Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Confederate "Heritage" Month, April 10: William Faulkner on Southern heritage and the Civil War

A couple of days ago I mentioned Malcolm Cowley's comments to William Faulkner about Southern music and literature about the Civil War, from The Faulkner-Cowley File: Letters and Memories, 1944-1962 (1966). Here is some of what Faulkner replied, in an undated letter which Cowley says was probably from the first days of January 1946:

Re. literature (songs too) in the South 1861-65. It was probably produced but not recorded. The South was too busy, but the main reason was probably a lack of tradition for inventing or recording. The gentle folk hardly would. For all their equipment for leisure (slavery, unearned wealth) their lives were curiously completely physical, violent, despite their physical laziness. When they were not doing anything — not hunting or superintending farming or riding 10 and 20 miles to visit, they really did nothing: they slept or talked. They talked too much, I think. Oratory was the first art; Confederate generals would hold up attacks while they made speeches to their troops. Apart from that, 'art' was really no manly business. It was a polite painting of china by gentlewomen. When they entered its domain through the doors of their libraries, it was to read somebody else's speeches, or politics, or the classics of the faintly school, and even these were men who, if they had been writing men, would have written still more orations. The Negroes invented the songs and their songs were not topical nor even dated in the sense we mean.
Faulkner was definitely not relating a Gone With the Wind, Lost Cause kind of image of the Civil War here. One ofthe Lost Cause arguments for the glories of the antebellum South was that the leisure afforded Southern gentlemen and ladies by slavery left them free for cultural pursuits. What Faulkner says here is, that's bunk. He is saying that the Southerners of this supposedly noble and cultured slave South not only didn't produce much literature of their own, but if they had it wouldn't have been any good.

What he argues instead is that it was the African-American slaves themselves that produced the best cultural products in the form of folk songs and spirituals. And they have lasting appeal. Given that this was around the time that Theodore Bilbo, then one of the two Senators from Faulkner's native Mississippi, was proposing in the Senate to send all black Americans to Africa, it gives you an idea of how Faulkner was able to see past the Lost Cause mythmaking in looking at Southern history and culture.

So there was no literate middle class to produce a literature. In a pastoral cityless land they [the small farmers] lived remote and at economic war with both slave and slaveholder. When they emerged, gradually, son by infrequent son, like old Sutpen [one of Faulkner's characters], it was not to establish themselves as a middle class but to make themselves barons too. What songs and literature they possessed back home were the old songs from 15th-16th century England and Scotland, passed from mouth to mouth because the generations couldn't write to record them. After they emerged prior to and during and after the War, they were too busy to record anything or even to sing them, probably, were ashamed of them. Pass the eighty years [1865-1945], the old unreconstructed had died off at last, the strong among the remaining realised that to survive they must stop trying to be pre 1861 barons and become a middle class, they did so, and began to create a literature.
That's an interesting comment about how Southern whites probably didn't pass on their own folk songs because they "were ashamed of them". Now, some of the older tunes did survive, of course. But it makes me curious why Faulkner thought that, that whites were ashamed of their folk culture.

Reason for the vital Southern one re the War and no Northern one is, the Northerner had nothing to write about regarding it. He won it. The only clean thing about War is losing it. Also, as regards material, the South was the fortunate side. That war marked a transition, the end of one age and the beginning of another, not to return. Before it in his wars man had fought man. After it, machine would fight machine. During that war, man fought barehanded against a machine. Of course that doesn't explain why the North didn't use the material too. It's not enough to say that perhaps the machine which defeated his enemy was a Frankenstein which, once the Southern armies were consumed, turned on him and enslaved him and, removing him from a middle class fixed upon the land, translated him into a baronage based upon a slavery not of human beings but of machines; you cant say that because the Northerner writes about other things.
This is one of Faulker's more memorable observations to me on Civil War literature: "the Northerner had nothing to write about regarding it. He won it. The only clean thing about War is losing it."

That's like one of those saying that I associate with Jesuit intellectuals. When you hear it, you think, "no, that's not quite right". But then it sticks with you even though you're still not convinced and you still find that you can't think about the subject in quite the same way again.

"The only clean thing about War is losing it." This was just after the Second World War had ended, and Faulkner was certainly very much a supporter of the Allied cause in that war. But this suggests to me that he was already concerned about the sloppy and arrogant habits of mind that the American public and policymakers were already starting to take from the victory in that war.

But his immediate topic was the Civil War, and that was what he was addressed in particular there.

, , southern arts, ,

No comments: