... 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.
... provocative and engrossing ... Toward the end of The Saddest Words, Gorra quotes W.E.B. Du Bois’s famous declaration that 'the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line' and contends that 'no white writer in our literature thought longer and harder about that problem' than Faulkner. Yet in his zeal to show us that he thought about it, Gorra sometimes overrates what he thought about it ... While Gorra is keen to separate Faulkner from more racist and revanchist Southern writers, he does not argue that he was a progressive, exactly. His thesis is both subtler and more tendentious ... Gorra seems to want to give Faulkner credit for consistently acknowledging a problem that he did virtually nothing about ... There was no better chronicler of white guilt than William Faulkner. His territory was the wrong side of history, and he knew every inch of it. But while Gorra wants to congratulate Faulkner for exposing Southern racism, Baldwin suggests that he in fact mystified it, aestheticized it, thus making it even harder to overcome than it needed to be. There is a kind of tragic sublimity, in Faulkner’s work, to the white South’s wrongness, to the magnitude of the guilt, and the extent of the attempt to deny or forget it. But a tragedy only ever ends one way; or perhaps, as Faulkner thought, it never ends at all. If we want things to change—if we want justice—guilt is not enough.