Archive for February, 2012


February 25, 2012


naggin little
nibblin at my day
left a hole
that slit my soul
and drained my
hope away

heaven knows
joy comes and goes
who could tell me why?
heaven knows
the river flows
and sometimes
it ebbs dry

day by day
waves slap shore
earth spins round the sun
fill your cup
when joy erupts
soon it will
be gone

Richard W. Bray

William Faulkner and the English Language

February 11, 2012

William Faulkner

(Below are notes from a presentation I gave in graduate school.)

Question: Some people say they can’t understand your writing, even when they’ve read it two or three times. What approach would you suggest for them?

Faulkner: Read it four times.

—Interview with Jean Stein vanden Heuvel 1955 (Meriwether 250)

William Faulkner’s flamboyant use of language is a widely-discussed topic which includes a variety of subjects, including his use of part of speech, punctuation, long sentences, stream of consciousness, redundancy, visual imagery, metaphors, dialect, word clusters, coinages, paradox and poetics (particularly meter).

This presentation will cover some of these topics, particularly

1. Faulkner’s often playful use of parts of speech
2. The significance of sentence structure (in a historical perspective)
3. Word clusters (including redundancy)
4. Coinages (particularly with prefixes and suffixes)

Faulkner’s style is still controversial. Even those who acknowledge his greatness are often annoyed by it. According to Warren Beck:

No other contemporary American novelist of comparable stature has been as frequently or severely criticized for his style as William Faulkner. Yet he is a brilliantly original and versatile stylist. The condemnations of his way of writing have been in part just; all but the most idolatrous of Faulkner’s admirers must have wished he had blotted a thousand infelicities (142).

Placed in its historical context, Faulkner’s style can be seen as a stark contrast to the “muscular” or “masculine” style of prose utilized by many of his contemporaries, particularly Hemingway, Stevens and Cummings. During the fist part of the twentieth century, a lean style (labelled nominalism by Panthea Reid Broughton) was hailed for its commitment to Truth

Wallace Stevens’ dictum: Not Ideas about the Thing, but the Thing Itself

And Cummings and his entire generation seem to have developed an almost paranoid fear of the abstract phrase. (Broughton 12)

Earnest Hemingway, Faulkner’s obvious rival, argued that writing should strip the language clean, lay it bare down to the bone. (Broughton 14)

But nomalism has its limitations. According to Broughton,

Nominalism is reductionist first of all because it ignores the complexity of reality, the evasiveness of truth. It is grounded in the assumption that truth objectively knowable, that perception is entirely accurate (16).

Faulkner took the opposite approach. Because words are so inadequate to capture reality, Faulkner piles words upon words in order to depict a variety of images and ideas which might at least add up to a fragmented picture of reality.

Faulkner on Hemingway:

I thought that he found out early what he could do and he stayed inside of that. He never did try to get outside the boundary of what he really could do and risk failure. He did what he could do marvelously well, first rate, but to me that is not success but failure….failure to me is the best to try something you can’t do, because it’s too much (to hope for) but still try and fail, then try it again. That to me is success (Meriwether 88).

And, He did it fine, but he didn’t try for the impossible. (Slatoff 185)

So we can begin to understand the method in Faulkner’s madness by appreciating that he was trying for the impossible. He did this by experimenting with language and the convention of the novel in a variety of ways. One method was the use of paradox in the form of oxymoron. According to Walter J. Slatoff

The oxymoron, on the one hand, achieves a kind of order, definiteness, and coherence by virtue of the clear antithesis it involves. On the other, it moves towards disorder and incoherence by virtue of its qualities of irresolution and self-contradiction….Traditionally it has often been used to reflect desperately divided states of mind (Slatoff 177)

So Faulkner attempts to achieve clarity by means of depicting confusion. (That’s a paradox.)

Hightower’s face is at once gaunt and flabby
the church has a stern and formal fury
Singing from a church is a sound at once austere and rich, abject and proud
Joe Christmas’ feet move in a deliberate random manner
Armstid’s eye’s at once vague and intense
Abe Snopes’ homestead is a cluttered isolation
Eula Varner seems to exist in a teeming vacuum
Houston and the girl he is to marry: Up to this point their struggle, or all its deadly seriousness…had retained something of childhood, something both illogical and consistent, both reasonable and bizarre

Faulkner’s use of redundancy to clarify meaning is a practice which Edwin R. Hunter has labeled “word hunting.” This involves the author searching for the appropriate word not only in his mind, but on the page as well. Hunter has described eight different types of “word hunting” in the work of Faulkner. (130-132)

1. Questions the exactness of a word.
2. Comments openly about the rightness of a word.
3. Searches for a word only to come back to original.
4. Seeks openly for a word.
5. Records progress, step by step.
6. Corrects word on the spot.
7. Acquiesces in inexact word.
8. Sets down and repeats in.

Faulkner also uses the redundancy of adjective clusters to create a kind of depth in his depiction of reality. Hunter has painstakingly discovered 1416 examples of three-, four-, five-, six-, seven-, eight-, nine-, ten-, and even a thirteen-adjective clusters. (See chart).

Examples: (Hunter 136-139)

Three Adjectives–1009 examples
‘Pa stands over the bed, dangle-armed, humped, motionless
she advanced in identical and anonymous and deliberate wagons…
‘Houston, followed by the big, quiet regal dog’

Four-Adjectives –268 examples
the wealcolored, the strong pallid, Iowacorncolored hair
In the glare its eyes roll with soft, fleet, wild opaline fire

Five-adjective–84 (136)
the last old sapless indomitable unavanquished widow or maid had died’
the big rambling multigalleried multistoried steamboat-gothic hotel

Six-adjective–30 examples (136-7)
a lean, loose-jointed, cotton-socked, shrew, ruthless old man
with his little high hard round intractable canon-ball head

Seven-adjective–16 examples (137)
a brawling lean fierce mangy durable imperishable old lion

Eight-adjective–4 examples (137-8)
the youth fleeing, the forsaken aging yet indomitable betrothed perusing, abject, constant, undismayed, undeflectable, terrifying not in effect but in fidelity
“These may be nine or or even ten adjective clusters. One cannot be sure.”

Nine or more adjective
he approached, chop-striding, bull-chested, virile, in appearance impervious and indestructible, starred and exalted and, within this particular eye-range of Earth, supreme and omnipotent still

Faulkner also utilizes redundancy through a process which Hunter calls “Repeated Cluster Patterns” (139-40).


a bell tinkled…high and clear and small

a belltinkled…to make that clear small sound

The little bell tinkled once, faint and clear and invisible

She just looked at me, serene and secret and chewing

She looked at me, chewing, her eyes black and unwinking and friendly

She stood in the road…her eyes still and black and unwinking

She looked at me, black and secret and friendly

We see a good indication of Faulkner’s playfulness in his uncommon use of parts of speech. One example of this is what Hunter calls Adjective Clusters.

Stem Adverb Clusters (Hunter 152)

his uncle told it, rapid and condensed and succinct
He shook hands with him, Charles, quick and brief and hard too

-ly-ended Adverb Clusters (Hunter 152)

he was mentally and spiritually, and with only an occasional aberration, physically faithful to her
the group commander was listening…quietly and courteously and inattentively

Faulkner’s coinages are also often amusing and playful. One way he did this was by creating negatives by adding prefixes and suffixes to a variety of words. (Hunter 176-8)

Some examples of Faulkner’s wordplay from The Sound and The Fury

Parts of speech
Jason snuffled (68)

wind chill and raw (290)

anticked (297)

he loaded himself mountainously (268)

Coinages via prefixes and suffixes:

unimpatient (87)

peacefullest (174)

unsecret (177)

unhurriedly (288)

unmindful (297)

paintless (299)


clairvoyant yet obtuse (280)


Maybe William Faulkner was greatest American novelist of the twentieth century; maybe he was an unreadable buffoon. What cannot be argued is that he continues to exert a tremendous influence upon the conventions of modern fiction.


Beck, Warren. William Faulkner’s Style, William Faulkner: Three Decades of Criticism

Ed. Frederick J. Hoffman and Olga W. Vickery. Lansing: Michigan State UP, 1960.

Broughton, Panthea Reid. William Faulkner: The Abstract and the Actual. Baton Rouge:

Louisiana State UP, 1974.

Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury New York: Random House, 1990.

Hunter, Edwin R. William Faulkner: Narrative Practice and Prose Style. Washington,

DC: Windhover Press, 1973.

Meriwether, James B. and Michael Millgate. Lion in the Garden: Interviews with

William Faulkner, 1926-1962. New York: Random House, 1962.

Slatoff, Walter J. “The Edge of Order: The Pattern of Faulkner’s Rhetoric.” William

Faulkner: Three Decades of Criticism Ed. Frederick J. Hoffman and Olga W.

Vickery. Lansing: Michigan State UP, 1960.

Richard W. Bray