The Fury and the Sound of Absalom, Absalom!:
Shelby Foote's Review

Robert Phillips

     Book reviews are usually found at the beck of a journal or on the book page of a newspaper. Except for the special review magazines such as Publishers' Weekly, or special sections included in the Sunday paper, the New York Times Book Review for example, journals, magazines, and newspapers usually tuck them neatly away where only the really curious will usually look after they've read all the good stuff. It's a real headache for book review editors, particularly for book review editors of academic journals, for very often tenure committees do not give credit for reviews which makes it difficult for editors to find talented non-tenured faculty who will devote the time it takes to write a creditable review. But finding the ideal reviewer for a particular book, if there is an "ideal" reviewer, presents editors with formidable problems. Few editors are likely to be as lucky as the editor of the Carolina Magazine was when Shelby Foote gave him a review of Absalom, Absalom!.
     Before I became the editor of the Mississippi Quarterly I was its book review editor for fifteen years. To do that job I surveyed the publishers' catalogues, read as many article submissions to the Mississippi Quarterly as I could, and surveyed as broadly as time permitted, little enough usually, articles in the current academic journals in an effort to find the best reviewers. I tried to give answers to the questions about deadlines and word-counts from those who had agreed to write reviews, but I always did it with deep reservations, and more often than not ended up telling reviewers to take the time and space they needed to write what they wanted about the books in question. For reviewers in academic journals those loose guidelines, I discovered, most often the best to give for if I had chosen the reviewers well I could depend on them to know the academic field well, to know all of the more important primary sources, and to have a thorough knowledge of scholarship, criticism, and the appropriate theory. My job as a book review editor for an academic journal, now that I reflect back on it, was a relatively easy one. It meant finding knowledgeable follow academics who, as far as I knew, had no personal grudges against the author of the book under review, and who could provide a relatively objective assessment of the book's value to the study of the cultures of the American South. The experience made me appreciate especially those established scholars and theorists who would take time to give thought to reviews as well as those gifted newcomers who clearly had something to lose if they ventured forth too bravely. And it gave me an appreciation for book reviews that I probably would not have had otherwise.
     The authors of books like to complain that reviewers don't understand what they are reviewing, but my experience is generally at variance with that. Perhaps those who write about Southern cultures are mannerly and congenial people, but my complaint as editor, if I have any complaint at all, is that reviewers tend to be too kind, too polite, and more considerate than might be good for what they have under consideration. Over a decade ago Fred Chappell, a poet, novelist, and book reviewer form North Carolina, declared that he could "attest that a critic has more foolhardiness than is good for any organism" (Chappell, 2). A few years earlier, he had been more vitriolic about literary scholarship. "Literary scholarship," he said, "has become the kind of business it never was before in the western world, and as the personal motives of scholars become more selfish, so do their analytic methods become clumsier. Trying to tread softly with deconstructionist criticism is like trying to perform an entrechat while wearing snowshoes" (Chappell, 31). Chappell has written many reviews, and editors, particularly those at the Georgia Review, seem to respect such "foolhardiness" as he may have. His complaint about scholarship and deconstruction very likely has its roots in reviews he has seen of his own novels and collections of poetry, and damning reviews are not unheard of. Chappell himself, however, does not seem to be mean-spirited in his reviews. His views in his 1993 collection of essays, Plow Naked, seem to be even tempered, astute, and learned.
     The book review editors who deal with collections of poetry and with novels perforce have a different set of criteria for choosing reviewers. Creative as literary theory and scholarship can be, the criteria for judging the worth of a scholarly study and the value or a novel or book of poems are different. The ideal book reviewer for poetry and fiction is one like Chappell who reads several languages, and has, in addition to a fine creative talent, a passion for literary history (see "On Process: An Interview," Chappell, 131-141). Reviewers of scholarly books must have a comprehensive knowledge of an academic field of study, but reviewers of novels need more. Ideally they have read many books of poetry, many novels, and the more important literary criticism and scholarship. It would not hurt if the cause of literature if reviewers had a knowledge of the history of everything, but particularly the history of the literatures of many cultures. Reviewers bring their learning, their perceptions, experiences, and their patterns of thought to the task of evaluating the books before them, and out of all this assemble the language that contains their understanding and expresses their reactions. Sometimes reviewers will tell us about the author as well as the book, but what do readers know about the reviewers? We may know something of their reputations, particularly reviewers for the major publications, but often we have only the trust we place in them and in the editors who selected them.
     M. Thomas Inge's William Faulkner: The Contemporary Reviews makes it clear that the only fair generalization about the public reception of Faulkner's novels in the national press is that it was a mixed and complex affair. The general impression has been that Faulkner did not fare particularly well with reviewers, and it is true that more often than not reviewers found something in his novels to fault. Some contemporary reviewers, however, also found much to praise.
     When Absalom, Absalom! appeared in 1936 many of the critics in the popular press puzzled over it while others summarily dismissed it as a failure. The reviewer for the Carolina Magazine, however, took the occasion to comment briefly on Faulkner's entire career as a novelist and to recognize Absalom in that context as one of Faulkner's best productions, and he predicted that more and perhaps even better novels would follow. The review contrasts with many of the others not only because it praises Faulkner's accomplishment almost without qualification, but also because the praise is based on a mature understanding of Faulkner's theme and technique, the result of what was apparently a careful study. Shelby Foote, a nineteen-year-old sophomore at the University of North Carolina, wrote the review, and even if he was only a sophomore in college, he saw more in the novel than many of the far more seasoned critics saw. He certainly did not find it "boring," or strange, or "infuriating" as some of the well-known critics did (Blotner, 949).
     Young as he was, Foote did not have the experience that an ideal book reviewer might need, but he nevertheless brought considerable learning and dedication to the task of reviewing Faulkner. He had a keen interest in shaping language for his own literary purposes and was practicing to develop his own style; and he had a vital interest in literary history. At Chapel Hill he was devoting many hours when he should have been in class to his reading. The UNC library had more books than he had seen in one place.
     Foote had grown up in Greenville, Mississippi; his closest friend was Walker Percy, the future novelist. Walker's cousin, William Alexander Percy, a Greenville poet and essayist, adopted Walker and his two brothers after their mother's death; Shelby visited the Percy house often where he was welcome to listen to Will Percy's fine collection of classical music and to read the books in his ample library. He was also taken with the advice that W.A. Percy offered him. The best modern writers, Percy told him, were Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann, and James Joyce. Shelby enthusiastically set about reading them and others of the moderns. His mother gave him a complete copy of the seven-volume Remembrance of Things Past for his seventeenth birthday. At Greenville High School he got into trouble for skipping classes so that he could read. Will Percy did not care particularly for Faulkner and did not include him in his list of the best modern writers. He knew Faulkner too well for that. Faulkner visited Percy and had tried to play tennis at the Percy house on one occasion when he had had too much to drink. Will Percy was not impressed, but that did not prevent Foote's developing a deep respect for the work of his fellow Mississippian. Walker Percy went to the University of North Carolina, and Shelby Foote followed him there a year later (Chapman,passim: Phillips, passim).
     The Carolina Magazine, later to be renamed the Carolina Quarterly, already in 1936 had a reputation as one of the finest student-edited journals in the United States. Even so, it was a student publication that printed the apprentice work of aspiring, but by-no-means established, writers. A small fraction of those who read Clifton Fadiman's obstreperous review in the New Yorke r or Harold Strauss's review in the New York Times would have seen Foote's review. It would have prompted only a relatively few readers to purchase copies of Absalom. Nevertheless Foote's review was one of the very few to recognize the significance of this novel, and certainly he was the only one to predict that a "school" of writers would be "sure to follow [Faulkner] in the immediate future" (Foote, Carolina Maazine, 66:29).
     Foote began his review of Absalom, Absalom! with a brief survey of the novels Faulkner had published. The UNC sophomore had read all of the fiction that Faulkner had published by 1936 and apparently felt confident in his generalizations about them. "The characters of a William Faulkner novel," he began, "seem to be struggling like monsters seen through a distorting glass, subsisting on some inward reserve of undefeat without air or food." For example, The Sound and the Fury, Foote found, "left nothing but a memory of idiocy, frustration, and suicide as the backdrop across which flowed the posts and lawns and trees of mankind" (29). The Quentins and their family strove for some sort of normal small-town life, one described by posts and lawns, but behind whatever appearances they might have created lay a life of rage and disorder which Foote summed up in his (and obviously, Faulkner's) term "fury." It may seem a little strange to more recent readers of Faulkner that Foote found Pylon to be the "most forceful and skilful of all" (29), but then it was, after Absalom, Absalom! his most recent novel, and perhaps the most recent that Foote had read before Absalom.
     Foote called his review, "The Literature of Fury." He had used the word a year before in the title of a short story he wrote for the Carolina Magazine: "The Good Pilgrim: A Fury is Calmed." At the beginning of the story central figure, Ray, a black delta farmer is leaving Parchman Penitentiary after serving a sentence for killing the woman who was supposed to have been his bride. Ray had found her with another man. Following his release from prison, Ray with his friend Charky, becomes a successful farmer, and Ray vows that he will "never see another woman but with the eyes of a mule" (Carolina Magazine, 65:5). Then the "fury" returns anyway: "It came furiously out of nowhere into being, the cased fury of dead worlds, pent-up fury down the long tunnel of lines and wires, whirring down the icy tundras and sweltering jungles of times past, the silent screams of his race before it was subjugated to cotton and mules and saxophones and dice." Erupting from the primitive past, Ray's "fury" takes control of him: "He felt power bearing down upon his shoulders and then flow up his body, up his chest; first flowing up through his loins, and then up his throat, setting his heart pumping even more madly, with all the vessels gone mad" (6). Ray's fury demands sacrifice, and Ray shoots a dog. Then, when his fury seizes him again, he shoots a rooster, then a pig, and another dog. Charky, his partner, had married and had brought his god-fearing wife to live in the house he and Ray shared. Ray brings his woman, Sarah, there too, terrified that "he would wake up some night, with one of the wild needy attacks and find her breathing heavily beside him there in the darkness, and use her instead of some baser animal" (32). The fury comes to him one night, just as he had feared. He grabs Sarah. She "half-groaned sleepily and rolled over against him," (32) and his "fury is calmed." It surprises him, but he knows that "his troubles" are past.
     "Fury" in "The Good Pilgrim" is a powerful, instinctive, primitive force, a force that humankind has had to wrestle with and subdue to create civilization. "Dead worlds," "sweltering jungles," "icy tundras," and "silent screams" rising from the collective past of human experience describe the "fury." For his review of Absalom Foote turned to the first act of Macbeth for help defining his term, to Macbeth's speech at the beginning of scene vii when he contemplates murdering Duncan.
. . . his Vertues
Will pleade like Angels, Trumpet-tongu'd against
The deep damnation of his taking off:
And Pitty, like a naked New-borne-Babe,
Striding the blast, or Heavens Cherubin, hors'd
Upon the sightlesse Curriors of the Ayre,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drowne the winde.
(ll. 18-25; quoted in Foote, 29)
     The passage presumably glosses the term "fury" in Macbeth's famous lines from Act V, scene v which supplied the title for Faulkner's earlier novel: ". . . it is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing." For the review, however, Foote does not attempt to define his term carefully; this time the illustration is sufficient: "This is language expressing fury better than pages of detailed discussion of incident and reaction," he says (29). But in the absence of Foote's explanation, one might observe that Shakespeare's "fury" here is also allied with natural forces identified with "the blast" or with "Heavens cherubin, hors'd / Upon the sightless Curriors of the Aire."
     Foote does not specifically identify the Oresteia in his brief discussion of the term in the review, but the "fury" that he finds in Absalom, Absalom! is kin also to those that hounded Orestes in Aeschylus' trilogy. "For [Faulkner] knows well," Foote says at the conclusion of the review, "that the most tragic figures man has imagined are not Tantalus and Sisyphus who were tormented with reality, but Orestes and Hamlet who were tormented with the suggestion of what reality might be"(30). This reality must be that of the inner self bound up in what we have passed down in images and lore, what we share with all of those who came before us and knew, most likely, about "sweltering jungles" and "icy tundras."
     Foote, the aspiring novelist in 1936, was trying to develop his own prose style, and Faulkner's language obviously held such an attraction for him that he appropriated Faulknerian constructions into his own work. We have, for example, characters who have a "reserve of undefeat." The syntax in Absalom "becomes so complicated," he explains, "that frequent dashes and parentheses become necessary [for Faulkner] to extract himself from his selfspun mesh of rushing language" (29). Foote has done more than simply imitate Faulkner, he has studied the prose carefully. He knows why Faulkner's language appeals. Far from constituting an obstacle to understanding and enjoying the novel, the language does exactly what Faulkner wants it to accomplish. "Faulkner knows, as no one else does now, how an economy of words?chosen for sound . . . as well as in their lexical connection?can create a mood and frighten (or perhaps excite) the reader into understanding the full impact of an action or a frame of mind" (29). Indeed Foote credits Faulkner for his being "able to rejuvenate a language staled by Dryden and small-talk."
     To succeed in projecting fury into his writing Faulkner found early that he must use words that, essentially, produce a common feeling, and to be sure of this he restored many words which had been stripped of their original connection and had accumulated over this period of years very different meanings, and he found that by joining them in unusual order they set one another off to greater advantage and left no doubt as to their absolute meaning, especially if, under this new system, they were not previously seen in connection with one another; "volatile and violent," "impotent and static," "deadly and merry"; and in "dry vivid dusty," and "speculative, urgent, intent," where the contrasting word is put between two that are similar, so as to call especial attention to it; words which to a superficial glance seem not only contradictory but impossible, but which, nonetheless, create precisely the mood at which it is evident he is aiming.
(Foote, 30)
Language carefully developed, then, as Faulkner developed it has in its simplest parts a complex history contained in what Foote understands "fury" to mean. Foote understood long before Faulkner had Gaven Stevens say it, that "The past is not ever dead. It's not even past."
     What may strike the current generation of readers of Faulkner about Foote's reaction to Absalom, Absalom! is his recognition of the extent to which readers see the story and the characters through a mediated and distorted perspective as though the distortion itself opens onto a more basic and general level of understanding. Faulkner's characters appear to me "monsters" that we see only through the "distorting glass," the surface of the narrative creates. The story does not follow in chronological sequence; "it is not unfolded from beginning to end. . . " (29). Rather it is a narrative structure in which "The reader himself must play an important part; that of piecing together the information, separating truth from untruth, establishing order among the conglomerate of clues dropped at irregular points of the narrative" (30). The distortion on the narrative surface enables readers to see those elements of character, hidden often from the characters themselves, which create the "furies" that they must confront and tame. Through the distortion of the narrative surface appears at least the suggestion of what shapes the furies take. Faulkner's "presentation of reality is entirely different from any other in all writing: for he does not so much show us stark reality as scare us with the prospect of it," Foote explains.
He reaches into the sack and feels about with his hand, all the time describing what he feels and perhaps even suggesting what it might look like?and constantly threatening to bring it out into broad open daylight, while we sit there scared stiff because we know he is capable of doing it.
(Foote, 30)
     The resulting narrative has more "reality" than conventional narrative would permit. Faulkner makes a rich and suggestive lode of materials available to readers out of which he invites us to create the stories that best fit our own purposes and circumstances. There are many possible tales readers could make from what we know about Thomas Sutpen.
The last half of the book takes place in Quentin's room at Harvard, where he and his room mate piece it all together, arriving at what are bound to be false conclusions some of them, but, it is evident, drawing the conclusions which they--and perhaps the author behind them--consider to make the better story.
(Foote, 30)
The truth about Thomas Sutpen, and for that matter the truth about Quentin and Shreve, is the one that "makes the better story." The readers of the narrative choose to make whatever truth they prefer or need because what transcendent truths there are to be found about Sutpen at the most fundamental point are also the readers' truths. That the story may contain "false conclusions" does not matter so much as the story the readers choose to create. Readers bring their own submerged memories of jungles, tundras, and screams which with the catalyst of a well-written text emerge to contribute to the story and to shape the readers responses. Foote does not venture into indeterminacy to the extent that many post-modern readers venture, but his version of Faulkner's fury and his understanding of the sound of Faulkner's language leave readers a large space in which to exercise their imaginations.
     The "School of Faulkner" that Foote predicted has had a host of prominent students, so much so that critic after critic of Southern literature has lamented the failure of Southern writers, particularly those who began their careers as novelists in the middle years of the twentieth century and the two or three decades after--William Styron, Reynolds Price, Cormac McCarthy prominent among them--to escape the shadow of the master. Shelby Foote studied ardently in the Faulkner school, became one of his most devoted students. When he wrote his review of Absalom, Absalom! he had not met Faulkner; he and Walker Percy had not established their close friendship when Faulkner was a guest in the Percy house. However, in the summer of 1938 he and Walker stopped off at Rowan Oak on their way to Sewanee, Tennessee. Foote went to the door to ask Faulkner if he could help him locate a copy of The Marble Faun. When Faulkner learned that Foote was from Greenville, he told him "that he had just that morning finished a novel, If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, . . . about characters from the Delta" (Phillips, 21). After that, Foote visited Faulkner several times and sent Faulkner copies of his novels as they were published. "He was a private man, but he was not a withdrawn man," Foote Recalls. "He had certain areas he didn't want you fiddling around in, but outside of those he was as open, congenial a person as I have ever known" ("Faulkner," Lecture, Memphis State University, March 3, 1967).
     Many Americans now know Foote through his appearances on Ken Burns' enormously popular television documentary of the U.S. Civil War; it was one of the most successful presentations ever broadcast on the National Public Television Network in the United States. Burns called on several prominent historians to provide commentary and transitions for his six-hour story, but Foote with the style and articulation he had mastered for his narrative history of the Civil War, and with the deep sonority of his carefully nurtured Mississippi Delta accent, became the star of the show. Through his association with Burns and the Public Broadcasting System Foote became something of a celebrity, almost a household name. He appeared on several nationally televised talk shows; his history of the Civil War and even his novels, which were brought back into print soon after the television series was broadcast, began to sell in record numbers. There are many things in his career of which Foote can be justly proud, and his review of Absalom in the Carolina Magazine should be among them.


Blotner, Joseph. Faulkner: A Biography. London: Chatto & Windus, 1974.

Chapman, C. Stuart. Shelby Foote: A Writer's Life. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2003.

Chappell, Fred. Plow Naked : Selected Writings on Poetry. Ann Arbor: UMichianP, 1993.

Foote, Shelby. "The Good Pilgrim: A Fury Calmed." Carolina Magazine 65: Nov. 1935: 5-7, 22.

---. "The Literature of Fury," Carolina Magazine, 66: Nov. 1936: 29-30.

Inge, M. Thomas. William Faulkner: The Contemporary Reviews. New York: Cambridge UP, 1995.

Phillips, Jr., Robert L. Shelby Foote: Novelist and Historian. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1992.

White, Helen and Redding Sugg. Shelby Foote. Boston: Twayne, 1982.

Copyright (c)2005 Robert Phillips