William Faulkner may well be the greatest of American writers, but for countless readers he is merely the most forbidding. Confronted in their tender high school years with the dark mysteries of "The Bear" or "The Sound and the Fury," these readers quickly persuaded themselves that a little Faulkner goes a long way and abandoned him forthwith. The dense, murky language; the tangled, tortured plots; the heavy-breathing philosophizing about great issues; the baffling folkways of Yoknapatawpha County; the stupefying doses of Confederate history and rhetoric--who needs all of that, anyway?
Most readers who overcome these objections and plunge into Faulkner are delighted, when they come up for air, that they have done so. But the problem is making that first plunge or, in Cleanth Brooks' phrase, first encounter. Finding one's way through the Faulknerian thickets can be relatively easy and infinitely rewarding once you know where you're going, but acquiring such knowledge demands a fair amount of patience. For the reader of "William Faulkner: First Encounters," though, less patience is necessary; written "for the general reader and for the student coming to Faulkner for the first time," this slender volume provides the keys to the kingdom.
It is not the first time Cleanth Brooks has offered this service. His first book on Faulkner, "The Yoknapatawpha Country," was a pioneering effort in Faulkner criticism and remains, two decades after its original publication, a study against which all others must be measured; his second, "Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond," published in 1978, completed his evaluation and explication of Faulkner's canon. But these are books for the scholar and the Faulkner specialist; in "First Encounters," Brooks turns his attention to the interests of the ordinary reader who simply wants a bit of assistance in figuring out what on earth is going on here.
Brooks begins with a very brief introduction in which he points out that Faulkner was no mere Southern regionalist, or local colorist, but a writer on the grand scale whose "ultimate aim, as he often tells us in his various interviews, is to talk about people--and he evidently meant by people, men and women in their universal humanity." He notes in passing Faulkner's "period of growth and development which shows, among other things, a movement from a rather decadent Swinburnian romanticism to a robust acceptance of reality and a tough-minded appraisal of it." Then Brooks gets down to his central business, which is to show us how to read Faulkner.
This he does by holding certain of Faulkner's most important works up for scrutiny. He begins with several of the short stories, including a superb analysis of "A Rose for Emily," that over-anthologized yet oddly underappreciated classic. He points out the expansiveness of Faulkner's interest in people of all races and classes, and he makes an important point about Faulkner's country:
"Yoknapatawpha is a rich and complicated world. Though it is characterized by a caste system based on color, the class system within the white community is not nearly so rigid as most readers have been led to believe. Even the relations between whites and blacks, in the plantation society at least, allowed more room for the expression of mutual respect and even affection than one might have supposed. Most important, the human relations within this world were highly personal and concrete. Yoknapatawpha constituted something approximating a true community."
Brooks then turns to the six novels that must be counted as Faulkner's greatest: "The Sound and the Fury," "As I Lay Dying," "The Hamlet," "Go Down, Moses," "Light in August" and "Absalom! Absalom!" He outlines each book's plot, identifies its major and minor characters, explores its themes, comments on its strengths and weaknesses. Invariably, he is trenchant: "The Sound and the Fury" is "primarily a book about the modern world and only incidentally about the South," a book the central theme of which--"the disintegration of a family, of a tradition, and of a culture"--is quintessentially modern. Or: " 'The Hamlet' is a remarkable novel, and in my opinion, rarely given its proper due. I find it one of the richest of the novels in the Faulkner canon. It has the virtue that the Elizabethans loved: copia, amplitude, fullness."
Throughout, Brooks' tone is modest, good-humored, instructive, encouraging. His disclaimers notwithstanding, "First Encounters" can be read with profit by the scholar, for it is a distillation of our most important Faulkner critic's views of Faulkner's most enduring work. But the reader who will value it most is the daunted but determined one who wants to gain admission to one of the great bodies of work in the English language. And precisely for that reason, it is to be hoped that Yale Press will soon make "First Encounters" available in paperback, so that the people who can most profitably use it can also afford it.