William Faulkner, the Mississippi Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, was good at one-liners. Those one-liners, though, were buried in his endless sentences. Faulkner wrote in “stream of consciousness,” a technique in which the writer goes on and on with words, creating a natural flow of thought that more often than not slaughters the rules of grammar. One has to like words to like Faulkner.
Consider the following one-liners. “Ain’t nothing in the woods gonna hurt you unless you corner it.” Faulkner should know. His beloved Oxford in north Mississippi is woodsy and Faulkner knew those woods well. He also knew about rural life: “A mule will work for you for ten years just for the pleasure of kicking you once.” Believing that fiction “tells a lie in order to tell the truth,” Faulkner spent most of his literary life writing short stories and novels.
Most writers, they tell us, are not good speakers. Writers spend too much time with their heads down, mulling words and trying to think up the next sentence. Unlike the good speaker who is normally engaging and gregarious, the writer is ponderous and arguably actually thinks too much. Faulkner was in the latter group, but he did make quite a few quotable statements while sitting on the nail kegs in the hardware or general stores of Oxford, talking weather and politics with the locals and the farmers who had come to town to “stock up.”
Consider this sentence from Faulkner: “The past is not over yet.” Anyone reading (or trying to read) Faulkner’s novels will catch right away his love for and knowledge of the past. With an eye for the future, Faulkner understood Shakespeare’s line, “The past is prologue.”
But just how strongly do we believe that today? Why do so many people dislike history? Why to so many is history a school subject and little more? Why have we succumbed to what Cicero called “the tyranny of the present”?
These questions are easy to answer. Let’s approach them backwards, answering them partially with other questions. We allow the present to tyrannize us because so many of us know nothing else. We live in the now with little thought of who we are and where we came from. How far back can the typical 21-year-old “see”? How much does he or she care to see or know?
As for history being considered a school subject and little else, surely that’s because very little history, if any – immediate history: your grandmother and grandfather and where they came from, child! – is passed on in the home. Can anyone say “fatherless homes” or “ineffective parenting” or “family meal times”?
But times have changed, many will argue. Homes have changed. Marriage has changed. So has gender. History doesn’t matter very much for Digital Man. Evolution is a sociological as well as a biological reality. We live under a different paradigm. Yes, we most certainly do. And that paradigm hasn’t exactly produced wondrous things.
Beyond ignoring history we are attempting to destroy it. We dismiss the history we don’t like and topple monuments that remind us of it. We tailor history books to satisfy the sensibilities of modern-day, safety-conscious students. Universities apologize to students for having invited Jeff Sessions to speak!
Our chief denial is that of who we are as a nation. As unpopular as the word “nation” has become, I shall still argue that America is a nation and that our nation is decidedly Greek. Like the Greeks whose art began to depict life and freedom rather than death and tyranny, we are a nation of no single ethnicity. Like the Greeks we tasted freedom and democracy and liked the taste. Like them we learned too slowly, but learned still, the value of the individual, no matter his or her race or ancestry. Americans, of course, are perpetuating Greece’s love of athletics.
Most importantly, like the Greeks we know the difference between the nation and the state. The nation is the people; the state is the nation’s government. As out of favor as is the word “nationalism,” Greece was the cradle of nationalism. We err dangerously to lean toward globalism, believing that all ideas are equal and that the world can be one happy family.
Growing up, I lived down the road from Faulkner — about 195 miles — and studied him diligently. He once wrote, “I observed that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about.” On that postage stamp Faulkner showed that he knew history and knew its value.
Would that we all would.