The Charlotte News



An Epithet: Oh, So Sad

By W. J. Cash

Site ed. note: Here, we find Cash waxing philosophically on the South via a critical discourse on a commentary made by Laurence Stallings praising the starkness of William Faulkner's novels. Cash concludes that Faulkner's omission of exploring the social-historical genesis of the Southerner, cracker and gentleman--Cash's whole raison d'etre in The Mind of the South--is a glaring fault of the Mississippian's novels--which nevertheless present a precisely accurate view of both, albeit without imparting understanding of either.

It is of interest in this regard to speculate whether there is more than coincidence of language between Faulkner's musing on Southern imagination--its wistfulness and terror acting in subtle combination--in his 1948 novel Intruder in the Dust and Cash's nearly identical preceding statement in a 1935 Charlotte News article and similar language in the later book:

Faulkner: "For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two o'clock on that July afternoon in 1863 ... it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet, it not only hasn't begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin... This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain." (Intruder in the Dust, William Faulkner, New York, 1948, pp. 194-195);

Cash: "All of us who grew up in the South in the first two decades of the 1900's--in that South with its heroic rhetoric, its gyneolatry, its continual flourishing of the word 'noble', and its constant glorification of the past--were foreordained to the thing... [T]en thousand times [we] stepped into the breach at that critical moment on that reeking slope at Gettysburg, and with our tremendous swords, and in defiance of chronology, then and there won the Civil War..." (Charlotte News, November 17, 1935--"Realists Are Haunted By Personal Devils") (See W.J. Cash: A Life, Bruce Clayton, L.S.U. Press, 1991, pp. 120-121)

And Cash again: "Every boy growing up in this land now had continually before his eyes the vision, and heard always in his ears the clamorous hoofbeats, of a glorious swashbuckler, compounded of Jeb Stuart, the golden-locked Pickett,and the sudden and terrible Forrest (yes, and, in some fashion, of Lord Roland and the douzepers) forever charging the cannon's mouth with the Southern battle flag. And so he demanded more imperatively than ever that those who levied on his admiration, those who aspired to lead him when he became a man, should be like that; and so more surely and more eagerly than ever he set himself to be as much like that as possible." (The Mind of the South, Book II, Chapter I, section 7, pp. 122-123)

Did Cash's favorable commentary on Faulkner in The Mind of the South, and earlier, at some point encourage Faulkner to read Cash and then posthumously offer the "greatest flattery" through imitation? Or were these two minds so ineradicably struck from the same South they examined that the innate influences on them tended inexorably toward the result of nearly identical description of the matter? Well ...

For a Cash article a few months later praising Faulkner as the best of the young novelists, see "Not Like An Angel" - .November 8, 1936.

SOMETIME in the last days before he shoved off to watch the Wops carry out their "civilizing mission" of murdering Ethiopian "barbarians", Laurence Stallings added a new epithet to the long list he has coined --"the jitney-sociologists." It is one of the least fortunate he ever turned out. For in the connection in which he employed it--he was speaking of novelists and particularly Southern novelists--, it's inevitable implication is that social forces have no business in the novel particularly in a novel of the South, and that any man who does employ them in a novel is in reality only a sort of inept pamphleteer, without any understanding of the proper business of the artist. And this comes dangerously close to being pure nonsense.

I'll agree, certainly, that social forces have no business in a novel purely as social forces. If a man has any social thesis which he wants to prove--if he's a Marxian or a Fascist, or a Neo-Medievalist or a disciple of Adam Smith or Henry George or Father Coughlin, and is hell-bent on establishing his doctrine as the only authentic revelation--then he has as little business with the novel as a North Carolina mule has with a tail coat and dinner at Ciro's. Nor does he have much more if he is only interested in drawing the social scene as such--and however detached his viewpoint, however little he may desire to prove anything. I think the novels of Grace Lumpkin had better not have been written--as novels; as documents they have considerable truth in them, and as indignant pamphlets they lack of perspective. Their passion to prove would not matter--might even be merits; but as novels they are inane and unconvincing. And I could dispense with the much touted performances of T.S. Stribling without too great a pang, on the plain and obvious ground that Stribling is more interested in his background than in his figures.

BUT--. As I understand it, the proper concern of the novelist is with the human protagonist in his battle with God. Or to put it otherwise, and if you will have it so, with the struggle of this sort of modified ground-ape, afflicted with the fatal gift of self-consciousness, against his destiny--with his passage, in triumph or dejection as the the case may be, to the inevitable defeat of death and the grave. Well, and under the very terms of the equation, nothing is plainer than that this battle, this struggle, does not take place in a vacuum--that man is no free agent or creature held fast in this trap which is destiny--or God. Held fast, like all God's creatures, in the resistless trap of the winds that howl and sweep and kill and ruin, of the floods and the lightning and the murdering breath of the sun, of the unquiet core and the troubling surface of the earth, of the swing of the stars and the ceaseless rushing of time. Held fast, too, like all God's creatures, in the trap of his special passions and hopes, and of their eternal play and counterplay within his breast.

Yes, but held fast above everything, and precisely, by the social fabric and the social inheritance. It is that, and perhaps that alone, which distinguishes him from the rest of the living creation. It is that which determines all that we call "human" in him--that which, more than all other things, has moulded and shaped him from the moment he gasped his angry protest against the first shock of the outer air, and so began to breathe-- that which has determined the direction of his every desire and aspiration, which has set the focus of every primitive passion in him, which has given him the stuff of his every idea and fashioned his every loyalty and love and hate and scorn, his every value and standard.

UNDERSTAND him without it? Paint him in the round? The thing can't be done. Strip Pietro Aretino of his background of Rome and Venice in the Sixteenth century--tear Machiavelli from his milieu of Florence in the same age--fail to represent in them any part of the history of two thousand years of social forces which had made them--and you get, not any conceivable human beings, not living souls who ever walked about and bled and talked and laughed, but only silhouettes of wickedness. Stand Catherine of Siena or Francis of Assisi apart from their medieval Tuscan and Umbrian background, deal with them merely personally, and you get--only masks of saccharine piety and madness. What is true of these historical persons is even more true of the creatures of the novel.

To establish the truth of this by example I point to the very novelist Stallings was engaged in praising when he struck off the particular epithet with which we are dealing--William Faulkner. Stallings is right in his idea about Faulkner, I think. He treats his characters, in the main at least, like specimens for the microscope. He describes them morphologically--not to say physiologically--at great pains. He gives you their actions in the closest detail. He paints in only so much of the background, physical and social, as is imperative for the making of the action immediately intelligible. And he avoids any consideration of social forces as sedulously as he would the smallpox.

AND the result? Very much like being set down in the middle of a ward for far-gone psychopaths, as everyone knows. Here are his poor-whites, degraded, brutal, revolting. Here are his "gentlemen"--some of them brutal and some of them soft, but all of them contemptible and essentially decadent. And here they go through their pattern of powerful melodrama, to the horror, the terror, the anger, the bitter hate and scorn, but never to the slightest understanding--not to say sympathy--of the reader. Because, as it is sometimes stupidly alleged, he exaggerates? He doesn't exaggerate--not a whit. The poor-whites he describes are exactly like that. The gentlemen exactly like that. The action of the world he describes pitched to exactly the tempo he sets down.

The whole fault here is just that he shows us what without in the least telling us how and why.

To understand these poor-whites and these gentlemen we have to see them against the perspective of all the forces which have gone to mould them. To understand them, is to understand any other Southerners we have, in effect, to know the whole story of the South.

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