Book Review: The Saddest Words: William Faulkner's Civil War

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by Michael Gorra

New York: Norton Liveright, 2020. Pp. xii, 436. Illus., maps, chron., append., notes, index. $29.95. ISBN: 1631491709

The Civil War and William Faulkner

Long before the modern field of Civil War Memory Studies became a part of the academy, memory of the war played a central role in the writing of William Faulkner and Robert Penn Warren. The two great Southern writers gave visceral accounts of the war in stories told by grandsons or discovered in informal family archives by descendants trying to untangle racially mixed genealogies. Enslaved boys riding in wagons with their white fathers, and mixed race half-brothers in Confederate grey raised themes of slavery and sexuality that too many historians of their day were afraid to bring to the surface.

“The Great American Civil War Novel” of the Twentieth Century is undoubtedly Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! in which the story of a family’s Civil War suffering is told three times, from three unreliable perspectives. The book’s sales were hampered by its scandalous account of Confederate warriors risking their lives for the preservation of slavery and compromised in their community’s ideals of White Supremacy by their own sexual dominance of Black women and the precarious racial territory the offspring of those physical relations would produce. Published in 1936, the same year as Gone With the Wind, it offered a shocking alternative vision of a slave society on the verge of self-immolation, one in which the sweet smell of magnolias was replaced by that of sour decay.

But the Civil War and its legacy are echoed in much of Faulkner’s writing. In Intruder in the Dust, the story of the framing of a mixed race “Black man” for murder, appears one of Faulkner’s most famous Civil War reflections. Really a view of how the Civil War was remembered a half-century later and how the Lost Cause could not be let-go, the passage references Pickett’s July 3, 1863 charge at Gettysburg:

“For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o'clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armstead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t even need a fourteen year old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain.”

Michael Gorra, in his new examination of Faulkner’s Civil War writing, says that the passage is the “most delusional bit of romance in all of Faulkner’s work.” It expresses the porousness of time in the post-war South that persisted into the mid-Twentieth Century. If time could have been stopped and Lee’s brigades had not marched out of the woods, perhaps the unexamined and unchecked power of white slaveowners could somehow have been preserved. White Southerners were not so much living in the past, they were trying to maintain a façade that the past existed simultaneously with the present. As one of Faulkner’s characters says in a later novel, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

While Faulkner’s wrestling with the impact of the Civil War on the South won him a Nobel Prize, it did not endear him to the readers of Civil War romances like Gone With the Wind. Faulkner understood that if Rhett was frustrated by Scarlett he would have sated his lust by raping one of the family’s slaves, something that the white women readers who made GWTW a mega seller would never have stood for. Nor is he popular with the readers of battle novels like Gods and Generals. As Gorra observes, Faulkner brings the reader to the edge of battle and describes the generational repercussions of the violence, but rarely depicts the fighting that would be at the center of a Jeff Shaara novel.

Gorra writes of Faulkner’s approach:

“In a 1955 interview the novelist said that he always tried to imagine a knot in his characters’ lives that required him, first, to figure out ‘whatever must have happened before to lead [them] to that particular moment,’ and second, how they would act afterward. Before and after, not during: Faulkner typically moves both his readers and his characters toward some climactic event and then works away from it, but about that moment itself he often says nothing at all. [Faulkner’s character] gives us an image of men on the verge of action, but though we know what’s to come we never see them walk into the Union bullets. And this moment from Intruder in the Dust finds its parallels throughout Faulkner’s oeuvre, in which many determinative moments go similarly undescribed, the violent ones in particular.”

With no battle porn, the popular appeal of Faulkner’s novels to “Civil War Buffs” was understandably limited.

Gorra’s book demonstrates the centrality of the Civil War and Reconstruction to many of Faulkner’s works and dissects the fictionalized version of Mississippi that he created. If you have read Faulkner and you are interested in the period, this is an invaluable book. It is largely a literary work, but it offers biographical insights, including Faulkner’s disappointing political opinion that Blacks needed to “go slow” in their struggle for civil rights.

 

This review originally appeared in the March 23, 2021 installment of the Reconstruction Era Blog (https://thereconstructionera.com/), and is used by the kind permission of Prof. Young.

 

Our Reviewer: Patrick Young is Special Professor of Law at Hofstra University School of Law, and he also heads the school's Immigration Law Clinic. He is the author of two ongoing blogs ‘’The Reconstruction Era -- https://thereconstructionera.com, about African Americans, Emancipation, and Reconstruction in the aftermath of the Civil War, and The Immigrants' Civil War -- https://longislandwins.com/immigrants-civil-war/, both worthwhile reads for anyone interested in the Civil War and its aftermath. Prof. Young previously reviewed Searching for Black Confederates, The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory, and Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America.

 

Note: The Saddest Words is also available in paperback audio-, and e-editions.

 

StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium (www.nymas.org)

Reviewer: Patrick Young   


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