Teaching Faulkner and the Spanish American Novel 
Deborah Cohn, Indiana University

In an age of NAFTA and globalization, it is easy to think of the Americas as a unit, linked by economics, politics, and cultural exchanges.  The current interest in academia in inter-American studies reflects the growing importance attributed to relations between the North, Central, and South American nations.  This interest is, however, fairly recent—and, in the case of literary studies, it has been a long time in coming.  For many years, departments of Spanish and Portuguese have struggled to expand the traditional definition of “America” (used interchangeably with “the U.S.” in common parlance) and of “American” literature to include the Latin American nations and their cultural production.  Over the years, some university administrators have even prevented authors such as William Faulkner and Henry James from being taught in inter-American literature courses alongside of Spanish American authors because they did not consider the latter to be “American” enough.  And yet, U.S. literature has long played an extremely important role in the development of Spanish American literature—so much so that, to a certain extent, Latin Americanists must also be comparatists by trade. 

 

The work of writers such as John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, and Faulkner (in addition to that of European writers such as James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, and Virginia Woolf) had a profound influence on Spanish American writers starting in the late 1930s.  At this time, a group of writers including Victoria Ocampo, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Jorge Luis Borges, among others, founded Sur [South], which for many years was the premiere journal in Spanish America.  As John King details, Sur sought to open the region up to new cultural currents from Europe and North America (see Sur:  A Study of the Argentine Literary Journal). The widespread dissemination of modernist works throughout Spanish America owes much to this journal, for writers such as Faulkner, Joyce, and Woolf, as well as numerous philosophers and critics, appeared in Spanish for the first time here. The gradual rejection of realism also had its roots here, as did the adoption of more modern and experimental stylistics by authors such as José Donoso, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez, and Mario Vargas Llosa, who brought Spanish American literature into the international limelight in the 1960s with the movement known as the “Boom.”

 

From this period until the present day, the Boom writers mentioned above, as well as numerous others, have expressed their debt to and deep admiration for Faulkner. While much has been written about the influence of modernism on Spanish American literature,[1] and while authors have long professed their literary debt to Hemingway, Joyce, Woolf, and others, it is Faulkner who has been invoked as a model most frequently over the years, and who continues, even now, to be the object of homages.  The strength of his legacy is due both to the liberating influence of his style and techniques and to the fact that Spanish American writers saw in the experiences of the South—e.g., war, marginalization, underdevelopment, poverty, post-plantation societies, the decline of a social order, and racism—a history similar to that of their own region.[2] 

 

Faulkner and Spanish American Literature:  The Development of a Syllabus

Over the past few years, as interest has grown and institutional obstacles have been overcome, it has become possible to discuss such commonalities of “American” experience, as well as Faulkner’s legacy to Spanish American literature, in courses on the literature of the Americas.  In 1997, I decided to move my research interests into the classroom, and developed a graduate course entitled “The ‘new narrative,’[3] the Boom, and their Stylistic Influences,” which I taught, in Spanish, in the Hispanic Studies Department at McGill University.  In order to give the students an overview of the development of Spanish American fiction in the twentieth century (the necessary backdrop for studies of Faulkner’s influence), the course began with Don Segundo Sombra, by Ricardo Güiraldes, which is one of the best-known novelas de la tierra, or novels of the land, a regionalist genre that dominated Spanish American fiction during the 1920s and 1930s.  This genre represented, essentially, the mode and style that authors starting to write in the late 1930s and afterwards claimed to be writing against:  they saw realism as stylistically bland, limited, and limiting, as well as outdated, especially in comparison with the experimental stylistics of modernist fiction, which journals such as Sur were then beginning to disseminate.  The novel of the land was also rejected because it was seen as foregrounding each nation’s local characteristics and problems at a time when intellectuals sought to move away from the cultural nationalism that dominated the region and, instead, to cultivate a pan-Spanish American consciousness and identity.  For representative works of modernist fiction, the students read Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! We then read works by José Donoso (Coronation), Carlos Fuentes (The Death of Artemio Cruz), Gabriel García Márquez (Leaf Storm and The Autumn of the Patriarch), Juan Rulfo (Pedro Páramo), and Mario Vargas Llosa (The Cubs).

 

I originally designed the course (or at least, so I thought) as an exploration of the use of modernist techniques and themes by the Spanish American authors.  It was not until I revised the course two years later that I realized the extent to which the course had, in fact, focused on the development of Faulknerian paradigms: narrative perspectivism and challenges to historiography; foundational narratives that revolve around patriarchs who are both founder and emblem of the prevailing order, whose relationships to the members of the community determine their position within it, and whose deaths parallel the end of the historical era; historical backdrops of civil war, cycles of boom and bust, and the changing of orders; and conclusions that hinge upon the death of the patriarch or family through whom national history is allegorized, signaling either the downfall of the way of life with which they were coextensive or, occasionally, its continuity.[4]  Since the course was now to be taught at the undergraduate level, I needed to remove a number of readings from the syllabus in order to lessen the workload.  This apparently simple act soon led me to revise my understanding of the course and its focus.  Time constraints forced me to eliminate Don Segundo Sombra and one of the modernist novels. I originally planned to remove Absalom from the course and focus primarily on To the Lighthouse. I would, however, include “A Rose for Emily,” so that the students could gain some familiarity—however limited—with Faulkner’s work and, even more importantly, because this story had a set of stylistic and thematic elements that appears in The Cubs and The Death of Artemio Cruz, as well as in Juan Carlos Onetti’s “La novia robada” [The Purloined Bride], which I added to the syllabus that year. These elements include:  1) a protagonist who has been emotionally paralyzed by a traumatic event in the past and who stays, emotionally, in that moment, ignoring the passage of time in the world around her; and 2) the alternation of a third- and a first-person-plural narrative voice, which serves to underscore the character’s relationship to her community.

 

I planned to add Rosario Ferré’s Sweet Diamond Dust (1988) at the end of the syllabus as an example of the continuity of Faulkner’s legacy over time, but with significant modifications, most notably the perspective of an author who sought to revise history and society from the perspective of women and blacks and to challenge the “truths” of the “white” patriarchy.  I found Sweet Diamond Dust to be especially interesting because Ferré herself translated the original work, Maldito amor, introducing additional Faulknerian themes and motifs into a story that already exhibited minor parallels with Absalom.  Both the Spanish and the translated versions of the novel, for example, feature family houses built by French architects; characters who are ultimately revealed to have “black blood” but are initially described as being of Spanish origin; characters named Eulalia (extremely uncommon in Spanish American literature); marriages that are arranged as financial transactions in exchange for services rendered; and incestuous relationships.  Both, additionally, are narrated from several conflicting points of view, challenging traditional views of historiography even as their subject is the rise and fall of the plantation owner whose life encapsulates the history of the region. In the denouement of Sweet Diamond Dust, however, Ferré introduces a miscegenation subplot, twinning anew the motifs that dominate Absalom, but treating miscegenation as a positive factor rather than a threat.[5]

 

While Ferré alludes to other works by Faulkner elsewhere, Sweet Diamond Dust, her most Faulknerian work in both theme and structure (and the conjunction of both), invokes only Absalom. When I revised the syllabus, it became clear to me that there was no point in including Sweet Diamond Dust without also reading Absalom.  More importantly, I realized at this point just how much was to be lost from the course as a whole by removing Absalom from the syllabus.  Faulkner’s novel essentially frames it, giving it a coherence rooted in several paradigms that go far beyond the novel’s modernist characteristics, as noted above.  Each of these elements is at the core of Pedro Páramo, Leaf Storm, The Death of Artemio Cruz, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and The Autumn of the Patriarch, and I realized the extent to which the course was far more a study of Faulkner and Spanish American literature than of modernism and the same field.