Absalom, Absalom! may have been voted "Best Southern Novel of All Time"
—but it's not an easy read.
In the penultimate chapter of Absalom, Absalom!, the masterpiece that was selected in the OA poll as “Best Southern Novel of All Time,” William Faulkner writes of the Harvard dormitory shared by Quentin Compson and his Canadian roommate, Shrevlin McCannon, “There would be no deep breathing tonight.” Ninety-five years later and a thousand miles south, the prediction holds, for here in the prep-school classroom the student who wishes not to be called upon must not breathe. She must avoid eye contact with the instructor but must do so casually, accidentally if possible, or as close to accident as one can purposefully come. She must retain a smartness of posture but not a rigidity. When possible, she must assume an expression of deep concern—a countenance suggesting a mind on the very cusp of insight, not to be disturbed. Above all, she must practically glow with acquiescence. “I’ll follow you,” her face must imply. “Just don’t ask me to lead.”
So it goes in the English classroom, particularly when the instructor, in this case a twenty-six-year-old with a newly minted MFA, inserts into the curriculum a novel some graduate students never see; particularly among sixteen-year-olds who have mastered the game (their word) of marking time during class discussions with feigned thoughtfulness and statements signifying nothing; particularly when the question of the day is tantamount to educational blasphemy. But I’ll get to that.
First, some unflattering truths. Teaching high-school students was never my plan. When my last semester of graduate school found me that most unemployable of beings—a credentialed creative writer without notable publication credits—my distaste for secondary education took a backseat to my desire to do something related to my field, however vaguely. During the previous fall, I had amused myself (and, no doubt, more than a few university search committees) by applying for positions for which I was grossly unqualified. By early spring, the prospect of permanent unemployment had made me serious, and seriousness had taken the form of teacher-placement services and cold letters to prep schools, one of which found its mark just as I was beginning to despair. By the time my wife and I were packed for Georgia, the idea of teaching on the prep-school level—in my snobbery I stressed the prep to friends and family—had begun to seem quite appealing compared to the life of New York’s wandering adjuncts—weary travelers crossing the boroughs to three, four, even five colleges per term, putting together a meager living with no benefits to be seen.
Furthermore, adding Faulkner to the curriculum wasn’t my idea, particularly since any novel I chose would have to be read during the summer, when students would be most likely to panic. During the regular course of the school year, readers might be flogged through a difficult book; in the summer, they lack the admonitions of an instructor. The unfocused among them, given the slightest distractions, would float listlessly from page to page, seeing much but absorbing little. Looking for reassurance in my own experience, I recalled that my early stabs at Faulkner were nothing to be proud of. Aborted attempts at The Sound and the Fury and Go Down, Moses had given way to a grudging, unappreciative reading of Absalom in my junior year in college. More than anything, I had been overwhelmed by the sheer scope of Faulkner’s prose. I had found him baffling, unapproachable, and though I recognized the educational gap my lack of perseverance had created, I had yet to return to the material that had beaten me.
Nevertheless, when the chair of the department, exhausted by Hemingway’s vulgar simplicities, suggested a switch near the end of my first year, I proposed Absalom in a fit of regret over my incomplete understanding of a work whose power had so impressed my university friends. If one wishes really to know a piece of literature, I reasoned, let him read with an eye toward teaching. Over the previous months, the same truism had rescued Cather and Hawthorne for me. Why not Faulkner?
The truth, after all, was that I’d played it safe with him thus far, sticking with the textbook’s harmless choices—tone and dramatic irony in “Spotted Horses,” point of view in “Barn Burning.” Now I’d determined to challenge a roomful of students who, year after year, had informed parents, teachers, and administrators of their excellence, whose test scores sat well above the national average, and whose writing compared favorably to that of the undergraduates I taught at New York University. The previous year’s students—a less advanced group—had made short work of most of what I’d given them. Faulkner, though more difficult than any writer this class had seen, would not be asking too much.
Or so I thought. Rereading the novel on my own the summer before teaching it, I was stunned once more by its complexity. Absalom is not an easy read, and it resists casual intimacy. Sentences swell and loop, winding into rhetorical knots. Narrators speculate, are ignorant, or just plain lie. Faulkner himself rarely appears, and he never brings answers. Sixteen-year-olds, I knew—even the most clever ones—tend to read in anticipation of Aesopian morality, a thematic deus ex machina, and Faulkner simply doesn’t provide one. We have to do the work of interpretation ourselves, and that work is difficult.
It is also, of course, deeply rewarding. Stepping further into the novel, I found myself newly aware of subtleties of craft and theme that had escaped me during my previous reading. Absalom works on the same level as Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,” a painting largely about the process through which it was created. Like “Sunday,” Absalom contemplates both the history and future of form, and as such, it honors multiple and close readings. I began to understand that the novel’s lack of answers is the source of much of its eloquence, its stylization and self-conscious technique as much a part of its story as the characters—themselves answerless—who live in its pages. Furthermore, I saw that the work’s moral identity could not be easily defined. Ostensibly the story of a Mississippi planter undone by his own racism and that of his son, Absalom seeks the face of obsession itself. Deadly at times in its ethnological venom, here was a novel to show scorn her own image and provoke the discussion that Huck Finn, in all its quaintness, had not quite engendered. Questions formed in my head faster than I could put them down; passages leapt forward to be examined. Reading, I felt the teacher’s great hope.
Yet there was despair also, even amidst my elation. As the summer progressed, I began to suspect that the qualities whose worth seemed indisputable to me—axiomatic, even—would likely be met by adolescents with confu-sion and hostility. After all, I had once met them that way myself. I also suspected that the distinction I knew enough to insist upon—between my own response to a work and the response that I could realistically expect from even the best students—would in this case prove impossible to maintain. Long-time teachers, I’m told, learn not to take the rejection of beloved materials as personal rejection, but I understood this merely as a matter of theory. My love for Absalom was breathtaking in its innocence. I could not bear to see this novel hated. Faulkner’s work—and here I abandon all scholarly detachment—had moved me.
Perhaps I’m starting badly, then, on this, the second day of my second year as a full-time teacher, asking students to validate with their participation a choice I made hesitantly, and which I might not make again. Perhaps placing Faulkner on the syllabus in lieu of the infinitely more accessible Hemingway was an act of pedagogical hubris. It wouldn’t be my first. Or perhaps engagement, even from the brightest students, comes only after less metaphysical a prompt. No matter. I’ve asked and must now stand my ground, hold to the wildly jeopardous questions that will lay the foundation for the entire year: What are we doing here? Why are we reading this? What does this have to do with…anything?
For the teacher of literature, the idea that the great works inherently compel our attention is a precious and reassuring notion. “Art for art’s sake” doesn’t make it out of the budget meeting, but it’s the one tool in the English teacher’s arsenal capable of taking on the more practical subjects. To abandon it is lunacy, as harebrained as engineers giving up on skyscrapers as proof of their craft’s worth, as Fleming giving up on penicillin. Still, I’ve found myself doing just that, attempting to wring a utilitarian’s justifications from students who arrived unsure of what Thomas Sutpen actually saysto Henry in that library on Christmas Eve. (Whether or not Faulkner himself knows is another story.) Need I mention that this quiets the room? Looking around at the students whose very youthfulness never ceases to startle me, I can’t help wondering what they’re thinking. Most likely it’s the same thing I’m thinking—that we’ve all got enough to worry about without testing the tenuous social contract that lets us study books in the first place.
Frankly, even I’m not sure where these anxieties are coming from. Like most English teachers, I’ve been taught to appreciate the cognitive benefits of interpreting literature—that a close, careful examination of the material wins the day. There is much here that needs our attention, existential crises aside, and it’s possible—too possible—that I’m wasting everyone’s time. Yet somewhere along the way I’ve become convinced that answering the easy questions is no longer sufficient. I’ve come to believe that art and literature survive through the generations because students like the ones in front of me act intentionally to preserve them; that they do so as an affront to expedience and profit; that they do so, humility aside, because someone made them consider these very questions.
In any case, I’m not getting answers, even after a week’s prodding reveals that many of them liked the book and plan to reread it more closely. They liked it, they’re willing to allow, but they’re not sure what good it did them, and that’s the one question I won’t answer for them. There is much to say about the novel, of course, and over the next several days we chase a dozen different rabbits—Faulkner’s method of telling, his use of biblical allusions, Sutpen as a microcosm of the South, the role of Fate in human existence. Still, the bigger questions hang over us, unanswered and perhaps unanswerable. The compulsion to address them is artificial, after all, and even the best teachers can only bear silence so long.
The best teachers. A dangerous conceit in general, the words are rendered unapproachable by the knowledge of what I’ve been given, and what I haven’t. Like many of my friends who’ve chosen this career, I entered the field as much in response to the bad teaching I received as the good. A bad English teacher is particularly loathsome, as most students will attest: plodding, unexcitable, wed to plot summary and an unnuanced biographical criticism that removes the reader from the equation with pitiless finality. In my own days as a student, in love with books but unchallenged to look critically at the ideas that lay behind them, I would have savored the unorthodox question, the freedom to challenge accepted interpretations. Had a teacher questioned for a moment the traditional justifications for studying literature in the first place, she would have had me for good. At least, I think she would have.
After all, who can know his own mind? Plotting an escape from our teachers’ bluestockinged rigidity, my own prep-school friends and I were nevertheless beholden to a certain kind of intellectual legalism—the self-righteousness of the well-read and young. Who knows how we would have responded to a challenge to our own assumptions—that literature was inviolable and that it was our other classes that needed justifying. Hungry for details as we were, we wouldn’t have thought to question the big picture, nor to waste our time on books that required our patience. Like most students who flourish in today’s elite prep schools, we flourished because we had learned how to play—when to take notes, when to speak up, when to read, and when not to. Though we would never have admitted it, we had no wildness in us. More than most, we depended on pedagogical orthodoxy. Why would we question the rules of a contest we’d mastered?
I understand, then, my students’ hesitance to engage the underlying hypotheses of educational theory. They read ABSALOM because I told them to, and I’m lucky that they read it at all. I’m well aware, from experience both at the desk and the chalkboard, of the classroom’s power to strip literature of its grandeur and mystery (though, Faulkner would be happy to know, its agony and sweat often remain). Sisyphus-like, I’ve continued to roll these particular rocks up the hill—not only Faulkner, but Wordsworth, Joyce, Keats, and Conrad. I’m an English teacher. I love this stuff. Still, perhaps it’s unfair to set a man to a difficult task and then require that he explain your motives. Finishing our study of ABSALOM, I ask my students if next year’s class should be made to read it. Yes, they reply, lest their younger friends get off easier. Perhaps literature sustains itself after all.
Faulkner famously called ABSALOM the best novel yet written by an American. But how does one teach a great work? How does one convey love? When a fabulously well-read colleague complains about the affectedness of Faulkner’s prose, I tell him that ABSALOM is his birthright as a Southerner. He may be right about the overuse of the word wisteria, but this is the greatest novel yet written by an American! Faulkner’s peculiarly Southern modernism is the story of life itself: lies, betrayals, defeats, and enough of the other stuff—the good stuff—to keep us reading. And living.
Yet here’s the old hesitance again. Teaching, we risk rejection—of the works themselves and of the parts of us that want to honor them. The fear is puerile, of course—an embarrassment—but it dies hard. Recently, it kept Marilynne Robinson’s GILEAD on my nightstand and off my syllabus at the religiously affiliated university at which I now work. Readers of Robinson will understand the irony, but I simply prize the novel too highly to chance it. A mistake? Perhaps, but not an indefensible one.
Why, then, teach Faulkner? Why insist upon so regional a work, bearing such grotesque political anachronisms, even as secondary education moves nationally away from both? Two years removed, I’m ready to state that we do so because the biggest questions—those whose scope puts to the test the very notion of what it means to be educated—seldom arise spontaneously. We must dig them up where they’ve been buried—in the theater; on the canvas; in these particular, difficult pages.
Philip Larkin asks what remains when disbelief has gone. I’ll put it this way: What remains when we stop asking? I left the prep school after that year, leaving with it, perhaps for good, the opportunity to teach the work by which I now measure most others. I think I would have followed my students’ advice, though, and kept ABSALOM around, ensuring, if nothing else, that no one would get a break. After all, everyone needs something to complain about. Some story to tell.
Here is one more of mine. Drunk, once, on our undergraduate literacy, my friends and I visited Faulkner’s grave in Oxford, in love more with his name than the work itself. We placed our terrible poems against the gravestone and, thinking ourselves clever, took photographs of one another standing next to them. I’d like to return now with a different picture—this class, caught in a moment of forgetfulness, no bell to obey or list to memorize. Finally, one of them speaks, and whether or not the classroom holds answers, these students will be better—not measurably so, but better—for having sat in unplanned silence for a moment and considered the sustenance before them. Considered, taken, and eaten.