On the Shelf

The Advocate

The editors of the Advocate have been fortunate in bringing together a series of critical articles on Faulkner that are consistently thoughtful and rewarding. The collection avoids generalities and presents a wide range and clash of opinions, with conflicts as interesting as the similarities.

Two articles represent quite different attitudes towards Faulkner's style. To take the more conventional first, Conrad Aiken examines the various peculiarities of Faulkner's writing as semi-deliberate technical devices that may be judged in terms of their effect on the reader. He maintains, to begin: "Mr. Faulkner's style, though often brilliant and always interesting, is all too frequently downright bad." After quoting several horrible examples he complains of the "overelaborate sentence structure"; this complaint, by the way, is in a column of type consisting of five of his own sentences, of median length 67 words--par in any company. But he goes on to develope the positive thesis that Faulkner's writing is often remarkably effective from an abstract technical viewpoint.

Alfred Kazin, on the other hand, questions the whole modern tendency to judge a style in terms of abstract standards of readability without asking what it means to the writer himself. He condemns the critical attitude "intent on getting the audience to understand quickly, rather than on encouraging the writer to have his full say." Kazin argues that to ban, by rule-of-thumb, Faulkner's "overblown" words and rhetorical phrasing would be to purge his writing of those elements most essential to his way of looking on the world. Faulkner could not write differently without thinking differently; therefore his words and ideas must be criticized as a whole. Faulkner's readers are privileged listeners to "a man thinking aloud." They must start by accepting the fact that they are listening to Faulkner, and not, for example, to Hemingway.

These two approaches are, to some extent, mutually exclusive. Kazin stresses the subjective elements, those that seem necessary to Faulkner, while Aiken looks for conscious technical choices, presumably changeable. Aiken's critique is surely relevent to many passages in Faulkner's work, passages that could be made more intelligible and still no less satisfactory to the writer. But those inspired by Kazin to look with greater tolerance and sympathy on a writer's inclinations will find their eyes opened to unsuspected values in Faulkner's art. Kazin writes out of a powerful enthusiasm that compels a like excitement in the reader. His essay is a brilliant piece of criticism as eloquent, as beautifully written as the best of the work it criticizes.

The remainder of the magazine offers a variety of forms of criticism, Cleanth Brooks' essay on "Light in August" being especially noteworthy. An extended review of "Requiem for a Nun" by Albert Guerard seems to me the best that has appeared. Along other things, Guerard's passing reference to "Temple Drake's tragedy (which is that she is Temple Drake)" is a classic thumbnail sketch of the bitch-heroine.

Short pieces by John Crowe Ransom, Pierre Emmanuel, and Carvel Collins present a scattering of interesting comments and opinions. Unfortunately, a complex and timely argument on "The Responsibility of the Artist" by Archibald MacLeish is marred by the omission of several lines of type at a crucial point.

Least satisfying is a section of an honors thesis by Leonard Doran, who sets up some worn categories and proceeds to classify Faulkner's output in a notably uninspired way. Again, the omission of several type-slugs is inconvenient. A section of Jerome Gavin's Summa thesis on "Light in August" seems at first glance more sophisticated, but fails to follow through any one interpretation consistently. It suffers from lack of organization and a profusion of ideas that do not seem entirely clear in Gavin's mind. The weakness of these two contributions suggests that it was wise not to pad this particular issue with student criticism.

The editors struck one false note by devoting half a page to a two-line fragment of a letter from Thomas Mann, which consists of a polite refusal to submit an article. This might be construed as a gag, except that Mann's name appears on the cover and the table of contents, a summary of his distinctions appears in the Advocate Notes, and the author of the foreword proffers him "Our gracious acknowledgment"--a pretty way to put it--for his (relatively passive) part in making the issue possible. To push a famous name so blatantly is irritating and jarringly out of place in an otherwise professional production.

This issue of the Advocate is certain to achieve the twin aims of all such special editions, to fill the coffers and enhance the prestige of the organization. A question remains: is it worth one dollar to non-subscribers? On the basis of the Kazin and Aiken contributions alone, I would say that it is--to all those who are interested in Faulkner and many, as well, who think they are not.