Why Faulkner's 'Absalom, Absalom' is a challenging must-read for Southerners
When Salvation South editor Chuck Reece was 19, he encountered what many people say is the greatest Southern novel ever written — William Faulkner’s "Absalom, Absalom!" The book is a grueling test for even the most dedicated reader, but in this week’s commentary Chuck says it is still worth your time.
I first read Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner in a sophomore Southern Lit class. My professor said it was “The Great Southern Novel,” but at first, it bamboozled me. The opening sentence is 122 words long, with nary a comma. Let me read it to you:
“From a little after two o’clock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that — a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers…”
No! I won’t make you listen to the whole thing. You can — and should — read it for yourself.
Miss Rosa Coldfield, the old lady in that hot, weary, dead room, is talking to a young Mississippian named Quentin Compson, who will soon depart for Massachusetts and Harvard University. She hopes Quentin will someday write the story of her violent brother-in-law — a man she hated, a man she called a “demon.” And his is a story of an antebellum South that Quentin was, in Miss Coldfield’s words, “fortunate enough to escape.”
When Quentin arrives at Harvard, he tells this tale of the twisted Old South to his roommate Shreve, who is from Canada. And on page 174, Shreve says to Quentin something that captures the very essence of every Southerner’s reckoning with our region’s dark past:
“Tell about the South. What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all.”
Arguably, that is the same question all Southern writers — maybe even just Southerners in general — have asked themselves for more than a century.
Now, I cannot explain in the short time I have here why I believe every Southerner should read Absalom, Absalom! I’ll just say that I’ve spent many years reading and studying stories from and about the South, and I still, even four decades later, have never read a book that dives so unflinchingly into the dark heart of this region’s unrighteous history. Absalom, Absalom!, if you have never read it, will certainly test your patience. But it’ll reward it, too.
You can always read a bunch of Southern stories at SalvationSouth.com.
Salvation South editor Chuck Reece comments on Southern culture and values in a weekly segment that airs Fridays at 7:45 a.m. during Morning Edition and 4:44 p.m. during All Things Considered on GPB Radio. You can also find them here at GPB.org/Salvation-South and please download and subscribe on your favorite podcast platform as well.