The real great American Novel: 'Absalom, Absalom!' Faulkner: His ninth novel, for its span, its revelation, its American essence, stands above all others in reaching for the literary absolute.

The Argument

November 16, 1997|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

In January 1936, William Faulkner had just completed his latest novel and begun his latest drinking binge. He handed the new manuscript to a friend and said, "I want you to read this. ... I think it's the best novel yet written by an American."

It sounded like the bourbon talking, but Faulkner was right. Still is. The fellow whom Faulkner had met while working for Warner Bros. held in his hands the world's only copy of what would become - after some revision -"Absalom, Absalom!", the publication of which should have by now settled the question of what is The Great American Novel. It is Faulkner's ninth and best novel, "Absalom, Absalom!"

Novelist Frank Norris wrote in 1902 that The Great American Novel was pure myth, a hybrid creature that could never exist. He argued well, but too soon, years before the appearance of "Absalom," which would have proved him wrong.

Norris might not have understood it for what it was. Apparently no one else did. On Oct. 26, 1936, the book was published by Random House to reviews that only generously would be called mixed. Time magazine considered it Faulkner's best work, but most everyone else found it variously boring, baffling, unreadable, impressive in its technique but murky in meaning. As Herman Melville's big whaling novel was poorly received nearly a century before, Faulkner reached the pinnacle of his career with "Absalom" but almost nobody grasped the magnitude of the achievement.

Literary opinion has since caught up with Faulkner. That's the good news. The bad news is that events in America have since validated the tragic vision of "Absalom," in which a scene near the climax shows a mentally retarded mixed-race teen-ager howling outside the burning hulk of a Southern plantation house. The youth is a great-grandson of the white man who built the plantation, who decades earlier repudiated his part-black wife and son. This moral failure dooms the man and his family.

As long as the consequences of racism continue to unfold in American courtrooms, prisons, cities and work places, Faulkner's metaphors will apply. "Absalom" describes a karmic soup that permeates contemporary American culture .

Surely "Absalom" - relaying events in Mississippi, New Orleans, West Virginia, Haiti and Cambridge, Mass. between the 1830s and 1909 - was not meant as a socio-political statement about the horrors of urban American life. When he began writing the book in 1934 Faulkner wrote his publisher: "Roughly, the theme is a man who outraged the land, and the land then turned and destroyed the man's family."

Yet the "Old South" images of "Absalom" are haunting. It is a great novel in its historic span, elliptical revelation, layer by layer, of Mississippi pioneer Thomas Sutpen's doomed ambition. All that and its distinctively American essence make it The Great American Novel .

The novel is murder mystery, Greek tragedy, historical drama, Freudian family nightmare and Gothic ghost story. It's a tale in which the real "action" is the storytelling. Much of the drama lies in the four narrators' struggle to grasp the truth. The reader struggles with them as they recall, inquire, tell, speculate about events that occurred as long as 75 years before. Scholar Colleen E. Donnelly wrote that "Absalom" becomes "a novel about the making of history rather than a history itself."

"Absalom, Absalom!" - the title is derived from the Old Testament Book of Samuel - tells of Thomas Sutpen, to whom we are introduced by his 64-year-old sister-in-law, Rosa Coldfield. We have not yet heard his name when we first glimpse this mysterious figure in Miss Rosa's hellish vision:

"Out of quiet thunderclap he would abrupt (man-horse-demon) upon a scene peaceful and decorous as a schoolprize water color, faint sulphur-reek still in hair clothes and beard ..." The demon, we soon learn, is Sutpen, who descended upon Yoknapatawpha County, Miss. in 1833, bought 100 square miles of virgin forest outside of the center of the town of Jefferson and built a plantation.

Racial relevance

His plan is to father male heirs, establish a dynasty and avenge an insult he suffered years before as a poor boy in Virginia. On an errand to a grand plantation house, the boy Sutpen had been met at the front door by a black servant in formal clothes and ordered to go around to the back door. At that moment, the course of Sutpen's life is determined. He will set right this cosmic injustice, this denial of his humanity. He will own a plantation. He will erase a mark of his own history and take revenge on nothing short of time itself.

Sutpen pursues his design with the monomania of Ahab and the hubris of Gatsby, who also believed in his power to eradicate the past. But the past returns to haunt Sutpen in the person of Charles Bon, a son Sutpen rejected years before when he discovered his mother was part black. It is Bon's grandson, Jim Bond, who howls in despair outside the burning mansion.

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