Riding on the Dixie Express


Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.


Flannery O’Connor once called Faulkner “the Dixie Express” because she felt that his prolific writing roared past—and sometimes completely flattened—all other Southern writers’ attempts to capture the human condition. In a letter to fellow novelist John Hawkes thanking him for one of Faulkner’s books, she betrays even more of her feelings: “Probably the reason I don’t read him is because he makes me feel that with my one-cylinder syntax I should quit writing and raise chickens altogether.”

Yet O’Connor can hardly be alone in her reactions to William Faulkner and his novels. He remains one of our most enigmatic novelists. When his novels were first published, European writers such as Sartre and Camus praised his work more fervently than American critics did. Novels like Sanctuary and Requiem for a Nun depicted in horrific fashion a depraved humankind, and, worse for a Southern region still struggling to come out of the shadow of a backwoods isolationism caused by the losses of the Civil War, a Gothic South with woods full of one-eyed rapists reeking of tobacco and moonshine. Moreover, Faulkner’s architectonic and labyrinthine sentences easily rival Joyce and Woolf’s shattering of the vessels of realistic fiction with their meandering stream-of-consciousness prose.

Critics over the years have wrestled with the Faulkner mystique. Thirty years ago, Joseph Blotner provided the now-definitive biography of Faulkner (Faulkner: A Biography). In addition, Cleanth Brooks’ two-volume study of Faulkner—William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country and William Faulkner: Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond—offers the most extensive introduction to the geography and the denizens of Faulkner’s postage-stamp sized fictional country. Critics as diverse as Irving Howe (William Faulkner: A Critical Study) and Alfred Kazin (God and the American Writer) have weighed in on Faulkner’s contributions to American letters and culture.
To his credit, novelist and critic Parini, who has written graceful biographies on Frost and Steinbeck, incorporates many of these earlier insights into his own eloquent and magnificent critical biography: One Matchless Time: A Life of William Faulkner (Harper Perennial;, $15.95). A novelist himself, Parini focuses closely on each of Faulkner’s novels not merely to recreate the times in Faulkner’s life when he wrote them but to demonstrate the consummate skill and care with which Faulkner created his characters, plots and themes.

At the same time, Parini weaves into his critical readings the familiar contours of Faulkner’s life. Born into a distinguished Mississippi family (Falkner) that had once been famous in state politics, he lived in Oxford, attended the University of Mississippi, and returned to Oxford to live most of the rest of his days at the family home, Rowan Oak, after serving a stint in the Canadian Air Force. Always restless, Faulkner began writing poetry in college, though he had no success in publishing it. During his college years, Faulkner also commenced a lifelong habit of constructing various self-identities to present to the world. As Parini points out, “Faulkner for the first time came to understand that most of the people can be fooled most of the time, if one presents a plausible fiction . . . his education in fiction making deepened . . . as he fashioned a self that might confront the world with honor and dignity. Of course he was bragging, inventing, distorting. But he was also carving masks for himself, taking the act of self-creation quite a few steps further than is usual for young men.”

Relying on newly available archival materials, especially letters to Faulkner’s mother and to novelist Joan Williams, Parini offers a portrait of a man always trying to invent a new mask for himself as well as the portrait of an artist consumed by a desire to tell about the South and its class struggles, its depravity, and its captivity—the double bonds of land and history. Once he started writing, Faulkner discovered the freedom and exhilaration that came with the act of creation. From the moment he penned his first poems to the final sentences of his last novel, Faulkner reveled drunkenly in the river of words flooding his mind. The acceptance of Soldier’s Pay—his first novel—for publication meant that “Faulkner was really a writer now, an artist who could justify devoting himself to his art with singular focus and without apology.”

Proceeding in chronological order of writing and publication, Parini offers elegant readings of Faulkner’s novels. Of The Sound and the Fury he writes: “With [this novel], Faulkner had made a startling breakthrough, not only for himself. This was something new in American fiction, something strange, complex and disruptive, a work that attempted to articulate a grief and loss while acknowledging at every turn, the impossibility of recovery, the limits of articulation, as well as the pleasures afforded by repetition and incomplete reconstruction: the pleasures of the text itself.”
For Parini, in Sanctuary “Faulkner taught modern and contemporary writers exactly how to embody this dark world of violence and corruption, of moral failure and intellectual waste. The novel anticipates much of what was to come in the latter half of the twentieth century.” Indeed, it is hard to imagine Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian or Dickey’s Deliverance without Faulkner’s work.

In Sanctuary, Faulkner also reaches a pinnacle in his depiction of the South. He “refused to obey the usual proprieties, deconstructing the South in its Mississippian incarnation with a vengeance, suggesting . . . that a state senator . . . might be as corrupt as any bootlegger and that a judge and a judge’s daughter could sink as low as the Drakes . . . the whole of Southern society appears riddled with venality.”

In Parini’s sure hands, Faulkner’s life and writings come to life again. With his characteristic elegance, Parini captures splendidly Faulkner’s foibles, his insecurities and his inestimable literary achievement.

Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Henry can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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