". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Post Delta Thoughts: Faulkner and Percy

Faulkner didn't have it in him to write the sorts of things with which  William Alexander Percy's memoir is stuffed.  The following comes after a long paragraph of descriptive rapture on the beauties of his family's Delta land and plantation:
"Such was my country hardly more than a hundred years ago.  It was about that time that slavery became unprofitable in the older Southern states and slave-holders began to look for cheap fertile lands farther west that could fee the many black mouths dependent on them ...."
That's at the top of the third page of Lanterns on the Levee (1941).

Nor would Faulkner have written anything like this:

 "... a library was as portable as a slave ..." which is on the fifth page.

But, praise be, Percy is so well-bred he will equate "a slave" with library chattel, not a mule, which is what most of his kind did -- who were nearly as inferior to Percys as is "the Negro," who once was "the slave."  Percy's too tasteful to say so but allows reader to notice for herself, as he uses "the slave" to introduce his family's library, how superior his family is to most of the other Delta families.

William Faulkner with his wife, Estelle, in front of their Rowan Oak plantation house, bought in 1930, the year he published As I Lay Dying

Faulkner makes no bones about how rough and rude are the ancestors of the Sutpens and Sartorises, and how rude are the next up-and-coming class, the Snopes.  The Sutpens did not move to Mississippi to feed their "dependent slaves" but because they were poor whites who couldn't get any good land in Tennessee, Missouri, Virginia and South Carolina, where all the good things were in possession of families like the Percys, who migrated out of the upper south, and who came to the New World as high-blooded, part of the English Percys.  Or at least so William Alexander Percy's family believed, and while professing such things mattered not all -- they were natural aristocrats -- they managed to make others aware they possessed such a background.

Trail Lake Cotton Plantation Harvest
The Percys did not live on their vast plantation of Trail Lake.  It was worked, first by slaves, then share croppers and planted all in cotton.  No Big House for the Percys.  Their mansion was in Greenville, where they could keep an eagle eye via the news coming regularly by steamboat on local, state, regional and federal politics -- though they were too aristocratic themselves for the life and death roughhouse sport of politics. The one time LeRoy Percy thought to run for office, he got soundly beat.

So are the Percys and the Faulkners so different because one family is Delta and one is not?  It's the contrast, that Faulkner's work is not the Delta that is part of what makes his work so fascinating.  The United States is geographically vast, and it contains multitudes of cultures, even within single states.

Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County is as close as this nation has come to having a Paris by Balzac. Though I'm going to go out on a limb, since I don't read French well enough, that in literary terms such as style and form, Faulkner is a superior writer to Balzac. (I have read what people who do read French have had to say about Balzac, so that's what I'm basing this judgment on.)

I read Faulkner so avidly and often when getting my first degrees that I've internalized his work. However, perhaps the most important dimensions of work escaped me though of course I knew that his 'southerness' was the platform from which he launched himself into his fiction.

I'd been uninterested in Faulkner during these last decades, because I lost interest in Literature, because Literature with a capital L, like Art, like the Intellectual, no longer matter in shaping public or even private discourse in the way they did in even in the first half of the 20th century. But because of my own experiences in the South, the Gulf and the Caribbean in those decades, about 2008, Fitzgerald began to surface in mind again. This year, Faulkner, the greatest of those white American male writers (for me), has come roaring back. His work is revealing itself in ways I didn't have the tools to grasp back when getting my degrees in History and the Novel.

It's as true for some sorts of Literature as it is for history -- you must walk the ground to fully understand it to the bottom.

It is the same with Geography. Mississippi, and the Delta, make a mysterious land, as mysterious as anything ever imagined, familiar and alien. The only means to penetrate such a mystery is to learn the geography personally.  And lest one be tempted to romanticize this mysterious land, its bloody history will put a stop to it.

That was what Faulkner was up to -- his great body of work a burning sign that says, "This way great evil comes."  In contrast Percy is all nostalgia and lies, he who lived all his life in the elite privilege of wealth and family power, all received out of that cruelty that his kind put on the bottom of the pyramid that was southern society.  No amount of paternalist discourse about the feckless, childish, incompetent "Negro" in his Lanterns on the Levee can wipe out that truth.

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