By SCOTT GRABER
It is Saturday, early, and I’m in Port Royal. This morning I’ve got the Wall Street Journal and its “Review” insert.
“Review” is something I normally read on Tuesday. But in these pandemic-delayed times I’m getting “Review” a full week after publication.
But it doesn’t matter. I’m happy to have today’s book reviews which include “Caste, the Origins of Our Discontent” and “The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War.”
Let’s start with William Faulkner and the question, “Should we consider the novelist in the current period of racial reckoning … or should we study solely the fiction he created, fiction in which characters both black and white illuminate race relations in this country, fiction that portrays these relations with more nuance than almost any comparable work from the first half of the 20th century?”
While Faulkner wrote with nuance and “genuinely detested racial inequality,” he believed in “gradualism” — that if desegregation happened too quickly it would bring social chaos. And it’s Faulkner’s gradualism that is clearly on the block in Isabelle Wilkerson’s book, “Caste, the Origins of Our Discontent.”
Wilkerson does not directly address “justice delayed is justice denied;” rather she dumps race-based injustice into a new category called “caste” — which she calls “a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis on ancestry.”
This “fixed and embedded ranking of human value” definition distinguishes caste from plain-vanilla discrimination based on physical fear or the loss of power. “Fixed and embedded” is a throwback to Nazi ideology, genetic inferiority and is a darker, more permanent kind of evilness.
Faulkner confronted slavery and discrimination by writing about it throughout his novels.
“Throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s, his novels and stories grapple more and more with the legacy of slavery and the reality of Jim Crow. Slavery is typically portrayed in Faulkner’s fiction as Greek tragedy, an agonized drama in which rape, incest and illegitimate offspring end up deforming and destroying a family.”
Here we have a man, a Southern icon, writing about the pernicious consequences of the slave trade and the people descendant of the slavers. Here we have written-down reflection, and soul-searing candor, coming out of Mississippi in the 1930s.
Of course, William Faulkner was flawed — as most of us are flawed — saying that if Federal troops were (again) sent into the South to enforce integration, “I’d fight for Mississippi against the United States even if it meant going out into the streets and shooting Negroes.”
So maybe William Faulkner fits into Wilkerson’s definition of caste — “a fixed and embedded ranking of human value” from which neither Faulkner nor any other white person can ever escape.
But Michael Gorra, the author of “Saddest Words,” thinks otherwise.
“In order to create convincing fiction, it was necessary for him to imaginatively become each of his characters, to enact what Henry James once called the novelist’s imperative of ‘trying to see the other side as well as his own, to feel what his adversary feels, and to present his view of the case.’ ”
Gorra believes that when writing, Faulkner “was able to suspend his prejudices and even to dramatize and to feel those prejudices as they impinged on others … he inhabited those beliefs by inhabiting another person. Then he saw them clearly, and in that act he became better than he was.”
For the last 50 years I have written newspaper columns and (largely) unread novels. But If one writes one also reads.
Chronic reading has become an addictive adjunct to my existence. In the course of that disorder — that pathological desire to read every serious novel, every biography and pamphlet straying into my line of vision — I’ve had to re-evaluate everything I believed to be true.
Much of that re-evaluation has had to do with slavery and the role that my own ancestors played in that practice. Re-thinking took me, with my wife Susan, across the South cataloging heirs property and to the loss of black farmland.
It has taken me to Ile de Goree in Senegal, the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum, the Legacy Museum in Montgomery and, most recently, to the “lynching memorial” in that same city.
All of which left me mumbling, “What the Hell were they thinking?”
Alas, this long, painful journey has not diminished my love for my southern mother, for my Florence County grandparents, or for the small, flawed geography of my birth — South Carolina.
Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at email@example.com.