In Faulkner’s South, certain places are sometimes attributed specific, singular identities. Jackson is a place to discard the mentally ill or retarded. Memphis is a place to go for sex. Faulkner’s impression of New Orleans, however, is much more complex. As relayed through the imagination of Jason Compson III in Absalom, Absalom!, it is one of a vibrant, mysterious, seductively corrupt landscape. This New Orleans is a place of wealth and decadence, a place to uncover truths, and a metaphorical fount of miscegenation.


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In the first half of the 19th century, New Orleans was the fastest growing city in the United States, outpacing even New York. As a major port perfectly located at the mouth of the Mississippi River, New Orleans had a natural advantage, a destiny perhaps, to become the commercial and cultural distribution center for the South and the rapidly developing Midwest. It even seemed rational that New Orleans, not New York, would one day become the commercial capital of the entire United States, though the construction of the Erie Canal and the devastation of the Civil War ended that possibility. Still, the city was by far the largest in the South at the start of the war (with a population of 168,675), as well as its leading port in the slave trade.

Faulkner had a special relationship with New Orleans. He moved there in 1925 when he was 28 years old and, encouraged by Sherwood Anderson, submitted poetry and his earliest fiction to the Times-Picayune and the Double Dealer, a small local magazine. While living in the French Quarter, Faulkner completed his first two novels, Soldier’s Pay and Mosquitoes. William Plummer has described Faulkner as somewhat of a poseur during this phase, aping T.S. Eliot in his poetry and attempting Aldous Huxley with the misfire Mosquitoes (Plummer, 469-470). In an impressive city filled with impressive people, Faulkner likely felt the need to impress. The young Faulkner tended to overcompensate for inexperience and a sense of cultural inadequacy, as evidenced by the affected “Count No ‘Count” persona he brought home from the Great War along with fabricated tales of air force heroics. In this context, Jason III's speculative portrait of Henry as a raw Mississippi lad overwhelmed by the metropolis reads like something of a confession. Around the time of Absalom, Absalom! (1936), Faulkner also set the two novels Pylon (1935) and The Wild Palms (1939) in New Orleans (for Pylon, it was a thinly veiled “New Valois”); these were rare ventures away from Yoknapatawpha county. It seems that New Orleans was the only place outside of Mississippi that had a lasting significance for the author.

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In Absalom, Absalom!, New Orleans adopts, like the rest of the Sutpen story, a mythic quality. It is a “decadent,” “sinister" place - “opulent,” “sensuous,” even “the architecture a little curious, a little femininely flamboyant” (87-88). No innocent Southern boy is immune to its lure. “I can imagine Henry in New Orleans,” Jason says,

“...with his puritan heritage--that heritage peculiarly Anglo-Saxon--of fierce proud mysticism and that ability to be ashamed of ignorance and inexperience, in that city foreign and paradoxical, with its atmosphere at once fatal and languorous, at once feminine and steel-hard--this grim humorless yokel out of a granite heritage where even the houses, let alone clothing and conduct, are built in the image of a jealous and sadistic Jehovah, put suddenly down in a place whose denizens had created their All-Powerful and His supporting hierarchy-chorus of beautiful saints and handsome angels in the image of their houses and personal ornaments and voluptuous lives.” [86]

This New Orleans is “sinful,” heretical, idolatrous, even Satanic. It is a place to uncover dark secrets, as does Odysseus in Hades. Thomas Sutpen travels to New Orleans to prove that Charles Bon is his son; Henry Sutpen travels there to prove this is a lie but finds instead a darker secret. And like the Greek underworld, New Orleans must be reached by boat upon a great river. The steamboat (which Jason references with Homeric repetition) is the white man’s mode of transport to this netherworld, fitting in its embodiment of glamor and privilege. Moreover, Henry could have no more appropriate guide than Charles Bon, the physical incarnation of the city. Several times, New Orleans is described as “corrupting” Henry and several times, Bon is identified as his “corruptor.” His debonair and sophisticated ways have enchanted both Henry and Judith as well as the narrator, who projects onto him a self-aware seductiveness. Bon watches Henry imitate his dress and speech in “complete and abnegant devotion” and observes Judith incestuously “succumb to that spell which the brother had already succumbed to” (85). Henry’s desire for his sister as well as the homoerotic undertones of his relationship with Bon reflect the distinctly sexual, taboo nature of New Orleans’ corrupting force. Most of all, this reveals the city’s allegorical role as the nurturer of miscegenation.

Henry’s visit to a mixed-race whorehouse is the centerpiece of Chapter Four, as well as nearly the geographic center of the novel. He witnesses “a row of faces like a bazaar of flowers, the supreme apotheosis of chattelry, of human flesh bred of the two races for that sale” (89). The experience presents him at once with proof of the corrupt carnality underpinning the Southern way of life. Plantation economics and the virginity cult can lead but to miscegenation; in fact, it is a necessity - there is no other way for the system to satiate male desire and provide the quantity of new slaves required to support itself. The whorehouse, “where all of morality was upside down and all of honor perished--a place created for and by voluptuousness,” has exposed the rotten core of the South and belied the “code” Quentin Compson so cherishes (91). Peering into Henry’s “provincial soul,” Jason explains that “his simple and erstwhile code in which females were ladies or whores or slaves looked at the apotheosis of two doomed races presided over by its own victim--a woman with a face like a tragic magnolia” (87, 91). It is the biggest, darkest truth the city (and novel) have to reveal.

The reader is therein alerted to the "meaning" of Charles Bon and the reason for the similarity between Henry’s outburst in Chapter Four (”I will believe! I will! I will! Whether it is true or not, I will believe!” [88]) and the denial of hatred for the South with which Quentin ends the novel (“I dont, I dont! I dont hate it! I dont hate it!” [303]) Bon’s heritage proves the code false, as does the whorehouse scene and indeed, the emphatic, definitive thesis of the entire Sutpen myth. As Quentin realizes, there is no course left for a true believer but to enter the river himself.


Works Cited:

William Plummer, “Three Versions of Faulkner,” The Hudson Review, Vol. 31, No. 3 (Autumn, 1978), pp. 466-482.
Historic population data are from the U.S. Census Bureau, retrievable at www.census.gov.

[Casey Levinson]