By Errol Castens/Daily Journal Oxford Bureau
Oxford-area residents marked the 50th anniversary of writer William Faulkner’s death on Friday with a reading of his last novel and a screening of the film made from it. The commemoration continues today with the opening of the 39th annual Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference. Daily Journal staff writer Errol Castens visited with Dr. Jay Watson, Howry Chair of Faulkner Studies at the University of Mississippi, about the novelist’s enduring literary legacy.
Q: What should every Mississippian know about Faulkner?
A: He’s probably the most distinguished writer ever to come out of the state – maybe even the South’s most distinguished writer. Any Mississippian should be proud that Faulkner, like Elvis Presley and the great blues musician, is part of our heritage in this state.
He also wrote very intensely – at times lovingly and at times very critically – about this state and its society, so I think we can learn a lot about our history and about a lot of the defining challenges in that history, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries, by reading Faulkner.
He wrote often about slavery and about the injustice of slavery and the way that slavery lingered on to haunt both white and black families in his fiction – the white families who had once owned slaves and the black families whose ancestors had been slaves. In some of his greatest novels he explores what I would call a kind of “tortured legacy” that’s handed to us in the 20th century from slavery. “Absalom, Absalom!” and “Go Down, Moses” are just two of his most powerful novels to deal with that legacy.
Q: Where does one begin to build a Faulkner literacy?
A: I would suggest to someone just encountering Faulkner for the first time maybe to start with the short stories. There is a very wonderful, very large volume that has 45 of his best-known stories in that collection. It’s a wonderful way to get a feel for his world, but in smaller doses.
He writes about all aspects of his world – his fictional Yoknapatawpha County and his fictional Jefferson; he writes about the Native American histories of the region; he includes some stories that are set in other parts of the country and the world, so you can get a sense of the breadth of his work without necessarily diving into a huge, ambitious novel from reading the collected stories.
If you want to experience great Faulkner, if you want to start with a masterpiece, the one I would recommend is “Light in August,” which of his five or six undisputed great, great novels is the most readable, the most accessible. It’s relatively straightforward; it kind of reads like a big, rich, 19th-century novel – very, very character driven and plot driven. That’s a wonderful place to start if you want to see Faulkner at the top of his game.
Q: North Mississippi shaped Faulkner. How has he shaped north Mississippi?
A: I think he helped give north Mississippi an understanding of itself in the sense that, though it’s had a difficult history, it’s had a coherent history. Over the course of his career, the stories that he told wove together to create a sense of that history.
In a way it’s incredibly ironic but also fitting that he died so shortly before the James Meredith integration of the university. I think Faulkner, in a way, helped prepare north Mississippi for the civil rights movement and for racial change and racial progress with the way that he looked at race relations in the 20th century and didn’t flinch. I think he made it clear that Mississippi was going to have to confront itself and its history, and his fiction led the way for that. That’s part of what he’s given us in the immediate aftermath of his death.
In the years since, he’s also certainly given the town of Oxford a sense of its own identity. I do think that part of the way that Oxford understands itself now is that it was the kind of place that could generate a William Faulkner, so when people want to encounter Faulkner and his legacy, they come to Oxford to encounter that.