Absalom, Absalom! (Text Key 222)


Faulkner began writing Absalom, Absalom! in February, 1934, but its imaginative origins stretch back through several different works almost to the imaginative genesis of Yoknapatawpha. In the early summer, 1931, he wrote "Evangeline," a short story about the Sutpen family and Charles Bon, whom Judith marries and Henry kills with "the last shot fired" in the Civil War; Faulkner had no luck selling the story to the magazines and it remained unpublished until after his death, but many of its narrative and thematic elements anticipate the novel. Sutpen first appeared in print in "Wash," which Faulkner wrote in the fall, 1933; he re-used much of that short story in Chapter 7 of the novel, though by that point Sutpen's story was much more complex. Quentin Compson and his father, major figures in this novel, first appeared in The Sound and the Fury (1929); Caddy Compson is never mentioned in Absalom, but Faulkner wrote his publisher that he decided to "use" Quentin's "bitterness" about his sister to provide a particularly incisive state of mind with which to engage the history of the South.   The southern past had been a focus of Faulkner's imaginative project from the beginning of the Yoknapatawpha fictions; in many ways Absalom can be read as a revision, or at least a reconsideration, of the way his first Yoknapatawpha novel (published as Sartoris and in Digital Yoknapatawpha as Flags in the Dust) evokes the figure of the slave-owning planters who presided over the Old South. That earlier novel mentions the man who replaced Colonel Sartoris in command of the Confederate regiment from Jefferson, but never names him. He turns up as the central character of this novel - as Thomas Sutpen, a slave-owning planter himself, but a markedly different representative of the caste that built the big plantation houses and led the old South into the Civil War. As the various story-tellers in Absalom try to understand or exorcise the legacy of Colonel Sutpen, Faulkner is also re-imagining the history of his own Falkner family and of his southern homeland.

Faulkner's working title for this novel was the same as his original title for Light in August: "Dark House." He expected to finish it by the end of 1934, but writing it proved difficult. By late 1934 he decided to put the manuscript aside and "get away from Absalom" by writing Pylon (1935), which is set entirely outside Yoknapatawpha in the modern world of airplane racing rather than the ghost-ridden Old South. After finishing that novel, he returned to writing this one in March, 1935, with a new title taken from the Old Testament (see 2 Samuel 18 and 19). Sixteen months later he was finished. Absalom was his first book published by Random House. It appeared on 26 October 1936. By the end of November two more printings had brought the total to about 10,000 copies. Like all Faulkner's novels, by the mid-1940s it was out of print, but Random House republished it in its Modern Library in 1951, and its subsidiary Vintage International published Noel Polk's "Corrected Text" in 1986. (The November 1990 printing of that edition is the version our representation is based on.) By that time, a great many critics had come to consider Absalom not just as Faulkner's masterpiece, but as one of the truly great novels of the 20th century.

Dating the Story: Absalom covers a hundred years of history, as recalled or invented from multiple perspectives by story-tellers who are reconstructing events from various degrees of remoteness. We actually have help from Faulkner himself in assigning some of the dates. At the urging of his editor at Random House, Faulkner added three appendices to help readers get a firmer grasp on major details in this challenging novel: a map (locations), a genealogy (characters), and a chronology (events).  Even his Chronology, however, raises interpretive problems, and when half a century later Noel Polk published the "Corrected Text" he revised several of Faulkner's original dates and details "to agree with the dates and facts of the novel" (305). You can compare Faulkner's and Polk's and our dates with this table of chronologies. And these chronologies list only a few of the many dates that DY's system of re-presentation requires us to provide, nor can they help resolve many of the inconsistencies within the "dates and facts of the novel." To give just one example of that: Rosa says her life "ended on an afternoon in April" (12), which must refer to the moment when Sutpen insults her and she begins wearing black; but Sutpen comes back from the War in January, 1866 (127), proposes to Rosa "three months" later (133), and then insults her after the "next two months" have gone by (133) - January plus five months equals June, or perhaps late May, but definitely not April. In all these cases we have tried to follow the temporal markers provided by the narrative as closely as possible, but it has to be acknowledged that some inconsistencies and many uncertainties remain.

Identifying Narrative Sources: Absalom is one of literature's greatest narrative experiments. Along with a third-person narrator who tells some of the story directly to the reader, it includes four main story-tellers from three different generations and about a dozen more sources, ranging from Thomas Sutpen himself to the generic "Town" of Jefferson, who are responsible for more or less of the account of "what happens" in the novel. The quotation marks are inescapable, because ultimately there is no definitive way to establish what "really" happened. Faulkner narrative technique foregrounds both the way "the past" remains essentially unknowable even as it continues to determine the present, and how, in the absence of a verifiable "Truth," people construct and cling to "meanings" that may only reflect their own needs and desires. To capture this extremely complex aspect of the novel, our data for each of the 700 Events into which we divide the narrative includes our attempt to establish the Event's source or sources. When an Event is referred to more than one source, we list all that we can identify, but put the source that seems most responsible for the passage first, and separate it from any others with a semi-colon. That looks like this: "[SOURCE: Narrator; Quentin]." For more information, see the "Narrative Sources of Absalom, Absalom!" table in the Commentaries section of DY.


SOURCE: Joseph Blotner, Faulkner: A Biography.

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Random House
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New York
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Vintage International
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New York
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How to cite this resource:
Railton, Stephen, and Theresa M. Towner, Johannes H. Burgers. "Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!." Added to the project: 2017. Additional editing 2019: John Corrigan. Digital Yoknapatawpha, University of Virginia, http://faulkner.iath.virginia.edu

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