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The Trauma of the Civil War Lives On in Faulkner’s Fiction

But these are relatively small complaints. Gorra’s well-conceived, exhaustively researched book probes history’s refusals. He begins with “Intruder in the Dust” and one character’s striking reverie about the moments before the ill-fated charge that led to the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg. Faulkner writes, “For every Southern boy” there is a fantasy about the instant before loss became inevitable, the “still not yet” when “it’s all in the balance.” This fixation on the horizon of defeat, Gorra maintains, is part of the collective delusion the South called the Lost Cause. The noble suffering of genteel Southern ladies, the Confederacy led by “gallant men of principle,” slavery as a necessary and essentially benign institution — these elements distort into a mythologized Southern history, what Gorra describes as a “Valhalla” that “snapped the threads of time itself, so reluctant has their society been to accept that war’s verdict.”

That verdict, of course, was the end of slavery, mourned and avenged ever after. Faulkner did not shrink from this reality. As Gorra writes, “Few historians and fewer novelists of his day saw the hobbling vainglorious past so clearly, and few of them made slavery so central to their accounts of the war.” Those vainglorious texts include “The Clansman” (1905), chock-full of Negro rapists, pure white women and a heroic Ku Klux Klan — and the inspiration for the film “The Birth of a Nation” (1915). In the years after, antebellum fairy tales proliferated, works like “Gone With the Wind,” with its hoop skirts and happy darkies. By the time of that novel’s publication in the 1930s, North and South alike had recast the war as a battle over states’ rights, clearing a path for white supremacy to gallop forward into Jim Crow and beyond.

In his urgency to make the case for Faulkner’s merits, however, Gorra overcorrects with regard to his faults. What to do about the Faulkner who famously said of the civil rights struggle: “Go slow now.” And worse: “If it came to fighting I’d fight for Mississippi against the United States even if it meant going out into the streets and shooting Negroes.” Gorra isn’t an apologist, but he does go to great lengths to avoid saying the obvious. He mentions Faulkner’s infamous alcoholism as a factor that may have influenced his more incendiary comments. Of Faulkner’s often lacking depictions of Black characters, Gorra writes, “Still that absence isn’t precisely a lacuna, a hole in his thinking. … Once again we need to ask what Faulkner isn’t writing here. We need to read for the unspoken, for the stories that peep around the edges of the ones he’s chosen to tell.” The thing is, I don’t expect Faulkner to properly inhabit Blackness. His triumph is his inhabitation of whiteness, his searing articulations of its ruination, brutality and shame.

Gorra mounts a further defense by separating the man from the writing, as though the writing “made him better than he was; it made the books better than the man.” But that’s a dodge — and, most significantly, it’s not the point. Of course William Faulkner, Mississippi-born in 1897, great-grandson of a slave-owning Confederate colonel, was a racist. But in Faulkner, as is the case in all of America, racism is not the conclusion to any argument. It does not preclude further discussion; it demands it.

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