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Turn Faulkner reading into literary adventure

February 28 , 2002

By Elizabeth Kelly
University of Mississippi News Services

OXFORD, Miss. — Nobel laureate William Faulkner’s fabled home, Rowan Oak, may be closed for renovations, but perhaps you’d still like to visit Oxford, stroll the grounds or find it a good time to read — or re-read — some of his work.

Although Faulkner’s prose is notorious for being difficult to comprehend — on the first try, at least — there are ways to make reading Faulkner more enjoyable, according to Drs. Joseph Urgo and Donald Kartiganer, University of Mississippi English professors and Faulkner scholars.

“There is more than one way to read, just as there is more than one way to eat,” says Urgo, who chairs the Department of English. “Just as one snacks on potato chips with a set of expectations different from when dining on a gourmet meal, there is more than one way to have written words act on one's mind.”

Urgo suggests that modern styles of journalism and pulp fiction have misled many of today’s readers into thinking that all reading should produce immediate factual comprehension. He offers the following approaches for pleasurably digesting the words of Faulkner:

  • Don’t worry too much about comprehension. For example, when you pick up a book like Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and you read: “Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting...” it will be hundreds of pages and hours of reading before you fully comprehend the meaning of the line, Urgo says. Faulkner’s writing asks us to suspend our need to understand and to surrender ourselves to the experience.
  • Don’t worry about feeling confused. Sometimes being off-balance is where Faulkner’s prose wants to put you. Don’t be surprised if you sense a need to read the piece again to know it well. This is something we are able to return to again and again, always getting more or different experiences.

Kartiganer, the Howry Chair in Faulkner Studies at Ole Miss and organizer of the University’s annual Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference, offers this advice:

  • Focus on the history of the Yoknapatawpha saga. Many of the characters who inhabit Faulkner’s fictitious county appear in more than one book. Read the novels in the order of the histories they tell rather than in the order in which the books were written, says Kartiganer. Start with The Unvanquished, then move to Flags in the Dust for the story of the Sartoris family. Turn to The Sound and the Fury, followed by Absalom, Absalom! for the tale of the Compson family. Go Down Moses offers the McCaslin history in one volume.
  • Be aware that Faulkner is a “vertical” writer. One way of describing his narrative style is to say that it is not horizontal but vertical. Faulkner doesn’t sweep the reader forward with a rapid, page-turning flow but rather asks the reader to dive downward into the multi-significant and detailed ramifications of action.

Reading Faulkner is definitely worth the time, says Urgo. “Faulkner is the greatest American writer of the 20th century — not because the world needed to know about northern Mississippi but because of his use of the English language. The marriage of Faulknerian prose and prosaic Mississippi resulted in a writer to whom subsequent writing in English will be indebted forever.”

Rowan Oak, which is administered by the University, is expected to reopen for tours in July. The surrounding grounds remain open to the public from dawn to dusk daily.


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