War and history in the fiction of William Faulkner
War is a perennial presence in the life and fiction of William Faulkner. Born in a region still suffering from the lingering effects of the Civil War and into a family whose patriarch, Faulkner's great-grandfather, had been lauded as a war hero, Faulkner attempted to achieve similar feats of military heroism as a pilot during World War I. When the war ended before he could complete his pilot training, Faulkner would turn to war repeatedly as both subject and theme. However, only rarely did he depict actual combat or battlefields in his works; instead, his treatment of war wavers between “being” and “not being,” between presence and absence, or as Faulkner himself phrased it in an interview, between “the actual and the apocryphal.” In this study, I examine Faulkner's ideological attitudes toward war, particularly in how they change over time from youthful romanticism in his first novel, Soldiers' Pay, to a much more critical, philosophical attitude toward war in A Fable, which he wrote over a ten-year period during and after World War II. I then focus on Faulkner's fictional-historical representations of war in Flags in the Dust, in which the Civil War is compared to World War I; The Unvanquished, a Civil War novel in which Faulkner implicitly charts the development of the “Lost Cause” ideology following the war; and several short stories demonstrating how Faulkner treats war both comically and tragically. I also examine several works ( The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Sanctuary, and Light in August) in which the notable absence of war plays a key thematic role. Finally, I examine Absalom, Absalom!, in which Faulkner not only treats war—specifically, the Civil War—as history; he also employs various historiographical methods to construct histories of the war, with character-narrators in effect becoming historians as they study and contemplate various documents and other evidence to construct a narrative about the past. In Absalom, Absalom!, Faulkner writes what is his greatest Civil War novel, but in fact, it is much more—he has also depicted, in microcosm, an allegorical history of the United States.