Cleanth Brooks | Critical Review by Robert Daniel

This literature criticism consists of approximately 8 pages of analysis & critique of Cleanth Brooks.
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Critical Review by Robert Daniel

SOURCE: "The Southern Community," in Sewanee Review, Vol. 73, No. 1, January/March, 1965, pp. 119-24.

Below, Daniel favorably reviews Brooks's William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country. Brooks's own southern heritage, Daniel argues, gives added clarity to his interpretations of Faulkner.

Faulkner's novels and stories have evoked studies the length of books by Campbell and Foster, Howe, O'Connor, Mrs. Vickery, Slatoff, Swiggart, Longley, and now Cleanth Brooks. (I may have overlooked a few, and on various grounds I have omitted Miner, Malin, Cooper, Coughlan, Meriwether, etc.) Despite the competition, Brooks's work has in general been well received—except by such implacable curmudgeons as Marvin Mudrick. Its admirers have had all sorts of reasons for admiring it, one of the most provocative being that it is the first such book to be written by "one who can speak from intimate but dispassionate knowledge of [Faulkner's] milieu": a point to which I must return. The reviews and the sales must be making the publisher look forward to bringing out the companion volume, which will be concerned with Faulkner's style and fictional technique, especially as analysis of his revisions may illuminate these.

It is a pleasure to agree with the praise that William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country has called forth. Brooks has indeed produced a most valuable guide to the meaning of Faulkner's major novels; and, what is more, once it gets really under way it is a joy to read. The analyses are generous with summary and quotation, presenting the substance of the novels with such discerning warmth as to rekindle the excitement one felt on one's first meeting with them. Yet I must at the same time sympathize with some of the reviewers' complaints: that Brooks writes as though Faulkner's characters led lives independent of his fictions; that the encomiums on every one of the fourteen Yoknapatawpha novels get monotonous, hardly discriminating between the worst and the best of them; that Brooks's thesis is vulnerable—viz., that to Faulkner the Southern community is "the field for man's action and the norm by which his action is judged and regulated," as Brooks formulates it on page 69. And the writing is sometimes absent-minded: "These instances of symbol-hunting … are only a little less absurd than much respectable commentary on Faulkner." For "less" read "more," surely.

I must add a few other cavils. Nearly half of the forty-two short stories in Faulkner's Collected Stories are set in the Yoknapatawpha country, and these have supplied some of our most memorable images of it. Yet Brooks mentions only six of the stories—mainly in his notes. (A full analysis of "Dry September," for instance, would have deepened his interpretation of Light in August.) His rather disjointed title seems intended to prepare for the whimsical structure of the book. Discussions of Faulkner's provincialism, his treatment of rustic characters, and the role nature plays in his work introduce the thirteen chapters on the Yoknapatawpha novels, Sanctuary and Requiem for a Nun being considered together. But the community with which the book is mainly concerned, as in the chapters on Light in August and Intruder in the Dust, resides in neither the countryside nor the wilderness. It resides in the town of Jefferson, and no introductory chapter treats of it. The discussions of the novels themselves occur neither in the order of their composition nor in that of history or geography. (Cf. the arrangement of the Collected Stories.) Brooks's arrangement, though his preface defends it, obscures the gradual evolution of Faulkner's major attitudes and his style, retards the expression of Brooks's thesis, and most unhappily—for it is an essentially sound thesis—robs it of the clarity that might have safeguarded it from attack.

For instance, it should not be necessary to deny, though it evidently is, that Brooks mistakes the Faulknerian community for a Utopia. He is showing only that it can nourish human relationships which, instead of being destructively competitive, are founded on disinterested kindliness and interdependence. Whoever wrote in a recent New Republic (hardly a reactionary journal) of "Southern California's vast, fragmented non-community, where … the rights of property remain the only constant value" (November 14, p. 6) would understand Faulkner's meaning without difficulty. But Faulkner did not discover this important theme all at once, and a critic can define it best if he traces its slow emergence in the novels. We may see Faulkner groping his way toward it in the Christmas Eve passage of Sartoris; with As I Lay Dying he brings it into sharper focus; and it flourishes even amid the horrors of Light in August—as Brooks finely shows at the conclusion of that chapter.

Although Brooks's stated intention is "to determine and evaluate the meaning of the work in the fullness of its depth and amplitude," his method is very little that of the Formalist. Indeed, it is frequently moralistic, greatly concerned with the validity of Faulkner's judgments on his characters. And when this new development on Brooks's part is combined with his critiques of other approaches to Faulkner, some fine theoretical puzzles result. Brooks makes war on two extremes: "sociologizing" and "symbol-mongering." (These are not counterparts, as he asserts, however, for the first reduces meaning, the second inflates it.) Of sociologizing, he remarks that "anything calculated to shake the reader's confidence in the literal accuracy of Faulkner's 'facts' is probably to be commended." Symbol-mongering is so calculated—and if Faulkner's fictitious situations are not true to life, what critical advantage is there in possessing "knowledge of how life is actually lived (and has been lived) in Mississippi"? Faulkner's European admirers doubtless lacked this knowledge, though they were among the first to appreciate his stature. It may be answered that, while Faulkner's best novels contain all that is needed for their understanding, the Southern critic will be alive to nuances that escape the outlander. Brooks implicitly claims more than this, though; e.g., "Peter Liska shows no knowledge of Southern mores when he assumes that the disclosure that Temple had been raped would be a 'socially acceptable' account." Here Brooks appeals to his own experience of Faulkner's milieu; and I wish he had somewhere addressed himself to the problem of how we can know when a novel is continuous, and when discontinuous, with the reality from which it has sprung.

The indictment of symbol-mongering also raises a problem of knowledge, which Brooks ignores, while effectively deriding various examples: the Compsons' Christmas dinner as a feast of atonement, Joe Christmas as Jesus, Ike Snopes as a Courtly Lover, Sutpen's mountain birthplace as an Eden. Some of these "discoveries" are merely silly; other symbolic readings, however, cannot be summarily rejected, unless they are shown to conflict with what seems the right interpretation of the whole novel. "Shall there be no more innocent consumption of pork chops and spareribs in Yoknapatawpha County," Brooks rightly asks, "because someone has read The Golden Bough?" But because Barbara Crossman has overinterpreted the Compsons' pig, shall there be no more archetypes? Is Neil Isaacs wrong, to take a recent example, in reading the murder of Sutpen as a kind of Götterdämmerung?

Brooks's own alertness to such implications produces one of the most compelling passages in his book: his account of the mythic atmosphere of The Hamlet. Just so does his knowledge of the facts of Southern life make possible many of his other insights—despite his already quoted disclaimer. Two of the best examples are his suggestion that Sutpen's treatment of Clytie shows Sutpen lacking in "the usual Southern feeling" about Negroes, and the even more acute remark that the disintegration of the Compson family contrasts with, rather than represents, the general state of families in the South of 1910.

This knife, however, may cut both ways. A Southern critic may be both sensitive to the nuances of Faulkner's imaginary society and at the same time unduly defensive about the real society that underlies it. Brooks argues persuasively against the notion that Sutpen typifies the antebellum Southerner; and yet for all that, I think, Absalom, Absalom! excoriates the South by the motives it ascribes to Henry Sutpen, who is not the sympathetic character that Brooks would have him be. Henry's part of the story, as Brooks argues, is indeed what most affects Quentin—and it is Henry's actions that introduce ambiguity into Quentin's famous last words, "I dont hate it!"

Brooks presents Henry as "beset by conflicting claims … forced to make intolerably hard choices—between opposed goods or between conflicting evils." But what can "goods" mean in this sentence? Henry chooses to murder Charles Bon, his half-brother, rather than see him marry their sister, and the reason he finds himself in this apparent dilemma is that for six years he has been infatuated with Bon—so much so that during four of these years he has assented to the prospective marriage, knowing that Bon and Judith are half-brother and half-sister. (Much of all this derives from the conjectures of Quentin and Shreve; but, as Brooks shows, their conjectures have the same status as the rest of the novel's action.)

By suggesting that "Sutpen's unwillingness to acknowledge Charles Bon as his son does not spring from any particular racial feeling," Brooks obscures the biting ingenuity of Faulkner's plot. Sutpen's design, of course, has two parts: he wishes to make himself an aristocrat, and he wishes to found an aristocratic dynasty. In the incident of the Confederate camp, the ironist Bon offers himself as the fulfillment of the second wish; but his Negro blood means that if Sutpen acknowledged him he would frustrate the first one—and incidentally bastardize his white children. When Sutpen refuses, however, he removes the only obstacle to the marriage that Bon would recognize. Henry's choice is therefore not a true dilemma; to prevent the marriage he has only to proclaim his brotherhood with Bon. But he cannot entertain that alternative.

Quentin and Steve's conjectures, as Brooks summarizes them on pages 434-435, make it all quite explicit, including Henry's silence at Bon's words, "So it's the miscegenation, not the incest, which you cant bear." And surely the implication is that only when fifteen hundred miles away from Mississippi, and prodded by his Canadian roommate, can Quentin discern the truth about the South. While Sutpen is only a quasi-aristocrat, he has a genuine aristocrat for a son; and Henry, like Faulkner's other genuine aristocrats, is seldom guilty of treating other persons as mere instruments of his will. Yet both father and son are caught in an institution that makes the instrumental use of human beings peculiarly tempting, even to so amiable a character as Henry, who prefers murder to having a brother-in-law with Negro blood. It will not do to answer the question "Does Quentin hate the South?" by asking "Does Stephen Daedalus [sic] hate Dublin?" (Cf. p. 317.) The answer to that is Yes. The answer to the other question may be inferred from Intruder in the Dust.

Excoriates: the verb comes from one of Chick Mallison's reveries about Southerners, of which Brooks quotes several in arguing that Gavin Stevens should not be considered Faulkner's spokesman. Stevens' attitude toward the South is relatively tolerant; but what a re-reading of these passages makes plainer than ever is that Faulkner's deepest feelings are expressed by Chick. Does Chick hate Southerners? He burns with a "fierce desire that they should be perfect because they were his and he was theirs," and exhibits a "furious almost instinctive leap and spring to defend them from anyone anywhere so that he might excoriate them himself without mercy"—passions that he shares with Quentin. Intruder in the Dust does not end unhappily; what calls for excoriation is only an unrealized intention. In Absalom, Absalom!, however, Henry Sutpen carries a like intention into effect, and thereby destroys himself. Its last sentence represents Quentin's "furious almost instinctive leap and spring" of defense.

For Quentin, like Chick, is "theirs," and they are his. So was it also with Faulkner. Other interpreters of his work have inclined to abstract his excoriation of the South from the intricate web of emotions to which it belonged; and it is the abiding virtue of Brooks's study of Yoknapatawpha that it makes the positive values of Faulkner's community palpable to the reader, so that he may understand the rich ambiguity of Faulkner's feelings. Although one may doubt that Faulkner conceived of that community as always a dependable regulator of its members' actions, as Brooks sometimes implies, it is indisputably right to say, as he does in closing, that "Even lack of purpose and value take on special meaning when brought into Faulkner's world, for its very disorders are eloquent of the possibilities of order…. Faulkner's work speaks ultimately of the possibilities and capacities of the human spirit for finding and embodying meaning."

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This section contains 2,107 words
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