In William Faulkner, Richard Godden traces how the novelist's late fiction echoes the economic and racial traumas of the South's delayed modernization in the mid-twentieth century. As the New Deal rapidly accelerated the long-term shift from tenant farming to modern agriculture, many African Americans were driven from the land and forced to migrate north. At the same time, white landowners exchanged dependency on black labor for dependency on northern capital. Combining powerful close readings of The Hamlet, Go Down, Moses, and A Fable with an examination of southern economic history from the 1930s to the 1950s, Godden shows how the novels' literary complexities--from their narrative structures down to their smallest verbal emphases--reflect and refract the period's economic complexities. By demonstrating the interrelation of literary forms and economic systems, the book describes, in effect, the poetics of an economy.Original in the way it brings together close reading and historical context, William Faulkner offers innovative interpretations of late Faulkner and makes a unique contribution to the understanding of the relation between literature and history.
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Princeton University Press
July 15, 2007
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Excerpt from William Faulkner by Richard Godden
MY TITLE intends no metaphor in its linking of language and economy. Words, as social instruments, exemplifying what Marx calls "practical consciousness,"1 act upon a reality which they make as much as find. If the real is in a real sense made through words, those words needs must tend to complexity, not least because speakers inherit a language always "already occupied"2 by prior and unknown users and usage. Since verbal instrumentalists work with a partially known instrument, and in circumstances not of their own design, they, to adapt Marx, are practically unconscious concerning large portions of their practice. Yet that practice, so much incomplete matter made from words, materializes within an economy whose historical conditions form, and take formal complexity from, linguistic work. Five sentences built upon begged questions, compound assumptions, and parabolic bids which it will take an entire study partially to answer, justify, and elucidate. But introductions may perhaps take liberties and should not give the game away.
In a recent anthology of new economic criticism, the editors, Woodmansee and Osteen, note that many who address the intersection of literature and economy argue from analogy: words have their economies--or so the case goes--because language and economy are both arbitrary systems of exchange: "Thus any adequate theoretics of literary economics must begin with the axioms of Saussurian linguistics and post-structuralist theory, that all signs are arbitrary and related syntagmatically--and then address the similarly fictive and constructured nature of money and finance."3 In contradistinction, An Economy of Complex Words reads Faulkner from within three linked assumptions, none of which derive from Saussure: that economic relations are a guise worn by social relations;4 that social relations are finally a cause of what stories can and cannot be told (and of the manner of their telling); and that, therefore, economic structures may be read as the generative source of fictional forms. Since I seek to establish a causal rather than arbitrary connection between the work of Faulkner's words and the work of an economy, I had best gloss the economy in question.
Between 1933 and 1938, the New Deal interventions of the Agricultural Adjustment Program in the southern plantation states resulted in an unintended revolution in rural labor relations. Faced with a glutted world market for cotton, the federal government offered to pay southern landowners for ploughing their crops under. Fifty-three percent of the south's cotton acreage went out of production. Since a sharecropper, cropping on a half-the-crop agreement, would by rights receive half the federal payment for the sacrifice of his acres, it paid for the landowner not to sign sharecropping contracts for the following year. Instead, he might hire the same cropper, on an occasional basis and for a wage, to plough the crop under, and reap the entire subsidy himself. Between 1930 and 1940, the tenantry declined by 62 percent in Mississippi. What the labor historian Pete Daniel terms "the Southern enclosure" marks the movement from "capital-scarce, labor-intensive plantation production to capital-intensive, labor-surplus neo-plantation production,"5 a structural shift most manifest in eviction and black diaspora.
Much of the migration during the thirties was internal, but with the onset of global conflict, the war-driven needs of northern industry ensured that during the 1940s over one million African Americans left the plantation states: Mississippi alone, between 1940 and 1944, experienced a 23 percent decline in its predominantly black farm population. Startling figures for out-migration during the early 1940s should be balanced against equally startling figures for capital inflow during the late 1930s as the enabling condition of that movement of people. Between 1933 and 1939, the federal government's direct expenditure in Mississippi totalled $450 million, while an additional $260 million entered state banks through insured loans.6
In effect, the landowning class shifted its pattern of dependency from black labor to northern capital, while the tenantry, increasingly landless and welfare-dependent, waited on the pull of northern employment needs to renew its Great Migration. As the African American historian Jay Mandle puts it, "America's entry into World War II marks the principal point of discontinuity in the black experience of the United States."7 With blacks less and less in their laboring place and capital more and more in that place, the substance of southern plantation land was transformed--land as "sweat" gave way to land as "capital," though agribusiness and its destruction of "the labor-intensive rural order born of reconstruction" should not be spoken of as fully in place until the 1950s.8
Statistics for migration and investment do not adequately convey the impact of what the economist Paul Shuster Taylor in 1937 termed "the greatest revolution since the civil war in the cotton sections of the South,"9 a breakdown in a regime of accumulation described by Jonathan Wiener as "the Second Civil War."10 The limitations of figures, and arguably of the agricultural, social, and economic histories from which they are drawn, is that they and their sources abstract from the felt experience of the contradiction central to this particular revolution.
Prior to the New Deal (1930s) and the renewed Great Migration (1940s), ethnic relations in the south, resting on a pre- or semimodern regime of constrained labor (debt peonage), had been typified by dependency, growing out of what Mark Tush-nett calls "total relations,"11 that is, relations between owner and cropper that extended to the whole life of the tenant and to the whole life of the landlord. (Under wage labor, employer/employee connections are "partial" in that the wage-payer pays for, and assumes power over, only the working part of the worker's day). In 1935, Johnson, Embree, and Alexander surveyed cotton tenancy and concluded that "[t]he status of the tenancy demands complete dependence."12
Dependency cuts two ways, though tacitly: that is to say, within such a regime, the white landowning class, owing their substance to black labor, are blacks in whiteface. Such co-dependence must be denied, though by the mid 1940s, the linked impact of federal funding and enforced black mobility had ensured that historical conditions existed for the extraction of black from white. With the decline of tenantry and the relaxation of structures enforcing dependency, white, in the last instance, had less reason to be black. The proprietors of the forties must loose the bound body of black labor. The trick to the "creative destruction" of themselves,13 required by a mutation in the form of their capital, is to expel their black substance without self-loss. But where the properties of that selfhood--from face, to skin, to sex, to land--are determined by the laboring other, to loose the other is to lose the self's best parts. In Joel Williamson's terms, commenting on the legacy of southern black/white relations at midcentury, for white to release black is to declare, "I am not going to be me anymore."14 At which point, federal decisions concerning control of excess cotton production condition the corporeality--the face, sex, skin, and land--of an owning class as it negotiates the expulsion from itself of that which has made it what it is, African American labor.
In Fictions of Labor (1997), I argued that Faulkner's major texts of the long 1930s turned on the denial of a social trauma associated with the recognition that the South's singular, coercive, and premodern regime of labor forced black into white, and so made each white black. Since black labor constituted the substance of the labor lord, that lord and his class had to retain the black body, while denying the formative centrality of its presence in their own race, sex, skin, land, and language. The contradiction, white is black, had both to be recognized, or else what is southern about the southern landowner, and to be denied, or else how does the southern landowner "remain me some more"? Few devices operate with greater effi-ciency in the service of denied recognition (its representation and critique), than Faulkner's famous stylistic difficulty. Fictions of Labor suggested, for example, that the prose of Absalom, Absalom! (1936) serves its narrators' need to know what they must not know, and not to see what they see. Readers, as they tonally adjust, learn to see its narrators not seeing, and thereby to think what those narrators find unthinkable. Yet during the forties and early fifties, the conceptual habits shared by Quentin Compson and Rosa Coldfield incline to redundancy, as the transformation of their base and motive--a singular regime of labor--required that a class of labor lords become a class of landlords. With African American labor "progressively" forced from the land, onto roads and into cities, landowners no longer found blacks so corporeally in their whiteface. Where Fictions of Labor read Faulkner's work of the thirties as thematically and formally generated by a premodern labor trauma, An Economy of Complex Words (or, for my purposes here, Fictions of Labor II), argues that Faulkner spends the next two decades resolving the impact of that founding trauma's loss. To return to Williamson's formulation: release of the black, however protracted and stylistically occluded, begs the mournful question of "ceas[ing] to be."
In partial response to Williamson's question, my study seeks to trace the demise and reformation of a class by anatomizing the varieties of mourning exhibited by Faulkner's white landowners as they grasped the consequences of modernity in the New Deal's reconstruction of their depressed region. For smaller landowners, grief attended the loss of productive contact with the earth and the descent into wage labor: hence my choice of The Hamlet (1940). For larger landowners, grief, in barely acknowledged forms, accompanied the departure of a black work force for the North, as mechanization and agribusiness combined to consolidate land ownership and to demolish the sharecropped plantation, itself a remnant of slavery. I read Go Down, Moses (1942) as structured by griefs and longings which dare not state their names. Modernity, so long deferred by a plantocracy whose regime of accumulation (rooted in labor coercion), constituted a counterrevolution running from Emancipation to Depression, was finally confirmed in the South by World War II as it militarized the region's economy. Necessarily, therefore, An Economy of Complex Words closes with a reading of A Fable (1954), in which the persistent but barely discernible figure of the black jew allows Faulkner a final exercise in swallowed grief on behalf of a class that has ceased to exist.