[DRAFT IN PROGRESS]

The opening line of Michael Kimmel’s Manhood in America: A Cultural History provokes controversy: “American men have no history” (1). Undoubtedly, Kimmel recognizes the paradox underpinning his bold claim: the greater bulk of American history and literature has always been male-dominated, both in authorship and subject matter. His actual motive, then, is to call attention to the failure of this vast body of male-centric work to “explore how the experience of being a man, of manhood, [has] structured the lives of the men who are their subjects, the organizations and institutions they created and staffed, and the events in which they participated” (Kimmel 2). Anne Goodwyn Jones subsequently qualifies this lack, pointing out that examinations of the Southern male relationship to masculinity, too, has largely been overlooked from within a historical framework: “Despite remarkable work on specific periods and locales,” of which she commends Kimmel’s, “general histories of Southern sexuality and Southern gender . . . have yet to appear” (49). Investigating Faulkner’s portrayal of manhood through such a lens will help regenerate these neglected discourses, as the historical settings of his novels closely align with the time period in which contemporary American hegemonic definitions of masculinity, and the nuanced ones of the South, first began to solidify.

Still, Faulkner’s depictions of masculinity, and gender overall, are anything but static. Throughout his writing Faulkner consistently transforms gender into a troubling spectacle, presenting characters that defy their conventional, sex-based social prescriptions. As Lois G. Benedict argues in his dissertation “Uncertain men: Faulkner, Steinbeck and modern masculinities,” Faulkner’s portrayal of his era’s shift towards a modern definition of manhood “[exposes] the problematic and deleterious nature underlying [this] changing interpretation” (3). The study of Faulkner’s subjugated masculinities and femininities fuels a broader discourse on the repercussions of gender norms today, especially in light of the social atmosphere in which their creator lived: the politically, socially and economically tumultuous post-Civil War South, leading up to and through the turn of the twentieth century. Through a proliferation of subjugated masculinities, I argue that Faulkner’s writings, chronologically from The Sound and the Fury to Absalom, Absalom!, reflect the turbulent shift in hegemonic conceptions of manhood towards that of the Self-Made Man. While I will focus on the experiences of Faulkner’s men, I will not neglect how those of his female characters, too, permeate social undercurrents of the time. After all, the constructions that Faulkner’s characters complicate must be examined from within the overall gender framework they defy.

Before I begin, it is crucial to note that the men who constitute these subjugated masculinities, both Faulkner’s fictional men and his real-life contemporaries, were no less eager than their conventional counterparts “to be recognized as real and valuable men, particularly by other men” (my emphasis) (Benedict 3). Indeed, the notion of man’s need to prove his masculinity to fellow men, much more so than to his female peers, is well-accepted in a variety of disciplines. In psychology, for example, the resolution of Freud’s Oedipal crisis comes from the father-fearing son giving up his maternal affinity to identify with his more powerful father (Kimmel 366). Historically and sociologically, too, it stands to reason that women’s subordinate status in society lends them less clout in the act of affirming manhood. In order to accomplish this central feat men must secure a more powerful endorsement: one conferred by other males.

Homosociality is also an integral component of the hegemonic definition of manhood we have inherited from Faulkner’s generation, to play a bit on the idea of patrilineality (Benedict 2013, Kimmel 1996). In his introduction to Manhood in America: A Cultural History, Kimmel makes two important claims about our society’s historical construction of masculinity that I will return to throughout this essay: 1) “Manhood is less about the drive for domination and more about the fear of others dominating us,” and 2) “American men define their masculinity, not as much in relation to women, but in relation to each other. Masculinity is largely a homosocial enactment” (6, 7). He supports both claims, aptly citing a passage from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, in which one man’s wife, who, it may be significant to note, embodies the novel’s only female voice, makes the following accusation to a group of his peers: “‘Funny thing, . . . If I catch any one man, and he’s alone, I get along fine with him. But just let two of the guys get together an’ you won’t talk . . . You’re all scared of each other . . . Ever’ one of you’s scared the rest is goin’ to get something on you’” (Kimmel 7, 365). Not only does the passage highlight the centrality of fear in Kimmel’s first claim, but it also reflects man’s collective uneasiness around risky behavior, like engaging with another man’s deviant wife, specifically when other men are there to witness it.

This manifestation of homosocial conduct is seen in Faulkner’s own writing in plenty of instances (*include several brief examples here*). Both modernist authors are keenly aware of the male tendency to reject such a hazardous person, either by ignoring their presence, or in more drastic scenarios, by exiling them (*include several brief examples here*). Following her accusation, the wife in Of Mice and Men “looked from one face to another, and they were all closed against her” (Steinbeck 80). Similarly, the first chapter of Faulkner’s Light in August reveals a number of important parallels in the ways male characters relate to female ones. Like the woman in Steinbeck’s novel, Lena is also perceived as embodying an aberrant femininity, and as a result she is snubbed consistently, though in varying degrees, by each of the male characters she meets along her journey to Jefferson. Armstid, the first person to give her a ride since the story’s inception, never fully acknowledges her existence: He “does not descend to help her” when she first hitches a ride, when although he “has never once looked full at her . . . he has already seen that she wears no wedding ring” (11, 12). It is significant to note that at this exact moment Faulkner makes a point of reiterating Armstid’s refusal to look at Lena: “He does not look at her now” (my emphasis), and when he does look, he does so “from the corner of his eye,” a phrase that Faulkner echoes through the rest of the passage (12). Clearly, Armstid’s perception of Lena as an impure woman, pregnant outside of marriage, which is confirmed for him by the ring missing from her finger, is what compels him to maintain an active and forceful resistance to observing her directly.

Armstid’s unsurprising display of sexism towards Lena reflects society’s condemnation of those who defy its behavioral prescriptions. But Armstid’s character highlights how essentialist attitudes can swing both ways, entangling the other and the self, women and men, in an impracticably rigid gender role system. Just as Armstid’s conventional views on femininity allow him to strip women of their individuality in order to deride them as a group (“You just let one of them get married or get into trouble without being married, and right then and there is where she secedes from the woman race and species and spends the balance of her life trying to get joined up with the man race. That’s why they dip snuff and smoke and want to vote”), his social conditioning has resulted in a similarly narrow and unsympathetic understanding towards men as well: “A man. All men. He will pass up a hundred chances to do good for one chance to meddle where meddling is not wanted” (14-15, 24). This underlying critique encourages readers to hold more empathy for the more subjugated personalities they meet later on in Faulkner’s novel.

Joe Christmas, for example, reveals a complex masculinity characterized as much by a conventional male aggression, as by his subordinate, “feminine,” standing in his relationship with Joanna Burden. (*EXPAND*)

Quentin Compson is another subjugated male whose struggles with self-identity reflect the contentions Shreve instigates at the end of Absalom, Absalom!. Quentin’s masculinity is defined as subjugated due to his fundamental rejection of patriarchy for the psychological destruction it has had throughout his life, patriarchy that is represented by his forefathers Jason and General “Kernel” Compson and by the South in general. His dissatisfactions with these systems of power, genealogical, social and political, ultimately push him to commit suicide, an act which solidifies once and for all his subjugated masculinity. A real man from Quentin’s time and social origin would embrace his privilege, not reject it. Therefore he cannot successfully satisfy the hegemonic definition of masculinity at the time.

As Carolyn Porter notes in her essay “Faulkner’s Grim Sires,” fatherhood acts “as the enigmatic source and vehicle for social identity and political sovereignty” (Porter 121).

Thomas Sutpen, fulfilling the “Self-Made Man” archetype put forth by Kimmel as the one who has delivered our contemporary hegemonic definition of masculinity, represents the ultimate critique on striving for masculine and patriarchal perfection. He is a perfect conventional man according to his desires and his drives. He aims, above all, to “‘establish a dynasty’” and “‘make himself a king and raise a line of princes,’” one between patriarchal pride and racial pride (Porter 122). The preservation of ones patrilineage is fundamental to conventional understandings of masculinity, so entrenched in power itself, and the maintenance of it. And yet, this singular goal is what ultimately leads to Sutpen’s destruction, as well as the destruction of his chance to pass down name and continue his patriarchal dominance.


This is gonna be good, I can tell. You might dig deeper for secondary material so your frame is not so reliant on just Kimmel, but Kimmel does give you a good start. And you might think about characters who interestingly defy or complicate this schema: Christmas's being a "woman" to Burden's "man," Hightower's being feminized and "pregnant" until he's oddly masculinized by being a heroic midwife (!), Bunch's puppy-doggish love for the muscular, broad Lena, Quentin's virginal, "silenced" (and hence feminized) masculinity, and so on.