Flags in the Dust, by William Faulkner

Sartoris was Faulkner’s third published novel, after Soldiers’ Pay and Mosquitoes; Flags in the Dust was his fifth attempt at a novel, after Soldiers’ Pay, “Elmer” – a novel about an American artist visiting Europe – Mosquitoes, and “Father Abraham” – a first attempt at the Snopes novel that would become his later trilogy. The publisher who’d published Faulkner’s previous two novels rejected Flags in the Dust, claiming it was unfocussed, and so did eleven other publishers. A twelfth publisher agreed to publish it if Faulkner agreed to work on a cut version with the man who was more or less acting as his agent, Ben Wasson. So Wasson sat and worked on the cut version, while Faulkner ignored the matter and concentrated on a new book, which he intended to be far less publishable, called The Sound and The Fury. The cut version was then published as Sartoris.

Flags in the Dust is a key work of Faulkner’s, and along with The Sound and The Fury, a key part of why I wanted to go back and read through these Faulkner novels again (I’d read Sartoris before, not Flags in the Dust). The reason is twofold. Firstly, it is the first of his novels set in Yoknapatawpha County – or, more precisely, in the mythical past and present of the Mississippi where Faulkner had grown up and where he had now returned to live. Secondly, the rejection of this novel, which Faulkner had believed would be his breakthrough, seemed to alter Faulkner as a writer, for he had felt he’d finally found himself in the writing of Flags in the Dust, only to discover the rest of the world weren’t interested. This is an idea which has interested me for a while, which, coupled with a notion that the style of Sartoris is closer to the style of later Faulkner, certainly than either The Sound and The Fury or As I Lay Dying, has made me believe for a long time that this (this rich, ornate style) was how Faulkner had always wanted to write; and his more experiment style he’d undertaken more out of spite, or at least contrarianism. On the other hand, it’s true that Faulkner always claimed The Sound and The Fury as his favourite of his own novels – though I’m not sure this is so much for stylistic reasons, as for the motivation by which he turned to it and the affection he felt for the character of Caddie.

So for the first time we enter that familiar Faulknerian world, and our guides are to be the Sartoris family – which is to say, Faulkner’s own family. There are two living Sartorises in the novel, Old Bayard Sartoris and his grandson Young Bayard Sartoris (here we get the beginning of that familiar Faulknerian trope: having multiple character with the same name, which he was to develop, I seem to remember, to such effect in The Sound and The Fury), who represent Faulkner and his own grandfather (The Young Colonel); and many, many dead Sartorises: for instance, there’s John Sartoris (the brother of Bayard Sartoris, who isn’t Old Bayard Sartoris, but his father who was killed in the Civil War), and then there’s also John Sartoris (the brother of Bayard Sartoris, who is Young Bayard Sartoris, who was killed in First World War). The former John Sartoris is the legendary Sartoris figure, war-hero and so on, and represents The Old Colonel from Faulkner’s own family; the latter John Sartoris was a pilot (another familiar Faulknerian trope) who’d gone to war with his brother only to be killed, leaving his brother to come back alone, psychologically damaged (much like what happened in Soldiers’ Pay and much like what Faulkner believed had happened to himself, though he had in fact never been to war at all), where he can’t adjust again to civilian life and must spend his time drinking and driving fast cars in his eagerness to follow his dead brother. Then there’s Aunt Jenny, who I think was married to the first Bayard, who attempts to rule the Sartoris household. And there’s almost another John Sartoris, who’s Young Bayard’s son, but his mother decides to call him something else, in an attempt to save him from the Sartorises.

And then there’s a completely different other story about a young man called Horace Benbow – who, if Young Bayard represents the drinking Faulkner, represents Faulkner’s more artistic side – who’s come back from the war and has less difficulty adjusting to civilian life, starting an affair with a married woman, and doesn’t seem to have any family at all, aside from his sister Narcissa, who in turn is repulsed by and falls in love with Young Bayard, and is being stalked by another man by the name of Snopes, who’s wandered in from another novel.

It’s interesting to note that the fourth generation whom this novel is primarily about (Young Bayard and the deceased John Sartoris, Horace and Narcissa Benbow) don’t appear to have any parents. Horace and Narcissa live on their own in a big house; Young Bayard with his grandfather and his great-(great?)-aunt. Faulkner has effaced his parents’ generation as in life he ignored his worthless father and worshipped his grandfather and great-grandfather (Stendhal was exactly the same, as I’m reading in The Life of Henry Brulard).

How then does it differ from Sartoris? Is it better? – Well, there’s about 100 pages cut out of a 400 page book. I read Sartoris nine or ten years ago, and my memory is not so good. Certain scenes (the tale of Bayard Sartoris from the civil war, Young Bayard riding a horse round town, Young Bayard driving cars at speed) I remembered well; others (every section involving Horace Benbow) I didn’t remember at all. Yet I couldn’t have said what had been there or not; I could only suspect; consider what I myself would have excised. For certainly there are parts (every section involving Horace Benbow, for instance) which could do with excising; and it would make the book much better. And from what I recall, Sartoris is a much better book than Flags in the Dust; I must occasionally credit my nine-years-younger self; though I remain suspicious of his aesthetics, he has nonetheless often turned out to have been right. Luckily though I have a critical biography of Faulkner which tells me mostly what was in fact cut: oh,  it was “some of the Snopes material and large pieces of the Benbow story”. Which no doubt made for a much more focussed and coherent narrative.

Onwards and ever onwards: next up, The Sound and The Fury.



5 thoughts on “Flags in the Dust, by William Faulkner

  1. All I really remember of Flags is that it sounded like Faulkner, that the voice (and subject and tics) were now in place, unlike in the first two novels. As you described the chaos, I thought no wonder I don’t remember it.

    So this was quite helpful. I never read Sartoris.

  2. I’m not sure all the tics are quite in place yet (it’s funny, I started reading Claude Simon yesterday, and he’s certainly nailed all of Faulkner’s tics). Although I write here that Faulkner adopts a rich prose style in Flags in the Dust which dominates his later writing, it certainly isn’t yet anything like the prose style of Pylon or The Mansion – the sentences aren’t nearly long or confused enough. When I read Sartoris, I had the idea it was much closer; but feel myself back-tracking on that a bit now.

    For me, Flags in the Dust suffered very much from the Benbow sections being not nearly as interesting as the Sartoris ones (so I can’t help thinking the editor’s right). Maybe Faulker learned something else from this: to shift from a multi-strand novel to a multi-viewpoint novel, so that the novels become in a way more classically focussed – we’ll have a look at that in his next two novels anyway, which I remember being multi-viewpoint.

  3. I read “Sartoris” some ten or more years ago, but hadn’t realised “Flags in the Dust” is really an earlier and fuller version. As someone who likes bigger, fuller versions, I read your post thinking to myself “I have to read Flags in the Dust”, and was, I admit, a bit deflated when you declared “Sartoris” to be the “much better” novel.

    I do like the picture you present of Faulkner not taking any interest in cutting down his novel, and content to let someone else do that.

    As for Early Faulkner vs Late Faulkner, certainly there was a wonderful flowering in teh earlu tyears (Sartoris, The Sound and the Fury, Sanctuary, As I Lay Dying, Light in August and Absalom Absalom all in about 6 or 7 years), but although he slowed down a bit, I enjoy The Mansion and The Reivers (much underrated, that one) every bit as much as I do the earlier novels.

  4. I think reading Flags in the Dust when you’ve Sartoris is probably only for the completist. I do tend towards definitive authorial versions myself, but I’m not on the whole convinced they’re better – DH Lawrence comes to mind – sometimes writers (even Shakespeare) need it pointed out to them that something really isn’t working and it would be better to do it another way.

    I’m a real fan of The Mansion – indeed, it’s the novel that got me into Faulkner (and this was after reading As I Lay Dying and Sanctuary, which I didn’t think much of and which I’ll be intrigued now to re-read). The Reivers I’ve had on my shelf for about 20 years without opening.

    I did actually compare the beginning of Sartoris and Flags in the Dust, which are different even though they begin with the same scene. Flags in the Dust begins in the middle of a conversation, with the context only filled in later; Sartoris places the context first. It’s these revisions I have more of an issue with, I suppose, than cutting out large parts of narrative which were of less interest anyway – since it detracts from Faulkner’s method altogether.

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