A new book by Michael Gorra, The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War, traces Faulkner’s literary depictions of the military conflict in the nineteenth century and his personal engagement with the racial conflict of the twentieth. The latter struggle, within the novelist himself, is the real war of Gorra’s subtitle. In The Saddest Words, Faulkner emerges as a character as tragic as any he invented: a writer who brilliantly portrayed the way that the South’s refusal to accept its defeat led to cultural decay, but a Southerner whose private letters and public statements were riddled with the very racism that his books so pointedly damned ... Gorra’s argument, however, depends on close readings of everything from individual sentences to symbols and characters and themes across the author’s novels, which collectively make the case that a racist person can be a radical writer. 'Faulkner the man shared many of the closed society’s opinions and values,' Gorra writes. 'But when the novelist could inhabit a character—when he slipped inside another mind and put those opinions into a different voice—he was almost always able to stand outside them, to place and to judge them.' ... In The Saddest Words, Gorra posits that Quentin represents Faulkner’s view of tragedy as recurrence. 'Again' was the saddest word for the character and the author alike because it 'suggests that what was has simply gone on happening, a cycle of repetition that replays itself, forever.' Both the real and the fictional Southerner were trapped in that cycle, aware that the fall of the Confederacy was right and just but unable to shed their sympathy for the antebellum South. 'What was is never over,' Gorra writes, pointing out that the racism that ensnared Faulkner in the last century persists in this one ... Gorra argues that the racism and the failures in moral reasoning that characterized Faulkner’s life refract brilliantly in the work: 'They speak to us of a riven soul; of a battle in which the right side doesn’t always win.' Rather than separating the artist from his art, Gorra suggests that the two are entwined; Faulkner’s racism informed his devastating portrayals of it.
... rich, complex, and eloquent ... In setting out to explore what Faulkner can tell us about the Civil War and what the war can tell us about Faulkner, Gorra engages as both historian and literary critic ... Gorra endeavors to unknot and clarify Faulkner’s oeuvre by reconstructing it himself, but his act of literary explication is also one of participation—a joining in the Faulknerian process. Gorra renarrates these Civil War stories as he seeks to come to terms both with America’s painful racial legacies and with William Faulkner ... Gorra struggles to come to terms with the distressing views Faulkner frequently articulated on questions of racial progress and racial justice. Gorra does not look away from Faulkner’s troubling public statements or from some disconcerting stereotypes and assumptions in his literary work that became newly jarring as social attitudes shifted ... Gorra assembles quite a bill of failings, especially if we view Faulkner with the assumptions of our time and place rather than his own. Yet having meticulously acknowledged all of this, Gorra makes his claim for Faulkner the writer by reproving Faulkner the man...As Gorra presents it, the act of writing bestowed an almost mystical clear-sightedness. Yet that clarity was always challenged in the fetid Mississippi air that Faulkner, like all his characters, had to breathe. And it is that very tension, the combination of the flaws and the brilliance, that for Gorra makes his case.
In spending relatively little time with the literary aspects of Faulkner’s novels — the astounding characterization, his brilliance with metaphor and his dazzling descriptions of perception and physicality — Gorra misses an opportunity to tell a fuller story of the sublime interplay of aesthetics and theme in Faulkner’s work. This is doubly unfortunate because Gorra writes so beautifully when he turns his attention to Faulkner’s artistry ... But these are relatively small complaints. Gorra’s well-conceived, exhaustively researched book probes history’s refusals ... In his urgency to make the case for Faulkner’s merits, however, Gorra overcorrects with regard to his faults...Gorra isn’t an apologist, but he does go to great lengths to avoid saying the obvious. He mentions Faulkner’s infamous alcoholism as a factor that may have influenced his more incendiary comments ... Gorra mounts a further defense by separating the man from the writing, as though the writing 'made him better than he was; it made the books better than the man.' But that’s a dodge — and, most significantly, it’s not the point. Of course William Faulkner, Mississippi-born in 1897, great-grandson of a slave-owning Confederate colonel, was a racist. But in Faulkner, as is the case in all of America, racism is not the conclusion to any argument. It does not preclude further discussion; it demands it ... This tangle aside, Gorra’s book is rich in insight ... Gorra’s book, as he writes in his preface, is 'an act of citizenship,' timely and essential as we confront, once again, the question of who is a citizen and who among us should enjoy its privileges.