A review of MLA Volume on The Sound and the Fury
Stephen Hahn and Arthur F. Kinney, eds. Approaches to Teaching
William Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury. " New York: Modern
Language Association, 1996.
The topic for this volume brings to mind the fable of the blind men feeling the elephant: your mouse may be my snake, and neither of us can grasp the magnitude of Faulkner's achievement. Undaunted, Stephen Hahn and Arthur F. Kinney chose The Sound and the Fury because it brings "before us in one way or another the central issues of teaching any work by Faulkner,...because it is the novel that people think of most frequently as synonymous with its author's name, and it is the novel that the author seems to have regarded most highly by calling it his 'most splendid failure.'" To their credit, Hahn and Kinney have managed to bring order and enlightenment to this unwieldy subject with, as they state, the advice of "respondents to our questionnaire on teaching Faulkner, ... our contributors themselves, consulting readers," and participants in ... "Teaching Faulkner sessions at the [Faulkner] conference over the last several years."
Preceding the essays about teaching The Sound and the Fury, Hahn and Kinney have included an invaluable section on "Materials," which includes a detailed bibliography of The Sound and the Fury and texts relating to it, biographies and biographical materials, letters, public statements and interviews, handbooks, bibliographies and reference guides, regional and historical studies, photograph collections and illustrated books, specialized studies, and periodical and general critical studies. If one is overcome by so much print, one can turn to "Audio-Visual Resources," containing lists of documentaries, adaptations, and audio recordings. One can imagine this updated for the truly au courant in future editions with S & F surfing on the Net.
Among the essays, I found two approaches most valuable. First, in the section titled "Beginnings," two scholar-teachers, Robert Dale Parker and Arnold Weinstein, present their ways of beginning the novel with a class, right down to what they would hand out, write on the blackboard, and ask to initiate discussion. Also in this section, Anthony Barthelemy confronts the "potentially hostile questions about race and racism in Faulkner's fiction" and shares his strategies for dealing with Faulkner's use of the word "nigger."
The second approach that I found most useful was placing the novel in various contexts. In the section "Exploring the Novel and Its Related Texts," Philip Cohen and Doreen Fowler, James G. Watson, and Charles Peek explore the merits and problems of, respectively, using Faulkner's introduction to the novel, his letters and gift books, and the Compson appendix when first presenting the novel to students. Other essays stressing the novel's contexts include Daniel J. Holtz on its relation to Southern history, John Duvall on sex and gender, Philip M. Weinstein on European Modernism (specifically Joyce and Proust), and Panthea Reid on the novel's affinity with post-impressionist art. These excellent essays could be supplemented, I think, by an article on the Southern literary tradition which Faulkner knew but which tends to be forgotten and buried by the American and modernist contexts of The Sound and the Fury.
The essays tend to divide along this question: to prepare or not to prepare students for their first encounter with The Sound and the Fury. Many of the authors present their students with chronologies, genealogies, questions, and other aids (included in Approaches) before they read the novel in the hope of obviating their bewilderment, frustration, and resistance. Others, like John T. Matthews, advocate "the thrill of the outraged amazement that the first page produces in the first-time reader." Matthews' fine essay also includes an interesting discussion of when not to teach The Sound and the Fury and in what contexts another Faulkner work would be a better choice.
To me, the least immediately useful essays were the more narrow ones such as the reading of The Sound and the Fury through Freudian (Judith Bryant Wittenberg), and Jungian (Terrell L Tebbetts), and Nietzschean (Jun Liu) lenses. John T. Desmond somewhat avoided this trap by grounding his deployment of Kierkegaard with solid commentary on Southern social mores, particularly codes of honor. The last section of essays, "Teaching The Sound and the Fury in the Faulkner Canon" demonstrated how to preface teaching the novel with the study of a Faulkner short story: "Barn Burning" (Gail L. Mortimer), "That Evening Sun" (Louise K. Barnett), "A Justice" (Arthur F. Kinney), "A Rose for Emily" (Claudia Clausius), and "Dry September" (Stephen Hahn). Although these essays do raise useful issues for The Sound and the Fury, they really address these specific stories, not the novel.
I would definitely recommend this collection. I wish I had it when I first taught The Sound and the Fury over fifteen years ago, and, as I taught the novel this semester, I was delighted, inspired, and challenged by its plethora of resources and points of view.