English, Department of


Date of this Version

Summer 2007


Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory (summer 2007) 63(2): 81-107. DOI: 10.1353/arq.2007.0012.


Copyright 2007, University of Arizona. Used by permission.


First three paragraphs:

As many commentators of the period noted, one of the most significant events of early post-war literary culture in the United States was William Faulkner’s sudden rise to international fame. The most extensive investigation of this dramatic revaluation of cultural status was carried out by Lawrence D. Schwartz in his Creating Faulkner’s Reputation: The Politics of Modern Literary Criticism. Schwartz examines in detail the cultural and political processes that led to Faulkner’s discovery in the 1940s after the primarily negative reception of his works in the 1930s by leftist critics. He argues that Faulkner’s entry into the canon was dependent on the early Cold War cultural context which, in terms of available critical discourses, is defined by him as a liberal consensus between the New Critics and the New York intellectuals. According to Schwartz, Faulkner emerges as the common denominator of this consensus—backed by the Rockefeller Foundation and the State Department.

Still following Schwartz, we have to take into consideration both the political and the aesthetic aspects of this consensus. Concerning the political complications, Schwartz writes: “The reconciliation of conservative New Critics and radical New York intellectuals was one of the paradoxes of the Cold War.” Both of the parties involved had to reformulate their pre-war politics during the 1940s to meet the demands of the new situation. The New Critics had to abandon their anti-modern, regionalist Agrarian conservatism; while the New York intellectuals had to compromise their leftist radicalism to articulate an unequivocally anti-Communist liberalism. On the level of aesthetics, as a correlative of their politics, the opposition between the two camps was formulated in terms of the tension between aesthetic formalism and literature of social commitment. The basis of the compromise is the consolidation of formal innovation and radical politics. In the postwar context, “literary radicalism” is not progressive political action but formal innovation.

While Schwartz’s arguments are indispensable for our understanding of Faulkner’s significance for American literature, quite significantly, he only raises the question of Faulkner’s canonization and never really addresses the complications of the Faulkner canon itself. My thesis, then, is that the real substance of the critical consensus outlined by Schwartz is precisely the Faulkner canon, which therefore emerges as the very condition of Faulkner’s canonization within American literature in the first place. As a first step, by introducing a set of distinctions, Faulkner had to be divided in order to turn his work into a legitimate reading material, the unity of which could then be posed as a critical problem. The debate concerning the rift between an early and a late Faulkner—“the two-Faulkner theory”—still forms an integral part of Faulkner studies precisely because it is an unavoidable confrontation with the very conditions of Faulkner’s canonization. Without the recognition of an irreconcilable conflict between a plurality of Faulkners, there would be no “Faulkner” at all. The question is, how do we decide to manage this plurality?