Taylor Hagood, Faulkner, Writer of Dis-Ability (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2014), 214 pp., and Following Faulkner: The Critical Response to Yoknapatawpha’s Architect (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2017), 153 pp.
As the commonplace term “the Faulkner Industry” indicates, there is no shortage of academic writing on Faulkner, and engaging the author critically necessitates familiarity with a vast web of criticism that spans decades and continues to grow. Under such circumstances, any writer, no matter how seasoned, could feel intimidated and wonder if there is anything left to say. This situation makes Taylor Hagood’s book length works on Faulkner impressive. Hagood manages not only to add to the critical discourse on Faulkner in meaningful ways but also helps other scholars approach the author by offering a tool for navigating this daunting body of critical writing. Hagood’s Following Faulkner: The Critical Response to Yoknapatawpha’s Architect (2017) works as a road map for the critical discussion on Faulkner, while his Faulkner, Writer of Dis-Ability (2014) finds a new critical perspective from which to approach the author.
Following Faulkner offers a history of Faulkner criticism, beginning with the critical reception of Faulkner’s work and the important biographies that helped bring Faulkner into the view of academic literary critics. Hagood moves through the New Critics and Structuralism, paying particular attention to the foundational works of Cleanth Brooks, among many others; Poststructuralist readings that introduce topics central to our thinking about Faulkner, including the importance of race, gender, and class in Faulkner’s work; Faulkner scholarship in the twenty-first century, focusing on Faulkner in a Global context; and he finishes the book with an intriguing chapter speculating future avenues of inquiry for Faulkner scholarship. Hagood’s book acts as a guide to the labyrinthian field of Faulkner scholarship, outlining the most important authors, critical and theoretical perspectives, arguments, and suggesting possibilities for future analysis. Also, thanks to Hagood’s engaging prose, Following Faulkner reads not as a dry bibliography, but as an absorbing narrative, conveying a wealth of information while also telling a story. This book is an invaluable resource for any scholar working on Faulkner.
Faulkner, Writer of Dis-Ability analyzes several of Faulkner’s novels through the lens of disability studies, overcoming the uncomfortable relationship between southern studies, and Faulkner more specifically, and this critical approach. Disability studies argues that ableist society constructs and is supported by an abled/disabled dichotomy. Southern literature often seems to support this dichotomy in its use of the grotesque to depict a deformed or degenerate southern society. Indeed, the list of disabled characters in southern literature is quite long, and they are not all sympathetic or accurate portrayals of disability. Faulkner’s work includes many disabled characters, including several “idiot” types such as Benjy Compson, Darl Bundren, and, perhaps most infamously, Isaac “Ike” Snopes. At a glance, Faulkner appears to engage in the ableist discourse when writing these characters. At best, as in the cases of Benjy and Darl, he uses these characters to facilitate modernist formal experimentation, and at worst, as in the case of Ike, he produces a sensationalist and grotesque spectacle.
While Faulkner’s use of these characters seems to enforce an abled/disabled dichotomy that supports ableism, Hagood’s analysis demonstrates that Faulkner’s portrayal of mental disability offers a more complex view and may subvert this dichotomy. Regarding Benjy, Hagood suggests that while critics often attribute the radical form of the first section of Sound and the Fury to Benjy’s mental disability, the narration of the Harvard-attending Quentin Compson in the second section is hardly more coherent. Hagood also challenges the assumption that Faulkner provides the language for Benjy’s malformed thoughts, instead suggesting that Benjy is “more prescient, conscious, and skillful as a narrativist than Faulkner scholarship has conventionally thought” (90). He attributes the section’s poetic qualities to Benjy’s own perceptive sensibilities stemming from his unique perspective. Furthermore, Hagood notes that as Benjy’s disability confers a marginalized status, he has special insight into the African American characters unavailable to Quentin or Jason. Thus, Benjy subverts the abled/disabled dichotomy because his disability actually enables unique forms of perception. Hagood analyzes Darl Bundren in similar terms, demonstrating that his apparent disability allows him to understand the family’s condition as poor whites in ways the other members of the Bundren clan cannot. This perception, however, leads to Darl’s ostracization from the Bundren family and his hospitalization by the state, as society deems such understanding dangerous. According to Hagood, Darl’s story demonstrates that the family must label his perceptive ability a disability so that they can move from their marginalized position into a central position within society. Hagood’s reading of Ike Snopes, suggesting that Ike’s love affair with the cow acts as a foil to the economically driven romance between Eula and Flem, is perhaps less convincing. Overall, however, Hagood effectively recovers Faulkner’s famous “idiot” characters, demonstrating that they may disrupt rather than support ableist constructions.
While Hagood’s work helps realign the way we read some of Faulkner’s most famous characters in relation to disability studies, it also makes interesting claims about Faulkner’s relationship with disability and how that relationship bears on his work. Though Faulkner is not often considered disabled, Hagood argues that Faulkner embodies an “ability-disability dynamic” (18). He notes that Faulkner includes passages from his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in A Fable. At this moment, when Faulkner was at his most successful, Hagood suggests that he was also disabled by an increasing fear of public speaking, a horse-riding injury, and, of course, his infamous alcoholism. Faulkner’s drinking demonstrates the dynamic, as it serves as both a means to demonstrate masculinity and virility and a debilitating source of self-destruction. Hagood ties these observations about Faulkner’s ambiguous position regarding ability and disability back to A Fable, a novel in which the war wound figures as such a marker of both strength and weakness. These readings lead Hagood to make the debatable but intriguing claim that “Faulkner was to some degree a disabled writer of disability” (19).
Hagood also reads disability into the Faulkner family history, specifically as it touched Colonel Falkner, Faulkner’s great-grandfather. The great-grandfather’s hand and foot were disfigured in the Mexican War, and he used his veteran’s disability claim to build his future. In this way, the Colonel, a model for Colonel John Sartoris, embodies the war hero whose service and subsequent wound mark him as the appropriate patriarch of the clan. However, Hagood notes that the circumstances surrounding Colonel Falkner’s injury were questionable and may have resulted not from an ambush as he claimed but from a fight that occurred while the Colonel was AWOL and carousing or may have even been self-inflicted as a means of leaving the war. This suggests that Colonel Falkner may have made a fraudulent claim about his disability, a crime of which he was accused by an adversary, and thereby acted as a “Counterfeit Other,” turning his disability to his financial and social advantage (47). In this way, he figures more as Abner Snopes than Colonel Sartoris. Thus, the feud between Sartoris and Snopes in Faulkner’s fiction reflects the dual perception of Colonel Falkner as the heroic patriarch or charlatan schemer, and this conflict bears directly on Faulkner, who also made false claims about his participation in a war and suffered an entirely fabricated war wound.
Hagood attempts to enhance the book’s arguments about the ability/disability construction through formal experimentation, suggesting that literary criticism suffers from an impetus to adhere to constricting formal standards, which he correlates with ableism’s imperative that people conform to standards of ability. He subverts these professional standards by imitating the forms of different genres of writing for each chapter. For example, his opening chapter on A Fable mimics the form of a screenplay, including stage directions and Courier typeface, and the chapter on Sanctuary reads like sensational pulp horror. On the one hand, this play with form allows Hagood to showcase his ability to write entertaining prose in a variety of styles and makes the book more engaging than most critical works. On the other hand, the formal experimentation is not always effective. For example, in reference to his work in digital humanities, Hagood writes his chapter on the idiot figure in Faulkner in the form of an email, giving each of the characters he discusses an email address, such as firstname.lastname@example.org (87). While these touches are amusing, they do not accomplish the intended de-formation of literary criticism. However, even if this formal experimentation fails in its purpose, it is an ambitious and entertaining failure.
Overall, Hagood’s work on Faulkner manages both to make a valuable contribution to the massive body of criticism surrounding William Faulkner and provide a tool for other scholars to navigate that conversation. His book on disability offers convincing readings of Faulkner’s life and work through an unlikely critical lens. Hagood demonstrates that disability studies is a useful perspective for understanding Faulkner both critically and biographically. His map of Faulkner criticism, on the other hand, demystifies the critical conversation on Faulkner, assisting other scholars in approaching the writer’s work and making similar contributions to the critical discourse. Hagood’s books make valuable and original additions to the “Industry” of Faulkner criticism.
Travis Rozier (College Station, Texas)