Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: Sartoris

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, June 25, 2001

Every few days, by Miss Jenny’s request, she came out and sat beside his bed and read to him. He cared nothing at all about books; it is doubtful if he had ever read a book on his own initiative, but he would lie motionless in his cast while her grave contralto voice went on and on in the quiet room.

Faulkner is the anti-Mitchell. While his books can easily be said to romanticize the old South, they can only be said to do so in the manner in which Algren romanticizes Chicago, or Fante romanticizes Los Angeles: the romanticism of lost souls and flawed humanity.

AuthorWilliam Faulkner
Length380 pages
Book Rating6

This, Faulkner’s third novel, sets the stage for Absalom! Absalom! and the rest of the Sartoris/Snopes novels. Faulkner writes that this is the novel where he realized what it meant to be a writer, beyond only having to work in the morning. This is a grand tale, moving from light to darkness, of Narcissa Benbow and Bayard Sartoris, starting in the midst of the first World War but traversing at times all the way back to the War Between the States.

The novels in the series don’t need to be read in any particular order, and all that I have read are great books. But I will recommend that you make Sartoris one of the first two or three that you read, just to get the background down.

The lynchpin of the story is Simon, the Sartoris’ black buggy driver (for the Sartoris’ continued using the horse and buggy while the rest of the county moved to the automobile) and butler.

Simon in a white jacket officiated as butler--doubled in brass, you might say. Only it was not brass, but silver so fine and soft that some of the spoons were worn now almost to paper thinness where fingers in their generations had held them; silver which Simon’s grandfather Joby had buried on a time beneath the ammoniac barn floor while Simon, aged three, in a single filthy garment, had looked on with a child’s grave interest in the curious game.

But when young Bayard Sartoris returns from the war (World War I), which is not yet finished, things look like they might change.

The book begins with John Sartoris’ death, and his son, “Old” Bayard, handling the legal matters surrounding his father’s belongings. “Young” Bayard has returned to home like a hobo. And that brings a reminiscence about an older Bayard Sartoris who fought as aide-de-camp to Jeb Stuart in Virginia when “Old” Bayard was only a lad of less then fourteen. “That was the goddamnedest army the world ever saw, and Bayard was the goddamnedest man in it.”

The older than “Old” Bayard died recklessly in the war between the states (“the war”), old John Sartoris died of old age, and young John Sartoris has recently died in the World War (not yet the First World War because there hasn’t been a second one yet). Young Bayard is guilty for not being able to stop his brother from taking on too many Fokkers with a Sopwith Camel.

And while he was off to war, his wife died in childbirth.

That’s just the first chapter: five deaths to start off the story. And then he buys a fast car, and Horace Benbow also returns from the war, and he and Horace’s sister Narcissa begin a vague and restless courtship. “He treats her like a dog would treat a cut-glass pitcher, and she looks at him like a cut-glass pitcher would look at a dog.”

There is a Snopes here also, apparently helping a young boy get an air gun, and writing odd letters in the name of Hal Wagner. He’s also been vice president of the Sartoris bank three years on. And another Snopes went on to war with Horace, but there’s been a falling out of some kind that Horace don’t want to talk about.

“Sartoris” is the first salvo of an epic tale of two families, and is grand in its own right.

You can read more about the Sartoris family in “The Unvanquished”, the story of Colonel Sartoris and the younger days of “Old” Bayard. “The Unvanquished” begins just as “the war” is finishing up. As you might expect, the aristocratic Sartoris family does not fare well in those times, but they survive, and they see the arrival of Ab Snopes. “The Unvanquished” covers those times that the elders in “Sartoris” reminisce about. A time of a brave, deadly new world for those used to the pre-war life, as summed up by Bayard’s sister Drusilla, Drusilla who passed as a man to serve in the Confederate army under Colonel Sartoris.

“Who wants to sleep now, with so much happening, so much to see? Living used to be dull, you see. Stupid. You lived in the same house your father was born in, and your father’s sons and daughters had the sons and daughters of the same Negro slaves to nurse and coddle; and then you grew up and you fell in love with your acceptable young man, and in time you would marry him, in your mother’s wedding gown, perhaps, and with the same silver for presents she had received; and then you settled down forevermore while you got children to feed and bathe and dress until they grew up, too; and then you and your husband died quietly and were buried together maybe on a summer afternoon just before suppertime.”

“The Unvanquished” is written from the perspective of young Bayard, who becomes old Bayard in “Sartoris”, if I’m reading it right. All of these books intertwine the same families and the same names, like real life, but making it sometimes difficult to sort out who is who and who is who’s uncle, father, or grandfather.

“The Unvanquished” covers the end of the war, the formation of the “night riders” (which would be the KKK or something related), and the marriage of a beloved cousin that changes relations forever. Of all the “true” Sartoris books I’ve read, I think “The Unvanquished” is the easiest to follow, but still fascinating and deeply emotional for it. Since “Sartoris” seems to be out of print as I write this, “The Unvanquished” would be a great place to start reading about Faulkner’s South.

The Reivers” is only tangentially related to the Sartoris legacy, mentioning Colonel Sartoris only in passing as a contemporary of the young protagonist’s grandfather. Like “The Unvanquished,” this story is written from the perspective of a boy, eleven-year-old Lucius Priest. Lucius’ grandfather has purchased a motor vehicle. A friend of the family decides to take the car to Memphis while grandfather isn’t looking, and takes Lucius and another friend with him. They meet up with prostitutes in Memphis, lose the car, get into mule racing, go to jail and get back out. This is as much a folk tale or a fairy tale as it is one of Faulkner’s tales of the old South. It is the easiest of them all to read, even easier than “The Unvanquished.” If you’re looking to read your first Faulkner novel, you could do worse than start with “The Reivers”.

“Absalom, Absalom” is famous for being hard to read. It is also a fascinating story if you can get into it, however, my copy is currently out on loan so you’ll just have to take your chances if you want it now.


William Faulkner

Recommendation: Purchase

If you enjoyed Sartoris…

If you enjoy Southern culture, you might also be interested in The Abolitionists, The Civil War in Popular Culture, and To Kill a Mockingbird.