Faulkner as Artist
To the Editor:
I am troubled by Norman Podhoretz’s essay on Faulkner (“William Faulkner and the Problem of War,” September). He has made the not unusual discovery that Faulkner is a first-rate but minor talent. So far, so good. But his reasons are wrong; they have little to do with an evaluation of Faulkner as literary artist. Mr. Podhoretz believes his most telling point to be that Faulkner does not recognize the enlightened qualities of reasonableness, moderation, compromise, tolerance, and sober choice brought into the modern world by the middle class. His Fable, like Lawrence’s The Man Who Died, Podhoretz declares, is in “the monstrous reaches of bad taste.” Faulkner does not comprehend, Podhoretz concludes, that the question of man and his destiny is inseparable from the wearisome details of the “EDC’s and NATO’s and Austrian Peace Treaties”; he does not recognize the present generation which is “patient, acquiescent, careful, and submissive.” (These are words of praise for Mr. Podhoretz.)
Faulkner’s talent, therefore, is minor because he is unaware of the middle class, its taste, its moderation, its acquiescence, and especially of its importance intellectually in the present world. In short, Arnold and some Arnoldian literary critics have no meaning for him.
I, too, happen to think that Faulkner is a minor writer. But surely the reasons for this opinion must lie in his inability to portray the complexity of the human being in respect to self and in relation to society, in his failed experiments of conception and language, in his inability to be creative in style and form in the manner of the truly great literary artist. I admire, though I do not believe, the code of behavior that he has intricately revealed and which gives his work a passion lacking in most contemporary writers. But to consign him to limbo by forcing his intention and achievement against the implied middle-class and culture standards (I suppose ideology is too strong a term) of a few influential writers is to neglect the prime responsibility of literary criticism—to evaluate literature as an art. To make the middle-class mores and culture the basic touchstone of literary evaluation is not far removed from the irrelevant evaluations of the critics of more rigid ideological persuasions, usually religious or political. It seems necessary to assert again that the subject of literature is man, but it must be judged as an art.
The City College
New York City