Faulkner and the Great Depression
Aesthetics, Ideology, and Cultural Politics

Ted Atkinson

Why, at a time when the American economy produced so little, did Faulkner produce so much?

Reviews

"Faulkner certainly was more engaged with this time and place than many critics in the past have given him credit for. It's refreshing to read a work that reminds us that Faulkner was not, after all, writing in splendid isolation but was acutely aware of the political and economic issues of the day and the ways those issues played out in popular culture."
—Susan V. Donaldson, author of Competing Voices: The American Novel, 1865–1914

"Atkinson offers a solid contemporary ideological but aesthetically sensitive examination of the relationship of Faulkner's fiction, especially works from the 1930s, to the political, social, cultural, and economic issues of the Great Depression. Others have written about this topic, one that is ripe for exploration, but no one until Atkinson has produced such a sustained meditation on it."
—Philip Cohen, University of Texas at Arlington


"Atkinson resituates Faulkner's major work in the historical and cultural context of a Great Depression characterized not just by the iconography of dust bowls and bread lines but by Hollywood films about gangsters and mobs, by a resurgence of Civil War representations, by political arguments pitting the ideology of self-reliance against the bureaucratic machinery of relief, and, perhaps most of all, by lively intellectual debates over the politics of literary aesthetics. Atkinson shows us a Faulkner positioned squarely, but never simply, amidst this cultural ferment. Along the way we get fresh insights into The Sound and the Fury, Light In August, Absalom, Absalom!, and The Unvanquished, along with major reinterpretations of Mosquitoes, As I Lay Dying, Sanctuary, and 'Barn Burning.' One comes away from this study with the sense that the defining crises and contradictions of the Depression brought out the very best in Faulkner, catalyzing and challenging his artistic and social vision. A vital, valuable addition to the growing body of historicist and cultural studies scholarship on Faulkner."
—Jay Watson, author of Forensic Fictions: The Lawyer Figure in Faulkner

"[A] significant book . . . Atkinson's study offers, on the whole, a balanced analysis and presents a thoughtful model for future studies.
. . . At his best Atkinson places Faulkner firmly in the frightening and exhilarating context of our last century's history and culture. In doing so, he shows just how relevant Faulkner remains for our own time."
Studies in American Culture

"All writers, in some fashion, reflect the generation in which they write, and, as evidenced by this book, William Faulkner was no exception."
Spartanburg Herald-Journal

"Sheds light on [a] broader view of this major American author active in the mid 1900s by focusing on individual character, incidents, and circumstances in his novels."
Midwest Book Review

"A fine contribution to historicist and cultural studies scholarship on Faulkner's work . . . Atkinson makes a convincing argument for re-evaluating Faulkner's fiction between 1927 and 1941 in the context of dominant social and political debates going on at the time. . . . Atkinson's book is a significant contribution both to Faulkner studies and to American studies more broadly. . . . Anybody interested in further understanding Faulkner, the history of the Depression, or the relationship between art and politics would find this very readable book both of interest and of value."
—Caroline Miles, Mississippi Quarterly

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Description
“Remarkably,” writes Ted Atkinson, “during a period roughly corresponding to the Great Depression, Faulkner wrote the novels and stories most often read, taught, and examined by scholars.” This is the first comprehensive study to consider his most acclaimed works in the context of those hard times.

Atkinson sees Faulkner’s Depression-era novels and stories as an ideological battleground--in much the same way that 1930s America was. With their contrapuntal narratives that present alternative accounts of the same events, these works order multiple perspectives under the design of narrative unity. Thus, Faulkner’s ongoing engagement with cultural politics gives aesthetic expression to a fundamental ideological challenge of Depression-era America: how to shape what FDR called a “new order of things” out of such conflicting voices as the radical left, the Popular Front, and the Southern Agrarians.

Focusing on aesthetic decadence in Mosquitoes and dispossession in The Sound and the Fury, Atkinson shows how Faulkner anticipated and mediated emergent sociocultural forces of the late 1920s and early 1930s. In Sanctuary; Light in August; Absalom, Absalom!; and “Dry September,” Faulkner explores social upheaval (in the form of lynching and mob violence), fascism, and the appeal of strong leadership during troubled times. As I Lay Dying, The Hamlet, “Barn Burning,” and “The Tall Men” reveal his “ambivalent agrarianism”--his sympathy for, yet anxiety about, the legions of poor and landless farmers and sharecroppers. In The Unvanquished, Faulkner views Depression concerns through the historical lens of the Civil War, highlighting the forces of destruction and reconstruction common to both events.

Faulkner is no proletarian writer, says Atkinson. However, the dearth of overt references to the Depression in his work is not a sign that Faulkner was out of touch with the times or consumed with aesthetics to the point of ignoring social reality. Through his comprehensive social vision and his connections to the rural South, Hollywood, and New York, Faulkner offers readers remarkable new insight into Depression concerns.

Page count: 288 pp.
Trim size: 6 x 9

 



Hardcover
List price: $46.95
978-0-8203-2750-1
1/3/2006

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Ebook
List price: $44.95
978-0-8203-3085-3
4/15/2010
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Ted Atkinson is an assistant professor of English at Mississippi State University.