Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Volume 28, Number 4, Fall 2008, pp. 335-36.
Merrill Skaggs explains in her introduction that we are to hear her provocative title, Axes, in at least two ways: as the intersecting axes of these two writers' very different careers (as when Joseph R. Urgo termed Cather and Faulkner as "the horizontal and vertical axes of American literature"), but also as actual weapons, "battle-axes." Skaggs reads these authors' novels and stories as word-weapons they wielded at one another, hoping to wound. They may ultimately have judged each other worthy opponents, but they never laid down their arms, remaining combative until Cather's death and even after (her posthumously published story "Before Breakfast," in Skaggs's reading, is a final slap at Faulkner, who gets in the last word and final blow with The Reivers, even though Cather wasn't there to receive it).
Cather and Faulkner made surprisingly few comments about each other. In the handful of known references, Faulkner seems generally respectful of the older and revered Cather, and Cather seems generally oblivious to her emerging challenger, mentioning him in print only once. These two writers, born a generation apart, are both regionalists whose works transcend regionalism, but otherwise they seem as different in style and thematic concerns as two contemporary authors can be. Faulkner's fractured and vast-syntaxed narrations have seemed for many as embedded in Southern Gothic traditions as Cather's pellucid prose has seemed reflective of Great Plains vistas. But readers of Skaggs's book need to prepare themselves for entry into an alternative universe where, far from ignoring or warily avoiding each other, Cather and Faulkner were obsessed with each other and spent a good part of their careers sending coded messages back and forth in the form of stories and novels-more like letter bombs-that scolded, mocked, secretly acknowledged, and even occasionally offered a grudging compliment to the other writer. No one cracked the code, Skaggs insists, until Skaggs. To enter this Bizarro world, we must, as Skaggs warns us, wander into "an intricate labyrinth, holding tight to a thread."