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Devotion to a Southern persective as portrayed by Faulkner


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By Thomas Ellen


Faulkner the Southerner and the Continuity of Southern Letters

By Dr. James Everett Kibler

Hardcover 352 pp.

$39.95

(Abbeville Institute Press, McClellanville, 2023)


It is not uncommon in history for great works and the genius behind them to be claimed by emerging movements. When hoping to win the hearts and minds of the wider populace or to strike at stagnant authorities, one looks to the past and points out that things often regarded as strange and foreign have actually been latent within the old ways. One comes to mind most prominently, that being the scholarly work of early Christians hoping to make their young faith seem less hostile to the old gods of Rome. Through a series of maneuvers, they suggest Virgil, the great poet of the empire, was a noble pagan, one who foretold the coming of the Messiah, and was thus proclaimed to be an early prophet in some small way.

This was done by lifting from many texts, but two passages stand out: the Fourth Eclogue, in which he sings of a child to be born who will bring forth a golden age and the passage of The Aeneid when the navigator Palinurus is sacrificed to save his fellow sailors: unum pro multis dabitur caput — one life given for the lives of all the others. These are just a few instances in a long record of the practice known as “Interpretatio Christiana.” In the end, one could say with certainty say that the early Christians succeeded in their endeavor — see the Roman Catholic Church.

As one who tends to believe in such things, I am partial: I can understand drawing a thread through various rites celebrated by the Romans and the lines lifted from the poet and discovering a prefiguration within them all.

However, I am undisciplined and not in tune with those times; none of these serve as helpful guides if one wants to become well acquainted with the creators of the past ages. Virgil was no prophet, to call him such is to deny what is true. It was only a means to assuage the last pagans bearing witness to the collapse of their world.

Professor Kibler is to some a degree an echo of these remnants. He stands athwart new schools, new ideologies, all hoping to tear apart old folkways or lift from the past old heroes, great artists, and place them into their movements so as to grant legitimacy, a sense of historical authority. He approaches his work not only as an academic but also as an artist and a devotee of Southern literature. In Faulkner the Southerner and the Continuity of Southern Letters, the professor once again sets about to the task of charting Southern letters into the Western canon, thereby hoping to raise Faulkner, along with his predecessors and successors, above and out of reach of ressentiment.

Professor Kibler, happily dwelling in the Southern soil outside of Witmire, South Carolina, is very likely the foremost authority of anything related to Faulkner, whether it be his life or work. Decades of teaching and personal experiences with other scholars has lent him an eye unparalleled on the subject. He takes the life of William Faulkner — his habits, his library, his choices, his works — and makes it clear the great author cannot be properly read until we not only affix him within the history of Southern literature but as one who had a deep and abiding love of his home. Professor Kibler relies upon those preceding the author — William Gilmore Simms, George Washington Harris and Grace King, to name but a few — to create a repository from which Faulkner drew. These writers, he also contends in The Classical Origins of Southern Literature (previously reviewed in the March 2024 edition of this newspaper), comprise the tendon to tie the muscle to the bone — they take the themes and forms from the Classics and configure them within the South. Overall, Professor Kibler creates an intimate portrait of America’s most accomplished writer.

The professor brings forth a preponderance of evidence to place Faulkner within the Southern literary tradition. Professor Kibler notes Faulkner’s affinity for George Washington Harris and his most notorious creation Sut Lovingood. For instance, without Harris or Sut, Faulkner may not have found the frame of As I Lay Dying. But more generally, Professor Kibler contends Faulkner took on Harris’ ability to nail the dialect, the vernacular and the outlook produced from an aversion to the Northeast, to the abstract, to academic rigidity. Sut, to be brief, informed his tone.

As for Faulkner’s prolix style, his rolling fulminations, the professor cites Grace King, a novelist from New Orleans. Specifically, the professor mentions “a poetically charged sentence” running some great distance over a single page from Grace King’s Balcony Stories — published in 1893. This, Professor Kibler suggests, is possibly the earliest encounter Faulkner had with stream of consciousness, and, therefore, may have inspired his style.

But for the professor, what is most important to understanding the output of Faulkner is how he was raised and where he was born. Professor Kibler harkens back to the stories the young William Faulkner heard of his great-grandfather Colonel William Clark Falkner. The great-grandfather, though long dead, was an indomitable figure in the household. There are the remains of the war surrounding Faulkner’s upbringing — the chimneys with no home, the rampant poverty.

Furthermore, there are descriptions of those who lived in and around the home Faulkner grew up in. In particular, the professor mentions a black woman named Mrs. Caroline Barr Clark who helped raise Faulkner — a woman once enslaved before being freed and continuing to help the family until she passed in 1940. She was held in high regard by Faulkner and he considered it his duty to take care of her when he acquired his own farm, Rowan Oak. It is this old social code — a sense of noblesse oblige — that not only shaped Faulkner’s works, but informed the life he lived.

There is the cliché that drives uninteresting conversation between uninteresting people when they attempt to separate the artist from the art. Does the professor perform this trick? No; Professor Kibler instead insists the art cannot be otherwise from the artist, at least not in the case of Faulkner. Furthermore the professor refutes popular interpretations and demands that the reader acknowledge Faulkner’s adoration for his home. It was complicated,yes, but what relationship is not?

The book is a vast compilation; there are intriguing anecdotes from the professor’s trip to Rowan Oak and recollections from his conversations with various friends and scholars of Faulkner. There is a letter Faulkner wrote upon the death of his daughter’s dog after being struck by a car — there are few obituaries in the canon, but this is one that demands consideration.

Professor Kibler uses a plethora of examples from the myriad books and stories of the great Southern author to support his general thrust: Faulkner must be seen from where he stood as a man opposed to abstraction, a conservative gentleman and a brilliant mind all spawned from and tied deeply to the South — a region he cherished above any other.

Yet there is one conspicuous absence: there are precious few passages focusing on Absalom, Absalom!, a work many consider to be Faulkner’s most powerful book. The brilliance of the work necessitates a strong reckoning — it is this most dense novel that is used to apprehend Faulkner and use him to justify so much scrutiny of the South. Some contend Faulkner could only have meant it to be a condemnation of her history and her people — there are moments in Absalom, Absalom!, when the reader, lost in the maze, tends to believe there is no redemption, that there can and must only be one end and that this conlcusion must ignite as Sutpen’s Hundred did. Sadly, Professor Kibler is too dismissive of the story of Thomas Sutpen.

Within the professor’s analysis there is a passage I initially considered to be a mistake; however, upon further reflection, I find it rather flawless: Just as Quentin Compson says Sutpen was from West Virginia (and therefore not the South) so does Professor Kibler. But as Shreve would admonish Quentin that West Virginia did not exist when Sutpen was born, I will offer no correction, because none is requiresd: there are often times things that are not true, but right — consider Virgil’s role as a Christian prophet.

Along with The Classical Origins of Southern Literature, Professor Kibler has published a fine duo to help forestall any further incursions on Southern literature and, to some degree, the Western canon writ large. Taken together, these two works provide a thorough introduction to the region’s cultural history. They are useful not only to those curious of what has composed the South, but to the Southern artist in need of a sense of direction.


Thomas Ellen is a writer in Charleston; he and his wife live slightly North of Broad.

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