This episode of the Maine Humanities Council’s Humanities on Demand podcast series is a recording of John Matthews’s talk, “Absalom, Absalom!: A Story of Stories.” This talk was recorded at Bowdoin College on March 7, 2015, as part of Winter Weekend 2015 with William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!
Dr. Matthews is a Professor of English at Boston University. His research concentrates on American literature, modernist studies, literary theory, and literature of the US South, with special attention to Faulkner. He’s written several books on Faulkner, including The Play of Faulkner’s Language, which took a post-structuralist approach to his work, and most recently William Faulkner: Seeing Through the South, a study of Faulkner’s engagement with the imagination of Southern place–regional, hemispheric, and global–as a coherent, if variegated project over the course of his career. He has also written a series of essays on questions of Southern plantation history, national modernization, and modernist aesthetics in Faulkner.
In this talk Dr. Matthews attempts to simplify Absalom, Absalom!, drawing attention to Faulkner’s storytelling techniques. “I think the book gives us a metaphor for itself,” he says. “This is a novel of stories told and heard, expressed to satisfy the teller’s need, but also shaped to meet the listener’s need. Ultimately this great novel becomes an exploration of the mystery of literature itself.”
Dr. Matthews discusses “the insult of the colonial plantation society, with it’s practices of racial chattel, slavery.” He says, “This is, in a way, the foundational contradiction of the American project. Not just that it’s based on an exceptional flaw, a miss-execution of the dream… the problem is that the dream itself, the design itself, is constitutionally, fundamentally, ineradicably contradictory. And that’s why the novel seems unresolved. It’s the irresolution that we suffer with right through the present: that we uphold our republican virtues by their violation.”