By Jonathan Yardley
Tuesday, January 6, 2004
An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.
In all of American literature there is nothing -- absolutely nothing -- to compare with the life's work of William Faulkner. From beginning to end his achievement is at an extraordinarily high level, sustained over nearly four decades, leaving us a half dozen indisputable masterpieces -- "The Sound and the Fury," "As I Lay Dying," "Light in August," "Absalom, Absalom!," "The Hamlet," "Go Down, Moses" -- as well as many other books of singular merit. Simply and incontrovertibly, Faulkner stands alone.
Nearly 60 years ago, when Faulkner was almost completely unknown except among his fellow writers and when, incredibly, all 17 books he had then published were out of print or almost impossible to find, Malcolm Cowley came to his rescue. He combed through the immense saga of Faulkner's fictional Yoknapatawpha County and produced "The Portable Faulkner" (1946), which has been brought back into print by Penguin Classics ($17) and remains to this day the perfect introduction to that world.
In his deservedly celebrated introduction, Cowley observes that Faulkner "performed a labor of imagination that has not been equaled in our time, and a double labor: first, to invent a Mississippi county that was like a mythical kingdom, but was complete and living in all its details; second, to make his story of Yoknapatawpha County stand as a parable or legend of all the Deep South." Cowley's close analysis and astute selection from Faulkner's work helped many readers find the key to that kingdom -- what Faulkner called "my own little postage stamp of native soil" -- and opened the way for the belated acclaim that followed: two Pulitzer Prizes and a Nobel for literature, bestsellers and the modest wealth they produced, semi-retirement as a country squire among the First Families of Virginia.
Yet for many other readers Faulkner remains an Everest too steep and craggy to climb. His dense, at times overwrought prose; his exceedingly complex plots; the intertwined genealogies that connect his books to each other; the sheer immensity of his oeuvre -- these and other challenges scare people away. What a terrible pity this is, for the riches his work yields are immeasurable, not merely its searching exploration of the great themes of Southern history -- slavery, defeat, the burden of the past -- but also the astonishing humor, what Cowley called "a sort of homely and sober-sided frontier humor that is seldom achieved in contemporary writing."
As an amateur student of Faulkner's work who has often praised and commented upon it in public, I am again and again asked by readers: Where should I begin? Where is the key to the kingdom? There are any number of answers -- most obviously, of course, "The Portable Faulkner" -- but in thinking about which book of Faulkner's to include in this series, it occurred to me that his last novel, the comparatively little-known "The Reivers," not merely deserves rediscovery but might also provide a way into Yoknapatawpha County for eager but apprehensive readers.
I first read "The Reivers" in late 1968. I was on a sabbatical from the North Carolina newspaper where I worked and taking a graduate seminar in Faulkner, whom I had shied away from for years. It was a life-altering experience. Not merely did I read all the major work assigned for the course, I read everything. I became so absorbed in Yoknapatawpha that I bored everyone to distraction by talking endlessly about it. I read "The Reivers," as I read everything else, not because I had to but because I desperately wanted to, though notes scrawled in my copy remind me that I also read it with an eye to Faulkner's treatment of black characters and racial issues, about which I wrote a paper.
"The Reivers" was published in 1962, barely a month before Faulkner's death that July. It is a work of fiction, but he called it "A Reminiscence." This appears to have less to do with any direct connections to his own boyhood (though doubtless there are some) than with the nostalgic mood that Faulkner found himself in during the December of his life. Faulkner's later fiction, as Cowley observes in his afterword to the 1967 edition of "The Portable Faulkner," has little of the "sense of doom and outrage" in the work of "the younger possessed and unregenerate author," indeed it has "more than a touch of old-fashioned sentiment." Certainly that is true of "The Reivers" -- its denouement comes close to being a weeper -- but its overall tone is so affectingly wistful, and its humor at times is so infectious, that an old man's insistence on a happy ending certainly can be forgiven.
The title comes from an old Scottish word that means "robber." Why Faulkner chose this charming if decidedly archaic word is unclear. In his biography of Faulkner, Joseph Blotner says the original title was "The Horse Stealers," but though he reports the change he does not explain it. What he does tell us is that the book was on Faulkner's mind for at least two decades. In a letter to Robert Haas at Random House in the spring of 1940, Faulkner described the story he proposed to tell:
"It is a sort of Huck Finn -- a normal boy of about 12 or 13, a big, warmhearted, courageous, honest, utterly unreliable white man with the mentality of a child, an old negro family servant, opinionated, querulous, selfish, fairly unscrupulous, and in his second childhood, and a prostitute not very young anymore and with a great deal of character and generosity and common sense, and a stolen race horse which none of them actually intended to steal. The story is how they travel for a thousand miles from hand to mouth trying to get away from the police long enough to return the horse."
Haas sent $1,000 as an advance, but Faulkner set the story aside for further contemplation. In important respects it changed remarkably little. The boy, Lucius Priest, is 11 years old rather than 12 or 13, but he seems very much the boy Faulkner had always imagined -- a variation, perhaps slightly idealized, on himself. The white man, Boon Hogganbeck (who first appeared in four of the short stories collected in 1942 as "Go Down, Moses"), is exactly as originally described, as is Corrie, the whore. The journey is scarcely 1,000 miles -- a mere 120 miles back and forth between Jefferson, the county seat of Yoknapatawpha, and Memphis -- but it does involve a stolen horse and, for good measure, a stolen automobile.
The most important and revealing change is in the character of Ned McCaslin, the family retainer. As the quotation above suggests, Faulkner seems to have thought of him originally in somewhat stereotypical terms, but by the time he got around to putting the story onto paper, Ned had become, however comical and free-spirited, a figure of immense dignity: "He spoke, quiet and succinct. He was not Uncle Remus now. But then, he never was when it was just me and members of his own race around." Faulkner had always written about black characters with deep sympathy, so it seems unlikely that the civil rights stirrings of the 1950s (about which Faulkner had complicated and ambiguous feelings) had much to do with how Ned emerged once the story finally got written. One must assume that over the years Faulkner's sympathy deepened into understanding and empathy, both of which are reflected in the portrait of Ned.
What is certain is that "The Reivers" is notable for the intimate relationships between a number of its black and white characters. Bear in mind that it's set in Mississippi and Tennessee in 1905, a place and time still very much under the thumb of Jim Crow segregation and anti-black prejudice. Yes, the N-word pops up from time to time -- in the mouths of black characters as well as white, which is entirely true to life then as now -- but the egalitarianism of these relationships is striking. There's more than a little Huck and Jim in the friendship between Lucius and Ned; Miss Reba, proprietress of the bordello where Corrie works, is on utterly equal terms with Minnie, who is nominally her maid but actually her friend; Ned and a white railroad man named Sam Chapman strike up a friendship based on mutual respect; Uncle Parsham, an older black man, becomes the surrogate for Lucius's adored Grandfather Priest, and something quickly develops between man and boy that is very close to love.
It is Lucius who narrates the tale from the vantage point of the early 1960s, Lucius who recalls Uncle Parsham as "the patrician . . . the aristocrat of us all and judge of us all" and who later describes dining at Uncle Parsham's table:
" 'Bow your head,' and we did so and he said grace, briefly, courteously but with dignity, without abasement or cringing: one man of decency and intelligence to another: notifying Heaven that we were about to eat and thanking It for the privilege, but at the same time reminding It that It had had some help, too; that if someone . . . hadn't sweated some, the acknowledgment would have graced mainly empty dishes, and said Amen and unfolded his napkin and stuck the corner in his collar exactly as Grandfather did, and we ate . . . ."
This is in some ways an implacably sunny book, but any temptations Faulkner may have felt toward nostalgia are tempered by the clear eye through which he always viewed the world. Black characters are treated indifferently or contemptuously or cruelly simply because they are black; a brutal deputy sheriff named Butch is the embodiment of rural Southern law at its worst; a nasty 15-year-old named Otis behaves unspeakably toward Minnie, Lucius and anyone else who crosses his path; people cheat, lie and steal, and some get away with it.
One aspect of "The Reivers" that is both interesting and unusual is that it is a coming-of-age novel written not at the beginning of its author's career but at the very end. It has the wisdom of Faulkner's age and experience. What begins as a lark for Lucius turns into the most instructive experience of his life. His parents and grandparents have gone out of town. In their absence Boon persuades Lucius to climb aboard Grandfather Priest's new automobile -- a Winton Flyer that is Boon's "soul's lily maid, the virgin's love of his rough and innocent heart" -- and drive off for high adventure in Memphis. Ned comes along as a stowaway, and the romp is on.
That is how it starts, but matters soon get serious. The three reivers are "innocents, complete innocents at stealing automobiles," but as one thing piles atop another, Lucius soon realizes that "I had already told more lies than I had believed myself capable of inventing." Desperately, he wishes none of it had happened, "the whole thing no more than a dream from which I could wake tomorrow." It is overwhelming: "I knew too much, had seen too much. I was a child no longer now; innocence and childhood were forever lost, forever gone from me."
Yet he knows that he can't quit. As the horse race at the novel's climax approaches, he understands that "once we were in it, I had to go on, finish it, Ned and me both even if everybody else had quit." Finish it he does, and then accepts the consequences, as administered by Grandfather Priest in the poignant closing scene.
As the extracts quoted above make plain, "The Reivers" is written in prose at once distinctly Faulknerian yet entirely accessible. It provides a way to accustom oneself to Faulkner's language without becoming immediately lost in it, as can happen to someone who wanders all innocence into "Absalom, Absalom!" or "The Bear." It gives you an introduction to the genealogy of Yoknapatawpha without overwhelming you in its intricacies. It sets forth many of Faulkner's most important themes in clear, persuasive ways. No, it is not among his masterworks, but it is a lovely book, funny and touching and Faulkner to the core.
"The Reivers" is available in a Vintage paperback ($12).
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.