A REVIEW OF
The Dixie Limited
Writers on William Faulkner and His Influence
Edited by M. Thomas Inge
University Press of Mississippi
Hardback, 340 pages
Inge creates valuable book on what writers thought of Faulkner
By Jesse Yancy
Special to the Mississippi Clarion Ledger
USA TODAY NETWORK
M. Thomas Inge makes an important contribution to Faulkner criticism with The Dixie Limited, a collection of essays, articles, reviews, letters, and interviews by Faulkner’s contemporaries and successors.
In his introduction, Inge refers to a paper given at the 1979 Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference: “Watching for the Dixie Limited: Faulkner’s Impact upon the Creative Writer.” In this presentation, Thomas McHaney submits that William Faulkner affected his contemporaries far more than he did the “literary establishment.” In The Dixie Limited, Inge supports and amplifies McHaney’s thesis: “The novel has certainly not been the same since Faulkner . . . and [my] intent here is to document some of the reasons by surveying the exact nature of what Faulkner has meant to his colleagues both in the United States and abroad.”
Inge’s title recalls yet another paper, this one presented by Flannery O’Connor at Wesleyan College in 1960. In a memorable line, she warned that, “The presence alone of Faulkner in [Southern fiction] makes a great difference in what the writer can and cannot permit himself to do. Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.” Inge notes that O’Connor took heed of her own insight and developed an original vision and a distinctive style of spiritual and gothic austerity.
Eudora Welty also cultivated her talent in Faulkner’s looming shadow. While she was not intimidated by her fellow Mississippian, Welty admitted, “It was like living near a big mountain, something majestic–it made me happy to know it was there, all that work of his life.”
Faulkner attracted the attention of other writers early in his career. Donald Davidson found “Soldiers’ Pay” (1926) the product of “an artist in language, a sort of poet turned into prose” and considered “Mosquitoes” (1927) grotesque, too heavily influenced by Joyce, yet admirable “for the skill of the performance.”
Lillian Hellman read the manuscript of “Mosquitoes” for publisher Boni & Liveright. Reviewing the novel in The New York Herald Tribune, Hellman criticized Faulkner for his overwritten Joycean passages; at the same time, she declared the novel evident of a genius “found in the writings of only a few men.”
Following the publication of “The Sound and the Fury”(1929), “As I Lay Dying”(1930), “Sanctuary”(1931), “Light in August”(1932)and“Absalom, Absalom!” (1936), anyone with an eye on the landscape of American literature could see William Faulkner emerging as a dominant presence.
Sherwood Anderson, in The American Mercury (1930), set the stage for the century’s most celebrated literary rivalry by claiming, “The two most notable young writers who have come on in America since the war . . . are William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway.” This comparison became even more unavoidable as the two barreled down the same track or —in an appropriate Hemingwayesque metaphor—faced off in the same ring.
As the century wore on, more and more writers, playwrights, and poets weighed in on Faulkner’s increasing stature. His influence in Britain was impressive, though mixed. In 1940, George Orwell, a champion of lucid style, condemned “The Hamlet” as “fatiguing” and “certainly not worth a second reading to understand it.”
Somewhat predictably, considering Faulkner’s own indebtedness to Proust in both style and theme, his reception in France was profound. Sartre declared in 1946 that Faulkner had “evoked a revolution” through his innovations in perspective, his tonal monologues, and by changing the “chronological order of the story” on behalf of “a more subtle order, half logical, half intuitive.”In a letter to Malcolm Cowley, Sartre wrote, “Pour la jeunes France, Faulkner c’est un dieu.”
Inge speaks of Faulkner’s influence on South American literature: “By liberating these writers, and many others, from the traditional themes and methods of narration, and paving the way for new techniques in dealing with time and history and modern tragedy, Faulkner helped generate what may be the most vital writing in the world at the century’s end,” even going to far as to say that Gabriel García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” (1967) “could not have been possible without Faulkner’s fiction to serve as inspiration and master instruction.” Inge illustrates further the global influence of Faulkner’s novels through contributions from writers in South Africa, Japan, and China.
In addition to O’Connor, Welty, and Hellman, “The Dixie Limited” includes a generous portion of women writers such as Kay Boyle, Dorothy Parker, Elizabeth Spencer, and Lee Smith, as well as selections from black writers: Ralph Ellison, Chester Gaines, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and fellow Mississippian Richard Wright.
Faulkner’s critics are not ignored. In addition to Orwell, you’ll find disparaging statements—in varying degrees and often at different stages in their own careers—from Ellen Glasgow, Booth Tarkington, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, Katherine Ann Porter, John Barth, Truman Capote, John Steinbeck, Vladimir Nabokov, and, of course, Hemingway. Inge includes “one of the most damning assessments perhaps ever written about Faulkner” from Irish short story writer Sean O’Faolain, who concluded in a 1953 address at Princeton University, that Faulkner demonstrated “More genius than talent.”
Though The Dixie Limited is an academic work, it is important for the lay scholar as well, particularly those of us who grew up in the same milieu as that of the man many consider the most important writer of the Twentieth Century.
Our proximity to Faulkner seems to have bred in us a complacent acceptance of his stature. This book provides us with perspectives for a more balanced appreciation of a literary figure of global stature who just happened to have been born in the wilds of North Mississippi.
Jesse Yancy is a writer, editor, and gardener living in Jackson.