The Dixie Limited: A Review

With The Dixie Limited, M. Thomas Inge fills a crucial academic niche in work on the Faulkner canon. Arranged chronologically from over the last eight decades in a collection of essays, articles, reviews, letters, and interviews by Faulkner’s contemporaries and their successors.

In his introduction Inge refers to a paper presented by Thomas L. McHaney at the 1979 Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference at the University of Mississippi, “Watching for the Dixie Limited: Faulkner’s Impact upon the Creative Writer,” later published in Fifty Years of Yoknapatawpha (University Press of Mississippi: 1980), edited by Dr. Doreen Fowler and Ann Abadie. McHaney stated that “writers seem to have more in common with one another than with their own native literary establishments.” He continues to say that “the literary establishment, especially in the sense that it constitutes the best-seller and the major book-reviewing media, did not have as much to do with him . . . as did the other creative writers in English. His impact on them was immediate and sustained . . .” Inge’s thesis echoes—and subsequently amplifies—this assessment: “The novel has certainly not been the same since Faulkner, that much seems clear, and the 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.”

The title references a famous quote by Flannery O’Connor that first appeared in a paper she read in 1960 at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. The subject of the speech, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Fiction,” notes a tendency to the grotesque in the “Southern situation” as well as the “prevalence of good Southern writers.” She then states, “The presence alone of Faulkner in our midst 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 advice, and developed an original vision and distinctive style of spiritual and gothic austerity. Eudora Welty also cultivated her own talents in Faulkner’s looming shadow. “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,” she wrote. “But it wasn’t a helping or hindering presence.” She also said—with characteristic modesty—that “[Faulkner] wrote about a much vaster world than anything I ever contemplated in my own work.” She was not intimidated by Faulkner; she learned from him.

We often lose sight of Faulkner’s earlier works, situated as they are behind the towering edifices of his Yoknapatawpha novels, but he attracted the attention of other writers at the beginning of his career. The Fugitive poet and future Agrarian 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) and in an enthusiastic review for the New York Herald Tribune likewise found Faulkner at his worst under the influence of Joyce in overwritten passages, but the novel demonstrated to her 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), nobody with an eye to the landscape of American literature could ignore the emergence of William Faulkner as a dominant if not to say dominating presence. Sherwood Anderson, writing in an essay for The American Mercury in 1930—sixteen years after the editor, H. L. Mencken, published his searing denunciation of the state of southern literature, “The Sahara of the Bozart” in the New York Evening Mail—set the stage for the century’s most celebrated literary rivalry by saying, “The two most notable young writers who have come on in America since the war, it seems to me, are William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway.” This comparison became even more unavoidable as the two barreled down, traveled the same track, or —in a perhaps more apt Hemingwayesque metaphor—faced off in the same ring.

As the century wore on, more and more writers, playwrights, and poets found it contingent upon them to weigh in on Faulkner’s looming stature. His impact in Britain was impressive, though mixed, with Rebecca West and George Orwell, who, as a champion of lucid style, condemning The Hamlet in 1940 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 both spectacular and profound. Sartre declared in 1946 that Faulkner had “evoked a revolution” through his innovations in perspective, tonal monologues, and changing the “chronological order of the story” in behalf of “a more subtle order, half logical, half intuitive.” In a letter to Malcolm Cowley, Sartre wrote, “Pour la jeune France, Faulkner c’est un dieu.”

Inge delineates Faulkner’s deep impression on the literature of South America, saying, “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 so far as to say, “It is indeed arguable that [Gabriel García] Márquez’s 1967 masterpiece, Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude), could not have been possible without Faulkner’s fiction to serve as inspiration and master instruction.” Inge also describes Faulkner’s global impact with contributions from writers in South Africa, Japan, and China.

In addition to the two above-mentioned, Dixie Limited includes a generous portion of women writers: Kay Boyle, Dorothy Parker, Elizabeth Spencer, Lee Smith, and others. Excruciatingly appropriate on several levels are selections from black writers: Ralph Ellison, Chester Gaines, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Faulkner’s fellow Mississippian Richard Wright. Faulkner’s impact—and lack thereof—on political and social issues features prominently in Baldwin’s essay, “Faulkner and Desegregation,” and it’s also the theme of perhaps the most endearing essay in the collection, Roark Bradford’s “The Private World of William Faulkner” (1984).

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, and Vladimir Nabokov, as well as a generous helping of bile from 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 a1953 address at Princeton University, that Faulkner demonstrated “More genius than talent.”  You’ll find most of these in Inge’s remarkable introduction, which deserves reading and re-reading for only for those includes these poison pen remarks, but also for and also paeons from the likes of Katherine Anne Porter, Carson McCullers, William Styron, Shelby Foote, and Walker Percy, along with illuminating observations from Richard Ford and John Grisham.

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.

 

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