William Faulkner in Black & White

William Faulkner in Black & White
AP Photo, File

I became an English professor because once, when I was 17, I opened a battered copy of William Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom!” and read the first sentence over and over: “From a little after two oclock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that,” it begins, but then goes on in sinuous and majestic fashion. I thought of that moment recently as I read Michael Gorra’s powerful book, “The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War,” a work animated by an urgent, if irresolvable, question: Should we consider the novelist in our current period of racial reckoning through the lens of his sometimes repulsive racial attitudes, or should we study solely the fiction he created, fiction in which characters both black and white illuminate race relations in this country, fiction that portrays these relations with more nuance than almost any comparable work from the first half of the 20th century?

As the question suggests, Mr. Gorra, a professor at Smith College, is not interested in the Civil War in the same ways that (say) military or political historians might be. While he provides portraits of key figures (Ulysses S. Grant, Frederick Douglass, Nathan Bedford Forrest) and synopses of notable battles (Antietam, Gettysburg), the author is more concerned with what he calls the “forever war over the place of black people in American society, and of slavery in American history”—a “forever war” that continues to roil our nation through its recent debates over Confederate statues and its protests over systemic inequality.

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