Russell Kirk’s Ten Conservative Principles reflect the way William Faulkner wrote, acted, and organized his life. As a property owner with notions of limited government, he brought that orientation to his fiction, to his work in Hollywood, to his commentary on civil rights, and to his everyday relationships with his family and community. His conservatism was not that of a party or movement but rather expressed what Kirk calls “a state of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at the civil social order.”
Faulkner believed in the “enduring moral order,” that Kirk put first in his list of principles, and in Kirk’s tenth tenet: reconciling permanence and change. Faulkner’s famous Nobel Prize speech affirmed that only the “old universal truths” counted: “love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.” These words about human persistence can be found in his letters as well as in his World War II epic screenplay, the unproduced Battle Cry, and in his Nobel speech as he evoked an image right out of his great novel Absalom, Absalom!, saying that after the “last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.” He could have been thinking of the French architect, escaping his patron, the megalomaniacal Thomas Sutpen, obsessed with establishing himself in a mansion based on notions of a landed aristocracy. The architect, cornered by Sutpen and seemingly defeated, goes on talking, and with a gesture that seems to fling away the failure of his own puny resistance, overcoming his own defeat.
Faulkner revealed his conservative vision in novels like Absalom, Absalom! (1936) and Requiem for a Nun (1951) espousing the eternal verities of civilization. In Requiem, the architect is re-introduced as Sutpen’s “tame Parisian architect—or captive rather.” But the community of Jefferson, Mississippi “had only to see him once to know that he was no dociler than his captor.” The architect speaks to a frontier community’s desire to build an edifice of itself: “ ‘You do not need advice. You are too poor. You have only your hands, and clay to make good brick. You dont have any money. You dont even have anything to copy: how can you go wrong?’ ” Jefferson takes its shape from his molds and kilns. Even the destructiveness of the Civil War fails to disturb “one hair even out of the Paris architect’s almost forgotten plumb.” The architect’s imprint remains, more than a hundred years later, “not on just the courthouse and the jail, but on the whole town,” for he has built and made possible the community’s own drive to preserve and perpetuate itself, a drive more narrowly conceived in Absalom, Absalom! in relation to Sutpen’s ambitions. In Requiem, even after the community apparently loses much of its historical identity—“gone now from the fronts of the stores are the old brick made of native clay in Sutpen’s architect’s old molds”—still there is a surviving remnant of memory and of place found in the “thin durable continuity” of the jail itself and what it stands for.
Faulkner’s emphasis on continuity, however fragile, is reminiscent of Kirk’s second principle: “Continuity is the means of linking generation to generation; it matters as much for society as it does for the individual; without it, life is meaningless.” When in Go Down, Moses (1942), Ike McCaslin renounces his birthright, his inheritance of the land and plantation his forebears have built on slavery, his seemingly righteous declaration deprives him of an influence in his community to change it for the better. Without his own stake in land, he is a powerless man, having forsaken, in Kirk’s words, a third principle, “the chief sanction” of antiquity, “including rights to property.” Faulkner emphasizes the irony of Ike’s renunciation by having Lucas Beauchamp, an African American descended from the McCaslin family line, draw his strength from the example of old Carothers McCaslin, the founder of the plantation and the ancestral line. Go Down, Moses holds no brief for slavery or for white hegemony, but the novel insists that all of one’s history must be carried forth into the present and ameliorated, not repudiated.
Faulkner’s great novels about property and continuity followed his purchase in 1930 of a dilapidated antebellum home, known as the old Bailey place, originally built by one of Oxford, Mississippi’s slaveowning merchant princes, a sinking structure that Faulkner shored up with supports of his own making. In recently discovered letters, Faulkner, descended himself from a slaveowning family but also shunned by his own community as a shiftless itinerant, remade himself and his house, calling it Rowan Oak. This derelict house that William Faulkner played in as a child, sat on the edge of town, situated in exactly the right spot, just off Old Taylor Road, for an observer of the action, secluded, and yet within a short walk to the Oxford square. As one town resident testifies, walking along the Rowan Oak lane sided by towering cedars toward the Greek revival house, “one has a feeling of walking back in time, into a different world.” Then, as now, the shift from present to past, from the modern neighborhood on the boundary of Rowan Oak to that cedar-lined lane occurs as quickly as the time shifts in Faulkner’s fiction.
Faulkner’s neighbors had called him “count no count” because of his paradoxical behavior—the aloof scion of one of Oxford’s first families but also a bedraggled vagabond figure with no steady occupation. And yet he appealed to the owner of the old Bailey place, Will Bryant, a well-established farmer and businessman who shared with Faulkner an intense interest in their community’s history. They became good friends. Bryant never foreclosed on Faulkner who sometimes had to delay making mortgage payments. Faulkner addressed Bryant as “Mr. Will,” observing the deference he believed he owed to an older authority figure whose understanding of business far exceeded Faulkner’s own. Their letters re-enact the manners of a traditional society that Faulkner depicted in his fiction even as he realized that old world was undergoing tremendous change. Bryant applauded Faulkner’s decision to name his house Rowan Oak, “persuaded by their chat about the religious connections of the Rowan tree,” a Bryant descendent reported, noting “the sturdiness and long, sheltering life of the oak tree. A piece of Rowan wood over the door was to bring peace and happiness therein.”
As Faulkner settled into Rowan Oak, he went further into debt, acquiring from Will Bryant the land surrounding his house, including the woods that he did not want to see despoiled in subdivided jerrybuilt projects he would disparage in Requiem for a Nun. After an $1800 windfall from Hollywood he wrote to Bryant: “My credit is good now, and I want to keep it so. Also, I want to use it, judiciously of course, as I believe a certain amount of debt is good for a young man. But I also know that credit, in the hands of one young in business as I am, can also be dynamite.” The novelist wrote as though he were addressing a tribal elder—and, in fact, at this time he had written stories about plantation-owning Mississippi Indians that he knew Bryant, a connoisseur of folklore, would appreciate.
But Faulkner was no reactionary, retreating into nostalgic sentiments. The country was undergoing massive changes in the 1930s even as he wrote about the momentous changes brought on by the Civil War in stories for The Saturday Evening Post. He collected this fiction in an episodic novel, The Unvanquished (1938), which confronted the mass migration of African Americans northward. Two boys, Bayard (white) and Ringo (black) witness the disruption of the plantation-centered civilization both have taken for granted. Bayard, in retrospect, realizes the boys were caught up in a mass movement that overwhelmed their own efforts to keep their family’s domain intact:
the motion, the impulse to move which had already seethed to a head among his [Ringo’s] people, darker than themselves, reasonless, following and seeking a delusion, a dream, a bright shape which they could not know since there was nothing in their heritage, nothing in the memory even of the old men to tell the others, ‘This is what we will find’; he nor they could not have known what it was yet it was there—one of those impulses inexplicable yet invincible which appear among races of people at intervals and drive them to pick up and leave all security and familiarity of earth and home and start out, they dont know where, empty handed, blind to everything but a hope and a doom.
Bayard never thinks to ask: How much security could slaves count on? Are these migrating blacks “blind to everything” anymore deluded than Bayard and Ringo, grounded in their own mythology? In retrospect, Bayard seems quite aware of—if not exactly attuned to—the changes that are about the transform his native land. Ike McCaslin has his own negative assessment of blacks transplanted to the North, but his isolation in Go Down, Moses hardly makes him the spokesman for Faulkner, a writer tied to the North and specifically to publishers in New York City and to producers in Hollywood in ways that Ike could not have imagined.
Bayard treats mass migration as problematic, and certainly beyond his ken, and perhaps, in certain respects, beyond Faulkner’s, who remained in Mississippi, still very much a part of the past that made him, surrounded by African American family retainers who observed, in attenuated forms, the master-slave dynamic. When Faulkner first went North in 1918—to New Haven, where his mentor, Phil Stone, studied law at Yale, the budding writer believed blacks were better off in the South. As Hubert Starr, one of Faulkner’s new Northern friends noted, Bill was still an unreconstructed Southerner. But what did better off mean to Faulkner? Like Russell Kirk, Faulkner believed in the principles of precedent and prescription, which in his case entailed the traditional mutual dependence of whites and blacks, which Faulkner believed benefited both races. He accepted the conventions of a paternalistic society, even with its racist and retrograde prerogatives because of his own family history, which included the devotion of the African American servants with whom he often felt closer than to his own father and mother. As a property owner, he employed these same servants at Rowan Oak, took care of their health, and provided them with housing. The prospect of overturning this quasi-aristocratic regime troubled him, although he realized that sooner or later this Southern establishment would disintegrate under the pressures of a new generation, of the young people he embodied in the character of Chick Mallison in Intruder in the Dust (1948), The Town (1957), and The Mansion (1959).
Faulkner wanted the changes in his society to be gradual—a matter of one generation preserving the best of the past, and a new generation absorbing those enduring values even as it opened itself to a new world that would create its own traditions, expanding the notion of what it meant to be a decent and moral citizen. His last novel, The Reivers (1962), begins: “Grandfather said.” The grandfather recollects his childhood in a tale that honors his past even as that past is giving way to the present. Like Kirk quoting Burke, Faulkner believed that healthy “change is the means of our preservation.” But even healthy change was fraught with peril. Faulkner wrote about the human heart in conflict with itself, and that conflict persisted in his own encounter with the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s—for him a cataclysm in human relations that led to clashes with his own family.
Faulkner’s first reactions to Brown vs. Board of Education were entirely positive. The decision to strike down separate but equal did not surprise him. Indeed, his friend, the dean of the Ole Miss law school, had been predicting the Supreme Court decision for quite some time, and Faulkner had welcomed its inevitability. He knew that segregation had disadvantaged both whites and blacks by creating an inferior school system for everyone, so that Mississippians, like his friend Phil Stone, went North to get prestigious degrees, and characters like Quentin Compson attended Harvard, his family having sold part of its land to support the prospects of its scion.
Faulkner’s first pro-integration public statements resulted in outrage in his community and in his family. The Falkners (the family’s spelling of the name) were staunch segregationists and believed wholeheartedly in the Dunning school of history that taught Reconstruction as an unmitigated disaster for the South as unprepared and corrupt African Americans took over state governments and flouted their new authority over whites until whites were once again able to restore their hegemony. That view of Reconstruction, featured prominently in Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind has no place in Faulkner’s fiction, although you can see the remnants of the Dunning thesis in a speech Faulkner delivered in Japan. At one point in The Unvanquished, Colonel Sartoris murders carpetbaggers registering African Americans for the vote, which becomes a legacy of violence that Sartoris regrets and that his son, Bayard, refuses to perpetuate. What is more, Sartoris even invokes Lincoln as the peacemaker who would have kept Federal troops in the South to maintain order.
Faulkner did not explicitly support integration until the Supreme Court Decision, delivered four years after the awarding of the Nobel Prize. Taking a stand on civil rights became unavoidable. Faulkner had agreed to take State Department sponsored trips abroad, and he knew the whole world was watching and expecting America to fulfill its promise of equal rights for all.
In the South, in Mississippi, in Oxford, at home, his call for an integrated public school system angered whites who called him “Weeping Willie” and baffled his own family. Nothing in his own personal code of behavior presaged his public stance of toleration. He lived the same way other Falkners did, observing his stratified society’s code of manners. He routinely called African Americans “[n-words],” and yet behind the scenes he paid for an African American’s college education, supported a liberal newspaper on the Ole Miss campus, and befriended radicals like Ole Miss professor James Silver, who agitated for integration. None of Faulkner’s quiet and even surreptitious efforts to reform his society, however, made much of an impression until he began to speak out and pen pieces in national magazines, including the African American Ebony, about the need not only for the South to change but for the South to lead the way at its own gradual pace.
This notion that the South had to rectify its injustices without Northern intervention leads us back to Kirk. Faulkner believed that the North could not enforce integration—that change had to come from within. He distrusted organizations like the NAACP, believing its goals were worthy but could not be accomplished without a profound understanding of the nature of Southern society, an understanding that, again, meant only the South could redeem itself. The North and civil rights organizations could pressure the South to change—nothing wrong with that, he said—but at crucial points, he argued that the process of change had to be slowed so as to allow moderates like himself to do their work in gradually resolving racial problems.
If Faulkner did not dispute the need for public protests, their timing disturbed him. Radical action riled his sensibilities as he reacted to the disruption of the customary behavior of Southerners. He would have agreed with Kirk: “Sudden and slashing reforms are as perilous as sudden and slashing surgery.” Forcing racial equality would tear apart families—his own included—as he had foreseen in Absalom, Absalom! In that novel, Charles Bon, the product of miscegenation, is pictured as confronting his white father, Thomas Sutpen, who cannot find a place in his heart or on his property for his own son who is murdered by a half-brother, Henry Sutpen, even though Henry, by all accounts, loved Charles and yet could not break through the racial barriers between brothers. In all likelihood, as historian Joel Williamson revealed in his persuasive research, Faulkner’s great-grandfather had sired a family of black Falkners that his white progeny never acknowledged.
Faulkner’s brother, John, declared he would fight—even resorting to violence—to defend segregation. Faulkner, unable to confront his brother, resorted to drinking to calm his anxiety, but the result impaired his judgment. In a controversial interview, which Faulkner repudiated as soon as it was published, he declared that if it “came to fighting I’d fight for Mississippi against the United States even if it means going out into the street and shooting [n-words].” Faulkner’s own heart was in conflict with itself. Like Henry Sutpen, he knew better than to accept the injustice that denied the respect and love of one’s fellow man, and yet, like Henry as well, Faulkner could not reject his own society, however flawed and sinful. In some of his speeches, Faulkner spoke of how African Americans would have to prove themselves worthy of equality—an unsettling position to take since it seemed to ratify the encrusted belief, inculcated in his primary school education, that Reconstruction had proven African Americans were not ready for the full responsibility of citizenship, perpetuating a libel that Eric Foner and a generation of historians have refuted in their studies of Reconstruction governments and the positive role African Americans played in them.
Faulkner never enunciated a set of conservative principles, so that his responses to immediate events derived more from a sensibility than a reasoned argument. But it is not difficult to conclude, given Faulkner’s inclinations, that he harbored convictions similar to Kirk’s description of the conservative “affection for the proliferating intricacy of long-established social institutions and modes of life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism of radical systems. For the preservation of a healthy diversity in any civilization, there must survive orders and classes, differences in material condition, and many sorts of inequality.” Faulkner, an arch opponent of the New Deal, distrusted what he considered to be the leveling uniformity of Roosevelt’s policies.
In sum, Faulkner believed in the Kirkian conception of a voluntary community in which individuals could not be coerced to do right. To think otherwise, was to invite the collectivism of ideologies like Communism that Faulkner spent several years opposing in his State Department trips abroad. He believed in local control and showed what he meant by it in his script for Drums Along the Mohawk (1938), in which the colonists of upstate New York oppose not only British tyranny but also the dictates of centralization enforced by the Continental Congress.
Perhaps Kirk and Faulkner are nowhere nearer to one another in principle than in understanding society through the metaphor of the body, in which any change must harmonize with “the form and nature of that body.” When those two college roommates, Quentin, the Southerner, and Shreve, the Canadian, come together to figure out the tragedy of the Sutpen family, they are bound together, in the words of Faulkner’s narrator, by the umbilical of the Mississippi River, which runs through the continent and connects them like the story they have to tell, which is their bond that informs their understanding of how Henry Sutpen and Charles Bon, so clearly meant to love one another, are driven apart as the polar opposites of a society not yet able accept the color of all of its members. Faulkner worried that his society would enact that tragedy once again. There was no solution other than love—a word that Kirk does not employ in his ten principles of conservatism, but a word that hovers over his concluding belief in “people who recognize an enduring moral order in the universe, a constant human nature, and high duties toward the order spiritual and the order temporal.”
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