Prospero in Yoknapatawpha
Time, June 8, 1962


by William Faulkner
305 pp; Random House; $4.95.

ON THE MYTHICAL ISLAND of Shakespeare's Tempest, the forces of human bestiality, which raged so freely in his earlier tragedies, are held peacefully in check by the benign white magic of Prospero. Now, in Yoknapatawpha County, an equally mythical but heretofore relentlessly dark and bloody portion of Mississippi, a similarly pacific sea change has taken place. Evil still exists there, but it makes no serious headway. No one is raped. No one is lynched. No one is murdered.

In The Reivers* footnote William Faulkner plays a mellowed Prospero and proves an engaging fellow. Like an old man gossiping on the back stoop, he delights in sentimental recollection, revels in his role as a teller of tall tales, at which only Mark Twain is his equal. Above all, Faulkner carries on the flagrant, 30-year love affair he has had with Yoknapatawpha County and its ornery, enduring and, until now, doom-ridden people.

The time is 1905, and the principal character in the story is a Winton Flyer, one of the first automobiles ever seen in Yoknapatawpha County. Its owner is old Lucius ("Boss") Priest, a member of the cadet branch of the county's first families (the Edmondses and McCaslins), but its proud chauffeur is Boon Hogganbeck, the childlike, "tough, faithful, brave and completely unreliable" part Indian who be came famous in The Bear for not being able to hit anything with a shotgun, rifle or weapon of any kind.

Boon yearns after the car with the innocent lust of man for machine. Somehow enlisting the help of Boss Priest's grandson, young Lucius, Boon "borrows" the car. Twenty-three and a half hours later—a record for the 80 miles of swamp road they heroically cover—Boon and Lucius reach Memphis. Just four days after that, they are back home in Jefferson again. In a series of outlandishly comic episodes, they have somehow lost the car and won it back, found a stolen horse and raced it, spent an innocent night in a Memphis bordello run by young Miss Reba, the madam who, some 25 years later (Yoknapatawpha time), was to figure in the downfall of Temple Drake in Sanctuary.

A bittersweet Civil War. "There is no such thing as was," Faulkner once said, and in his county—partly because it cannot let go of the nostalgic, bittersweet memory of the Civil War, partly because Faulkner has arranged it—everything that has happened for nearly a hundred years exists in an instantaneous, perpetual, heroic present. Faulkner does not so much invent as he seems to recollect his action and anecdote from an existing, constantly growing body of lore. The Reivers is no exception. The outrageous doings of Boon and Lucius in 1905 are told, in 1962, by Lucius to his grandson. Mostly, Lucius remembers things as the eleven-year-old boy he was when they happened. But on occasion, usually to compare the present unfavorably with the past, he speaks with the knowledge of what has been going on in the U.S. and the county up till today. In almost the same breath, he refers to the rush of automobiles that have all but swamped modern-day Yoknapatawpha, and to the Gayoso Hotel in Memphis where he always stayed because, in 1864, an ancestor rode into the lobby trying to lay hands on a Yankee general.

"Nothing is ever forgotten,'' Lucius' own grandfather tells him at the end of the story. "Nothing is ever lost. It's too valuable."

"Then what can I do?" asks the boy, who has been shaken by his escapade.

"Live with it," Grandfather said.

Mules & Liberty. Readers may not want to live with quite so much of it as Faulkner does. But the continual digression and anecdote that embroider the story are more than decoration. They are part of a way of life, and a way of seeing life, and a system of values that Faulkner has celebrated for years. Mules are among the most intelligent animals, he explains, because intelligence "is the ability to cope with environment: which means to accept environment yet still retain at least something of personal liberty."

The Tempest is not King Lear. The Reivers is not The Sound and the Fury. Critics hot for pessimistic reality may find this autumnal story a retreat into anecdotal escapism. More important, readers who know the body of Faulkner's work will miss, as they have in much of his recent writing, the matchless (even when flawed by excess), surging power of his earlier and darker creations. Occasionally the book falls into something close to pure sentimentality. But what the heart holds, Faulkner once wrote, becomes the truth. Faulkner's heart has held Yoknapatawpha County, its gentleness and comedy as well as its terror, for more than a generation. Whatever else it may be, The Reivers is a work of love.



*A semi-archaic Scottish word, reiver, meaning plunderer, raider, marauder.  back to text