Donald M. Kartiganer and Ann J. Abadie, eds.
Faulkner and the Natural World

Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1999 xxii+237pp.


    This volume is a collection of the essays presented as papers at the 1996 Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference (the one by William Kennedy, author of The Flaming Corsage, included as the visiting writer for the Conference). The essays all attempt to read Faulkner's works from new angles in terms of the relation with the natural world which is closely tied with his fictions and American writing as well.
    Lawrence Buell in his opening essay "Faulkner and the Claims of the Natural World", points out that "all major strains of contemporary literary theory have marginalized literature's referential dimension" that grants literary works "natural content" with its own autonomous field. Buell focuses on a piece of information about Lena of Light in August that she comes from Doane's Mill, unfolding the historical fact of Deep South's unrelenting environmental deterioration incurred by the timber business starting in1880's. Buell asserts that Faulkner as a great harbinger of Southern environmentalist was acute enough to get the insight into the coconspiratory relation between his contemporary eulogists and exploiters of the wild forests, and decide to put "The Bear" and "Was" into his scheme of the completion of Go Down, Moses as a novel and leave the end of the novel 'open' for the ethical issue of whether to choose conservation or civilization.
    In "Oversexing the Natural World : Mosquitoes and If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem (later entitled as The Wild Palms), Thomas L. McHaney tries to clarify Faulkner's ripening process over 15-year span between his early work, Mosquitoes and later work, If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem. While the former shows an example of the stylized Modernist novel with "urban pastoral bent to comic and dramatic purposes," the latter, in a 'double novel' form, dramatizes the entangled inter-relatedness between 'the built world' of human society and 'the unbuilt world' of Nature. McHaney offers us an overview of the environmental transfiguration under way in the Southern land after the invasion of modern capitalism from 1920's onward, seen in such social arrivals as large one-crop farms, fixed share cropping and credit system, deforesting lumber mills, constructed railroads, all impelled by the hands of merchants, bankers, railroaders from the North. Then he draws his conclusion that in Jerusalem the protagonists' desire to fulfill their primitive sexuality, which is the very nature both to Faulkner and McHaney, is doomed to sterility because of their "unnatural" natural behavior in the natural environment that turns out already polluted and perversed by modern human civilized hands.
    In "Unsurprised Flesh, Color, Race and Identity", Theresea M. Towner claims that 'the natural' to Faulkner is human flesh and that "everything else than that is humanly constructed and infinitely constructible." After the examination of 'the natural' in Faulkner's representations of race and identity, Towner points out the fact that from his early apprenticeship days through his lifelong career as a poet-writer, Faulkner had persistent suspicion of language and its meaning, in other words, the relation of language to human real life, and Towner continues to tell that it is the fluidity of language that aggravates cultural and social differences between races, so that Faulkner succeeded in constructing Joe Christmas' uncertain identity as 'a Negro,' a metaphor for racial difference. Hence Towner's contention that race and identity are both 'fiction.'
    In the same conceptual framework, Jay Watson narrows his focus on 'the blood' flowing in the body in "Writing blood : The Art of the Literal : Light in August." He theorizes that 'the literal' or 'blood' with attributes of materiality, urgency and naturalness preserves its empowered relative autonomy "in, outside and beyond" culture, representations or discourses, on a continuum with the world of metaphor which comes into being with the intertwining of letter and the socio-political human world. Still more than that, 'blood' sometimes can erupt its subversive power into a metaphorical field. In order to explain how the literal, material 'blood' acquires its metaphorical meaning, Watson introduces a historical international shift of thought to polygenic hereditarianism with emphasis on hereditary blood advocated by American school of anthropologists in the middle of 19th century as well as the historical facts of high social rootless mobility of African Americans over centuries and the xenophobic immigration restriction laws enacted by Congress in 1924. Consequently does come Watson's interpretation of the killing scene of Joe Christmas by Percy Grimm in his own concept of blood, Christmas' blood defined as 'Negro blood' burdened with the metaphor of cultural construction jets from his dying body in lethal throes and restores imminently to 'the literal' which ruptures the world of metaphor, resulting in unsettling the white community's racial thinking and "Jefferson will remember forever."
    Dealing with the same novel in "Getting Around the Body : The Matter of Race and Gender in Faulkner's Light in August," Mary Joane Dondlinger concentrates her attention on the difference between Joe Christmas and Lena Grove. Though both have code subversive factors within, the former on whose body the identity of 'a Negro' is imprinted endures the racist constrictions and stereotypes that the body symbolizes with the result of his complicity in white supremacy, and the latter, transgressing the cultural code by her escape from her brother's house with her pregnant body, manipulates the performative role of a pregnant women / a mother looking for her child's father to her interests so skillfully as to use her culturally categorized role for a vehicle of "getting around" which has the literal meaning of traveling and at once the metaphoric meaning of "passing and bypassinng the imposed restrictions." Dondlinger's theoretical foundation is that cultural code contains difference inherently, so that 'a subject' circumvented by cultural norms has the potentiality for getting around the regulatory system through the act of deciding how to do with his / her identity or, in another definition, bodily categorization imposed by the reiteration and citation of cultural norms.
    In "Thomas Sutpen's Marriage to the Dark Body of the Land," Louise Westling, considering Faulkner's natural world, takes into account a Babylonian text, the epic of Gilgamesh, whose heroic code establishes itself on male masculine alliances with violent attacks against primitive natural world and feminine sources, and she exhibits the stimulating attempt to translate into the European colonial project in the New world 'the Sutpen's design' to marry the Haitian fecund land and the slave labor of the dark skinned flesh in order to attain wealth and power. Sutpen, she argues, simply copies the violent criminal act in the typical American natural landscape committed for many years by the cultural economy of white aristocracy, where wives, sons and daughters, and slaves--all lumped in the well-known Faulknerian equation : land = fecund = female bodies / dark powers = foul--are semiotically translated into 'Others' to use for the achievement of his 'grand design.' Thus, what Westling presents us is a new contemporary reading of 'the Sutpen story' in terms of the male misdoings having severed the communal bond with the natural world.
    Myra Jehlem shows her unique analysis beginning with the line "nature goes way back with 'idiot'" in "Faulkner and the Unnatural" and examines the literary potentiality of modern writing while bringing into focus the love affair between Ike Snopes and the cow in The Hamlet. Though Faulkner's rhetoric of the text sets out to mold the mystic universe of agrarian pastoral, Jehlem's careful analysis of the ensuing passages takes us to the gradual discovery of the abject nature of the world Ike represents, because of the reveeation of the reality that the love for a hoofed animal or the potential good of Ike, an idiotic and perverse Snopes, at best, could redeemt Yoknapatawpha country whose realm of nature has been ravaged and degenerated by consuming Snopesism. According to Jehlem, Faulknerian mythic universe falls into a parody in his own rhetorics and mode. Hence her conclusion that the act of writing for literature which traditionally used to grant fictional facts moral values is doomed to failure in Faulkner's modern world.
    Diane Roberts in "Eula, Linda, and the Death of Nature" challenges the inscribed feminine in the Faulknerian equation (Woman = Nature) by concentrating her attention on a significant change from the Eula in The Hamlet who is figuratively called Earth Goddess, organic voiceless presence, circumscribed by men to the human Eula who does speak, not with her voice but through the act of killing herself in The Town and The Mansion. Roberts states that Faulkner saw his South destroying untamed innocent nature by the order of the farms and accelerating its devastation by urbanization, and then he also saw his country developing burning issues from the post-Civil War days well into late 1950's, such as anti-Northern capitalism, anti-Civil Rights movement, anti-integration policy, anti-communism and so forth. Roberts reminds us that Faulkner kept concerned and involved in those social, political problems, voluntarily and inevitably, especially later in his career, as a Mississippian and a public literary figure of the winner of the Novel Prize. According to Robert's argument, his entangled, sometimes self-contradictory commitment to the politics of his time not only did create the Eula who speaks and her daughter, Linda, as well--a social, political 'New Woman' of the 50's--, but also did attach a dual nature to Linda, who succeeds in avenging the loss of her mother on Flem Snopes and consequently destroying Snopesism or representative force consuming the good Old South, yet leaves Jefferson in her Jagar without overturning the Southen community of white, male hegemony institution.
    David Evans offers us a challenging version of a historical interpretation of Ike's renunciation of his inheritance and his secluded life enjoying huntings in the receded backwoods forest. His premise to examine "The Bear" in "'The Bear' and the Incarnation of America" is that "nature is cultural" in that Nature stands opposed to culture binarily but at the same time it has to be invested with "cultural forms and values that must appear to grow out of the soil." He illustrates his premise using two aspects in Faulkner's hunting stories; the area, once occupied by wild forests, had been reduced, first by large scale plantations and then by lumber industry and the hunters enjoyed the hunting game in keeping with the hierarchical courtesy symbolic of the convention of the community outside the forests. In light of his own premise, Evans theorizes that the history of Ike's grandfather's sin he read in the old commisary ledgers is not his discovery of the facts but his imaginary reconstruction of the past "on the basis of the slenderest of circumstantial evidence." This invention of his own derives from Ike's assumption that spiritual salvation and moral values are inherent in the innocent, sacred natural landscape and God elected him as a "promised redeemer" for the corrupted past. Evans emphasizes that Ike's misguided transcendental belief is "a synecdoche for the moral historical pattern of American thought" of American jeremiad heritage.
    Wiley C. Prewitt Jr. helps us know the South as natural environs by offering a bird's-eye view of the ecological and environmental upheaval in the nature and society in the long-term span from 1930's to the postwar days of World War II in "Return of the Big Woods: Hunting and Habitat in Yoknapatawpha." Radically diminishing wilderness, disappearing large games, aggravating agricultural depression, diminishing population of tenant farmers after agricultural mechanization, spreading mono-cultural agribusiness, government reforestation and dam construction plan, return of small and medium sized forests--these are a succession of environmental changes Faulkner had seen. Therefore, it is worth noting that Faulkner's hunting stories have "quasi-religious" characters with the mythic and spiritual message that, like Ike, a hunter pursuing only big games can reaffirm a strong bond between humans and the natural world. Prewitt has the power of persuasion when he concludes that it was Faulkner's acute perception of environmental change that made him shift his creative energy from hunting stories to Snopes trilogy in coincidence with the end of the rural South based on the climate of small farm order.
    As has been stated, the juxtaposition of the novelist William Faulkner and the concept, 'the natural world' produces such multiplicity of scholarship approaches; the type of approaches to study what is Faulkner's nature, how his nature is circumscribed by social and cultural constraints, what Faulkner as a creative writer with cultural constraints could do and could not in his fictional world; the other type of approaches to explore the interactive relation between a writer and his environment in terms of the representations, metaphor, or fictional structure of his works, in relation to the circumstantial situation Faulkner was placed in. Seen from a broader perspective, the ensemble of the individual essays of this volume as an entity does show us its grand scheme to assimilate into their analysis the recent discursive crops that the contemporary literary theories have yielded, such as Althusser's Marxist Literary Criticism, Semiotics, New Historicism, Post Colonialism, Derrida's Deconstruction, Eco-criticism, etc, and more importantly, the ensemble demonstrates us how the writer who used to be 'a subject' privileged with autonomous sovereignty in his independent fictional work falls into the category of 'an object' living in all-relativistic world. To go back to Lawrence Buell's terminology, environment, once the "referential dimension" of literature functioning as its background, has now turned foregrounded, representing the natural content, which unveils the reality that a writer and his environment are interacting and negotiating each other incessantly and intertextually inside and outside the body of his works. Another important thing to learn from this volume is that the ensemble of the articles tries to make us reconstruct our concept of nature. On one aspect, nature that was traditionally regarded as "the unbuilt world", in other words, untamed, intact nature as it originally was (represented with the capital letter N ) proves to be "the built world" where race, identity, genders, sexuality, ecological environment, socio-politico-economic environs are constructed and constructible under the power struggle of ideologies in human society, and they are represented in culture, codes, conventions or discourses. On another aspect, 'the natural' assumes such a complex appearance as its components are sometimes fixed and sometimes movable or fluid through the strata from 'the unbuilt' to 'the built' and vice versa. Both of the aspects on nature will elucidate Faulkner's artifact and creative machinery. It should be mentioned that the critical analysis and comments in this book have a tendency to pay the most attention on Light in August, "The Bear", Absalom, Absalom! probably because of our cultural convention that the book title connotes. Therefore, the historical, social, environmental referential facts used or cited are overlapped in some of the articles. However, it should be hastily added that individual referential materials enrich themselves with their 'differences' in them to such an extent that they help wider the time and space involved in consideration and deepen interpretative significance. I would like to conclude my comment on this book with words of praise as follows : this book is a highly suggestive and rich text which stimulates us to think how and where Faulknerian study should be and should go, since our novelist stands right in the way literary study and cultural studies intersect, now in the new century.

Copyright (c)2001 Imaoka Naomi