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WILLIAM FAULKNER: The Southern Mind Meets Harvard In the Era Before World War I

By Richmond Crinkley

Harvard University's particular debt to William Faulkner who died in Oxford, Mississippi on July 6 at the age of 65, would at first seem to be of questionable nature. It is in Cambridge that Quentin Compson takes his life by plunging into the Charles River. Quentin whose monologue forms the second (or third, depending on the edition) section of The Sound and the Fury, doubtless reflects some attributes of the archetypal Harvard student. One can hardly doubt that the philosophical debate on the meaning of time in the few minutes before being late to a nine o'clock lecture is uncommon. But Quentin's dilemmas, Faulkner would insist, are not the dilemmas of the Harvard student, or even of the Southern student at Harvard. They are rather the "old verities and truths of the heart." Faulkner's insistence on these verities became a recurrent theme whenever he talked about his own works, and beneath the sometimes self-conscious insistance lay a kernel of truth that gives Faulkner's body of writings a permanent place in world literature.

Probably the most important single factor in Faulkner's success as an artist lies in his ability at once to express a particular culture and state of mind peculiar to the American South and to give that expression universal validity through his art. The impress of the Southern consciousness upon Faulkner's works cannot be erased. The philosophical longing for an ideal society long vanished and the painful consciousness of the attrition of the remaining institutions of that society reflect a state of mind that at its most eloquent, approaches the Romantic lament for a lament which has progressed too far in time past its Golden Age. The coupling of the somewhat unreal and surrealistically horrifying present with an all too real past that can never completely die in the memory lies at the heart of Faulkner's artistic creation. This sense of time is both peculiarly Southern and universal: one thinks of Poe, of Proust, of Lanier, or even of Francois Villon.

At Harvard, Quentin Compson finds his ideal world of the past threatened not only by some rather obnoxious characters who glare rather frighteningly at him out of the present, but also by the irrefutable fact, manifested in the dissolute life of his sister Caddy, that the ideal past never existed not ever could again. In his inability to face the world in its frightening reality, Quentin loses the will to live. His death by drowning in the Charles River on June 2, 1910 perhaps reflects Faulkner's own deepest feelings about man and his problems. Even Dilsey, perhaps, is not more a beloved character than Quentin. But it is obliquely with Dilsey and with the idiot Benjy that The Sound and the Fury closes, and the much affirmed will to survive asserts itself once more as the characters commence their progress into eternity with a day to day battle to endure for the sake of endurance.

Faulkner's art as its best has the intense but understated moral quality that distinguishes many masterpieces of the human mind. As a literary artist, Faulkner wrestled manfully with the problems of the individual and a collapsing social structure which is somehow still better than any alternative. That Faulkner in his literary works never addressed the particular social issues that beset the South testifies to his deepest integrity as an artist. Recently, in a meeting with students at the University of Virginia, Faulkner spoke of his own writings on social and political problems. He noted that the writer, when he wrote letters or editorials or involved himself directly with specific issues, was not to be trusted. "Sometimes." said Faulkner, "the writer says what he doesn't believe, and sometimes he doesn't know what he believes." Continuing, Faulkner asserted that only in his literary works could the writer be trusted to speak the truth from his heart.

The problems Faulkner addresses in his novels are indeed universal problems, only coincidentally influenced by the exigencies of the moment. Like all great art, Faulkner's novels emerge from a sense of the timeless universe of unchanging human rather than from the dangerously ephemeral world of contemporary problems. Just as Faulkner locates the center of a writer's philosophical contribution in the writer's official statements of belief, he also recognizes the individual rather than society as the pivot of moral action. Harvard, product and producer of so many individuals of moral courage could have hardly desired a more honorable or a safer keeper of its place in the imaginative literature of America that The Sound and the Fury. In which Faulkner would have asserted to be a world in which no that is constant except human nature and a few of the marks an art makes with his pen, immortally in a work of literature is no small gift. For this Harvard owes Faulkner at least its gratitude.

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