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“The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War,” Michael Gorra’s penetrating and elegantly written consideration of William Faulkner’s writing and sensibility, takes its title from the author’s most famous sentence: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Those words are key to the place of the Civil War in Faulkner’s creative mind, to the construction of his best work, to the minds of his characters, white and Black, and to his own uneasy apprehension of slavery’s legacy. Though Faulkner only occasionally describes the conduct of the war in his stories, Gorra shows how it is ever present, “the eye of the hurricane, the still center of destruction.” And circling around it are what Faulkner did write about: the violence, hatred and corrosive secrets that are its reverberations.

Faulkner’s white characters’ engagement with the world is dominated by a past shrouded in a miasma of bad faith — by nostalgia for a golden antebellum age and the Lost Cause. But that feeling of yearning and loss cannot erase family histories of unmentionable crimes. Present and past mingle in both white and Black characters’ minds; thus the often exasperating, incohesive narrative coming out of their thoughts.

Their lives are vitiated by bygone murders, beatings, rapes and multigenerational incest — the secret, sordid reality of slavery in those halcyon days. Faulkner, Gorra writes, “was always drawn to the outer edge of the sayable, the stories nobody quite wants to tell or to hear.” Evasion made palpable is constituent of both the structure and sense of Faulkner’s stories.

Faulkner’s own daily operating beliefs were racist, but, as Gorra writes: “The pen made him honest, and from the beginning he skinned his eyes at the racial hierarchy in which a part of him never stopped believing.” When it came to the question of race in the South, “no white writer in our literature thought longer and harder about that problem, the one that the Civil War’s aftermath had set in place.”

This is only to touch the surface of this fine book which, while sharply focused on Faulkner’s writing, is broad in the scope of its research. Gorra has drawn on Faulkner’s life and family story; his various works; letters, journals, histories, and fiction of the period; and the historiography of the Civil War and its aftermath. Most welcome of all, he writes with clarity and grace, producing a work that is deep and learned without being deformed by jargon or academic costiveness.

“The Saddest Words” has, quite simply, been a revelation to me, for truth to tell, few books have annoyed me so much as Faulkner’s novels. The overwrought prose, the caginess and evasion, those jumbled chronologies, all that obsessive circling and circling — it gave me the hives. But now I see that all this beating about the bush and this tatterdemalion approach to narrative is actually getting at something and that I will appreciate its full force when I once again open the novels I never could finish.

Katherine A. Powers, a Minnesota native, also reviews for the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.

The Saddest Words
By: Michael Gorra.
Publisher: Liveright, 400 pages, $29.95.

The Saddest Words

By: Michael Gorra.

Publisher: Liveright, 400 pages, $29.95.