Richard Godden
Fictions of Labor: William Faulkner and the South's Long Revolution
Cambridge University Press. 1997. x, 288 pp.

Daniel J. Singal
William Faulkner: The Making of a Modernist
Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press. 1997. xii, 357 pp.


Fictions of Labor: William Faulkner and the South's Long Revolution by Richard Godden

In this provocative study of Faulkner's novels from The Sound and the Fury through If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, Richard Godden claims that at the core of Faulkner's greatest novels lies what he calls a "labor trauma." This is a radical re-reading of Faulkner,  based on the persistent examinations of the texts and the extensive historical contextualization. However, this is not a difficult study based on some esoteric metaphysics. On the contrary, in a sense it is very readable: there is no portion of it in which readers might lose their way. His argument is radical, but it is also quite logical. 
     Roughly speaking, Godden's strategy is to put Faulkner in the context of the South's labor history. According to Godden, the South in the 30s were undergoing a labor revolution, in which the old system of bondage was rapidly replaced with the wage labor. This process provoked a deep anxiety in the psychology of the master class, but being an unthinkable and unspeakable trauma, it was expressed only through some distorted or cryptic narrative. Born in a master class himself, Faulkner shared this anxiety and his novels of the period are encrypted expressions of this unspeakable "labor trauma." 
     The "labor trauma" is a prohibited recognition of the inter-dependency between slaves and masters. In the slavery,  a master is an absolute labor lord who possesses everything slaves make. However, it is precisely what slaves produce that provides the master what is required to be a master. In short, a master is actually dependent upon his slaves who are in fact entitled to his property. Daily reminded of this subversive relationship, the Southern slaveholders had to repress the recognition deep under consciousness and thus made it an unthinkable and unspeakable trauma. 
     From these assumptions, it is quite natural that Absalom, Absalom! is the main subject of Godden's argument.  Through persistent close readings of the text, Godden discovers various effects of the "labor trauma" upon both Sutpen and the narrators of his story. 
     Let's take the case of Sutpen, Faulkner's ur-planter. He managed to rise to the master class because he succeeded in suppressing the slave revolt in the Haiti, the ur-slaverevolt for the Southerners. Thus Sutpen is a prototype of the Southern master, who ruthlessly subjugates slaves with his own force.  However, he could raise Sutpen's Hundred only with the help of slaves. Besides, in his labor to build a mansion, he had to work so hard that he became almost indistinguishable from slaves. The implication is clear. Though Sutpen has to subjugate his slaves in order to be a planter, his status was actually dependent upon them. The paradox of "labor trauma" is inescapable. 
     The significance of the trauma does not end here. Actually it leads to a radical re-interpretation of Sutpen's story. For example, Godden explains the real "error" in Sutpen's design as follows. It originates from the very beginning of the design: when a "balloon-faced nigger" bars his way to a master in a white mansion. The interpretation of this scene is essential to Godden's reading of the novel and his analysis is quite detailed and persuasive. In this crucial encounter with the plantation system, Godden claims, Sutpen intuitively recognizes the inter-dependency between master and slave. However, Sutpen immediately represses the recognition and chooses to be a labor lord when he should know its consequence is in turn dependency upon slaves. Thus his design is doomed to fail from the very beginning. 
     This trauma also explains Sutpen's attitude to Charles Bon. According to Godden, Sutpen thinks of his black son only as "goods." Therefore Bon's appearance is for him nothing but a realization of the  threat that slaves impose upon their master: a slave comes to claim the master's property. That is why he persists in getting rid of his son. 
     These are a few specimens of Godden's radical re-reading of Absalom, Absalom! However, his provocative reading is not limited to the novel. There are also quite original arguments about The Sound and the Fury, If I Forget Thee Jerusalem, or "Barn Burning." 
     The main method of Godden's argument is a kind of forced close reading. He searches for the evidence of the "labor trauma" in tiny fragments of words or little ambiguities in pronouns. The argument seems sometimes too forcible, but generally it is persuasive enough. 
     In Fictions of Labor, Richard Godden gives us a quite original interpretations of Faulkner's greatest works. There is one careless mistake (according to Sundquist, it is not from Rosa but Clytie that Quentin finally learns the secret of Bon's blood) and some confusion about the account of Rosa's discourse in Chapter Five of Absalom.   However, as a whole, this is a real critical tour de force and it is a result of his sincere re-questioning of the conventional assumptions. It will make a great contribution to our understanding of both Faulkner's works and his world during the 30s.

William Faulkner: The Making of a Modernist by Daniel J. Singal

In his previous book, The War Within: From Victorian to Modernist Thought in the South, 1919-1945  (1982), Singal tried to analyze the South's vast cultural shift from Victorianism to Modernism through portraits of Southern intellectuals such as Ulrich B. Phillips and the Fugitive poets. In the center of his discussion is William Faulkner, who, according to the preface, gave him the first impetus to his study of Southern cultural change between the two World Wars. Unfortunately, his treatment of Faulkner in the book is too schematized and apparently did not satisfy the author. Hence this second book, in which he analyzes Faulkner's whole career in the context of the Southern cultural history. 
     Singal's scheme is basically the same. Setting Faulkner in the cultural context, he finds two ever-conflicting selves in Faulkner. One was the Modernist who put his native land under ruthless criticism and the other was the Victorian who behaved as an old-fashioned country gentleman and often tried to check the other self if it became too bold. We can discern these two Faulkners in his works and in a sense his novels are the battleground between Victorianism and Modernism which were South's major cultural trends between the Wars. 
     According to this basic scheme, Singal surveys Faulkner's whole career. His method is rather simple: to examine main characters in each novel and explain their identity problems, which reflect their creator's inner conflict. In the examination there are two indexes. One is a figure of the Cavalier, the image of the Old Colonel, his great-grandfather. The other is a portrait of a Diana-like virgin, a symbol of Victorian beauty. By examining these indexes, that is, examining how Faulkner subverts these prototypes, we can ascertain Faulkner's standpoint at the time of each novels' creation. In other words, Singal claims we can know the degree to which Faulkner was a Victorian or Modernist at a certain point of his career by examining identity problems of characters which he was creating at the time. 
     Thus Singal examines Faulkner's  entire career, beginning from the  argument of The White Rose of Memphis, a novel by the Old Colonel, through the last of Faulkner, The Reivers. In his argument of these fictions, Singal often refers to the author's biographical events and thus reminds us of the cultural environment of Faulkner's creations. The result is a kind of biographical work, in which the author's psychological problems as well as those of characters are discussed in the historical context. 
     However,  Singal's strategy above is hardly original. Accordingly, his interpretations of Faulkner's works do not give us new insights either into characters' significance or the author's inner struggles. For example, Singal's explanation of The Sound and the Fury is quite ordinary. For him, Mr and Mrs Compson represent the remnants of the Victorianism, while each child is an embodiment of an aspect of the South's predicament in the 20s. Thus The Sound and the Fury is a ruthless indictment of the South between the Wars. This is all true, but actually it has already been our critical cliche for a considerable time. Or, take Light in August. Singal centers his argument almost entirely on Joe Christmas. He analyzes Christmas' identity problem and highly acclaims his ultimate choice of "nigger" one.  Christmas becomes a "Black Christ," which is a specimen of the author's subversive imagination. Light in August is an apex of Modernist Faulkner, who arrived at the revolutionary insight that the "nigger" is not a biological trait but an invention of the Southern whites. I think few object to this argument, but it is not an original claim to call for further discussion. 
     Generally speaking, Singal's argument lacks originality because of his total neglect of Faulkner's style and rhetoric. He hardly discusses  narrative structures of the novels. Besides, his choice of characters seems arbitrary: even Lena in Light in August is not mentioned. Sometimes the argument is so rigidly dichotomous. The most frustrating of all, Singal often explains away apparent problems in Faulkner's works with some biographical accounts and never searches for the critical solutions deep within the work. 
 Regrettably, Singal's second book is not a mature re-reading but mere enlargement of the too schematized portrait of Faulkner in the first book. After all, William Faulkner: The Making of a Modernist is just another biographical study, very readable, but without original insight.

Copywright (C) 1999  Kanazawa Satoshi