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Sunday, July 20, 2014

Faulkner and Race Relations

Like many readers, I don't find William Faulkner's novels easy-going.  The pace is slow, the sentences long, and the action tends to meander along.  However, during the spring semester at the University of Maryland,  I sat in one day on an English course that featured a student presentation on his last novel, The Reivers, and decided to read it.  I enjoyed the book very much, and it caused me to think about Faulkner's attitude about race.

In general William Faulkner was a white southerner of his time.  In the three or four of his novels I've read, African-American characters appear often, but they tend to behave in accordance with the accepted mores of the Deep South in the first half of the 20th century.  I don't believe Faulkner ever politically challenged these practices, but I do think he saw black Mississippians as individuals. 

In The Reivers, Faulkner portrayed his black characters as he does his white characters in that some were smart, others not, some were honest while others deceitful, and some were kind, and others less so.  One character in particular, Ned, is generally the smartest guy in the room in his scenes although he is generally careful in showing off his intelligence around whites.  The most despicable characters are white, and they often display their meanness and dishonesty in their interactions with the black characters.  In these choices he made about characters and action, I believe Faulkner was communicating something about his attitude about black people.  At the time The Reivers was published in 1962, the first signs of change regarding race relations in America were taking place.  The Montgomery Bus Boycott was six years earlier, and the Greensboro sit-ins began two years earlier.  Faulkner had to have been conscious of these occurrences and how they would effect what was sometimes called the southern way of life.

The Reivers is primarily a coming-of-age story, and the main character, an 11 year-old boy, at one point reflects on his growing anger as he becomes aware of how people act in the world.  Among the targets of this anger are "white people behaving exactly as white people bragged that only Negroes behaved."  Since Faulkner died the year The Reivers was published, I choose to think that at the end of his life this is what Faulkner thought.

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