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Week of 21 November 1997

Vol. I, No. 13

Feature Article

Literary orbit

BU Faulkner expert reports on his world influence

by Jim Graves

What cultural hero do fans in Venice, Italy, share with fans in Oxford, Mississippi? The answer, according to CAS English Professor John Matthews, is William Faulkner (1897-1962). In both cities, Matthews says, lively centers conduct meetings and other activities to broadcast their interest in, and their work on, the life and fiction of the Mississippian and 1949 Nobel laureate.

Matthews should know. He has been a frequent participant at annual Faulkner conferences held at the University of Mississippi at Oxford, and he delivered a paper there this summer when the conference celebrated the author's centennial. Matthews has just returned from addressing a similar gathering in Venice.

"Of course, Faulkner has been read and admired abroad ever since the French discovered him back in the 1930s," acknowledges Matthews, who has also spoken at Faulkner conferences in Paris, Rennes, Oslo, Vienna, Bonn, Salamanca, and Tokyo. All these gatherings he calls "magical celebrations of Faulkner's staying and spreading power. But Faulkner is also popular in Korea, for example, and in Latin America, where he influenced the so-called magic realist writers, especially the novelist Gabriel García Márquez. Another distinguished Latin American author, Mario Vargas Llosa, has published a volume of criticism on Faulkner.

"With all that said, however," Matthews continues, "the swell of worldwide interest in Faulkner during this centennial year continues to amaze me." And as was shown at the recent celebration at Oxford, that interest isn't confined to scholars. "The 300-odd attendees included high school teachers and members of the reading public," he says. "Many of those devotees traveled long distances to learn more about the author who speaks intimately to them and to walk the streets he walked and see places he saw during his years in Oxford."

But why is it that a generation after his death, the author whose life and books were insistently rooted in the small-town and rural American South remains a popular citizen of the borderless republic of letters, whereas the popularity of such distinguished and seemingly more cosmopolitan Faulkner contemporaries as John Steinbeck, and to an extent even Ernest Hemingway, has declined?

At a gathering held in September by the William Faulkner Foundation at the University of Rennes in France, Matthews says, 10 prominent writers, including Carlos Fuentes and Richard Ford, described ways in which Faulkner had unleashed their own powers of imagination. They noted his boldness in describing inner states of confusion and self-division in his characters. The topic is one that Faulkner had thought important enough to articulate in his famous Nobel acceptance speech, where he reminded young writers that only "the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself . . . can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat."

Prof. John Matthews

CAS English Professor John Matthews. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Another Faulknerian trait discussed at Rennes, Matthews says, was the writer's keenness of perception in depicting the disintegration of the aristocratic, basically agrarian society of the Old South. He vividly represented the leaders of that society through his fictional Compson and Sartoris families, who declined under mercantile and commercial pressures of encroaching modernism. Faulkner personified those pressures in the parvenu Snopeses, who dominate the sagalike novels laid in Faulkner's mythical Yoknapatawpha County. "As the society he depicted grew more fluid," Matthews says, "women and blacks assumed wider roles. The stereotypical Southern belle, for example, yields to characters such as Temple Drake in Sanctuary, who is torn from a patriarchal household and hurled into a modern world of crime, sexual predation, and lost innocence, and the fugitive Lena Grove in Light in August. 'My, my. A body gets around,' Lena says memorably at one point. 'Here we aint been coming from Alabama but two months, and now it's already Tennessee.'

"In Intruder in the Dusk," Matthews continues, "Lucas Beauchamp, the African American charged with murdering a white man, is shown standing up for his innocence and mobilizing white support to gain exoneration. Especially through its film version, Intruder helped advance the civil rights movement."

Matthews was drawn to Faulkner when he read Absalom, Absalom in an undergraduate course. "I was mesmerized by the rhythms of the sweeping Faulknerian sentences, which demand to be followed all the way to the end," he says. "Besides the language, with its echoes of old-fashioned Southern oratory and sermons, Absalom showed me Faulkner's riveting descriptive power, as in his portrayal of Rosa Coldfield, the spinster 'who has been sitting 43 years in outrage. Her feet don't touch the floor. She sits there like a crucified child as if grieving for some nothusband.' Never mind that you have to read another 100 pages before you fully understand that her nothusband is the man who proposed marriage, then jilted her," Matthews says. "Rosa isn't someone you quickly forget."

Faulkner read and admired Honoré de Balzac's Comédie humaine, his body of novels providing a panorama of modern life, Matthews says. "And his own vast interrelated novels comprise his human comedy. Not only do we continue to read his books, we read him through the authors he influenced, including Toni Morrison, Jorge Luis Borges, William Styron, Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, Cormac McCarthy, and Scott Momaday. Writers pass in and out of fashion. But Faulkner is as close to a timeless writer as America has produced."

During spring semester, Matthews will teach a course in Faulkner's novels to advanced undergraduates and graduate students. "It's a way to hold my own celebration of the centennial," he says.