“I decline to accept the end of man.” William Faulkner: Nobel
Prize Speech, 1950
The urgency in 1950 was the dread of atomic holocaust. I believe the urgency in 2008 is the collapse of world financial markets. In Oxford at the first presidential debate stood a crusty, old Caucasian staring stonily over the audience much as several generations of his wartime admiral ancestors must have stared from the bridges of American warships at perilous seas. At the other podium stood an imperious, professorial man of mixed parentage steadfastly offering his vision of a future America.
Oxford, Mississippi is significant because it became Jefferson, the famous mythical town in William Faulkner’s novels and stories. In 1949, William Faulkner’s novels and stories won the Nobel prize in literature. I was a University of Pittsburgh junior English major. Faulkner’s acceptance speech was brief, and I remember a phrase. He said: “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail.”
Faulkner was a master story teller. Like Herman Melville and Cormac McCarthy the high romance of his art is infused with the glory and the terror of Gnosticism. At the same time he populated his novels with dozens of interesting characters in the manner of a Charles Dickens. I believe no one has written more knowingly about race relations than William Faulkner.
Herman Melville’s Moby Dick plays into the cosmic dualism of the second century Common Era Gnostics. The great white whale symbolizes the evil of materialism. In Blood Meridian Cormac McCarthy shows the world of the southwest border in the 1840’s. Great terrifying moments from the novel are gut-wrenching.
In The Sound and the Fury and Absalom Absalom William Faulkner shows a world based on chattel slavery for economic gain. Some have claimed this is the dark underside of the American dream. Absalom Absalom shows the aftermath of the defeat of the Confederacy. The great plantation system failed with cataclysmic dimensions.
In terrifying chapters Faulkner describes the awfulness of the decay and the reconstruction in the American south as whites and blacks are forced to live in impossible accommodations with one another. The setting in The Sound and the Fury is modern. The novel is about the decay and dissolution of the Compson family, a plantation-era family. Members of the family attempt to tell that story. The final segment is told by an old black servant named Dilsey. I believe her version is the most accurate one.
Faulkner held the mirror up to general human nature. The images are both existentially tragic and comic. Although he was an American regionalist, readers over the world have read about this tiny corner of northwest Mississippi and have related to it.
I believe whoever wins the presidential election of 2008 a watershed moment existed when Barack Obama walked on to the stage at ole Miss to debate the old Caucasian, a national wartime hero. Certainly, this was not that last “ding dong of doom” for Faulkner, but it was a moment “when the puny voice of man echoed again.”
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