Over the weekend, I was very excited to discover that my friend Peter Stephens, of Slow Reads, had -- like me -- just finished William Faulkner's "Absalom, Absalom!" and was willing to have a conversation with me about this and other books by Faulkner, and about slavery and racism as legacies that still affect American society. Peter is an English teacher who lives in Virginia, while I'm a Yankee with a great appreciation for southern literature but no direct experience of what it's like to live in the south - and the deep south of Faulkner's books in particular. We've been online friends for six or seven years, but we've never met in person, and we're both really looking forward to exploring these topics together on our blogs. We'll try to do this in a way that will be interesting to people who haven't read these books. In the spirit of Peter's "Slow Reading" these posts may be a bit longer than Cassandra's usual, but we hope you'll come along with us. We'll be posting this conversation, as it develops, on both our blogs, with other posts in-between.
Part 1: A Reader's Dream
Peter, I've been on a little Faulkner kick this summer: I read this one, and "Light in August," neither of which I'd read before, and plan to read "The Sound and the Fury" and "As I Lay Dying" next - these are both books I was assigned in high school. I remember being impressed by them but I don't even recall the plots! But "Absalom, Absalom!" stunned me in so many ways. Maybe even though the civil rights struggle was in full swing when I was reading southern literature as an idealistic young person, the characters still felt very removed from the reality I knew. Now that I'm in my fifties and have seen human racism and hatred in many forms, the rose-colored glasses are definitely off, but Faulkner still plunges me into a kind of human darkness and a part of American culture I find hard to truly grasp. The book cover of the original edition captures that feeling well...I think I actually identified some with the character of Shreve, a northern boy who's being told this story by Quentin Compson, his roommate at Harvard.
I could hardly finish your letter before writing you back. It's a reader's dream: I finish one of the few books that wants to bring on something physical, like a headache or a baby, for all the labor I put into it, and I learn that one of my favorite readers (and I don't mean of only my writing) has just read it, too. It's like we're twins and didn't know it – maybe twin mothers to a single child. I'll play Absalom, and you can be Absalom!
Or you're Shreve, and I'm Quentin, Faulkner casting us by our place: you, like Shreve (as you suggest), from both Canada and New England, and I a child of the Old South, though (as you say) not the Deep South of Quentin's Mississippi, the two (Quentin and Shreve) shivering in a Harvard dorm together one snowy night in 1910 for the last half of the novel, Shreve (he must have heard it from Quentin – who the hell knows how many times they've told it back and forth by the time the reader arrives) telling Quentin what Quentin's father told Quentin that Grandfather told him (Quentin's father) about what Thomas Sutpen told him (Grandfather) about himself (Sutpen (“'The Demon,' Shreve said)), Sutpen finally telling somebody in Jefferson about his childhood, his traveling from western Virginia to Tidewater, Virginia (where I'm from, though now I live in Northern Virginia, or as my aunt who co-authored the Virginia history textbook I read in seventh grade condoning slavery would call it, “Upper Virginia” – the utterance of “North” or “Northern” with “Virginia” as little countenanced here as the faces (and even the horses' faces) of our Confederate statues are from that polar, poles-apart compass point) where he and his siblings see “the first black man, slave, they had ever seen . . .” with his “mouth loud with laughing and full of teeth like tombstones,” and he (Sutpen) being dissed by the black man in the monkey suit at the front door of the plantation's big house, and Grandfather (and, through him, us, the four of us – Quentin, Shreve, Peter, and Beth) collocating Sutpen's past with his and his West Indian slaves' mud-wrestling and his (Sutpen's, yes and Quentin's) eventual doom.
The funny thing is, Sutpen tells the story to Grandfather only to pass the time. Everyone else who tells it – Aunt Rosa, Grandfather, Father, Quentin, Shreve, Peter, and even you, Beth (“. . . since it did not matter (and possibly neither of them conscious of the distinction) which one had been doing the talking . . . Charles-Shreve and Quentin-Henry”) – tells it as therapy, as a fire hose with the story as water or maybe as the fire itself, the pump having surceased and surrendered before the War started or even before Sutphen's heart started pumping - doomed maybe from the womb - or tells it as a futile means of escape, as Mercury (the planet) might talk fast to divert the sun long enough to escape it or at least to gain some perspective by pretending to divert it, Virginia and Harvard and Vermont and maybe even Canada and the twenty-first century themselves caught in the orbit of Jefferson and Sutpen's Hundred and the War and the injustice of slavery, the institution's wickedness greater than my aunt's textbook would allow but not as black and white as the textbooks I would read later paint it but worse than black-and-white wicked for its convolution, for (for instance) Sutpen's two sons, the white Henry (Absalom,) and the mulatto Charles (Absalom!) who destroy each other probably even before they know they're brothers and before they understand the incest they both contemplate but which their sister is willing to accept, and maybe even before they (Absalom, Absalom!) ever meet or are born.
I'm with child to hear about your own experience with the book, Beth; I shouldn't presume to speak for you. And for your part, please don't get me wrong. To quote Quentin's last words, I don't hate the South. “I dont. I dont! I dont hate it! I dont hate it!”