William Faulkner and BURNAWAY: Three Years of Inspiration

William Faulkner wrote many of his stories on this Underwood Universal Portable typewriter, also known as the "Faulkner Portable," which still can be viewed at Rowan Oak, Faulkner's home in Oxford, Mississippi. Photo by Gary Bridgman, southsideartgallery.com.

so vast, so limitless in capacity is man’s imagination to disperse and burn away the rubble dross of fact and probability, leaving only truth and dream
— William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

Grammar purists may quibble with much of William Faulkner’s writing. Tightly composed and editorially pruned it is not. It is, however, undeniably evocative. BURNAWAY celebrated its third birthday on October 6, 2011. Since birthdays are an opportunity for reflection as well as celebration, I took the opportunity to write down some reflections about Faulkner’s work and BURNAWAY’s relationship to the quote from which it derives its name.

BURNAWAY is a unique space: it creates a forum for a community to collaborate in the creation of meaning. We are a team of writers who care deeply about the arts, believe in the power of the written word, and are dedicated to creating and sustaining a discourse about the arts in Atlanta. BURNAWAY is inclusive, accessible to anyone, anywhere, for free.

William Faulkner is best known for his creation of the mythical Yoknapatawpha County, the setting of Requiem for a Nun, As I Lay Dying, and The Sound and the Fury. Faulkner’s writing is idiosyncratic, modernist, experimental. His language is deeply invested with a sense of place, but his legacy has been of global importance; the “Southernness” of Faulkner’s words and characters have not made his books any less universally appealing, or impactful. His novels and short stories hold up a mirror to the South, both reflecting it and creating it anew. His writing is mired in the South of the first half of the twentieth century, but his characters and narratives exist in many ways out of time.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

This sense of timelessness, or at least of time moving in a nonlinear fashion, is a common stereotype of the South. Atlanta’s own crest, which bears the phoenix and the Latin word resurgens, is a potent symbolic gesture towards this cyclical time. What happens down here returns, again and again, reborn from the ashes.

As both a Southern publication and a consciously contemporary one, BURNAWAY is in a unique position. Faulkner is responsible for many perceptions and stereotypes surrounding the South. To some extent, BURNAWAY is involved in a similar process: engendering a sense of place by portraying and analyzing local culture. We facilitate the act of creating and inspire others in their search for “truth and dream.” But the publication also sits in somewhat uneasy territory, torn between Faulkner’s classic South and a more contemporary, innovative South that BURNAWAY is actively involved in producing.

The quote from Requiem for a Nun appears in a paragraph addressed to a “you”—“yourself the stranger, the outlander with a B.A. or (perhaps even) M.A. from Harvard or Northwestern or Stanford”—who is passing through Faulkner’s mythical town of Jefferson on the way to somewhere else, accidently waylaid in the Southern brambles of Mississippi. Invited into the kitchen of a local who, it is suggested, hasn’t left the county more than twice, “you,” the tourist and outsider, find yourself imagining the shape-shifting of an old woman. As the surreal stream-of-consciousness narration continues, the woman slips into the skins of the “demon-nun, empress, siren, Erinys.” In that kitchen, where you are out of place, this woman is out of time, and Faulkner’s text guides you through visions of her transforming into infinite embodiments of an archetype. She appears as a timeless entity. Equally, here in Jefferson, time becomes fluid, to the point that there “is no time: no space, no distance: a fragile and workless scratching almost depthless in a sheet of old barely transparent glass ….”

Image courtesy amazon.com.

Since moving to Atlanta after several years living and traveling in Europe, I have reflected on this region’s relationship to history a great deal. The passage of time is a theme that, as a stranger and outlander, seems integral to Southern identity.

BURNAWAY’s Southernness is an important element of what defines it as an organization, just as Faulkner’s Southernness sets him apart from other American writers. In Faulkner’s works, this sense of place is inextricably associated with a timelessness that separates the South, and especially his invented Yoknapatawpha County, from the rest of the world.

The narrative of Requiem for a Nun moves backward and forward through time, and each chapter begins with long rambling histories of the town’s forefathers, its architecture, and the people who have been dispossessed to make way for “settlement.” The story begins at the courthouse, offering a history of  Jefferson’s inception, then cuts away to a drama-like script set in “present-day” Jefferson, before sliding intermittently back to history. There are the inevitable references to the Civil War, but these bleed into the narrative as just another moment in the “fragile and workless scratching” that constitutes history for Faulkner. Even the most harrowing and momentous events slide into the past, present, and future without any clear distinction or separation from each other. They could all have happened 200 years ago, or yesterday afternoon.

In a testament to the essential timelessness of Faulkner’s material, the basic plot narrative of Requiem for a Nun is echoed in current events such as Georgia’s recent execution of Troy Davis. The novel centers around the trial of a black woman sentenced to death for the murder of a white child. There are significant questions about her guilt, and her lawyer seeks a last-minute intervention with the governor to stay the execution.  And, like Troy Davis, Nancy Mannigoe is put to death, despite serious, ongoing doubts about her guilt. Faulkner structures Requiem for a Nun around the architecture of the jail and the courthouse; the history of Jefferson is given as a history of these buildings, their builders and the whimsical alterations they undergo. These structures, which serve to create a civil society, come into being through a series of bumbles and miscommunications, pointless moves, and bizarre bureaucratic decisions. They are flawed structures, symbols of a flawed system that functions no better in Yoknapatawpha than it does in today’s society.

Faulkner’s depiction of a timeless South is by no means divorced from the reality of time as it’s experienced in the South. Atlanta’s crest, the phoenix, bears the motto resurgens, presumably referring to Atlanta’s rebuilding after the Civil War. It also denotes Atlanta’s many transformations from its beginnings as a railroad crossing, then a small settlement, then a city, then a major city. Like the woman in the kitchen in Jefferson, Atlanta keeps rising and shape-shifting, from a back-woods outpost, to a decimated post-war city, to a hotbed of civil rights activism, to the hip-hop capital of the world. The phoenix is constantly reborn, and Atlanta keeps trying on new faces. In many of Faulkner’s novels, time shifts seamlessly from the early nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. In a similar way, Atlanta’s identity is constantly re-created in the backwards-looking compulsion to move forward. Rise, but rise again, remembering the other times we have risen.

This screenshot captures BURNAWAY on the day of its launch, October 6, 2008.

In an article intended to celebrate the third birthday of BURNAWAY, a discussion of time is obviously not entirely innocent. Faulkner’s works contain many of the usual stereotypes associated with the South, some of which Faulkner helped to create and crystallize. Many outsiders come to the South expecting to see Spanish moss, deathly quiet cul-de-sacs, and ghosts of the Civil War sipping bourbon on the porches of old plantations. Faulkner teaches them to expect no boundaries between these ancient vistas and the contemporary spectacle of modern society.

BURNAWAY is a Southern publication, but one that strives to cover the most recent events, happenings, ideas, memes, and debates.  It is hard to reconcile the notion of “cutting-edge” with sleepy Southern timelessness. Which is why, on BURNAWAY’s third birthday, I think it is helpful to look back and revisit Faulkner, whose writing served as an early inspiration for this publication. Rather than looking to the past and embracing the nostalgia of the Southern Gothic aesthetic, BURNAWAY is constantly in flux, providing a space to discuss the most recent events and looking forward to keep readers posted about events to come.

Time has changed since Faulkner penned Requiem for a Nun. BURNAWAY’s presence on the web allows instant, unlimited access to art reviews, which can be written and published as quickly as a few hours or days after an event. The internet is a space where history is effaced by sheer dint of the enormity of information available. Timelessness is different now. BURNAWAY serves to redefine and create a new version of the Southern United States.

For Atlanta, each time the fire gives birth to a new phoenix, it burns away the “rubble dross” of accumulated history and underbrush, making space for truth and dream. This is the inspiration we have taken from Faulkner: BURNAWAY is a place to create meaning, to facilitate flights of imagination, to aid and abet transgressions of fact and probability, and to help everyone become coconspirators in invention.

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