Phil Weinstein sheds light on Faulkner’s “difficult reads”

Phil Weinstein will be giving a series of talks on three William Faulkner books. — Photo courtesy of Philip Weinste

William Faulkner drank a lot, ate little, and arguably produced the best body of American fiction in the 20th century. He packed a lot into his 65 years.

“The quote that has stayed in my mind for years,” an Island friend said about Faulkner recently, “is the answer he gave to an interviewer who asked Faulkner why he drank so much and ate so little. Faulkner replied, ‘there’s a lot of nourishment in an acre of corn.'”

There we have it. Despite the recipient of one Nobel and two Pulitzer prizes, Faulkner’s work has never been a pop success, though his persona as a slouch-hatted Southerner who drank hard and lived a lot is romantically clear to us.

To this day, however, no American writer is more studied and written about by students and academics.

Phil Weinstein knows the reason for the disconnect between Faulkner’s status as a literary lion and his modest commercial success. “He’s difficult to read. I struggled to read him. Sometimes you have to read a passage twice to get it,” Mr. Weinstein said in his living room in Aquinnah last week.

Mr. Weinstein should know. He’s been teaching Faulkner et al. for 40 years at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, where he’s gathered sacks of awards and titles for his ability to help others to understand great literature.

Now he’s going to do it — again — for us. Mr. Weinstein is launching another in his 10-year series of Island programs on great literature, this time featuring Faulkner and his work. The six-part weekly discussion program begins on Sept. 24 at 7 pm, at the Vineyard Haven Public Library.

Advance reservations for “Discovering Faulkner’s Fiction” are recommended. Reservations may be made at the library front desk or online at

Oh, one other thing. Read the books before you join the discussions. Copies are available at Island libraries and bookstores.

“We want to have a discussion among the participants, not a lecture,” Mr. Weinstein said. “Please read it. I will orient each session, but the value and fun is in unpremeditated give and take. Lecturing was a crutch for me and it took years to let go. I need people in the room who’ve read this savage, funny, tragic, sociological report on poor whites,” he said.

Mr. Weinstein leads with “As I Lay Dying,” a short novel of a poor Southern family reacting to the imminent death, and its aftermath, of their mother, Addie Bundren, who is dying in her bedroom, as one of her sons constructs her coffin outside her window.

“The Sound and the Fury” and “Light in August” will also be discussed in the series.

“Faulkner’s great fiction is undeniably challenging to read. In exactly the same measure, it offers its rewards; the difficulty and the value are inseparable,” said Mr. Weinstein, who is also the former president of the William Faulkner Society and author of three books on Faulkner.

“He never had a popular readership, I think, because most narratives are designed over a time period to give understanding and pleasure to the reader. They are designed by the author to be linear and shed light backward (as the story unfolds). As readers, we say “Don’t confuse us as we often are in real life.” Most readers won’t put up with that.

“What happened to me, and people tell me they have had the same experience, is that control of our understanding diminishes (as we read Faulkner) but then hits with a power that expands your understanding,” he said.

Faulkner removes himself as narrator and allows multiple characters to narrate, using a stream of consciousness technique borrowed from James Joyce’s landmark novels. “Faulkner and (John) Dos Passos were profoundly influenced by Joyce. He provided a new freedom for them to tell their stories,” Mr. Weinstein said.

As we talked last week, Mr. Weinstein’s obvious passion for Faulkner raised a few questions. Why is this understated, urbane, East Coast English professor so drawn to Faulkner’s Mississippi roots? Any why is Faulkner so difficult to read?

“I was raised in Memphis in a workaday family and went to a segregated high school, even though our neighborhood was 40 percent black. I had never read Faulkner, too hard. Now, this is about the time that Brown v. Board of Education (the landmark civil rights case) was passed by the Supreme Court in 1954. I remember a chemistry teacher — a teacher — predicting that rape and violence would follow. I remember thinking, ‘I don’t want this discussion or to live here,’ so I went to college in the Northeast and never went back,” he said.

“My interest in Faulkner was informed as a result. The main body of his work never gets to Brown v. Board of Ed. because it was written before that, but Faulkner wrote about race. In today’s terms, he would be described as moderate to liberal.

“Students today can’t understand racist logic. Black and white students find it bizarre. They literally do not sense racial differences. The (racial disharmony) is like the Civil War to them. In a sense, they missed the 20th century. One of my jobs is to help them to see that these are real people, black and white, who are in trouble,” he said of the social importance of Faulkner’s work today.

“Faulkner was asking ‘what is the blood difference between white and black?’ ‘Light in August’ was the first book (questioning racial differences). Faulkner intuitively believes there is no difference, but doesn’t there have to be difference, based on the (cultural norms) in which he was raised?” Mr. Weinstein said. “He got that white complicity and guilt was there before you were born and would remain after you die, and that is part of the (white) world that benefits you just by being part of it.”

“‘Light in August,’ ‘Absalom, Absalom’ and ‘Go Down Moses’ are three novels about race and the fierce mindsets that cannot be relinquished without a change in the entire world, a change that could not be made,” he said.

This could be fun. I didn’t get Faulkner when I first read him moons ago — which of course hurt my undergrad literary pretensions — so I ignored him. After chatting with Mr. Weinstein last week, I bought a copy of “As I Lay Dying,” and found I could read it and enjoy it. It is a sad and often funny story about loss and emotions that made me feel as if I was eavesdropping on real conversations.

Phil Weinstein will be speaking at the Vineyard Haven Public Library on Sept. 24 at 7 pm. Talks continue at 7 pm on Tuesdays, Oct. 22, Nov. 5, Nov. 19, Dec. 3, and Dec. 10. For more information, call 508-696-4211.