Faulkner the Anti-Fascist

William Faulkner in Paris smoking a cigar

In August 1925, 28-year-old William Faulkner, on his first sojourn in Europe, had a career-altering confrontation with fascism. In “Mistral,” a story probably written right after his return, two Americans visiting an Italian mountain village—an unnamed narrator and his friend Don—suspect a young woman’s suitor has been murdered in a plot to wed her to a fascist soldier. In the story, the village is depicted as a place where the pressure against speaking out is so great that we cannot be sure that the murder has taken place—a measure of how closed up Mussolini’s Italy has become. Opposition is expressed, but obliquely and in code, as when the Americans parody the villagers’ response to their questions as “No spika. I love Mussolini.” The details of what actually happened can never be successfully determined—any more than what, precisely, happened in the Nelse Patton lynching that occurred during Faulkner’s boyhood in his hometown of Oxford, Mississippi.

Both episodes occur in societies where the truth cannot be publicly spoken for fear of violent reprisal. Hitler admired the American South for its racist, authoritarian rule. Those qualities are apparent in the South of Faulkner’s novels. In many of his characters, racism and anti-Semitism go hand in hand, as with Jason Compson in The Sound and the Fury (1929). “I give every man his due, regardless of religion or anything else. I have nothing against jews as an individual,” Compson tells a traveling salesman. “It’s just the race. You’ll admit that they produce nothing. They follow the pioneers into a new country and sell them clothes.” Even Jason’s more-sensitive brother Quentin laments the “land of the kike and home of the wop.” Similarly, Clarence Snopes, the sleazy politician in Sanctuary (1931), opines: The “lowest, cheapest thing on this earth aint a nigger: it’s a jew. We need laws against them. Drastic laws. When a durn lowlife jew can come to a free country like this and just because he’s got a law degree, it’s time to put a stop to things. A jew is the lowest thing on this creation.” No one escapes Faulkner’s scorn in a novel full of sarcastic references to white Baptists; indeed, Snopes declares himself a decent Baptist before going on his anti-Semitic tirade.

Faulkner’s anti-fascist politics have not received much comment. He grew up in Oxford surrounded by racists, but so far as it is known he had no contacts with Jews there. He did not join political movements, but at an early age he became extremely sensitive to the treatment of aliens and foreigners, perhaps stimulated by his voracious reading of literature. Faulkner’s experiences with Jews began when he was a young writer in New Orleans in 1925, shortly before he set off for Europe. There, he had several Jewish friends, including Harold Levy, a Harvard graduate and musician, and Margery Gumbel, the wife of a securities broker, who backed the magazine The Double Dealer, which published Faulkner’s short pieces. His work then, and later, would not indulge in stereotypes like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby, and Faulkner’s letters lack the slurs against Jews that Ernest Hemingway favored, although in a pique after the publisher Horace Liveright had turned down Faulkner’s third novel, the writer announced to his aunt that he had a new publisher, Harrison Smith, so now he would be published by “white folks.” (Liveright had never warmed to Faulkner, and the author did write to his mother on December 2, 1925, “O damn that Jew.”) Six years later, in New York City, he dated the Jewish writer Leane Zugsmith, who was active in social justice and Communist causes, and formed warm lifelong friendships with Lillian Hellman and Dorothy Parker, also outspoken Jewish anti-fascists.

Knowing Faulkner’s views from biographical research makes it possible to trace clear anti-fascist themes in his work, long before awareness of and opposition to fascism became widespread in the United States. In The Sound and the Fury, Jason Compson conceives of society as a fascist state in which the rule of law does not pertain to him: “I’m Jason Compson. See if you can stop me. See if you can elect a man to office that can stop me.” He imagines himself as entering a courthouse with “a file of soldiers and dragging the sheriff out.” That notion of a white supremacist militia becomes a reality Faulkner portrays directly in Light in August (1932).

German fascists mistook Light in August as a novel condemning race mixing. Faulkner’s novels, unlike Ernest Hemingway’s, were never banned or burned. But Faulkner later observed in an interview that in Light in August, in the character Percy Grimm, he had created a fascist before Hitler came to power. In the novel, Percy Grimm organizes the lynching of Joe Christmas (presumed to be a black man and to have murdered a white woman). Grimm is plainly a fascist, although the novel never uses the term: “He was indefatigable, restrained yet forceful; there was something about him irresistible and prophetlike.” Grimm is an example of the blood and soil type that fascinated fascists; Faulkner declared in an interview that figures like Percy Grimm were “everywhere, in all countries, in all people.”

There are clear anti-fascist themes in Faulkner’s work, long before awareness of and opposition to fascism became widespread in the United States.

What is fascist about Grimm is not just his racial prejudice but also his militarism. When he organizes the lynching, the military is a godsend for him, relieving him of responsibility for his own actions as he subsumes himself in soldierly display and a sense of authority that is all-consuming. He dreams of “a sublime and implicit faith in physical courage and blind obedience, and a belief that the white race is superior to any and all other races and that the American is superior to all other white races and that the American uniform is superior to all men, and that all that would ever be required of him in payment for this belief, this privilege, would be his own life.” Grimm ignores the American Legion commander and the sheriff, who each say they do not need his help. He clothes his vigilante mission in the uniforms of legionnaires whom he manipulates into believing they have been called up to protect the community and defend its honor. “What does your legion stand for, if not for the protection of America and Americans?” he asks them.

What is often overlooked in the novel is the way it shows fascism as an endemic threat, not merely an evil outside of society itself. For all their black and white differences, both Percy Grimm and Joe Christmas have associated their masculinity with the power and the desire to dominate. Joe Christmas (whose racial identity is unclear) attacks subservient women, white and black; Grimm’s target is the Negro, upon whom he will prove himself to his father and community.

Faulkner brought his anti-fascism to Hollywood, where he met many of the exiles from Nazi Germany. Here his political views became more explicit. In May 1938, in a rare public statement, he joined more than 400 other writers in reacting to the Spanish Civil War: “I most sincerely wish to go on record as being unalterably opposed to Franco and fascism, to all violations of the legal government and outrages against the people of Republican Spain.”

Those views also show up unmistakably in his film work. In the screenplay of To Have and Have Not (1944), Faulkner’s adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s novel, Harry Morgan (played by Humphrey Bogart) has a fascist-sounding client, Mr. Johnson, who wonders why Harry keeps Eddie, a “rummy,” as a crew member. Harry responds that Eddie thinks he is taking care of Harry. And more than Harry is ever willing to acknowledge, Eddie does just that; he is always there when Harry needs him. Fascists do not understand—such is the message of To Have and Have Not in Faulkner’s rendition—that the world is not divided between the strong and the weak. Rather, there is an interdependency in human affairs that cannot be summed up in an ideology of the survival of the fittest. The strong are strong only inasmuch as they take everyone on board—not just those who don’t drink or have no disabilities. Eddie helps Harry do the right thing, which is to fight the fascists.

Faulkner’s version of Eddie, with its implied critique of fascism, is not in Hemingway’s novel, nor in the versions of the script and the character of Eddie worked on by other writers. If not entirely an outlier in his disdain for fascism, Faulkner certainly held more sharply defined views than his colleagues did. He also wrote an unproduced anti-fascist screenplay, Battle Cry (1943), seemingly inspired by anti-fascist themes he saw in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. In it, a French resistance fighter invokes the heroic example of the novel’s protagonist, Robert Jordan, who sacrifices himself for the cause of the Spanish republic.

Faulkner’s 1954 novel A Fable, which won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1955, can also be read as a fable about the evils of fascism. It centers on the encounter between a father and son, the Marshal and the Corporal. The Corporal is offered absolute power—in effect, inheriting his father’s role—but he renounces the bequest and upon his death is buried as the unknown soldier. In all likelihood, the novel implies, another soldier will confront the same fascist temptation. Faulkner recognized that recurring temptation in the advent of the McCarthyism he opposed, and in the perennial return of demagoguery, which had been so much a part of the Southern politics that governed his life. The story affirms that the issues of human rights fought over in World War II and the American Civil War, issues Faulkner also explored in Battle Cry, remain to be decided.

Faulkner’s personal stake in opposing fascism is revealed in an anecdote told by one of his neighbors: When a couple of boys playing near his home in the 1950s told him that people said he was a “nigger lover,” Faulkner replied that it was better than being a fascist. Similar incidents were incorporated in The Mansion (1959), the last volume of the Snopes trilogy, in which Linda Snopes, an anti-fascist who has lost her hearing during her participation in the Spanish Civil War, returns home to rile her community by working for the education of African Americans. Her husband, Barton Kohl, a Jewish sculptor, has died in the war, and she comes home determined not to lose to the fascists again. She is met with blazing crosses and signs that call her a Jew Communist. Her father, Flem, is a homegrown fascist, ineffectually opposed by Faulkner’s upholders of decency in his fictional Yoknapatawpha County like Gavin Stevens, Chick Mallison and V. K. Ratliff. In effect, Linda engineers Flem’s murder, by arranging the release of Mink Snopes, Flem’s nemesis, from prison to commit the crime. Linda chooses the radical option, to root out evil. Viewed by male characters, including Mink, as a disabled, weaker vessel—another Eddie—she drives away from home in a Jaguar, fully in command of herself and what she has done.

In Hollywood, Faulkner observed what his lover, Meta Carpenter, called “Jew haters” on movie sets. Watching the sons of his Jewish friends die in World War II, Faulkner wrote, “I just hope I dont [sic] run into some hundred percent American Legionnaire until I feel better.” In Hollywood, a Jewish writer accused him of not liking Jews. “You’re right,” Faulkner said, “but I don’t like gentiles either.” That he identified with Jews nonetheless is reflected in a statement he made during the 1950s, when he received death threats for his pro-integration statements. “I am doing what I can,” he wrote to a European friend. “I can see a possible time when I shall have to leave my native state, something as the Jews had to flee from Germany during Hitler.” The unsentimental creation of Linda Snopes, the character who departs her native South after the murder of Flem Snopes, is the culmination of the author’s evolving vision of Jews, fascism and totalitarianism—the historical forces that marked the era he lived through and that we are still reckoning with today.

Carl Rollyson is the author of The Life of William Faulkner: Volume 1: The Past Is Never Dead 1897-1934 and the forthcoming The Life of William Faulkner: Volume 2: This Alarming Paradox 1935-1962

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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