“For man’s enlightenment he lived
By man’s ingratitude he died
Pause here, son of sorrow; remember death.”
That’s carved on the tombstone of John Sartoris, the Confederate soldier whose death during the Civil War is but the prelude to further familial tragedy, and whose legend seeps down through several generations of Sartoris. The Sartoris are the fading aristocracy of Yoknapatawpha County, and the subject of “Flags in the Dust,” the very first William Faulkner novel to be set in that now mythical corner of imaginary Southern geography.
John Sartoris’ legacy is one of pride; individual acquisitional pride first, and aristocratic pride second:
“In the nineteenth century,” John Sartoris had said, ‘‘worrying over genealogy anywhere is poppycock. But particularly so in America, where only what a man takes and keeps has any significance, and where all of us have a common ancestry and the only house from which we can claim descent with any assurance, is the Old Bailey. Yet the man who professes to care nothing about his forbears is only a little less vain than he who bases all his actions on blood precedent. And a Sartoris is entitled to a little vanity and poppycock, if he wants it.”
And the Sartoris become vain and poppycocky indeed, as their world disintegrates year by year. “Flags in the Dust” takes place immediately after World War I. John’s son, Old Bayard Sartoris. spends his time on the porch of his house in Jefferson, Mississippi, reminiscing about his father and Robert E. Lee; or else entombed in his library:
The room was lined with bookcases (…) emanating an atmosphere of dusty and undisturbed meditation, and a miscellany of fiction of the historical-romantic school (all Dumas was there, and the steady progression of the volumes now constituted Bayard Sartoris’ entire reading, and one volume lay always on the night-table beside his bed.)
Alexandre Dumas keeps Old Bayard wrapped in a reassuring, gallant, chivalrous past, while his aunt, fiery octogenarian Jenny, tends to the weeds that push inexorably toward the house.
The novel opens with the return of young Bayard Sartoris (Old Bayard’s grandson) from the war. Young Bayard has survived his father and his brother and is a victim of what we would now call Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, a condition for which he could have expected little sympathy, let alone therapy, in 1919. Young Bayard gives himself to erratic thrill-seeking: there’s a wonderfully cinematic scene here in which Bayard, drunk and reckless, rides a galloping horse through the streets of the town, a full-muscled symbol of self-destructive madness, and winds up with several broken ribs. (Faulkner himself was an equestrian fan, and seriously injured in a horse-riding accident toward the end of his life.)
Horses are persistent symbols in “Flags in the Dust.” Let’s not forget that the etymological root for chivalry (and cavalry) is in the Latin “caballus”: horse. Horse-riding is knight-hood, it is power, it is distinction, it is tradition. But the horse is threatened by a deadly machine called the automobile, encroaching on the Southland. The term “horse power” is forever altering its meaning.
In what I find to be the novel’s best lyrically sustained passage, Faulkner goes beyond the horse to examine the horse’s sterile offspring: the mule. The mule is as much of a genetic cul-de-sac as the Sartoris. If the horse is the great beast of the ante-bellum, then the mule, stubborn, kicking, future-less, is the South of the Reconstruction.
“Father and mother he does not resemble; sons and daughters he will never have; vindictive and patient: (It is a known fact that he will labor ten years willingly and patiently for you, for the privilege of kicking you once.) (…) Unwept, unhonored and unsung, he bleaches his awkward, accusing bones among rusting cans and broken crockery and worn-out automobile tires on lonely hillsides.”
I’ve talked about Faulkner’s influence on Latin Boom writers like Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garcia Marquez (whose Macondo is Yoknapatawpha County on a magical mirror.) Maybe it’s about the peculiar way in which poverty and race and class chafe against each other in Faulkner’s landscape, which is not too different from the way it does in that OTHER American South, the one that stretches all the way down to Antarctica.
“Flags in the Dust” was written in 1927; hated by agents, editors and publishers; chopped into a quarter of its size; and eventually released as “Sartoris” to no great acclaim. In its full form, issued in 1973, it is a great novel that suffers from a few editorial eccentricities. Repetitions of certain words and images strike me as unbridled affectations. Faulkner strikes upon the clever use of an image, and then goes on to beat the Proverbial dead horse. People are surrounded by “Impedimenta” 4 times within ten pages, for instance. New rule: You get to use the word “impedimenta” once per novel.
“Richly,” used as a paradoxical adverb, is another repeat offender. Fields are “richly somnolent”; a field hand lounges “richly static”; a house is “richly desolate of motion”; a light is “richly and solemnly hushed”; a few pages later, brocade is “richly hushed”; a vase is “richly serene”; the world is “richly moribund”; a mire is “richly foul”; and, used in the non-Faulknerian way, flowers “bloom richly” at night. There’s other words on which he leans too bluntly: “solemn” (making 14 appearances); “sibilant” (15); “silent” (21). The winner, though, is “serene,” which is used an astonishing FIFTY times! That means something gets described as serene every 8 pages or so!
RATING: COOL! Just a tiny editorial notch below MASTERPIECE!!!
Ok, fine. NEW RATING: MASTERPIECE!!!
Those flags in the dust are, of course, the Confederate flags. I kept on hearing The Band play “The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down” as I read this; I have no doubt that song would have rocked the Sartoris household 24/7, if they ever warmed up to those new-fangled record-playing machines. I’m not much for eulogizing the glorious days of mint-julep pride where Negroes weren’t uppity and knew how to take their whippings without complaint, but it’s hard not to be stirred by that song, by the way defeat and humiliation get transformed into triumph and pride. It’s also hard to believe this is a song written in 1969, and not 1869- or that it was written by a Canuck (Robbie Robertson).