Home > Books, Journalism > Out on a Limb

Out on a Limb

February 11, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Today’s NYT has an interesting piece by Patricia Cohen about what John Lowe, an English professor at LSU, is quoted as calling “one of the most sensational literary discoveries of recent decades.” It’s a mid-nineteenth-century diary of a Mississippi plantation owner whose great-grandson would be a childhood friend of William Faulkner, and as the article explains, it may be the document on which Faulkner modeled a ledger that plays a key role in his 1942 work Go Down, Moses.

Go Down, Moses, as it turns out, happens to be the first of Faulkner’s books that I read. I wasn’t exactly a mature enough reader or human being to be reading it at the time, but my camp counselor recommended it. The counselor, an undergraduate at Swarthmore at the time, recognized me as a serious reader, told me about Faulkner, and lent me his copy of Go Down, Moses. If you’ve read the book, you may have some idea that it’s not the most accessible work for a twelve-year-old, or possibly even for an adult. I don’t think I made much sense of it. Yet, I was determined to read more, and a few years later, when I was 15, I returned to him. In my then-compulsive way, I read The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August, Absalom, Absalom!, The Rievers. Probably another one. I still wasn’t mature enough, as reader or human, but that didn’t seem to deter me.

One thing I understood, even if I didn’t understand Faulkner, was that I was in the presence of a great writer. Which brings me to the point of this post. I was stunned myself when I read in the third paragraph of today’s NYT article that, “Specialists have been stunned and intrigued not only by this peephole into Faulkner’s working process, but also by material that may have inspired this Nobel-prize-winning author, considered by many to be one of the greatest American novelists of the 20th century.”

I know journalists are expected not to give their own opinions when reporting a straight news story, but really, isn’t Ms Cohen exercising a little too much restraint when she summarizes Faulkner’s stature by saying he is “considered by many to be one of the greatest American novelists of the 20th century”? Can’t we all simply agree that he is one of the greatest? That doesn’t mean we have to like him. He just is.

Willie Mays? One of the greatest baseball players of the twentieth century. Paul Dirac? One of the greatest physicists of the twentieth century. We needn’t qualify these judgments. They just are. Likewise with Faulkner.

(By the way, I didn’t choose Mays and Dirac by chance. They are both on my mind, thanks to recent biographies. James S. Hirsch’s Mays biography has been reviewed in many places recently, including yesterday’s NYT. Freeman Dyson’s thought-provoking review of the Dirac biography by Graham Farmelo is in the current New York Review of Books, but unfortunately not freely available.)

Categories: Books, Journalism
  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: