Monday, July 5, 2010

A Faulknerian Detour

This spring and summer I've been reading a lot of books by African Americans, in preparation for a class I'm teaching in the fall. I watched Eyes on the Prize, Henry Hampton's 14-hour documentary about the America's civil rights years and aftermath at the racial crossroads. I watched Spike Lee's documentary about Katrina, When the Levees Broke. Next week, I'm starting an NEH Summer Institute on the New Negro Renaissance in America.

But this week I decided to take a slight detour in my reading. I recently bought a Faulkner volume that includes Absalom, Absalom!; The Unvanquished; If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem; and The Hamlet. I couldn't resist cracking it open, but I justified it by thinking that it would be interesting to read one of this famous white Southerner's novelistic portraits of reality after having been immersed in works from an African American perspective.

I started The Unvanquished last night. For my project, it's perfect: it's a Civil War novel, told from the perspective of a young boy, Bayard Sartoris, whose father is a colonel in the Confederate Army and whose family life is intertwined with the lives of his family's slaves—especially Ringo, a black boy whom he's grown up alongside.

I know I'll have more to say (and read) about the novel and race when I'm finished, but for now I just want to quote a remarkable passage. This is Bayard's cousin Drusilla, a tomboy who's the best rider in the county, describing how the war has changed her world. As a Faulknerian dramatic monologue, this passage is right up there with the Addie section of As I Lay Dying in its powerful embodiment of an unexpected nihilism in a female character:

Why stay awake now? Who wants to sleep now, with so much happening, so much to see? Living used to be dull, you see. Stupid. You lived in the same house your father was born in and your father's sons and daughters had the sons and daughters of the same negro slaves to nurse and coddle, and then you grew up and you fell in love with your acceptable young man and in time you would marry him, in your mother's wedding gown perhaps and with the same silver for presents she had received, and then you settled down forever more while your husband got children on your body for you to feed and bathe and dress until they grew up too; and then you and your husband died quietly and were buried together maybe on a summer afternoon just before suppertime. Stupid, you see. But now you can see for yourself how it is, it's fine now; you dont have to worry now about the house and the silver because they get burned up and carried away, and you dont have to worry about the negroes because they tramp the roads all night waiting for a chance to drown in homemade Jordan, and you dont have to worry about getting children on your body to bathe and feed and change because the young men can ride away and get killed in the fine battles and you dont even have to sleep alone, you dont have to sleep at all and so all you have to do is show the stick to the dog now and then and say Thank God for nothing. You see?

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