Two major reasons can be argued for reading William Faulkner’s novel The Unvanquished. First, it is his version of that popular and defining Southern story of the Civil War similar to that told by Margaret Mitchell in Gone With the Wind. That story cannot be told as mere battle accounts, although the battles continue to astound both historians and fans of Civil War history.
But the Civil War created a revolution in the sense of turning a whole society around—by force, necessity, and turmoil. The economic structure of the South was devastated. As repugnant as it is to us, slaves were a source of wealth, an asset that contributed to the economic standing of those who owned them. The end of slavery wiped that asset completely off the accounting books. That is why some who were interested in eliminating slavery before the war explored the economic costs of buying out the system. The westward spread of the nation, the growing population of the North, the development of machinery replacing manpower, and the moral unease over slavery could have gradually weakened and finally ended the system. But Union armies, backed in time by the Emancipation Proclamation, ended it instead.
That loss, combined with a massive loss of manpower, political clout, and physical destruction, reduced the Southern Confederacy from being a world power from its inception in 1861 to being a backward and subjugated nation in 1865. The shock waves of Southern defeat have continued to rock the South from Appomattox to today. Southerners have never quite recovered from the defeat. Sure, the cities have been rebuilt. Certainly the economic base has more than recovered. And the Southern states are even major players in politics. But culturally the South is still scarred.
Economic historians, sociologists, and political science students have devoted their energies to explaining the South. As fulsome and beneficial as such studies and research are, they don’t receive attention from most Southerners. Stories trump studies. A narrative bests a statistical chart. The heart embraces what the brain rejects.
For those reasons, Margaret Mitchell bested many of the more careful historians of her day. Gone With the Wind, in terms of both the movie and the book, has stirred more viewers and readers than the works of W. J. Cash, Eugene Genovese, C. Vann Woodward, and numerous other scholars producing studies about the South. While Mitchell’s work may be the best known, it is not the only telling of the Southern story. William Faulkner did the same in bits and pieces of the whole of his novels and short stories. In The Unvanquished, he did so more directly and powerfully than in any other work.
A second reason for touting this Faulkner novel is that it is a key to understanding a complex world that Faulkner created. Like many young writers, Faulkner drifted around in his younger years and slowly began crafting stories. It was an older writer, Sherwood Anderson, who mentored Faulkner and gave him the advice that would ultimately net him a Nobel Prize for literature. Anderson told Faulkner to go back home and create the stories out of the wealth of events woven into his little “postage stamp” world of northern Mississippi.
Faulkner created a literary county called Yoknapatawpha with Jefferson City as its key location. It is easy to connect Faulkner’s literary creation with his own hometown of Oxford, Mississippi. Even the homes and streets and the monuments and personalities of Faulkner’s literature are echoes of the community he lived in. The Falkner family itself (William added the “u” to his last name) was recast as the Sartoris family in his writings. Along with Colonel Sartoris and his descendants, Faulkner’s literary characters included the Compson family, Col. Sutpen and his descendants, the sprawling network of Snopeses, and the McCaslin brothers.
These families show up as main characters in some books and as minor characters in others. They all have deep roots and tangled histories in Faulkner’s world. They have grandparents and grandchildren, lands and estates that define their rise and fall, interaction with the racial and economic tensions, involvement in the Civil War, and connections of community and sometimes kinship with one another.
Faulkner’s literary world is complex, and his style of writing only added to the complexity. So not only was it hard to figure out what drove Quentin Compson ultimately to both love and hate the South, it is hard to figure out what is going on in the weaving, repetitions, and wildly rambling stream-of-consciousness writing that Faulkner employed.
The Unvanquished is the best introduction to Faulkner’s world. The key character is young Bayard Sartoris, the scion of a major though questionable Southern war leader named Colonel John Sartoris. The book begins during the Civil War, and young Bayard and his slave friend Ringo envision the distant clouds as being mountains where the war is taking place. But the Union troops are already advancing across Mississippi and the war is literally on their plantation’s doorstep. In the later parts of the book, Reconstruction, defined as both Northern policy and Southern reaction, is the key issue. The economic, political, and social destruction of the South calls for a new, ruthless type of leader. Margaret Mitchell embodied such leaders in Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler. The more noble but passive Ashley Wilkes represented the older and defeated South. Faulkner cast Colonel Sartoris as the man who could raise the downfallen to new heights.
The Colonel’s son Bayard is called by circumstances to take on his father’s role and legacy. Earlier in the book, he is hailed as “the Sartoris.” Although he is reluctant at times to grasp onto the mantle of leadership, he can not avoid it. This is the issue that drives or haunts Bayard Sartoris all through the book.
We can add a third reason why The Unvanquished is necessary reading. Literary scholars and college professors don’t always want to admit this, but one of the prime attractions of a literary work is that it is fun. Admittedly, many classics and hefty books call for discipline and perseverance to read. For that reason, many of us like to have a murder mystery or a spy novel handy for those times when a deep classic is just too much work. But The Unvanquished, containing keys to Faulkner’s world and insights into the real plight of the South, is a collection of page-turner stories. Some, like the first chapter, are hilariously funny, while others, toward the end, are sad and heart-breaking.
The book itself did not begin as a book or a novel. Faulkner, like many writers, was often desperate for making enough money to pay the bills. The Faulkner novels that are now considered as his greatest works did not long stay in print or yield much profit. Several times, Faulkner left Mississippi for Hollywood where he worked as a screen writer just so he could get some income.
For acquiring ready cash, Faulkner also wrote stories for magazines. Most of The Unvanquished first appeared over time in such formats. It was only later that Faulkner assembled these stories that are all connected with the same characters and submitted the work for publication as a novel.
The same kind of process also happened for Go Down, Moses. It makes for fun literary discussion to question whether these two books are really collections of short stories or are unified enough to be novels. It doesn’t really matter. Among the critics, however, Go Down, Moses is ranked as one of Faulkner’s greater works, while The Unvanquished receives lower marks. Maybe it was too predictable, too unified, or too sentimental at points. Certainly young Bayard Sartoris in this novel doesn’t easily compare with the older Bayard who appears in Flags in the Dust, which was originally published as Sartoris.
For quite a few years, I have used The Unvanquished in my American history and literature classes. My reason for using it is because of the book’s glimpses into the Civil War, Southern society, slavery and race relations, and the Southern social order and code. All of those are mere excuses for the real reason I use the book. To repeat myself, it is great fun to read, and I say that as one who has read it at least ten times. Based on student responses, I am not alone in my judgment.