and Faulkner himself has said — that man should rather see life as motion, change: to immerse one's self entirely in the past is to remain what one "has been," and once anything "stops, abandons motion, it is dead. Thus for Faulkner, too, "authentic being ... consists precisely and formally in 'being what one has not been.'"

Although this book is not a study of Faulkner's view of time, his nonfiction statements on the subject help to explain the ways in which he uses the past and the extent to which his uses differ from those of his characters. Faulkner told Malcolm Cowley that "my ambition ... is to put everything into one sentence — not only the present but the whole past on which it depends and which keeps overtaking the present, second by second." On the face of it, this statement may seem to endorse Sartre's notion that in Faulkner's fiction "the past takes on a sort of super-reality; its contours are hard and clear, unchangeable." Sartre demonstrates very well that in The Sound and the Fury the past overtakes Quentin's present and that Quentin sees the present only in terms of the past. But, as several critics have pointed out, it is dangerous to equate the author's views with a particular character's perceptions, especially since other characters in other novels, such as Charles Bon in Absalom, Absalom!, express the opposite view of time: "What WAS is one thing, and now it is not because it is dead ... and therefore what IS ... is something else again because it was not even alive then." Clearly, more needs to be said about the exact way in which Faulkner sees the past as overtaking the present.

At the University of Virginia Faulkner stated:

To me, no man is himself, he is the sum of his past. There is no such thing really as was because the past is. It is a part of every man, every woman, and every moment. All of his and her ancestry, background, is all a part of himself and herself at any moment. And so a man, a character in a story at any moment of action is not just himself as he is then, he is all that made him, and the long sentence is an attempt to get his past and possibly his future into the instant in which he does something.

The past is an inescapable part of the present. But this notion is quite different from the one which suggests that all man has is his past. Faulkner believes that the present grows out of the past and that the present is part of the continuum of time. But his statement presupposes that there is a valid distinction to be made between past and present even though both are a part of the "instant" in which a character "does something."

In his most elaborate explanation of his conception of time Faulkner used the idea of a machine which could demonstrate in physical terms the relationship of past, present, and future to each other:

Well, a man's future is inherent in that man — I — in the sense that life, A.D. 1957, is not the end of life, that there'll be a 2057. That we assume that. There may not be, but we assume that. And in man, in man's behavior today is nineteen fifty — two thousand and fifty-seven, if we just had a machine that could project ahead and could capture that, that machine could isolate and freeze a picture, an image, of what man will be doing in 2057, just as the machine might capture and fix the light rays showing what he was doing in B.C. 28. That is, that's the mystical belief that there is no such thing as was. That time is, and if there's no such thing as was, then there is no such thing as will be. That time is not a fixed condition, time is in a way the sum of the combined intelligences of all men who breathe at that moment.

Faulkner sees time as a fluid and malleable medium. Not just the past but all of time is present in the "combined intelligences of all men who breathe at that moment." If he believed otherwise — that time is a fixed condition then all of time would be past, would be was, and there would be no such thing as is. In considering this alternate possibility, Faulkner said: "If was existed there would be no grief or sorrow." The past does not exist as a separate entity in the present but as part of the continuum of time. Thus we know the past only from our own vantage point in time, from our present moment. In a rare endorsement of another thinker's ideas, Faulkner admitted: "I agree pretty much with Bergson's theory of the fluidity of time. There is only the present moment, in which I include both the past and the future, and that is eternity. In my opinion time can be shaped quite a bit by the artist; after all, man is never time's slave. With this and Faulkner's other statements in both his fiction and nonfiction in mind, Robert Hemenway has succinctly summarized the author's thesis:

one can only live in that present tense, ... although the past may inform the present, or sometimes even explain a part of that present, it does not and must not "exist" in the present; it cannot be permitted to determine present reality.

Much of Faulkner criticism would support Hemenway's interpretation. In particular, two books by Warren Beck and Richard P. Adams focus on the author's dynamic conception of time and show the various ways in which the novels call for man to break out of the stultifying patterns of the past or, indeed, out of any abstract formulation which clouds his response to the concrete reality of the present. This study attempts to build on Beck and Adams and to demonstrate how Faulkner's definition of life as "man in motion" relates to his uses of the past. His novels are treated as representations of what in the broadest sense may be called historical process — a process in which change continues to deepen and widen the differences between past and present but in which the fundamental repetitions and ironies of history tie together all periods of time into the continuum that Faulkner and his critics have spoken of.


Faulkner's conception of time — and of the past in particular — prevents him from writing anything like a conventional historical novel in the manner of Scott and his successors. Since no part of time's continuum exists entirely in and for itself, a novel set completely in the past is virtually an impossibility, for the past can be imagined only in its relationship to the present and future, just as the present and future have to be created in Faulkner's writing with reference to the past. If time is a fluid condition, then none of its constituents — and certainly not the past — can stay fixed long enough to justify what is commonly termed an historical novel.

In his evaluation of All The King's Men Faulkner makes clear his profound wariness of the novelist's hold on the past. In praising the Cass Mastern episode, in which the narrator, Jack Burden, digresses from his present into the nineteenth-century past, Faulkner notes:

It's fine the way Warren caught not only the pattern of their acts but the very terms they thought in of that time. ... He should have taken the Cass story and made a novel. Though maybe no man 75 years from that time could have sustained that for novel length.

Perhaps the past can be captured momentarily in all of its fullness and intactness, but as a rule, Faulkner seems to say, it is unapproachable as a world in itself. We get glimpses, insights, into the past but not the past as such because we are always moving further away from it.

Faulkner would probably have admired, for example, William Styron's essay, "This Quiet Dust," which recounts his trip to Southampton County, Virginia, where the novelist hoped to divine the truth about Nat Turner's slave insurrection. The burden of Styron's story is his effort to overcome the barrier between past and present, and his imaginative yearning to re-create a lost age. Styron stands in the same relation to Turner as Jack Burden does to Cass Mastern. Paradoxically, it is the strain of trying to recover the past that makes the past so real rather than the full dress re-presentation of the past that Styron essays in The Confessions of Nat Turner. Faulkner would undoubtedly have admired the integrity of Styron's essay while finding the novel — any novel — that purported to re-create a slave's world problematic.

This is why Faulkner makes excursions into the past that are inextricably fused with his characters' sense of the present. Even in The Unvanquished, his most sustained narrative of the past, the chapters are more like episodes, historic moments, rather than like the continuous, integral composition of an historical period of the kind we get in The History of Henry Esmond. Unlike Thackeray, Faulkner does not attempt the portrait of an age. Historical figures rarely make an appearance in his fiction, as generals Marlborough and Webb do in Esmond. And Faulkner makes no sustained effort to disguise his narrative as a memoir or to employ archaisms — a favorite ploy of Scott, Thackeray, and many other historical novelists.

Faulkner essays an approach to the past knowing full well that the whole of it cannot be recaptured. In this regard, he acts very much like the twentieth-century historian relying on partial evidence — like Oscar Handlin, who concentrates on turning points in history where the past can be evoked concisely and dramatically in chapter-length studies. Faulkner's grappling with historical fact and his narrators' self-conscious grappling with the past's elusiveness also looks forward to the advent of the nonfiction novel and of experimental biographies — such as Norman Mailer's Marilyn, in which he deploys fictional scenes and speculative interpretations to restore some sense of an earlier period and of an ambiguous recent past.

Divisions in point of view are so prevalent in Faulkner's treatment of the present that it is no wonder that the past should be recreated in a series of segments, distinct from each other, although capable of connection in the continuum of time. Hugh M. Ruppersburg reminds us of Faulkner's emphasis on "distance itself — between individuals ... generations ... and different modes of experience...." Faulkner also enforces this consciousness of distance, or discreetness, or disunity by beginning each chapter in Absalom, Absalom! "as a seemingly new narrative, with no apparent relationship to any other...." The awareness of a new narrative or story is even greater in Go Down, Moses, and variations on this kind of fragmented structure occur throughout his career.

Another way to understand Faulkner's avoidance of historical fiction per se while he remains very much concerned with the past is to realize how strenuously he explores an open-ended view of the past, especially of his own past as fiction-maker. Thus Lisa Paddock notes that in his three short story collections he rearranges old material in a new context to bring out different meanings and to give rise "to an entirely new literary creation." Moreover, he "implicitly insists upon the connections that exist between seemingly unrelated components, transforming what appear to be discrete fragments into organically unified wholes." The past as a self-contained narrative closed off from the present does not interest Faulkner and is not possible for him to conceive because, as Paddock puts it, the fragmented form of his fiction "attests his denial of the finality of any given work." Each novel, and Faulkner's entire output, seems designed to resist the idea of placing a perimeter around the past, codifying and documenting it in the manner of a consistent historical fiction. Part of the past can be documented, as Go Down, Moses demonstrates, but as a part of history the boundaries blur, become very ambiguous, and far more flexible than the past in the historical novels of Faulkner's predecessors.

Just how flexible the past can be is revealed in the title chapter of Go Down, Moses. As Wesley Morris observes, "Was" "opens for the reader, almost without his being aware of it, a series of questions about origins." After a full reading of the novel, events in "Was" can be dated and human motivations deciphered, but Morris is correct in remarking that the title of the first chapter suggests an indefiniteness about what exactly happen and when. The one-word title suspends or deters our immediate effort to place the story in time, in the chronology of an historical fiction, for we not sure of what came before or after; we are thrust into the middle of "Was." The story is open at both ends, so to speak, yet it has, in Morris's words, an "Aristotelian wholeness," and an "adequate structure of its own." "In its seeming internal wholeness the story presents itself, therefore, as a privileged, an objectified fragment of the past, but the suggestion of an infinite regression in the title denies this moment, and privileged status," Morris concludes. The past has no privileged status, for, as Requiem for a Nun shows, there is no past but rather a succession of pasts. The implication of "Was" is that "not only the pattern of their acts but the very terms they thought in of that time" can be summoned, but not in novel-length narrative.

In The Unvanquished, Faulkner tries to string together as chapters his discrete, story-like excursions into the past, using Bayard Sartoris as narrator. In this respect, he emulates Esmond, Thackeray's historical novel cum memoir. Faulkner invites our search for transitions from one part of an historical period to another that we have come to expect in a continuous historical fiction, but he fails to provide them clearly enough. Go Down, Moses, on the other hand, eschews transitions by abruptly naming Ike at the beginning of the novel without clearly indicating how his story figures into "Was." Thus the very act of making transitions is refused, and we have to make leaps from one period of time to another, eventually learning to construct a continuum out of disparate pieces of narrative and of time.

There are still other ways in which Faulkner probably finds historical fiction inimical to the development of his dynamic idea of history. Historical fiction, after all, is an aspect of that actual world he sublimates into Yoknapatawpha County, a fictional world of self-made boundaries and histories. Before he created Yoknapatawpha, "he says he commenced with the idea that novels should deal with imaginary scenes and people," Malcolm Cowley reports. In the writing that came before his first novels Faulkner avoids, for the most part, a realistic depiction of his native region and aims, on the contrary, for symbolic, poetical evocations of feelings and various states of mind that are all too vaguely rendered in many instances. It is as if he tries to get as far away from the factual as possible while taking to its extreme Aristotle's notion that "poetry is more philosophical and of higher value than history; for poetry universalizes more, whereas history particularizes. With the emergence of Yoknapatawpha, Faulkner would draw upon actual places and persons for his fiction, and with the writing of his essay "Mississippi," he would bring together aspects of his home state, his apocryphal county, and his own history, yet there is always the principle dramatized in his fiction and enunciated in his nonfiction statements that he is an independent and autonomous creator, and not an historian of the South, or of any realm outside of the one he creates.

Faulkner's imagination, in other words, is primary; facts, sources, evidence of the sources of his creations are secondary. From this elevation of the artist's world above its roots in reality Faulkner criticizes Sherwood Anderson:

I think when a writer reaches the point when he's got to write about people he knows, his friends, then he has reached the tragic point. There seems to me there's too much to be written about, that needs to be said, for one to have to resort to actual living figures.

In other words, actuality, documented history, real living figures (even if disguised), are all part of what has already been said, already been experienced. Fiction, on the other hand, is what is genuinely new, independent, and original.


Excerpted from Uses of the Past in the Novels of Williams Faulkner by Carl Rollyson. Copyright © 2007 Carl Rollyson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1 Preface Chapter 2 Acknowledgments Chapter 3 Introduction Chapter 4 The Presentation of the Past and of Historical Process as Legend and Fact in Flags in the Dust and The Unvanquished Chapter 5 The Recreation and Reinterpretation of the Past in Absalom, Absalom! Chapter 6 The Dramatization of the Past and of Historical Process in Go Down, Moses Chapter 7 Historical Research and the Evolution of History in Go Down, Moses Chapter 8 The Relationship Between Historical Fact and Historical Fiction in the Yoknapatawpha Novels Chapter 9 Conclusion Chapter 10 Bibliography Chapter 11 Index

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