If there is one writer who cast the largest shadow upon southern U.S. literature in the 20th century, it’s William Faulkner. He also cast one of the largest shadows over all American literature in the 20th century. At my university, few escaped the required courses in American literature without reading the short stories “Barn Burning” and/or “The Bear.” I’d read “Barn Burning in high school, but, taking English rather than American literature in college, I didn’t read Faulkner until years later. It was Flannery O’Connor who led me to Faulkner, and then I read nearly everything he wrote.
Michael Gorra has studied and taught Faulkner, Faulkner’s works, and literature for more than 40 years. The Mary Augusta Jordan Professor of English Language and Literature at Smith College, he’s also served as editor of the Norton Critical Editions of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury. The man knows his Faulkner.
And to know Faulkner, you have to know the Civil War. The war, its aftermath, the “Lost Cause,” and the memory of the war – even by those who didn’t experience it – is a major theme, perhaps the major theme, in the history and literature of the South. Gorra knows his Civil War, too, and he’s a Connecticut-born Yankee who teaches at a Yankee university in Massachusetts.
Gorra’s The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War is a remarkable work of literary criticism. It’s about the themes of the war in Faulkner’s writings, but to understand those themes, you have to grasp the story of the war and its significant details. Gorra does that, but he does more. He’s read the letters and memoirs of people who fought and lived the war. He’s studied the major battles, especially the ones that play even a small role in Faulkner’s novels and stories. He’s walked the terrain of the war, and he’s studied how the war was fought in Faulkner’s home state of Mississippi.
All of this permeates Faulkner’s novels and short stories. Sometimes it’s an overt influence; sometimes, it’s very subtle. Reading Faulkner years after university might have been the best thing that happened to me in understanding his works, because I recognized how much he was talking about had permeated my own family.
Literary criticism is often tedious and difficult. Gorra’s work on Faulkner here is anything but that. His writing is accessible, and he tells Civil War stories that amplify and expand upon what Faulkner did. He makes the writer understandable in a way few critics can. And he doesn’t shy away from the controversial aspects of Faulkner’s works, and there are plenty of controversial aspects.
Gorra’s published works include Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of An American Masterpiece (2012), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Biography; The Bells in Their Silence: Travels through Germany (2004); After Empire: Scott, Naipaul, Rushdie (1997); and The English Novel at Mid-Century (1990). He’s also served as editor for volumes of stories by Joseph Conrad and Henry James for Penguin. His awards and recognitions include a Guggenheim fellowship, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, including a Public Scholar Award, and a National Book Critics Circle award for his work as a reviewer.
The Saddest Words tells a wonderful story of how one of the most important American writers used family history, family stories, and historical events to create what became some of the most significant literary works of the 20thcentury. The Civil War sits at the center of it all, much like it continues to sit at the center of American life.