A The Impact of the Civil War on the South
The loss of the Civil War in the nineteenth century had a profound impact on the psyche of the South. The region not only lost the war, but their whole way of life as well. The aristocratic structure of slavery was destroyed when the South lost the war, but many of the social values remained. Whites still controlled the economic and social structure of the region. Blacks, while no longer slaves, were generally under the rule of white society. What evolved over the next hundred years in the South was a society where blacks were legally free, but socially disenfranchised from an equal education and equal economic opportunities. The relationship of the blacks to whites depicted by Faulkner in The Sound and the Fury reflects that social and economic divide. The blacks in the novel are servants of the Compsons. Their role as servant is expanded by Faulkner to that of spiritual caretaker, especially as he portrays the character of Dilsey.
In conjunction with the South’s defeat in the Civil War was the area’s lessening economic influence. During the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth, industrial and manufacturing businesses came to dominate the U.S. economy. Agriculture, the mainstay of the Southern economy, was less profitable, especially for relatively small family farms. The economic problems of the South can be seen in the way Faulkner portrays the Compsons. Their economic decline spans several generations, each one experiencing a greater decline. By 1910, Jason’s father is forced to sell the last of the family’s land to pay for Caddy’s wedding and Quentin’s tuition. Jason, the central character of section three, is left to work in a local store to support the family. He reflects the attitude expressed by President Calvin Coolidge during the prosperity of the 1920s that “the business of America is business.” Even during the boom period of the 1920s, the textile industry suffered a depression. As a cotton-producing region, the South was hurt economically. The stock market crash of 1929 came just as The Sound and the Fury hit the book market. The Great Depression that followed in the 1930s made it difficult for Faulkner to succeed economically with his writing.
B The “Lost Generation”
A counterpoint to the bleakness that followed the 1929 stock market crash and the depression of the 1930s was the proliferation of artistic accomplishments. No other period in American history had a generation that produced so many important works in literature, music, and the arts. Beginning after World War I and up until World War II, America saw writers like Faulkner, Eugene O’Neill, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, Sinclair Lewis, Dashiell Hammett, and Dorothy Parker emerge on the literary scene. Georgia O’Keeffe and Thomas Hart Benton were a few of the American artists who were productive during this period. Theaters on Broadway and other places were alive with new productions and Hollywood was grinding out new dramas and musicals every week. In December 1928 George Gershwin debuted his famous symphonic piece “An American in Paris.” The Chicago Civic Opera building opened in 1929 with a 3,500-seat auditorium. In popular music, 1929 was the year Guy Lombardo began his New Year’s Eve radio broadcast. Songwriter Hoagy Carmichael wrote his famous “Stardust” in 1927, and “Georgia on My Mind” in 1930. America was alive with creativity. It was as if the economic downturn unleashed a volcano of creative energy that had not been seen in this country before-or since. This generation of young creative people has been called “The Lost Generation,” for many of their contemporaries were killed during the Great War (World War I), which lasted from 1914 to 1918. The disillusionment inspired by the war led many creative artists to explore what it meant to be American in the modern world, and what it meant to be human.
When Faulkner accepted the Nobel Prize in 1950, he made a speech that became a famous statement of the modern world and the artist’s place in it. He spoke of the threat of physical destruction to the human spirit. What he expressed was the prevalent feeling of the Lost Generation that human beings had lost a sense of the meaning of life. In his speech, he expressed his belief that “man will not merely endure; he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of the past.” Old values had been shattered by the events of the first half of the twentieth century. It was not yet apparent what the new values would be.