Tuesday Faulkner: Flem the capitalist

While I’ve been working through most of Faulkner’s novels — the latest was Light in August, which lacks the formal inventiveness of his most famous books but, especially in its exposition of race in the interwar South, is as good as The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying — I’ve also been reading some of the Faulkner criticism published in the last decade. Surprisingly, to me at least, the work is generally pretty vibrant. I had assumed that it would mostly consist of a bunch of old white farts discussing the Old South symbolism of Addie Bundren’s coffin or whatever, but subaltern criticism has found a lot to say about Faulkner, as there are plenty of explorations of race, queerness, feminine roles, and the like. Of course, some of those theories are a bit stale and superficial themselves: is it really enough to point out that Joe Christmas and Joe Brown from Light in August have a relationship teeming with repressed homosexuality without explaining what that relationship does? But still, it’s good to see that others are finding as much in Faulkner as I am.

One of the favorite objects of Faulkner criticism seems to be Flem Snopes, from the The Hamlet, The Town, and The Mansion. It’s easy to see why. He dominates nearly every one of the trilogy’s 1,200 pages, yet for all that, he is utterly devoid of interiority. In fact, only in a few short scenes do we witness him up close. In the rest of the book he is viewed from afar or, most frequently, he is absent. Because of this, in Faulknerian criticism, Flem remains impervious to psychoanalytic and sexual readings. Instead, he endures as the figure of the capitalist. As Owen Robinson put it in his essay “Monuments and Footprints: The Mythology of Flem Snopes,” in most criticism of the Snopes trilogy, Flem is “read primarily as a pure representation of capitalism, and therefore as an agent of the ‘New South’ fundamentally opposed to the traditional values of” the Old South.

There is good reason to read Flem in this way. The Snopes Trilogy depicts in an unrelenting fashion the world of business: every event and every relationship in the novel revolves around and is imbued with commerce, exchange, and, of course, labor. As the character who regulates or profits from, or attempts to regulate and profit from, all of these transactions, Flem does indeed stand as the novels’ supreme capitalist. The problem with these criticisms is not that they put him at the center, that they make him the big capitalist, but how they do it. In them, he has ascended to his position and power by hook or by crook, mostly crook: by lying, stealing, cajoling, bribing, and corrupting. He is not only an exemplary capitalist, meant to embody capitalism, but the capitalism he represents is the populist version of the dark outsider illegitimately usurping our way of life. Or, to put it in an older language, the Proudhonian understanding of property as theft.

These readings take Flem as a generic capitalist who is pursues personal gain instead of actually charting the movements of his career. Reading the changes in his occupations and ways of profiting shows that he is not “fundamentally opposed” to the Old South’s values but that he fundamentally transforms those values and drags the South into the twentieth century. He starts off as a sharecropper, but when he marries the pregnant daughter of a small town’s richest man, he receives as a dowery a nonfunctioning antebellum plantation. He turns this dilapidated emblem of Old South territoriality into, first, a couple of entrepreneurial ventures and then a stint at the city’s water manager before becoming an officer at and eventually the owner of the town’s bank. Flem moves up the respectability and profitability ladder with these moves just as he steadily removes himself from the Old South’s close proximity to production and edges toward the embrace of money’s abstract universalism. Paradoxically perhaps, it’s this embrace of finance that begins to insulate Flem, capitalism personified, from the folklore that he got to his position by theft and corruption. Instead, his belief in the laws of money (capital) reveals that thievery is insufficient ground for accumulation. Faulkner shows this in the following quote by V.K. Ratliff, sewing-machine salesman and “bucolic philosopher,” which becomes accepted by Flem’s contemporaries, even if not by literary critics:

“No no, I tell you!” Ratliff said. “I tell you, you got Flem all wrong, all of you have. I tell you, he aint just got respect for money: he’s got active” (he always said active for actual, though in this case I believe his choice was better than Webster’s) “reverence for it. The last thing he would ever do is hurt that bank. Because any bank whether it’s hisn or not stands for money, and the last thing he would ever do is to insult and degrade money by mishandling it. Likely the one and only thing in his life he is ashamed of is the one thing he wont never do again. That was that-ere power-plant brass that time. Likely he wakes up at night right now and writhes and squirms over it. Not because he lost by it because dont nobody know yet, nor never will, whether he actively lost or not because dont nobody know yet jest how much of that old brass he might a sold before he made the mistake of trying to do it wholesale by using Tom Tom Bird and Tomey Beauchamp. He’s ashamed because when he made money that-a-way, he got his-self right down into the dirt with the folks that waste money because they stole it in the first place.”

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