Faulkner and the Southern Renaissance


The Southern Renaissance was a movement within Southern American literature in the 20s and 30s. William Faulkner is widely regarded as one of the most important writers to come out of this time. He was awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949.

The Southern Renaissance, and her authors, were responding to the notion that the South was behind the rest of the world. They left behind that “Lost Cause” narrative that romanticized life before the Civil War, and took up explaining the cultural nuances of the regional south. It was a movement that sought to give an identity and a voice to Southern characters. Emily Glaser writes, “Members of the Southern Renaissance all share common themes among their various works, whether poems, short stories, novels, or theater. Each work addresses the history of the South with a sense of realism and honesty; unlike their predecessors, these writers did not romanticize the past, but instead exposed the harsh realities of slavery, the Reconstruction, and coping with military defeat. Works of the Southern Renaissance also tend to target the conservative culture that defined, and to an extent continues to define, the South. For inhabitants of the South, life was governed by the broad values family, religion, and community, which displaced the importance of one’s personal life. And finally, these writers addressed head-on the South’s troubled past in regard to race.”

They were also striving to modernize, according to Daniel Singal, in his book “From Victorian to Modernist Thought in the South.” As a result of the Civil War and Reconstruction, “Southern intellectual life by 1900 was a full generation behind, and Southerners had the ‘task of deliberately and rapidly catching up.’ Since the change of values in the South occurred ‘in far more concentrated fashion’ than elsewhere, it was accompanied by ‘greater tension and drama’ so that ‘the process of transition (is) easier to observe.'”

One of the most common techniques utilized by Southern Renaissance writers was the “stream of consciousness” style of narration. Faulkner employs this throughout As I Lay Dying. On page 61, “Then I pass the stall. I have almost passed it. I listen to it saying for a long time before it can say the word and the listening part is afraid that there may not be time to say it. I feel my body, my bones and flesh beginning to part and open upon the alone, and the process of coming unalone is terrifying. Lafe. Lafe. “Lafe” Lafe. Lafe. I lean a little forward, one foot advanced with dead walking. I feel the darkness rushing past my breast; past the cow; I begin to rush upon the darkness but the cow stops me and the darkness rushes on upon the sweet blast of her moaning breath, filled with wood and with silence” (61-2). Here, we are wholly inside Dewey Dell’s head, experiencing what he is thinking, feeling, seeing, and hearing. It makes very little logical sense, but still the experience seems vivid. It not only employees the stylistic techniques of the Southern Renaissance, but deals with those themes of identity and defining one’s self on your own.

Of course, no one defines a movement until it has concluded. No one knew at the time that they were writing for, and during, the Southern Renaissance. We have assigned meaning to the name and books to the category, after. But As I Lay Dying, we now know, fits snugly within the realm of the Southern Renaissance of American literature.

One Response to Faulkner and the Southern Renaissance

  1. Prof VZ February 22, 2018 at 12:44 pm #

    Thanks for bringing in this important literary / historical context. I like how you define this emergence of a distinct southern literature as being in many ways critical of romanticized ideas of south–it is a movement whose authors engaged in the troubled history, race relations, and transformations unique to the south. I’d be curious to learn about the idea you present that Faulknerian stream-of-consciousness was a very common literary method used by authors associated with the Southern Renaissance. I would think that it marks out an experimental extreme of the Southern Renaissance alongside other innovative writers like Jean Toomer, but I don’t doubt the experimental ranges these authors employed. What other novels / novelists resemble Faulkner in style?

    You raise some interesting questions for our class to consider: how does As I Lay Dying embody the kinds of critiques you note were common motivations for authors of the Southern Renaissance.

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