I happen to belong to a book group, which, after considerable deliberation and postponement, has finally decided to venture into the world of William Faulkner. Faulkner means a lot to me for a variety of reasons. When I was living in Israel, his texts were my primary link back to the power of the English language, both what it could express and how those thoughts could be expressed. More importantly, however, reading Faulkner has, for me, always been an invitation to research. Few (if any) of his texts allow for casual reading; and I find it impossible to read any of those texts without a pencil at hand. My reading of “The Bear” quickly descended into filling the margins until no room was left, after which I started constructing family trees on larger pieces of paper. It was only later that I discovered books (and now Web pages) that provide those family trees (with considerable annotation). These are helpful for post hoc consultation, but reading Faulkner is all about the sensemaking. If you do not figure these things out for yourself, you are missing out on the fundamental raison d’être for reading him in the first place.
One of my most treasured Faulkner volumes in The Portable
Faulkner, edited by Malcolm Cowley for The Viking Press. This is part of a
Viking series, each volume of which was intended to introduce an author to the
reader by a judicious selection of texts determined and organized by the
editor. Because all of Faulkner’s texts amount to an extended (and highly
subjective) history of the South from the early nineteenth century to the
middle of the twentieth, Cowley made the bold move of organizing his selections
in the chronological order of that history, rather than according to the
published volumes from which they were taken.
Two of our book group’s selections come from the earliest
years of that history, “Wedding in the Rain” from Absalom, Absalom! and “Was,”
the first story in Go Down, Moses. There is also a second story from Go
Down, Moses, “The Old People.” I cannot remember the last time I read “Wedding
in the Rain.” I only remember that I read it in the context of Cowley’s
synopsis of Absalom, Absalom! (prepared for his Introduction to The
Portable Faulkner); and, at the time, I was focused almost entirely on “reading
for the plot” (as Peter Brooks put it in the title of his book). However, one
of the things I got out of Brooks’ book is the way in which Faulkner plays fast
and loose with who the narrator is as the narrative unfolds. Thus, I was
pleasantly surprised to discover that, even in “Wedding in the Rain,” one
encounters a major shift in narrator about half way through the story.
Now I find I have to deal with an editorial decision that
Cowley made with “Was.” It turns out that, because this is the first story in Go
Down, Moses, it has a three-paragraph “overture” (with no periods, by the
way) that introduces a few of the names that the reader will then encounter.
Following those paragraphs, the second word of the story itself is “he;” and
the reader alert to Faulkner’s ways immediately reacts by asking “Who is ‘he?’”
For better or worse, Cowley decided to help out the reader in his inclusion of “Was”
in The Portable Faulkner, first by dropping the “overture” (probably for
being too intimidating) and then replacing the “he” with “Cass Edmonds” (not
that the reader would have any idea who this is, but at least “he” has a name).
This is the sort of thing that starts my research antennae
twitching. I have decided to read “Was” from the Go Down, Moses volume.
It’s not that I do not appreciate Cowley’s help, but I do not want him to spoil
the fun. After all, having read “Wedding in the Rain,” I know that the referent
of “he” may change abruptly when I least expect it; and I would rather take
that as a challenge to my own sensemaking, rather than let an informed editor
clarify matters for me!