William Faulkner
Novels, 1926 - 1929
Flags in the Dust
(The Library of America)
When they published it in 1929, the editors at Houghton Mifflin cut the novel down by forty thousand words. They also changed the name. Faulkner wanted Flags in the Dust. They wanted Sartoris. They, being the publishers, won.

There are two wars that figure in the plot. Grandfather Bayard Sartoris fought in the civil war, but got shot dead because he rode into a Union camp ... to steal anchovies.

    He rode yelling "Yaaaiiiiih, Yaaaiiiih, come on, boys!" right up the knoll and jumped his horse over the breakfast table and rode it into the wrecked commissary tent, and a cook who was hidden under the mess stuck his arm out and shot Bayard in the back with a derringer.

Then there were the twin Sartoris brothers in World War I: one named Bayard like his grandfather, the other John after his father. John died when his Sopworth was shot down by the Germans. Bayard survived to return to Jefferson, Mississippi buy a car, raise hell, get drunk, impregnate the lovely Narcissa Benbow, and while he was taking his grandfather out for a fast spin, watch him die of a heart-attack.

We had always been led to believe that the first honest-to-god great book of Faulkner was The Sound and the Fury but it is a mean (albeit clever) piece of writing. The critics use the word "nihilism" but it is better to view it as a cruel study of what we now call a disfunctional family, and the Compsons are a veritable field-day of anti-social behavior patterns: double binds, passive aggression, depression, and alcoholism.

Soldier's Pay, Mosquitoes and Sartoris were given short shrift by the critics of the last fifty years, but the critics were wrong, as were the editors at Harcourt Brace. Unless you dislike discursive, funny, subtle, merry up-and-down novels, this one is a kick-in-the-pants. (They were probably right about the title, though: Flags in the Dust sounds like something PBS would put together on the Civil War. The tale is of the Civil War, but that is a small part.)

Whatever its name, it is rich, threaded with pathos and wonderful irony, and Bayard is a true failed Faulknerian hero, stuck high in "the lonely heights of his despair."

§     §     §

Each time we come across a novel that won't let us go, we wonder exactly how they --- these novelists --- do it. How do they take the mess that is life and sew it together to get it on the page, all the thousand of mixed strands of twenty or thirty characters? Where did this Faulkner come from? Was he a Shakespeare set down by mistake (in Mississippi?) Born in 1897, a minimal education --- more than minimal --- practically nothing after high school except hanging around college campuses, writing and drawing for lit magazines, meeting other writers.

He grew up in the poorest of the poor South, wrote bad poetry and two bad novels: then suddenly this bloom --- producing Sartoris (let's use that name) in a matter of months.

Funny characters: Bayard who, like the author, drinks too much, insists on riding wild horses; gets thrown (as the author often did), breaks his fool head. Aunt Jenny, with her smart mouth, and eighty-year-old toughness; lovely Narcissa; sour Old Bayard (young Bayard's grandfather) who will pick up a stick and knock a "nigger" down the steps; and then the blacks...

§     §     §

For a novel to work, we need a place, and a time, and, oh, words. Suddenly, starting at age twenty-eight or so, this Faulkner has the words, the right words. He wasn't much for talking, even when he got before the Nobel Prize people, they couldn't understand his Mississippi accent, and he was too far from the microphone (he had little interest in being heard in day-to-day speech).

But the written word. His heaven, in Sartoris, is a place where

    no star showed, and the sky was the sagging corpse of itself. It lay upon the earth like a deflated balloon; into the dark shape of the kitchen rose without depth, and the trees beyond, and homely shapes like sad ghosts in the chill corpse-light --- the woodpile; a farming tool; a barrel beside the broken stoop at the kitchen door, where he had stumbled supperward.

And the characters: Flem Snopes writing illiterate, scary, nasty letters to Narcissa; Simon, the oldest servant in the family, who takes but one ride in the car and then demands to be let out; the old colonel, napping in front of his bank; Horace Benbow, who falls for Belle, wife of cotton speculator Harry --- Belle, who asks him, before she dumps Harry, if he is rich; (he lies, and she never forgives him); and the blacks, always in the background, often haranguing those they are supposed to be "serving." Rachel, telling Harry, "Whut you let that 'oman treat you and that baby like she do, anyhow? ... You ought to take and lay her out wid a stick of wood. Messin' up my kitchen at fo' oclock in de evenin'. And you aint helpin' none, neither," she told Horace.

"Gimme a dram, Mr Harry, please, suh." She held her glass out and Harry filled it.

Simon is the house black who eats a mix of spinach and icecream and between bites tries to feel up the young black girls in the kitchen. Oh, too: trees and the birds and the gardens:

    the garden lay in sunlight bright with bloom, myriad with scent and with a drowsy humming of bees --- a steady golden sound, as of sunlight become audible --- all the impalpable veil of the immediate, the familiar.

The early visitor to the Sartoris family, who turns out to be Narcissa, caught by the author: "a girl with a bronze skirling of hair and a small, supple body in a constant epicene unrepose, a dynamic fixation like that of craven sexless figures caught in moments of action, striving, a mechanism all of whose members must move in performing the most trivial action, her wild hands not accusing but passionate still beyond the veil impalpable but sufficient." Faulkner was still coming on his third decade when he wrote this.

There are many musics in Sartoris. There is the descriptive language. And there are three dialogues: the upper-class whites (Pompous but wise Horace, speaking of humanity and the divine: "Perhaps he has forgotten Himself what the plan was.") Then there are the lower-class whites, this dialogue between the men, for those of us who grew up in the old south, ringing as true as a bell, the men on a hunt,

    "Thar, now!" the old man exclaimed, shapeless in his overcoat, up on his white horse. "Aint that music fer a man, now?"

    "I hope they git 'im this time," Jackson said. "Hit hurts Gen'ral's conceit so much ever' time he fools 'im."

    "They won't git 'im," Buddy said. "Soon's he gits tired, he'll hole up in them rocks..."


    The talk ceased, and again across the silence the dogs' voices rang among the hills. Long, ringing cries fading, falling with a quavering suspense, like touched bells or strings, repeated and sustained by bell-like echoes repeated and dying among the dark hills beneath the stars, lingering yet in the ears crystal-clear, mournful and valiant and a little sad.

§     §     §

And finally the blacks: Bayard in his car, racing taking three black musicians for a ride, and "the car swept on with a steady leashed muttering like waking thunderous wings..." and one of the musicians says, "Oh Lawd ... Mr Bayard! ... Lemme out, Mr. Bayard!" and "The car shot upward, left the road completely, then swooped dreadfully on, and the negros' concerted wail whipped forlornly away." At the crest, "the car's thunder ceased:"

    "Is dis heaven!" one murmured after a time.

    "Dey wouldn't let you in heaven, wid licker on yo' breaf and no hat, feller," another said.

    "Ef de Lawd dont take no better keer of me dan He done of dat hat, I dont wanter go dar, noways," the first rejoined.

    "Mmmmmmmmm," the second agreed, "When us come down dat 'ere las' hill, dis yere cla'inet almos' blowed clean outen my han', let 'lone my hat."

    They drank again. It was high here, and the air moved with grave coolness. On either hand lay a valley filled with silver mist and with whip-poor-wills; beyond these valleys the silver earth rolled on into the sky. Across it, mournful and far, a dog howled.

Description, dialogue, drama, and the story doesn't want to leave you alone. We know that young Bayard is going to kill himself, that he is going to leave young Narcissa with child, and he does and she is. I spent two weeks savoring this one, as you must savor a fine love or a fine novel, wanting it not to end, as you must with a worthy novel (or love), getting meshed in the characters, and the drama, and the dialogue.

After the death of his grandfather, Bayard runs away to the house of a poor country family, the McCullums, Buddy and Lee and Henry, taking us through a fox hunt, time in a small cabin in the loblolly pine woods, Bayard hunting in the winter South with Buddy, "in the skeletoned fields in the rain, in which the guns made a flat, mournful sound that lingered in the streaming air like a spreading stain."

And this on the hunt, "the dogs' voices welled out of the darkness mournful and chiming, swelled louder and nearer and swept invisibly past not half a mile away, faded diminishing and with a falling suspense, as of bells, into the silence again."

§     §     §

Flag in the Dust comes to us in five parts. It is filled with poetry and suspense and funny on-the-mark back-and-forth southern talk and that errant Faulknerian fatalism and enough characters to fill your head and create a sense of marvel that one so young could sit down at his typewriter and make blossom this flower that makes any of us who crave to be writers cringe, to know that we can try to write, sit down and set up the characters and the words and then know that if you are going to command the magic it must be there from the very start, not something one is going to whip up just because one wants to write, but that has to be there because it is already there; and if we think we can do it without that magic, then we are wrong, fools who need not apply.

--- Raymond Benton, MA
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH