Understanding William Faulkner’s writing is challenging, to say the least, and can raise questions about the author’s position on the complex issues he wrote about: race, class and gender in the early 20th century South. A new honors course offered in fall 2018 approached Faulkner’s novels with the aim of understanding how they worked as progressive responses (relatively speaking) to deep tears in the American social fabric.
In “Faulkner and Social Change,” a seminar taught by Dr. Conor Picken, an assistant professor of English, students read As I Lay Dying, Light in August, The Sound and the Fury and Sanctuary. Then they went a step further. On Nov. 16-18, they made a pilgrimage to Oxford, Mississippi, where Faulkner grew up.
Dr. Picken credited Dr. Jon Blandford, director of the Honors Program, with allowing him to teach the course in this way, and for funding the trip from the Honors Program budget. “He’s doing an incredible job of building the program, and he values the kind of creativity that folks can bring to the classroom.”
Amandarae Matthew, an economics major scheduled to graduate in 2020, reflected upon her experience:
Upon beginning the class, I hated William Faulkner as a result of reading one of his novels in my high school English class. While I still hated him at the end of the semester, I have a newfound respect for his novels.
Because his novels explore a wide breadth of social justice issues—racism, misogyny, monopoly capitalism, sexuality, mental illness—I found them challenging to read, to say the least. I often threw them down in disgust or made shocked exclamations when reading a particularly disturbing passage because of the way Faulkner expressed many of these issues. As the semester went on, my hate for Faulkner increased exponentially; however, that changed when we ventured to Oxford, Mississippi, to explore Faulkner’s stomping grounds.
We toured his old house, walked around downtown, gazed at his inspiration for buildings in his novels, and even paid tribute to Faulkner at his grave, which took us an hour to find.
But my favorite part of the trip was my chat with Dr. Picken on our walk back from looking at a house that inspired the farmhouse in The Sound and the Fury.
All semester I had been struggling to differentiate Faulkner the writer from Faulkner the person in an effort to develop a more informed opinion of him, but Dr. Picken helped me realize that didn’t really matter. From that moment forward, I neither liked nor disliked Faulkner, but I had a new respect for him.
While his novels can be hard to read (and the word “hard” is an understatement), they address issues that people do not realize are still very relevant. We can use his novels as conversation starters and ways to educate ourselves on the gender-sexuality double standard, systemic economic inequality, the treatment of mentally ill people, and so many more issues that still plague our society.
Dr. Picken is an excellent professor whose passion for teaching about Faulkner shines in every possible way, but he also challenges us to improve our literary skills and to begin having those tough conversations.
Hear more about the students’ Faulkner experience: