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Jay Watson, Faulkner and the Faces of Modernity

Joseph Kuhn

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1Jay Watson, Faulkner and the Faces of Modernity.

2Oxford University Press, 2019. Pp.396. ISBN: 9780198849742

3Joseph Kuhn, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań

4This study of William Faulkner is an exhilarating book to read. Jay Watson’s historicist and new materialist interpretations—which have an intensely granular focus—allow readers to see important things in Faulkner’s writing that they might have overlooked. Why, for example, in The Sound and the Fury does Benjy use a full stop at the end of the lines of direct speech, prior to identifying the speaker, where a comma would be standard usage (“Listen at you now.” Luster said.)? Or why, in the same novel, does Faulkner assign faulty genetic traits in the Compson family according to the ratio of one in four offspring (one in four is an idiot, one in four commits incest, and so on)? Or why does Joanna Burden in Light in August compare her earlier indifferent response to African Americans to similar automatic responses that she makes to such things as “rain, or furniture, or food or sleep”? “Furniture” in particular, seems an odd choice. The answer to all of these questions, for Watson, lies in digging up evidence of the material culture of modernity that is embedded in the unconscious of the text. The Benjy question is related by Watson to the state of the very early talkies when the visual presentation on the screen and the voice emerging from the sound system did not quite match, creating an effect of asynchrony. Benjy’s consciousness is like this asynchronous sound film in that for him the sound of spoken sentences is imperfectly synched to the visual appearance of the persons who are speaking. These transitions are therefore marked by spiky full stops rather than fluid commas. Benjy’s consciousness is not whole and organic but one that is modern in its disassociation—it is grounded in on the disjunctive, avant garde possibilities of the new media (Watson points out that filmmakers of the time such as Pudovkin and Clair were discussing the experimental uses of asynchrony at the time). The question of one-in-four defects in The Sound and the Fury is connected by Watson to the family studies produced by eugenicist writers in the Progressive period in which an identical ratio appears for the likelihood of a bad genetic trait resurfacing in any “dysgenic” white family (Faulkner provides the unusual twist that it is the southern upper class, rather than poor whites, who are genetically defective). In Light in August, Watson shows, the various stages of the Mississippi lumber industry—the most important economically in the state—are likewise present in the material unconscious of the text and match the way that the novel’s characters, such as Lena and Byron Bunch, are slowly turned into bourgeois characters, a civilizing process that is analogous to the industrial procedure of turning raw wood into domestic furniture.

5As such, the thesis that Faulkner is a modernist is not remarkable: the author acknowledges that it has been made for at least fifty years. But what critics often mean by modernist, Watson argues, is aesthetic modernism. So Hugh Kenner and others have noted Faulkner’s use of Joycean techniques of inner speech or his prose approximations to cubism. Alternatively, Faulkner’s modernism has often been taken to be a response to the philosophy of modernism, particularly the breaking down of the epistemology of the subject (for example, in the work of Philip Weinstein). What these responses miss, Watson argues, is how Faulkner’s literary modernism is a response to modernization, to the historical and social processes of globalization, urbanization, and commercialization that accelerated around the time of the Great War. But this modernization was there from the beginning in Mississippi, largely because the transatlantic plantation system bound the state into a world-wide capitalist market and created in African American slaves the “first modern subjects.” Much important work on modernization in Faulkner’s work has been done, beginning in the 1980s when critics such as John T. Matthews and Richard Godden read the fiction in relation to the capitalization of southern agriculture in the first half of the twentieth century. Watson’s approach is to build on these Marxist analyses of class formation in Faulkner’s work, pushing them in the radical culturalist and ecological directions of much recent theory. He also follows strategies of reading from “new modernist” studies, particularly Bill Brown’s notion of a material unconscious. This involves an innovate emphasis, for Faulknerians, on the new media and technologies of modernization such as cinema, automobiles, aircraft, and eugenic sterilization. Watson says that he wants to capture the modernization processes at their “input” rather than their literary or “output” end and to try to work upward from these processes “through to the expressive strategies and artifacts” of Faulkner’s work (p. 29). He succeeds abundantly in doing this.

6Faulkner’s South as it emerges in Watson’s study is therefore modern in a far more radical way than is conceived of even in recent reconsiderations of a “global South” or of the “nation’s region.” Modernity is something that happens on the farm; it comes from the ground upwards—the ground being that most potent point of the mystification of labour in the southern imagination. Even the hill country, where the Bundrens of As I Lay Dying have their farm, is at the cutting edge of modernity—the modernity of populist politics, of agricultural deforestation, of deep class antagonisms that explode into barn burning, and even the modernity that brings opportunity and new pleasures—Anse gets new teeth and Cash a graphophone. (This emphasis on the liberating effects of modernity, incidentally, is one difference between Watson and many other historically-minded critics: there is no Frankfurt School melancholy in his readings and he criticizes Agamben’s notion of “bare life” as an arid hermeneutical cul-de-sac.) The particular vectors of modernization that Watson studies are: the First World War, rural modernization including the timber business, speed, the movies, eugenic studies, ecocide (the new planetary war on the earth that is the announced in A Fable), and, most centrally, slavery and the Hegelian battle for recognition bound up with it.

7It was the Great War that brought the question of a global modernization abruptly into the South. It also happens—and by no coincidence—to be the event that Faulkner was preoccupied with in his early novels, Soldiers’ Pay and Flags in the Dust. In Soldiers’ Pay, as Watson shows, Faulkner grapples with a traumatic figure of non-presence, that of the wounded pilot Donald Mahon. Mahon’s vacancy shows the sheer un-representability of the war and of the writer’s ability to comment on its “new death” (this term for the industrial slaughter, taken from a little known writer in 1918, is used by Pearl James in her study of American writers of the Great War and frequently used by Watson). The Great War gave Faulkner his entrée into understanding the powerful forces of modernity, and the war could then recede into the background when these forces were taken up within more local contexts in The Sound and the Fury. In the arc of his writing career Faulkner finally returns to the Great War in his last major novel, A Fable. In his analysis of the novel Watson supplements Joseph Urgo’s reading—that of Faulkner as a transgressive rebel against the military-industrial complex—with a perspective taken from recent eco-criticism. The Great War is seen as a war by the biopolitical state upon nature; and the corporal, the runner, the groom, and the horse are read as a planetary, interspecies “I” that resists the ecocide of this global war.

8Perhaps the two most important chapters for the re-mapping of Faulkner studies are “Rus in Urbe: Faulkner’s Rural Modernizers” and “Slavery, Modernity, and the Turn Towards Death in the Black Atlantic World of Yoknapatawpha County.” In the first of these chapters Watson makes the counter-intuitive argument, which has already been referred to, that modernization in Mississippi didn’t radiate out from the town but began in plantations and farms. The Bundren family of As I Lay Dying, for example, have often been interpreted as passive consumers of the urban commodity at the end of the novel, but Watson turns the argument on its head, arguing that it is they who bring regenerative chaos to the town with their funeral cortege. In the river crossing they display another feature of their destructive modernism: their facility in destroying mules, an animal which Watson sees as an emblem of an obsolescent, pre-mechanized agriculture and of lost rural worlds. The disappearance of mules and horses is continued in stories such as “Mule in the Yard” and in the flight of the skittish horses in the trading scene of The Hamlet, which Watson interprets as a Mississippi version of Marshall Berman’s thesis that “all that is solid melts into air” in the modern period. Al Snopes in “Barn Burning” is another anarchist, a homegrown Dadaist smearing the outmoded organic stuff, manure, on Major de Spain’s fine carpet.

9Connected to this counter-intuitive chapter on Faulkner’s rural modernity is the chapter on speed. Watson discusses the links between the “adrenaline aesthetics” of figures such as the bootlegger Popeye in Sanctuary, who is a skillful driver of fast cars, and the expansion of road networks in Mississippi at the time the novel was written (this chapter makes inspired use of the work of Paul Virilio, a name not often found in southern studies, for whom speed is the logic of modern efficiency). Nevertheless, for all of the “adrenaline aesthetics” in Sanctuary and Flags in the Dust there is another Faulkner, as Watson acknowledges, who is in the thrall of slowness, deep time, and the stillness of the Keatsian urn. There are, for example, those supremely unhurried buzzards who fly above the Bundrens’ cortege, “with no inference of motion, progress, or retrograde.” Are these states of “no inference” also “faces of modernity?” Watson argues that these are differential states created retrospectively as the opposite of twentieth-century acceleration. But isn’t Faulkner also attentive to vast scales of time and magnitude that shrink history and therefore the modern as a development within history? Perhaps one could alternatively argue that Faulkner’s writing is aware of two types of time, human and extra-human, and that for Faulkner these two types converge, a convergence that has been examined in recent ecological thinking about the Anthropocene. On the one hand, there is the slow working of deep time evident in Peabody’s meditations on the land in As I Lay Dying. On the other, there are the agitated human twitchings on the surface of the globe: the speed that possesses Popeye or the industrial war that the Old General directs in A Fable. Both interfuse in Faulkner’s imagination, a prophetic instance of Faulkner creating a poetics of the Anthropocene avant la lettre.

10The chapter on slavery and modernity examines Faulkner’s decisive turn toward the representation of African American experience in the period 1930-1942, beginning with “Red Leaves” and concluding with Go Down, Moses. Watson focuses on Eunice, a slave in Go Down, Moses whose sole remaining trace is an entry that Ike McCaslin discovers in the plantation ledger and that provides the bare information that she was drowned in 1832. Through Eunice, Watson argues, Faulkner modifies Hegel’s master-slave paradigm so that, rather than the slave accepting life on the condition of subordination to the master, she turns toward death and refuses all assent to a submissive role (in this revision to the Hegelian paradigm, Watson believes, Faulkner was influenced by the work of Richard Wright). Eunice, it turns out, had a daughter by a white master, Ike’s grandfather, and she committed suicide after this daughter bore a child by the same master. Eunice’s suicide becomes a destabilizing force of negation, leading to “transgenerational” consequences, including Ike’s repudiation of his patrimony and extending to Chick Mallison’s anti-racialist education in Intruder in the Dust (1948).

11Faulkner and the Faces of Modernity is a groundbreaking work of new materialist and radical historicist interpretation that places Faulkner’s work at the heart of early twentieth-century modernization in the South. Watson shows how Faulkner’s uniquely powerful writing is immersed in and energized by a complex historical context. To learn, for example, that the Mississippi house of representatives approved a bill for eugenic sterilization on April 10 1928, two days after the Easter Sunday on which The Sound and the Fury concludes, is to put Benjy’s sterilization very directly into a contemporary state discourse about the eugenic “improvement” of whites. Some readers might feel that there are aspects of the modernization process that Watson leaves aside. For example, there is little about what Michael Szalay has called “New Deal modernism” and about the impact of the Rooseveltian politics of the security state on Faulkner’s writing. Stories such as “The Tall Men” and “Delta Autumn” indicate that Faulkner was very critical of this security state, probably because of his own private version of Jeffersonian decentralism, and this would show him as being a slow resister to some aspects of modernization. Perhaps there could also have been some discussion of Faulkner’s understanding of colonialism and the Great War, particularly since the ultimate horror of the “new death” in the short story “Crevasse” is to reveal the entombment of gassed French Senegalese soldiers. But since the subject of the book is so large (the “faces of modernity”) it is perhaps inevitable that a reader will, following the many lines of Watson’s argument, keep opening some of these never-ending Chinese boxes. All in all, this book is an enormously helpful study in trying to understand the depth and complexities of Faulkner’s modernism. In the section of the book on Faulkner’s poetics of anti-furniture in Light in August Watson cites Georges Bataille looking at the work-bound familiarity of the desk and deciding, in the spirit of transgression, to alter this milieu by putting a glass of alcohol in the middle. This book is like that glass of alcohol: it reorientates the familiar Faulkner texts and infuses them with new pleasures of reading.

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Electronic reference

Joseph Kuhn, “Jay Watson, Faulkner and the Faces of ModernityEuropean journal of American studies [Online], Reviews 2021-1, Online since 19 avril 2021, connection on 25 juin 2022. URL:

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Joseph Kuhn

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