In recent decades, the Great American Novel has come under attack. Once a prize expectation of the reading public and the aspiration of the American literary mind, the very idea of the Great American Novel now seems hopelessly naïve and unevolved and, like any fashion that’s become passé, a bit of an embarrassment. It may even be a misstatement to refer to the notion as under attack; it’s more like a fl y that’s been unceremoniously swatted away by the dismissive hand of literary discourse. The Great American Novel has alternately been described as a fantasy of the philologist’s cataloging mind, a tattered remnant of hierarchical thinking from a time when the notion of greatness itself went unquestioned, or an elusive siren that’s led many a novelist to wreck on the shores of their own oversized ambition. Perhaps most enduringly, in the great push to open the canon—that equally outdated thing!—to women, the Great American Novel has been castigated as a masculinist invention, one designed to celebrate the literary breadth and depth of the male mind at the expense of its female counterpart. Though, instead of shooting down great books written by men like so many clay pigeons, we might simply state the obvious: female subjugation and lack of opportunity have been cornerstones of world history and, there- fore, of literary history, and, as such, necessarily enabled male accomplishment. Altogether, the judgment seems nearly unanimous: the very (spurious) notion of the Great American Novel is either soon to be superannuated; or, it’s a literary dinosaur we can now confidently—even proudly—name as fully extinct. Amen.
Or perhaps not. Since it’s inarguable that literary excellence may come in many forms, from the so-called “small” domestic novel (small only to small intellects, we might object) to the mystery to the historical epic to the bildungsroman, etc., might there be a category for a text that, while intellectually acute, stylistically idiosyncratic, and emotionally profound like any other great novel, also explores an aspect of American life with such unmistakable brilliance and force that we can barely keep from saying that this—this—is not just a great novel, but a Great American Novel? In other words, is a novel like Moby-Dick simply an excellent book, or does it signify a reality both universal and distinctly—perhaps even incontrovertibly—at the heart of the collective American experience, if such a thing can be said to exist? Or what of the sprawling and highly politicized Uncle Tom’s Cabin, easily the most influential piece of fiction in American history, made so by one writer’s genius for capturing the nation’s moral anxiety? What of Invisible Man, with its chaotic portrait of the midcentury black consciousness, a book that brilliantly encapsulated the upheavals of our last century? Or Blood Meridian, a towering achievement of American history wedded to aestheticization? Or Infinite Jest? Or Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? Or Light in August?
If these books are indeed Great American Novels—a distinct category, a variant of excellence—they are generally big in every way. Rarely neat and carefully ordered, they are neither quickly read nor readily comprehended in their full complexity. They don’t lend themselves to facile exegesis. Instead, they often manifest as overabundant, and just as an over- rich meal can overwhelm or even sicken the stomach, so can these novels overwhelm even the most generous reader: they are intellectually ambitious but imperfect, expansive in their vision, often shocking with their unwelcome insights and the intensity of their language. These novels are storehouses of information regarding the human in a specifically American context, but not in the fulsomely empty manner of so many contemporary novels, where linguistic abundance is too often a reflection of authorial egotism while purporting to be a commentary on culture. In many great novels, the multifarious content necessitates a certain largesse of form. And these novels bear something else in common, something intangible and less easily identifiable than a shared culture: a wildness, even madness, which is displayed when a magisterial creative force finally finds a palette broad enough for its outpourings. As a result, these works can seem almost unmanageable. The critic Harold Bloom famously required multiple readings to make it through the violence of Blood Meridian. And little wonder that a novel of mad desperation such as Moby-Dick might wait seventy years for an appreciative audience; many of Melville’s critics considered this masterwork—perhaps the greatest American novel yet written—to be the scribblings of an insane man. Of course, it’s become a trope of literary biography that great writers must often wait for their readership. Faulkner himself enjoyed little popularity and almost no sales until he published Sanctuary, his sixth novel. When The Portable Faulkner was released in 1946, many of his works were out of print. In great counter- distinction to his current reputation as one of the finest novelists and prose stylists of the twentieth century, he toiled much of his life in obscurity.
Light in August, published in 1932, is Faulkner’s Great American Novel. It was the seventh of what would be 19 novels, an output that was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1949 and that, to borrow a hackneyed but apt phrase, represents nothing less than an embarrassment of riches. A writer of prodigious powers, Faulkner bequeathed to readers a rich fictional panoply of complex characters, incisive social commentary, formal ingenuity, and metaphorical depth. His oeuvre displays an unsentimental compassion, a tragedian’s unblinking vision, and an almost preternatural insight into human motivation and desire. He left behind two highly influential masterpieces of modernist fiction: The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying, works that, along with other modernist texts, radically altered conceptions of narrative linearity and the formal depiction of consciousness. Absalom, Absalom!, often mentioned in the same breath, is celebrated by many as his greatest, most fully realized novel, one of tremendous breadth and a radical consistency of aesthetics. But it is the less mannered Light in August, sometimes overlooked in discussions of his more overtly modernist works, that draws all of Faulkner’s familiar preoccupations—determinism vs. free will, the partially Reconstructed South, religiosity, the draw of female sexuality, and the power of the living past—around one overriding, ineradicably American concern: race.
Light in August is the story of Joe Christmas, a man of indeterminate race who believes himself to be black despite appearing white. Because the exact details of his birth are lost to history and retold vaguely through unreliable narrators, we know only slightly more than Christmas does: he might be part black, he might be Mexican, he might be white. This unknowing, this lack of definition, forms the central irony of the book and mirrors perfectly the central irony of the American experience: we are a nation built upon, devoted to, and defined by constructed racial categories that do not—scientifically speaking—exist. These highly mutable categories were designed to establish clear demarcations between populations, but the supposed distinctions are for the most part superficial and illusory. Illusion, rendered into a kind of fact by action, has provided us with centuries of meaning.
So a story prefigures Light in August, just as an ancestor precedes a descendant. It’s a story that begins with the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in the New World in 15021, a story that continues with the importation into the Americas of between 11 and 15 million captives via the Middle Passage, the enslavement of their descendants, the denial of all essential human rights, then the abandonment of an entire people after sudden emancipation, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and other terror groups, the denial of suffrage, and the long struggle through the twentieth century toward a recognizable equality in social, educational, and political spheres. The story is long and violent and composed of so many competing strands that our national history has fairly begged for unifying narratives on race. That so many of our greatest American books have attended to this complicated ethnological history seems right, even necessary, and causes the assertions of new historicism to ring true: our peculiar history not only laid the groundwork for our literature, but demanded it. A book like Light in August is an answer to a call.
Though the opening pages concern the intrepid Lena Grove, the novel belongs to Joe Christmas, and his narrative begins with a conflagration: a local house is burning to the ground. As the reader soon learns, the outsider Christmas has both set the house afire and murdered its reclusive resident, Joanna Burden. We are quickly introduced to a broad cast of characters including the somewhat pitiable Byron Bunch; the Reverend Gail Hightower, haunted by his family’s Confederate past; and the elusive, impenetrable Christmas. These characters—some picaresque, some disturbing or tragic, some like Greek furies refashioned over skin and bone in the South—are not bound so much by family ties as in so many Faulkner novels, but by the social realities created by race in the South.
Once we have seen the criminal work of the adult Joe Christmas, the reader is ushered back in time to see him as a youth, to witness how—as Wordsworth put it—“the child is father of the man.” An orphan, Christmas has been abandoned on the doorstep of a home for white children due to his supposed blackness. Bearing unintentional witness to a nurse’s sexual peccadilloes, which he is far too young to understand, his racial status is then made public and he is soon placed for adoption with a white couple. Thus the stage is set for the twice- uprooted young boy to confl ate his alienation, loss, and physical instability with licentious female sexuality and his alleged racial identity.
But the child soon discovers this new home is no haven. He is introduced to the stiff American cocktail of religion and violence. In a familiar pattern of indoctrination, his adoptive father strives to mold the boy to the couple’s Episcopalianism, characterized in this case by stricture, self- denial, and brutality. Mirroring a social reality where blackness is conflated animalism, the text reveals again and again how Christmas is beaten like an animal; thus the rod spoils the child and he learns that his “flesh is a cage.” His nascent sexuality, struggling to develop alongside this cruelty, becomes fused with violence, and his first erotic encounter with a female is curtailed by an eruption of long suppressed fury. Once an abandoned child, he is now quickly transforming into a violent young adult. If we can think of Christmas as a gun, then female sexuality and religion together form his trigger.
By the time Christmas wanders into Yoknapatawpha County at the age of 33, his Christological year, his past is littered with violent, failed relationships and years of itinerancy, during which he has moved like a shadow around the country, finding no respite in the North or the South. When he arrives at the Burden house, “a place of some pretensions,” inhabited by the sole surviving member of a long line of race activists, he enters as a thief, stealing his dinner. When Joanna Burden discovers him in her family home, she is cold, unafraid, and wholly unlike any woman he has known. In due course, they become lovers.
The chapters depicting their highly charged relationship constitute the core of the novel. Joanna, whose father and brother were murdered for supporting African- American suffrage, has lived for years in seclusion and celibacy. But now her frigid stoicism quickly devolves into a kind of nymphomania. Though she orchestrates their sexually transgressive trysts, Christmas willingly acts the part of violent lover. But he is a lover only and never to be confused with a husband: he takes up residence in one of the old slave cabins. When the temperature of their erotic heat inevitably cools, Joanna’s madness becomes evident and she gradually retreats into celibacy, this time augmented by austere religiosity, that old specter returned to haunt Christmas’s life once again. This shift from eroticism to fanaticism should not be mistaken for a transmutation, but a pendulum swinging between different but frightfully complementary extremes. We can recognize this in our national character, which history has revealed to us again and again: religious fundamentalism always shows its shadow, in licentiousness and sexual excess. An intolerance and terror of the latter necessitates the initial psychic retreat to the former.
As the narrative advances inexorably toward the crime, these two characters shift to occupy polarities. Joanna, now sexually frigid, performs a white form of abuse: without regard for his individuality, she attempts to “uplift” Joe Christmas and mold him into a “good Negro”; no longer recognizing his full humanity, she is blinded by a preoccupation with the general and can no longer recognize his particularity. In response, the enraged Christmas becomes what society has determined he shall become: the immoral, murderous, animalistic black man. When Joanna demands he pray with her and even pulls a gun from her robe, he murders her in her bedroom. In an especially gruesome act, he almost severs her head. The decapitation makes manifest the brutal psychic divides suffered by both Joanna and Joe, whose nearly identical names express their fundamental similarity: her self- abnegating religiosity housed uncomfortably in a nymphomaniacal body, and his forced relegation to a black body, a state that in America meant to be sexualized, utilized, demonized, and denied his intellectual potential. When he kills her, he is both punishing her and all previous white transgressors against his humanity, and he’s killing his determined self.
The murder complete, he then pursues his own early death, an event that has felt textually inevitable. In scenes that call to mind the flight of slaves out of the antebellum South, Christmas runs from the Burden house, but he doesn’t go very far. In fact, he doesn’t even leave the county and is captured in a neighboring town. Now the town of Jefferson is out to lynch him, and his death is surely only a matter of time. Christmas executes another escape, but it’s an almost half- hearted attempt at freedom, as if he were chasing an American chimera that he had not ever been foolish enough to really believe in.
He finds himself at the Reverend Hightower’s house in one final and futile attempt to fi nd in religion what ought to be there—a haven for the suffering and the downtrodden. But when Hightower attempts to produce a false alibi for Christmas, which might render him innocent in the town’s eyes, it is too little too late. Hightower, like many of Faulkner’s characters, has spent his life living in the past, in the Old South of his forefathers; his life was forestalled before he was even born, and his ancestors are more alive than he is. As a result, his religion is now ineffectual and he is spiritually impotent. He cannot save Christmas, who is killed in the kitchen of his home, the one place where—for so many generations—black slaves or servants could reliably be found in white homes.
In one sickening final detail, Joe Christmas is castrated even before he is dead, his blood soaking his attackers. Still conscious, Christmas witnesses this final indignity, forced upon him by a culture that so hates and fears black male sexuality that it literally strives to carve it out of the black body. The blood, which jets from Christmas’s violated body, is not his alone; it is collective.
In these final moments of Joe Christmas’s life, the novel presses on the reader with almost unbearable force; the fear is palpable, the violence sickening, and the message clear. The novel’s readers, both black and white, are asked to look into a reflecting pool that reveals both themselves and the America they have inherited. They are never told to change by a severe didacticism. Rather, they are prompted to change by something much more powerful: their own emotional response.
The novel’s emotional immediacy, moral gravity, and linguistic power remain undiminished after eighty years, all contributing to its enormous influence. The impact has rippled down through three generations, leaving marks on books as diverse as Gilead, Outer Dark, Invisible Man, and Beloved, proving, as Cormac McCarthy once said: “The ugly fact is books are made out of books. … The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.” This long line of influence may, in fact, become the determining factor of a particular kind of greatness in American letters; a book like Light in August becomes so simultaneously reflective of and embedded in the American literary consciousness that the two begin to resemble each other and, indeed, become each other. Great American Novels become both an indispensable part of understanding aspects of the American experience and a part of the American experience itself. One reads Huck Finn to understand America, and when one strives to understand America, one reads Huck Finn. As with Huck Finn, so with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, so with Invisible Man, and so with Light in August.
Yet each generation offers up only so many great writers. Their outpourings may be few and far between and, in the silence, we hear conflicting reports that while the world is increasingly globalized, our individual consciousness is splintered by strange new media, rendering us unable to believe in greatness, recognize it, or even define it. Our country is apparently now too diverse and divided to be harnessed by one identity or one great book, as if the country weren’t always—even in its colonial days—a mad constellation of differences unified just barely by a handful of common concerns. In this present social reality, can the Great American Novel survive? Or has it been killed by the very thing it seeks to explore, the Great American Experiment? If it is alive, is it even relevant or, to borrow a phrase from Eliot, is it a patient “etherized upon a table”? It’s easy to lose hope. In a literary landscape of wildly praised yet mediocre novels, even the most careful readers might toss up their hands in exasperation. At any given time, pleasant but callow books rule the day and most certainly the bestseller lists. For all of our chatter about innovation and harried forward motion, when it comes to art, our postmillennial culture too often celebrates the torpid and the trite. A book like Light in August—which relentlessly explores the full complexity of the human and plunges us into the tangled thick of the language, both without regard for consequences— appears so rarely that its near cousin, the good but not great novel, threatens to supplant it entirely and elide the necessary distinction. Perhaps in a culture hell-bent on instant gratification (and its literary manifestation, the easily digested book), greatness won’t survive its own rarity.
Yet novelists—those dogged practitioners of a supposedly dying art—keep coming. And each one emerges, not fully formed from the forehead of Zeus, but as an idiosyncratic, ever inchoate consciousness flooded by the joys and pains of lived experience, bolstered by a strong native intelligence and empathy, by an insatiable drive for communication, by the prepotent great books, and by a cultural force as unavoidable as it is irreducible: our living history. Faulkner’s most famous quote is inescapable here: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Likewise, the Great American Novel isn’t dead and cannot die because, as long as young writers read Invisible Man or Uncle Tom’s Cabin, they will—by dint of their nature and the innervating effect of greatness itself—feel compelled to respond both to the book and to its foundational, historical causes. The agony of a character like Joe Christmas is simultaneously so culturally grounded and so brilliantly depicted that it demands a response from an artist, just as history demanded the art in the fi rst place. The books of our best writers live on, in part, because of this artistic response, a process that establishes the initial text as ever more foundational and canonical. In this way, previous generations refuse to die; they’re always speaking on the page. “People are an indestructible element,” is how Faulkner expressed it, but he might as well have said books, because books are the physical embodiment of human consciousness. For the artist encountering the masterpieces of human consciousness, the process is almost biological: books become the bones of writers, their hair, their skin, their blood, their organs. The artist responds as passionately to art as a lover responds to a kiss. The drive to create is no less powerful than the need to eat or reproduce. For the artist it is a biological imperative.
So is the Great American Novel dead? Well, our country isn’t dead. And furthermore, tragedy isn’t dead. Hilarity isn’t dead, not even wounded. Nor is birth, marriage, sex, crime, hate, madness, prayer, nor our impossibly powerful language, with all its various and productive offshoots—nor, God ever forbid it, our living inheritance, which is American history itself. So, with all the optimism that, as Americans, has alternately been our folly, our weapon, and our hope, I say: there’s life in us yet. There are more great, distinctly American novels yet to come.