Upon its debut in 1936, William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! produced sound and fury across the nation, eliciting both skepticism and criticism from its shocked audience. Faulkner, a writer from the deep south, is known as the “American Shakespeare” for his intense and introspective writings from the late 1920s to the early 1950s. Tackling the impressive legacy that was left behind with the novel, writer John Jeremiah Sullivan argues that the novel is extremely impressive for a variety of reasons. Sullivan asserts that through its prose, narrative elements, and critique of racism in the South, Faulkner’s seminal work, Absalom, Absalom!, is one of the most important literary works in American history and is one of the reasons that the South was able to free itself from its underpinning of racism. Critic Sullivan is correct in his assertion as there is much evidence to support his claims.
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The prose of Absalom, Absalom! was unlike anything the literary world had seen before and changed the way that the English language appears in print. One of the first major points Sullivan makes about the importance of the novel is its direct challenge of Southern racism through that prose. Faulkner, Sullivan states, has “choices are so precise, and his juxtaposition of the words so careful in conditioning our sense reception, that he doesn’t so much solve as overpower the problem. The sparrows flying into the window trellis beat their wings with a sound that’s ´dry vivid dusty,´ each syllable a note in a chord he’s forming. The Civil War ghosts that haunt the room are ´garrulous outraged baffled´ (Sullivan). Faulkner uses many different vivid descriptions that are often unsettling to the reader, and his sentences are long, beautiful and elegiac as if spoken by a Southerner. It is no wonder that the Guinness World Record for “Longest Sentence in Literature¨ belongs to Faulkner (Faulkner 149-152). His prose is long, elegant, and descriptive, and allows the reader to visualize the intense plot pieces of the novel. From the death of Charles Bon at the gilded gates of Sutpen’s Hundred, to the brutal scything of Sutpen, the vivid scenes are precisely described in a style unlike any other author. This description appals the reader and gives a different perspective on racist ideologies, as it is easier to associate things with a visual image. Faulkner gives the visceral, vivid image of racism in the form of Charles Bon´s murder. By these colorful descriptions, the reader is challenged to view the cause, racism, of these events in a different light.
Faulkner made another strange choice that served to help free the South from its racism: a completely transparent narrative structure.The reader is completely aware of everything that is happening in the novel, including the plot, from the very outset. Sullivan says that “a fundamental law of storytelling is: withhold information. As the writer Paul Metcalf put it, ´the only real work in creative endeavor is keeping things from falling together too soon. What we discover, though, on advancing into the novel’s maze, is that Faulkner has given nothing away, not of the things he most values. He’s not concerned with holding us in suspense over the unearthing of events but in keeping us transfixed, as he goes about excavating the soil beneath them, and tracing their post-mortem effects (embodied, perhaps, by the worm that comes to light in a shovelful of dirt, ´doubtless alive when the clod was thrown up though by afternoon it was frozen again´). The nightmare of the Southern past exists — an accomplished thing. To delve into the nature of the tragedy is the novel’s drama´¨ (Sullivan). Save for a few choice surprises that really are not groundbreakingly shocking, the entire plot of what is to come is already known to the reader. The jumping around of the narrative allows the reader to slowly put all the pieces of the narrative together. Since almost all of the narrative, save the discovery of the Henry Sutpen, is transparent the novel builds up lots of suspense to the ending. It also forces the reader to piece the whole narrative together, even though it is given in the onset of the novel. From the testimony of Miss Rosa (not Aunt Rosa), to the warm Harvard dorm room testimony of Quentin, the puzzle is put together slowly but surely with more graphic detail. The reader is much more horrified as a brief introduction followed by delving deeper forces the audience to relive the event in all its horror. It is a repeated trauma to preserve the lesson of the work. These stories and style of speaking are totally and wholly Southern. Faulkner even made the bold choice to make Quentin´s roommate Shreve, who is the recipient of the story, a Canadian so as not to offend the Southerners with a Yankee hearing this tale. It is a quintessential portrait of the South, and the issues that plague the Sutpens are allegorical of the issues plaguing the majority of the south.
Finally, by directly addressing racism in the South, Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! was able to help free the South from its crippling racism. Faulkner employs racial epithets quite frequently; his knowledge of the subject matter and impactful diction put power behind these words. Sullivan states that “the defense to be mounted is not of Faulkner’s use of the word but of the novel in spite of it, or rather, in the face of it. ‘Absalom, Absalom!’ has been well described as the most serious attempt by any white writer to confront the problem of race in America. There is bravery in Faulkner’s decision to dig into this wound. He knew that the effort would involve the exposure of his own mind, dark as it often was. You could make a case that to have written this book and left out that most awful of Southernisms would have constituted an act of falsity.”(Sullivan). Without his intense usage of words that we would not consider politically correct, Faulkner would not have helped to bring about a change in the South. The quintessential climax of this novel is when Charles Bon declares to Henry Sutpen that he is “the n_____ who is going to marry your sister” (Faulkner 289). It reclaims the word used previously used only by racist white people in the novel and allows race to be challenged by its use by a black man. Sullivan also states that Faulkner uses implied paradoxes to highlight the horror of racism. “There is nothing to keep Henry from saying it, to keep him from reaching out his hand to his black brother, nothing except the weight of the past, the fear of ridicule, his own weakness. Instead of his hand, Henry brings forth the pistol” (Sullivan). Sullivan argues here that Henry could do the right thing, but instead of outwardly saying it, he points the finger of blame towards racism. This intense juxtaposition, that a man would let his half brother marry his sister, committing incest, but would not allow it on the grounds that the same man is one eighth black, also serves to highlight how ludicrous the concept of racial makeup is in the South at that time.
Since the release of the novel Absalom, Absalom!, radical changes have affected the South in many ways, particularly in the manner of race. For the South to have moved away from an evil, racial ideology that many were willing to die to protect on fields far away is remarkable. With his usage of prose, narrative style, and direct address of race, Faulkner managed to successfully take steps to release the South from its own underpinning of racism. “The novel is about even more than that in the end. It attempts something that had never been tried before in the art of fiction, and as far as I know has never been since, not in so pure a form — to dramatize historical consciousness itself, not just human lives but the forest of time in which the whole notion of human life must find its only meaning. Not to have failed completely at such a task is indistinguishable from triumph. The South escaped itself in this book and became universal” (Sullivan). The true form of the South is just beginning today with changes evident in budding cities such as Atlanta, Nashville and Mobile. Without first breaking down their barriers and changing the abhorrent things deeply embedded in their culture, they would remain stuck in the past. Even today there are conflicts relating to the racial issues still plaguing the South. Yet, the South still lumbers on, gradually throwing off the yoke of racism year by year.
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