Abstract: William Faulkner’s Reputation(s)

To my knowledge, no one has compiled and compared the various explanations for William Faulkner’s change in fortunes from his career’s nadir (circa 1942) to Nobel win in 1950. I will analyze the most prominent of these explanations sociologically, placing theories of Faulkner’s resurgence as positions within the literary field themselves. Finally, I will take a stab at a sociological account of the “right” answer to that question—that is, explore if it’s possible to arrive at a convincing narrative of Faulkner’s individual trajectory while also acknowledging that every account of said trajectory is itself a position re: literary value and history.

Ulysses Large and Small

Browsing the two appearances of the “Wandering Rocks” episode of Ulysses in the Little Review and the Egoist led me to think about format–specifically, the ways in which publication format might offer another angle to discuss the allegiances of these little magazines to existing trends in periodical publication. In many ways, the Little Review’s format makes it a magazine that resembles a book: according to its physical description on the Modernist Journals Project site, it’s 21.9 x 14.6 cm, in line with the size of a larger quarto but by no means huge; the text is set in a single column, a familiar bookish layout; the margins are wide. The Egoist, on the other hand, is much larger at 31.5 x 21 cm; it features type set in two columns, in what appears to be a smaller typeface; its margins are slim. The genre with which the Egoist aligns itself is more manifestly periodical: that is, it looks like a newspaper.

This discrepancy can be pretty readily explained–the Little Review came out less frequently; we know from Morrisson all about the Egoist’s financial difficulties by 1919, so it makes sense to save on paper by packing text into the page, etc. However, what remains to be explained is the effect on the reading experience these format differences entail, and what these differences imply about these two publications’ relationships to existing kinds of print. Would a reader’s relationship to Ulysses be different if they initially read it in the Little Review’s booklike format, or as a newspaperish column in the Egoist? (or is that too much interpretive pressure to put on format?) As Morrisson established, these little magazines drew on formal characteristics and strategies of commercial publications whose reliance on the market they opposed; what part does the material format of these publications play in that calculation of commercial inspiration versus artistic aspiration? Do these format differences indicate that the Little Review and the Egoist are angling for different positions in the modernist marketplace?

Dockers Without Borders

In Banjo, Claude McKay attempts some geographical and literary triangulations between centers of interwar culture: Paris, home to Anglo-American modernist expatriates, and New York, hub of the Harlem Renaissance. In Casanova’s frame, Paris remains the capital of world cultural consecration, though New York by this time has become the legitimating center of African American letters. McKay’s Marseilles lies on the fringe of both centers, a doubly alienated position in which literary-geographical distance is dramatized by struggles for autonomy.

The novel’s representations of attempted participation in the cultural field—Banjo’s dreams of an “orchestra,” Ray’s musings on prose unwritten—are situated within a frame of dockside begging and irregular work that contrasts sharply with the more economically autonomous exile of canonical figures of Parisian Anglophone modernism. Hemingway, Stein, Fitzgerald, and Joyce all feel very far afield from this vision of Black Marseilles; the Banjo set aren’t invited to that feast, moveable or not. Two competing versions of literary anti-nationality register the gap between these positions in the field: modernist cosmopolitan internationalism against McKay’s diasporic statelessness, or “bad nationalism” (Edwards 239).

Though Banjo portrays economically heteronomous cultural producers, the novel otherwise valorizes a kind of aesthetic autonomy. When Goosey charges that artistic portrayals of their experiences could be used “against the race,” Ray responds that he’s “not a reporter for the Negro press” (115-116). Through Casanova, one could read Ray’s claim as a move toward aesthetic autonomy, disentangling literature from the politics Casanova regards as naturally embedded within “small” literatures. Taken further, this could be read as McKay’s position-taking against some influential critics within the Black literary field—Du Bois perhaps foremost in this regard—who similarly objected to the grit and grime of McKay’s fiction. McKay argues that the slices of Black life depicted in his novels need not be excised from the literary record just to forestall criticism.

In class last week, we were skeptical of Casanova’s capability to account convincingly for “small” literatures within or beyond a nation-state, like African American and Diasporic literature; does reading a stateless text like Banjo through Casanova satisfy this concern, or aggravate it?

Toward a Sociology of Literary Politics; or: Buzzwords, Buzzwords!

I follow AG’s most recent post in appreciating the distinction that Bourdieu’s method offers from a disappointingly non-evidential political literary criticism, but I nonetheless suspect that a sociology of literature could offer a more textured account of the political as another dimension of position-takings. For example, Bourdieu certainly offers a nuanced interpretation of the relationship between Flaubert’s class (dis)position and literary position-takings, as AG points out; however, the relationship between an agent’s politics and a comprehensive description of their view from the field seems more troubled in some of the other examples we’ve seen. McDonald reads Gosse’s disdain for an emergent mass readership as the literary anxiety of “an established man of letters” rather than the expression of a “political reactionary” (4). Surely, one can’t so easily overlook the class and gender politics of this opposition to the literary encroachment of workers and women, when the very categories of scarcity and masculinity seem to structure Gosse’s conception of literariness (6). But what can a literary sociologist do with that? 

My question, then, remains something like this: to what degree is it possible to incorporate, in this method, a discussion of an agent’s political interventions (like Zola’s) without flattening the contours of the specific political positions taken? Does McDonald not commit the same oversight he (rightly) criticizes in the limited horizontality of Darnton’s “communications circuit” by levelling a terrain of political difference into “politically committed” and “not”? One of the most compelling objectives of Bourdieu’s analysis, in my view, is to model an evaluation of the literary field that is not just original and clever but “more true” (xx, emphasis mine). Is it “more true” to record only the fact of Zola’s political intervention as a position-taking that co-opts politics toward a new position in the field, or might such a model be made “more true” by accounting for the particulars of that intervention, the concrete politics advanced? In other words, would a Bourdieusian analysis of Zola’s position in the field be changed at all if Zola had instead J’accused Dreyfus? If not, should it be?