The Sound and the Fury and The Grapes of Wrath again
I read The Sound and the Fury and The Grapes of Wrath again. I needed to hear William Faulkner’s and John Steinbeck’s voices once more, to check whether I had understood their masterpieces the first time I read them, or not. So, with a sort of renewed and fresh attention, I dived into the story of the Compson family, set in Mississippi, and then into the migration of the Joads from Oklahoma to California. Everything was a new trip also for me, full of discoveries, thoughts and surprises. After a dozen days, the time necessary to settle my feelings, I read Flesh and Blood by Michael Cunningham again, a book that I consider the best American novel of recent years, together with James Ellroy’s novels. Flesh and Blood was published in 1995 and tells the story of four generations of the immigrant Stassos family. I read it to understand the differences with Faulkner and Steinbeck, also in terms of perspectives, and to find out why most critics think that after WWII the great American novel is still missing, and that there is not the slightest sign on the horizon of any new giant of literature.
The first surprise, I have to say, was the revelation that Faulkner’s prose and craft have nothing to do with the so-called stream of consciousness, which, according to the Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory by Charles Cuddon (*), this version edited by J. A. Cuddon, “is a narrative method, or device, which seeks to depict the multitudinous thoughts and feelings which pass through the mind.” The dictionary adds that the stream of consciousness is also called the “interior monologue”. Now, when reading The Sound and the Fury, this definition seems generic and poor to me. Other sources explain that it is “a literary style in which a character’s thoughts, feeling, and reactions are depicted in a continuous flow uninterrupted by objective description or conventional dialogue. James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Marcel Proust are among its notable early exponents.” The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms suggests that “stream of consciousness and interior monologue can also be distinguished psychologically and literarily. In a psychological sense, stream of consciousness is the subject‐matter, while interior monologue is the technique for presenting it.” The Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, while agreeing that these terms are “often used interchangeably”, suggests, that “while an interior monologue may mirror all the half thoughts, impressions, and associations that impinge upon the character’s consciousness, it may also be restricted to an organized presentation of that character’s rational thoughts.”
I can accept all these definitions and distinctions, OK, but I cannot agree with the consideration that different authors of different times, schools and countries like Joyce, Woolf, Proust and others, have used the same technique or device. For example, Robert Humphrey comments that Proust “is concerned only with the reminiscent aspect of consciousness” and that he “was deliberately recapturing the past for the purpose of communicating; hence he did not write a stream of consciousness novel.” I totally agree, and I think that only Joyce used a real stream of consciousness technique, well designed and constructed – and he largely abused it. Virginia Wolf improved the technique of interior monologue, in a splendid and effective way. Other authors used a sort of freedom of the craft in their writings just to underline some characters or passages of the accounts – think about Dos Passos, for example, and his U.S.A. Trilogy. It is a fictional device, of course, which has nothing to do with the original psychological definition of the stream of consciousness coined by William James in The Principles of Psychology: “Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself as chopped up in bits… it is nothing joined; it flows. A ‘river’ or a ‘stream’ are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter, let’s call it the stream of thought, consciousness, or subjective life.”
But the definition of the “stream of consciousness” soon became very fashionable and so, in a superficial way, it is used also today to explain some of the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, Anton Chekhov, Henry James, T.S. Eliot, Samuel Beckett, up to Salman Rushdie, Dave Eggers and Irvine Welsh too.
It is the same superficiality that is often used with isms. So Steinbeck belongs to realism and Faulkner is within the literary tradition of modernism and the Southern Renaissance (!) – sorry, I’m bitterly smiling while considering the Renaissance of the Southern Italy.
“There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory,” William Faulkner said. However, his wonderful and powerful efforts to penetrate the psychology of Benjamin Compson, a mentally retarded young man, using a peculiar craft, was soon categorised as a stream of consciousness. And if you read several critics of The Sound and the Fury, this use seems the main point of Faulkner’s work. As if he received the Nobel Prize in Literature thanks to this gift, an ability to use this famous overvalued device.
William Faulkner’s greatness lies in his ability to describe a complex and changing world, a world that is at the same time real and fictional, universal and strongly peculiar. And this was the second surprise for me: the link between Faulkner and Steinbeck is the epopee of an America that doesn’t exist any more, as well as the perspective from which this epopee is seen. In their novels, the Great Depression works like a biblical maelstrom, bringing good and bad sentiments, facts and misdeeds, individual feelings and public actions to light. And this is not the usual light that we can take for granted, but a sulphurous light of some kind of yellow, where desperation pervades every single cell and transforms, for better or worse, the substance of the people and also of the things. And in the meantime, like after the eruptions of many volcanoes, a new earth takes shape, rough, tortured and violent, and emerges from the absolute confusion, over there. The perspective used by Faulkner and Steinbeck is always bottom-up, as if only by looking at the events from the bottom of a well was it possible to understand what really happened and to find out whether there was hope or not (and not by chance, the synthesis and the moral of the Compson’s story is left to Dilsey, the black servant). This is the difference. Reading Flesh and Blood by Michael Cunningham, the perspective is different, so is the background: America has become another America meanwhile. WWII solved and terminated the Great Depression, as well as creating a new country, a superpower with a perennial crisis of identity. And the perspective is no longer bottom-up, it cannot be. Because the country is now spoiled, richer; because it is not elegant to speak about those who have been left behind; moreover, this is seen like a sign of anti-patriotic criticism. Because the greatness of the new American Empire is threatened: it is surrounded by enemies, inside the country too and outside; because Hollywood first, and arts and artists too, are pushed to describe an American dream made of heroism, opportunities, hopes and future. Without racism and classism. So, only an individual crisis achieves space and attention, and thus it is clear why sensitive people are in a crisis of identity (remember McCarthyism, for example; remember that until the end of the 60s there was a strong form of apartheid in the States; remember the wrong wars, etc.).
So, it is not a matter of craft, of fiction devices, and of techniques. Flesh and Blood is deeply different from The Sound and the Fury or The Grapes of Wrath because the world has changed. There is not an epopee, but only alienation. Not a historical, creative maelstrom, but acquiescent stagnation. Not a light that comes from the last people of the street (remember the very end of The Grapes of Wrath), but a blurred, endless mist and a lack of tragedy, the impossibility for evil to become a real, widespread, and epochal tragedy.
How will it be possible to find a new giant of literature? And to read the new expected great American novel?
If you look at the presentations of the last winners of the Pulitzer Prize, you will understand what I mean. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt: “A beautifully written coming-of-age novel with exquisitely drawn characters that follows a grieving boy’s entanglement with a small famous painting that has eluded destruction, a book that stimulates the mind and touches the heart.” A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan: “An inventive investigation of growing up and growing old in the digital age, displaying a big-hearted curiosity about cultural change at warp speed.” Tinkers by Paul Harding: “A powerful celebration of life in which a New England father and son, through suffering and joy, transcend their imprisoning lives and offer new ways of perceiving the world and mortality.” Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout: “A collection of 13 short stories set in small-town Maine that packs a cumulative emotional wallop, bound together by polished prose and by Olive, the title character, blunt, flawed and fascinating.”
Literature is usually a child of the contemporary society, and only a few authors, only a handful of geniuses in history, were able to anticipate and not to be the children of their times. Great writers, instead, understand and feel what is happening, what the common people don’t see or don’t want to see, the big movements, the deep transformations. While the rest of the so-called artists usually follow the fashions and, lately, what is politically correct, which is a strong manipulative concept that works like a light for weak spirits, a prescribed track and a cage.
Without Faulkner and Steinbeck, for example, we wouldn’t have known so much about the Great Depression and nothing about the pain of the poor people, about the suffering from which a great nation was born. What is America without the Great Depression and without its hidden province? What is the legendary interstate 66 without the exodus to the West of thousands and thousands of desperate people? What is California without its dreamed of orange groves, its white houses and its endless opportunities?
Faulkner’s and Steinbeck’s bottom-up perspective is not politically correct altogether. So we have to take comfort in some Elizabeth Strout or in some Jennifer Egan: from a pond of alienation you can sometimes get a water lily, usually reeds and duckweeds, never roses, orchids or camellias.
(*) Charles Cuddon was the author of twelve plays, three libretti, five novels, two travel books, two dictionaries, and many short stories and essays; he was the editor of ghost and horror stories, a schoolmaster, a talented sportsman, and even, in his youth, a photographic model. When this remarkable man died in the spring of 1996, he left, among these many works, the incandescent Owl’s Watchsong (1960), the colossal and witty Dictionary of Sport and Games (1980), and the present work, the Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory (1976). The number and quality of his literary remains are his own memorial: they are the testimonial of the range of his interests, his lucid scholarship, his large intelligence, his delightful sense of humour, and his elegant prose. Above all, they are a record of his generosity, to friends, students, scholars, and all who have benefited, and will benefit, from his labours. – The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory.