The History of Literature #229 – Baldwin v Faulkner

In the 1950s, William Faulkner (1897-1962) was one of most celebrated novelists in America, highly praised for this formal innovation, his prodigious storytelling gifts, and his sweeping, multigenerational portrait of Southern society.

James Baldwin (1924-1987) was a writer on the rise, youthful and energetic, fearless and incisive, known for essays and commentary as brilliant as his fiction.

In this episode of The History of Literature, we take a look at the public debate surrounding the civil rights movement, which Faulkner addressed in a (purportedly) drunken interview in which he said, “If I have to choose between the United States Government and Mississippi then I’ll choose Mississippi. If it came to fighting I’d fight for Mississippi against the United States, even if it meant going out into the street and shooting Negros.” At calmer points, Faulkner freely acknowledged that desegregation was the correct view “morally, legally, and ethically” but was not, in his view, “practical.”

In 1956, writing in the pages of the Partisan Review, Baldwin responded to these and other Faulkner statements with a brief, dazzling essay “Faulkner and Desegregation,” in which he analyzed Faulkner’s position on race, linked Faulkner’s publicly expressed views to the inner world of the Southerner of the 1950s, and – it became clear a few months later – set the stage for his own efforts to inhabit and portray the mindset of a white Southerner in his fiction.

How does the fiction of these two men work? What did it say about race and power and the precarious balance of a time, a place, and an era? What does understanding this mean for us today? We’ll explore those questions in our next two episodes, where we look at a pair of short stories, Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” and Baldwin’s “Going to Meet the Man.”

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Music Credits:

“Darxieland” and “Allemande Sting” by Kevin MacLeod (

Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 4.0 License

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