BOOKS DECEMBER 7, 1959
By William Faulkner
(Random House, $4.75)
The Snopeses have always been there. No sooner did Faulkner come upon his central subject—how the corruption of the homeland, staining its best sons, left them without standards or defense—than Snopesism followed inexorably. Almost anyone can detect the Snopeses, but describing them is very hard. The usual reference to “amorality,” while accurate, is not sufficiently distinctive and by itself does not allow us to place them, as they should be placed, in a historical moment. Perhaps the most important thing to be said is that they are what comes afterwards: the creatures that emerge from the devastation, with the slime still upon their lips.
Let a world collapse, in the South or Russia, and there appear figures of coarse ambition driving their way up from beneath the social bottom, men to whom moral claims are not so much absurd as incomprehensible, sons of bushwhackers or muzhiks drifting in from nowhere and taking over through the sheer outrageousness of their monolithic force. They become presidents of local banks and chairmen of party regional committees, and later, a trifle slicked up, they muscle their way into Congress or the Politburo. Scavengers without inhibition, they need not believe in the crumbling official code of their society; they need only learn to mimic its sounds.
In a prefatory note to The Mansion, the new novel which completes the Snopes trilogy, Faulkner says that he has been working on this clan since 1925. We can well believe it. The Snopeses have appeared in earlier books, Sartoris and Sanctuary, which contain snatches of portraiture or anecdote later to be worked up in The Hamlet, The Town and The Mansion. One would speculate that by the mid-twenties, after Faulkner had returned to Mississippi from World War I, the originals of Snopesism, red-neck rascals and demagogues, had come to the social forefront. Perhaps it was some shock of perception, some encounter with an adulterated (because real-life) model of Flem or I.O. or Ike Snopse, which first prompted him to look back into the fate of the homeland, mulling over the collapse of the Sartorises and Compsons which left the field open for Flem Snopes and his plague of relatives.
In Faulkner’s version—it is amply grounded in historical reality—the South by the turn of the century had come to resemble a social vacuum. The homeland drifted in poverty and xenophobia, without social direction or moral authority. Traditional relationships had decayed but there were no workable new ones. Into this vacuum, with a shattering energy, came the Snopeses. And insofar as they are both its sign and product, Faulkner’s description of them in The Hamlet as “sourceless” is extremely brilliant.
Most of The Hamlet, published in 1940, was written during the previous ten or twelve years, and together with Go Down, Moses, brings to a close Faulkner’s great creative period. It is a comic extravaganza, half family chronicle and half tall tale, strung together in loosely-related episodes that portray the swarming of the Snopeses upon Frenchman’s Bend, a hamlet in a rich river-bottom, “hill-cradled and remote,” at the southern rim of Yoknapatawpha county. By the end of the book Flem Snopes, who had begun as a clerk in the village store, is ready to leave for Jefferson, the town where he will become a bank president and then owner of a splendid mansion.
Flem towers over the book, a figure with a marvelous energy for deceit, an almost Jonsonian monomania in pursuit of money. In Flem, Faulkner has embodied the commercial ethos with a grotesque purity, both as it represents the power of an undeviating will and as it appears in its ultimate flimsiness. This tour de force depends upon Faulkner’s refusal to make Flem “human,” his steadiness in holding Flem to an extreme conception which, violating verisimilitude, reaches truth. Though Flem stands for everything Faulkner despises and fears, he is treated in The Hamlet with a comic zest, a sheer amazement that such a monster could exist or even be imagined. The danger is real, but the battlefield still confined, and opposed to Flem there stands as a mature antagonist, if in the end a defeated one, the humane sewing-machine agent V. K. Ratliff. One of the few positive characters in Faulkner’s novels who is utterly convincing and neither hysterical nor a canting windbag, Ratliff provides an aura of security for the book. His very presence makes possible a sustained comic perspective upon the Snopes invasion, and in its own right speaks for the possibilities of civilized existence.
Seventeen years intervened between The Hamlet and The Town, years not merely of honors, prizes, public declamations and communiqués, but of a slowly mounting crisis in Faulkner’s career. The more he kept assuring us that man would “endure,” the less assurance his own work showed. Though the novels he wrote in the forties and fifties contain many fine and even brilliant parts, they are on the whole forced, anxious and high-pitched, the work of a man, no longer driven, who now drives himself. Intruder in the Dust launches the marvelous Negro curmudgeon Lucas Beauchamp, but goes utterly dead with pages of barren Southern oratory. Requiem for a Nun contains some exquisite rhapsodic interludes, but in the central sections, so clearly meant to be dramatic, it falls into inert statement. The Fable, which may come to hold a place in Faulkner’s work somewhat analogous to Pierre in Meville’s, is a book noble in conception but incoherent and hollow in execution. What went wrong? It would be idle to try to say in a brief article, but let me at least note a few symptoms of the trouble. In all these works there is a reliance upon a high-powered rhetoric which bears the outer marks of the earlier Faulkner style, but is really a kind of self-imitation, a whipped-up fury pouring out in wanton excess. There is a tendency to fall back upon hi-jinks of plot, a flaunting arbitrariness and whimsicality of invention—as if Faulkner, wearied of telling stories and establishing characters, were now deliberately breaking his own spell and betraying an impatience with his own skill. Consciously or not, he seems to be underscoring the incongruity between the over-wrought, perhaps incommunicable seriousness of his intentions—his having reach a point where language seems no longer to suffice—and the triviality of the devices to which he turns.
There is, further, an apparent disengagement, perhaps even a disenchantment with the Yoknapatawpha locale which had so fruitfully obsessed him in the past. Faulkner has now entered the familiar workaday world in which you and I live, at least one part of him has, the man you see in the photographs dressed in a natty grey topcoat; and no longer is it possible to imagine him, like Balzac, calling on his deathbed for a doctor—“get old Doc Peabody!”—from his own novels. His creative journey, begun with the nihilism of the twenties in Soldier’s Play, has led him, not as his conservative critics have maintained, to the strength of a traditionalist morality, but to the more perilous edge of the nihilism of the fifties.
Faulkner has become our contemporary. He can no longer work within his established means; one sense a bewilderment and disorientation spreading through his pages, by which the subject of his earlier novels now becomes the force constraining his later ones. How else can one explain the frantic verbal outpourings of Gavin Stevens, the character so disastrously his alter ego? Anyone with a touch of feeling, to say nothing of respect, must respond to this new Faulkner who so evidently shares our hesitations and doubts. But in truth this is no longer the man who wrote The Sound and the Fury, not even the one who wrote The Hamlet.
By the time he turned back to the Snopeses, completing the trilogy in the last few years, Faulkner could sustain neither his old fury nor his old humor. Both, to be sure, break out repeatedly in The Town and The Mansion; there are sections which, if torn out of context, read nearly as well as anything he has done in the past. But they have to be torn out of context.
Nor is the difficulty to be found in the over-all design of the trilogy. That, on the contrary, is superb. Faulkner sees how Flem Snopes must assume the appearance of respectability, which in turn will rob him of a portion of his demonic powers and pinch him into an ordinary helplessness. Faulkner also sees how Flem, though safe from attack by the “traditionalist” moral leaders of the county, must meet his destruction at the hands of a Nemesis from within his tribe: Mink Snopes, a pitiful terrier of a man who spends 38 years in jail because, as he believes, Flem has failed him, and who knows that the meaning of his life is now to kill Flem.
Indeed, one can anticipate scores of critical essays which will trace the ways in which each incident in the trilogy contributes to the total scheme, and which thereby will create the false impression that a satisfying congruence exists between the conceptual design and the novels as they are. (This, I think, is the single greatest weakness of American criticism today: that, in its infatuation with the ideas of literary structure as a system of thematic strands, it fails to consider performance, execution as the decisive measure.) Yet, as regards The Town and The Mansion, such a congruence is not to be found, for only fitfully do these novels fulfill the needs and possibilities of Faulkner’s over-all design.
Let me cite an example. One of the Snopeses, Cla’ence, goes in for politics and in 1945, running for Congress, suddenly declares himself an opponent of the KKK. This shrewd maneuver, apparently made in response to the changing atmosphere of the South, greatly upsets Ratliff and Gavin Stevens, who fear that the minority of “liberal” Yoknapatawpha citizens will now be taken in. Ratliff then arranges that, at a picnic in Frenchman’s Bend, a gang of dogs should mistake Cla’ence for a familiar thicket which they visit regularly every day—and this dampening of the candidate makes him so ridiculous that he must withdraw from the race. For as Uncle Billy Varner, the Croesus of Frenchman’s Bend, says: “I aint going to have Beat Two and Frenchman’s Bend represented nowhere by nobody that ere a son-a-bitching dog that happens by cant tell from a fence post.”
Simply as an anecdote, this comes off beautifully. It has a plausibility of its own. Faulkner can tease this sort of joke along better than anyone else, just as he knows the mind of a grasping little demagogue like Cla’ence Snopes better than anyone else. But in the context of the trilogy the incident is damaging, since it suggests that the threat of Snopesism can easily be defeated by the country shrewdness of a Ratliff—an assumption which all the preceding matter has led us gravely to doubt and which, if we do credit it, must now persuade us that the danger embodied by the Snopeses need not be taken as seriously as the whole weight of the trilogy has seemed to argue. The incident is fine, and so is the over-all pattern; but their relationship is destructive.
There are other, more important difficulties. Through both The Town and The Mansion Flem Snopes moves steadily toward the center of Yoknapatawpha economic power. The meaning of this is fully registered, but Flem himself, as a represented figure, is not nearly so vivid in these novels as in The Hamlet. Partly this seems due to a flagging of creative gifts, so that, for the first time, one feels Faulkner is dutifully completing a cycle of novels rather than writing for the sheer pleasure and immediate need of writing. Partly it is due to his propensity for avoiding the direct and dramatic, for straining the action through the blurred—and blurring—consciousness of the insufferable Stevens and the mediocre young Charles Mallison. Partly it is the result of a genuine literary problem: that Faulkner, having set up Flem with such a perfection of malevolence in The Hamlet, now faced the difficult task of finding ways to dispose of him, as a character, in the two later books. Apparently aware of the problem, Faulkner tries to outflank it in The Mansion by keeping Flem in the background as a figure whom we barely see, though his impact upon the characters is always felt. That Flem Snopes, of all the marvelous monsters in American literature, would end up seeming shadowy and vague—who could have anticipated this?
Faulkner has made the mistake of softening Flem; he verges at times on sociological and psychological explanations of Flem's behavior; and he even shows a few traces of sympathy for Flem, which is as unfortunate as if Ben Jonson broke into tears over Volpone. When the Flem we see—or, alas, more often hear about—is "the old fish-blooded son of a bitch who had a vocabulary of two words, one being No and the other Foreclose," all is for the best in the best of Faulknerian worlds; but when it is a Flem who becomes still another item in the omnivorous musings of Gavin Stevens, then he suffers a fate worse than even he deserves.
The greatest trouble, finally, with The Mansion, as with The Town, is thatFaulkner feels obliged to give a largeportion of his space to material thatdoes not directly involve the Snopeses.Again, there is a conflict between thedesign of the trilogy and what Faulknercan bring off at the moment of composition.The trilogy requires that a newforce of opposition to the Snopeses befound, since they have moved to thetown where, presumably, Ratliff canno longer operate with his accustomedassurance. In both The Town and The Mansion Ratliff suffers a sad constriction,all too often playing straight-manto Gavin Stevens. For the new force ofopposition to the Snopeses, as theFaulkner aficionado can sadly predict,now comes largely from Stevens, theDistrict Attorney with a degree fromHeidelberg and a passion for rant.Stevens not only speaks the underbakedwisdom that has become Faulkner'sspecialty since his Nobel Prize speechin Stockholm; he also betrays how deludedFaulkner is in his notion of whatan intellectual can or should be.
The middle section of The Mansion deals with Stevens' relation to LindaSnopes, stepdaughter of Flem anddaughter of Eula Varner Snopes, whomGavin had worshipped in vain throughout The Town. Linda has left Jefferson;married a Jewish sculptor in New York;gone off to the Spanish Civil War,where she suffered a puncture of hereardrums; returned to Jefferson as amember of the Communist Party; andnow loves Gavin (also in vain),"meddles" with the Negroes, andshares a home with Flem in cold silence,until her schemes lead to Mink beingfreed from jail, destroying Flem andthereby avenging the suicide of hermother. Gavin loves Linda too, but oncemore in vain. For reasons that two readingsof the novel do not yield to me,they fail to marry or do anything elsethat might reasonably be expected froma man and a woman in love, except topurr sympathetically at each other. Verylikely some exegetes will discover orinfer a reason for this curious situation,but that will not be at all the same asjustifying it in the context of the novel.
In any case, this whole section is poorly managed and frequently tedious. The New York locale, Linda's venture into Communism, the snooping of an FBI man—these are not matters that Faulkner can handle with authority. The relationship between Gavin and Linda, never allowed to settle into quiet clarity, elicits at most a mild pity, since Faulkner seems unable to face up to whatever remnants of Southern "chivalry," romantic ideology or plain ordinary repression drive him to think of love as a grandiloquent "doom." The truth, I suspect, is that Faulkner cannot treat adult sexual experience with a forthright steadiness, despite the frequency with which sex appears in his earlier books as a symptom of disorder and violation. Only at the end of the novel, as Stevens and Linda kiss goodbye and he slides his hand down her back, "simply touching her… supporting her buttocks as you cup the innocent hipless bottom of a child," does Faulkner break into that candor for which this whole section cries out.
If the Snopes trilogy, bringing together nearly the best and nearly the worst in Faulkner's career, is both imposing and seriously marred, The Mansion taken more modestly, as a novel in its own right, has some superb sections. Perhaps the reader who is not steeped in Faulkner's work and cares nothing about its relation to his previous books is in the best position to accept it with pleasure. For whenever Mink Snopes appears, the prose becomes hard, grave, vibrant, and Faulkner's capacity, as Malcolm Cowley has well put it, for "telling stories about men or beasts who fulfilled their destiny," comes into full play. Like the convict in The Wild Palms, Mink drives steadily toward his end, without fear or hope, unblinking and serene.
Faulkner begins The Mansion by retelling a story told in The Hamlet, but with far greater depth of feeling. Mink Snopes, galled by the arrogance of his wealthy neighbor Houston and himself full of a bitter meanness as well as a bottom-dog dignity which draws the line beyond which humiliation is not to be borne, finally kills Houston and stands trial for murder. He expects Flem to rescue him, since for him, as for all the other Snopeses, Flem is the agent, the connection between their clan and the outer world. Flem, however, coldly abandons Mink, and Mink, sentenced to prison, lives only for the day he can destroy Flem. A stratagem of Flem's lures Mink into attempting an escape; his sentence is doubled; but he waits patiently, sweating out his blood over the state's cotton. At the age of 65, his body as puny as a child's, he comes out a free man.
The portrait of Mink is beyond praise: a simple ignorant soul who sees existence as an unending manichean struggle between Old Moster (God) and Them (the world), with Them forever and even rightly and naturally triumphant, always in control of events as they move along, yet with Old Moster standing in reserve, not to intervene or to help but to draw a line, like Mink himself, and say that beyond this line no creature, not even a wretched little Mink, dare be tried. Mink's is the heroism of the will, a man living out his need: what we might call his destiny.
In the opening part of the novel, as well as in its brilliant final pages—where Mink goes to Memphis to buy a gun, gets caught up in a superbly-rendered revivalist sect led by Marine Sergeant Goodyhay, mooches a quarter from a cop and supposes that this is one of those new dispensations he had dimly heard described as the "WP and A" and finally, as if in a pageant of fatality, returns to Jefferson to kill his cousin—Faulkner is writing at very close to the top of his bent. The pages quiver with evocation, the language becomes taut, and Faulkner's sense of the power of life as it Hoods a man beyond his reason or knowledge, becomes overwhelming. Here is Mink reflecting:
"In 1945 he and Flem would both be old men and he even said aloud: 'What a shame we cant both of us jest come out two old men setting peaceful in the sun or the shade, waiting to die together, not even thinking no more of hurt or harm or getting even, not even remembering no more about hurt or harm or anguish or revenge,'—two old men not only incapable of further harm to anybody but even incapable of remembering hurt or harm…. But I reckon not, he thought. Cant neither of us help nothing now. Cant neither one of us take nothing back."
And here is Mink approaching Jefferson after 38 years, as he rests on a truck:
"He was quite comfortable. But mainly he was off the ground. That was the danger, what a man had to watch against: once you laid flat on the ground, right away the earth started in to draw you back down into it. The very moment you were born out of your mother's body, the power and drag of the earth was already at work on you… And you knew it too."
Reading such passages in the fullness of their context, is like returning to a marvelous world that has gone a little dim, the world Faulkner made; and then all seems well.
This article originally ran in the December 7, 1959, issue of the magazine.