Old South Bites the Dust

Flags in the Dust by William Faulkner edited by Douglas Day Random House, 370 pp., $8.95

WELCOME yet another dusted off manuscript from the dark regions of scholardom, but make your welcome short and get on with your business. But if you have nothing else to do, if you're in the the throes of existential crisis, you can always justify your passivity by actively avoiding Flags in the Dust. If that doesn't work, you can read the damn thing and claim to have read two novels--a sure fire way to improve your reading speed. Flags is the original manuscript version of Sartoris, Faulkner's earliest novel of the sprawling Yoknapatawpha County he would return to again and again in his later work.

The story goes that after several rejections, Flags was finally accepted on the basis that it be extensively edited. Faulkner, unwilling to collaborate in the task, paid his literary agent fifty dollars to do the job. Sartoris was the result--where the new title came from is still a mystery.

But it is no mystery that the editing was not all that extensive. For instance, certain secondary characters are less strongly emphasized in Sartoris. Their illumination in Flags neither detracts nor adds to the work as a whole. Faulkner is so easy to read and reread, that the few new twists to Flags in the Dust might just as well be so many new spices in an already hot-spiced chicken gumbo, doing nothing for its flavor.

Faulkner's decaying Old South lurks ominously in the imagination, stronger than his characters' memories of the vainglorious days of the South's apex. For what he describes is not the dissolution of Old South pride but its consummation. In Flags in the Dust this description takes on violent proportions as he writes of the demise of the Sartoris family.

THE SARTORISES are Jefferson, Mississippi's banking family. Once powerful plantation aristocrats, but now needing to let their land out to sharecroppers, they hold tenaciously onto their aristocratic facade hoping desperately for the Old South's return. The family is characterized by a savage stubborn streak and a suicidal recklessness, which contrasts with the demure tones of their surroundings. Faulkner's countryside is saturated with heat. The days are endless, windless, dissolving afternoons and slow silver moon of 'opaline tranquillity.' He peoples his book with "Negroes, slow and aimless as figures of a dark placed dream." And his characters' movements are "hushed,...sibilant."


Except for young Bayard Sartoris, like his ancestors, who is abrupt, almost violent. After returning from the First World War, his tranquil surroundings suffocate him. To escape the vacuum, he buys a car and speeds through the old country roads. The speeding car ultimately kills his grandfather; so does Bayard's impatience with life end abruptly in an airplane crash. Even the Sartoris' old "nigger," Simon, dies ending that era which never accepted Lee's surrender at Appomattox.

The beauty of Faulkner's style is his long, inward-turning sentences, like distracted monologues that veil the intended revelation. He doesn't attach himself to details in any precise, coordinated way, but roams about looking for the latent image. At times, though, his wordiness turns against him:

He descended and tethered the team, and his spirit mollified by the rebuke administered and laved with the beatitude of having gained his own way, Simon paused and examined the motor car with curiosity and no little superciliousness tinged faintly with envious awe, and spoke affably with its conductor.

But most of the time, especially when submerged in a character's thoughts, Faulkner is at home in the stretching, disconnected prose.

FLAGS IN THE DUST is like an old Southern mansion. The older characters are the no longer used rooms--cloaked in dust, the furniture swaddled in decaying sheets affords little protection against the erosions of time. The newer wings, like the younger Bayard, are cast in the same traditional mold, but lack individual presence, and only make a mockery of emulation. And as each room's individual history is revealed, the mansion's benign cool-white exterior loses its gracious dignity.

But Flags in the Dust says nothing different today from what Sartoris said almost half a century ago. It is perhaps a slightly better introduction to Yoknapatawpha County because it describes in more detail a few characters who will play a larger part in later Faulkner novels. Scholars of Faulkner will eat the stuff up--comparing the manuscript to the original, chasing down differences in dates, names, places, etc. (Bayard's great-grandfather, according to those in the know, died on three different dates in three different novels).

Yes, despite the fact that the manuscript is an editor's compilation of three overlapping manuscripts--no intact manuscript was found--the scholars will add Flags in the Dust to their literary graveyard, and dispute, one can be certain, the ghosts that fly out of it. One such ghost sums up the difference between Sartoris and Flags. In Sartoris, this sentence appears: "Bayard answered mildly, with weak astonishment." In Flags it is: "Bayard answered weakly, with mild astonishment."