Sunday, March 4, 2012

Light in August in Winter

This past month, I've continued my preoccupation with Faulkner, re-reading his 1932 novel Light in August along with a couple of my colleagues, one of whom is teaching it to his junior Honors English class.

Faulkner scholar Theresa M. Towner writes that "Faulkner shared some of the racial prejudices of whites in his region, but he came to see those prejudices as self-delusional and unjust; indeed, his fiction is ahead of its time in representing the warping effects of racist ideology."

Light in August supports Towner's claims, as it demonstrates powerfully the warping effects of a variety of racist ideologies, which take on the character of religious belief for many characters in the novel (and indeed are often combined with warped religious belief).

We're nearing the end of the novel, and I've been considering some of the various cover images that have accompanied various editions of the book over the years.

One way of looking at the novel is as the story of a lynching—with an incredible amount of backstory and context, so that you might not realize this is the story of a lynching until you're well into the experience. The image on this cover creeps up on you in the same way: only after thinking about it in connection with the novel do you realize that the silhouetted image of a window resembles a gallows.

Faulkner has a way of combining the cartoonish with the dramatic and profound, and I think this cover captures that aspect of the novel nicely:

This one, another Vintage International edition of the novel (and the one I'm currently using), is lovely and evocative, but perhaps a bit too sepia-toned and pastoral for a novel that is, after all, pretty disturbing and violent.

I like the concepts of these next two Penguin Classics covers, but I feel that the execution leaves something to be desired. The wild multifariousness of this one does a good job of suggesting how many different characters and worldviews the novel will incorporate:

And the rough-hewn, folksy feeling of this one—combined with the modernist Picasso vibe—is also quite appropriate to Faulkner's aesthetic:

I think this image is from the first edition of the novel. Perhaps it's meant to represent the home of the disgraced minister Gail Hightower, where Joe Christmas meets his end in all of its Christian echoes of crucifixion.

This cover appears to portray Joe Christmas himself, though he seems too imposing and solid, too definite in identity for a tormented and, at bottom, vulnerable soul like Joe.

My favorite, though, may be this one. Abstract and symbolic like the window/gallows image above, it seems less limited than that one. The telephone poles in the distance may be crucifixes (Joe Christmas), yet they may also be connections between human beings (Lena and Byron). The road goes two ways, and though it may be soiled and cracked, there's more than a hint of green in the landscape, and a sky that seems poised equally between cloudy and sunny.

This dense, huge, rich book—Malcolm Cowley and others consider it perhaps Faulkner's greatest novel—gives us so many indelible images. I can see why it's inspired so many different cover designs. It's hard to capture the complexity of the novel in one single image.


aintstudyingyou said...

Was discussing your blog on Faulkner v. Madhubuti with a friend a few weeks ago. He went straight to Light in August, and now I have a second of your "fractions" to refer him to. He's more knowledgeable about Faulkner than I, sharing your great admiration for Light in August, side by side with more impatience with Faulkner's racist public statements. I will encourage him to post.

framiko said...

Why thank you—I'm flattered that my post made its way into your conversation. I'd love to read your friend's thoughts on Faulkner and race.