How to Read Faulkner if You’ve Tried and Failed

As a high school teacher, I find the best way to teach William Faulkner is to begin with the Snopes family — that ornery, duplicitous, barn-burning clan of blacksmiths, bigamists, and bank presidents. If you haven’t read Faulkner, or have tried and flung the book away in disgust, this may be helpful.

Faulkner does not come naturally to most high school students, and he can be particularly hard to decipher for born-and-bred urbanites — too many of whom see his backwoods people as little more than players in a freak show. The key is to get students beyond a character’s eccentricities and to his or her nobility. Faulkner imbued in his people (even the dishonest ones) with a commendable ability to endure the tragic. If you can get students to cross that Rubicon, you’ll find they’ll begin to grasp Faulkner, even laughing with the characters instead of at them.

My introduction to the Snopes family begins with two handouts: (a) a map of Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County. Both help students find their footing in Faulkner’s world.

Next, I show a 40-minute film based on the short story “Barn Burning,” with an excellent teleplay by Horton Foote. A very young Tommy Lee Jones plays the stubborn and conniving Abner Snopes who, when crossed by others, burns down their barns. Filmed on location in Mississippi’s Lafayette County (the model for Yoknapatawpha), the movie provides a rich, visual picture of Faulkner’s post-Civil War South.

After that, we read “Spotted Horses.” There are two versions of this tale. Assign the short one, which can be found in The Uncollected Short Stories of William Faulkner. Here we are introduced to Abner’s son, Flem Snopes, who shows up in town with a mysterious Texan and a herd of ponies (so ill-tempered that they are tethered together with barbed wire). The entire town and countryside comes to see the Texan auction off the ponies, though Snopes’ role in the sale is not clear. Nothing is ever transparent with a Snopes.

One man stepping up to bid is a dirt-poor farmer named Henry Armstid, who spends his family’s last $5 on a pony. However, after seeing how Henry’s wife had pleaded with him not to make the purchase, the Texan tells her he will give Henry’s $5 to Flem Snopes, who will return it to her the next day.

But Henry Armstid isn’t having it. That evening, he stomps boldly into the corral to get his pony. He’s flattened by the entire herd, which escapes through the gate he’s left open. They scatter across the countryside, smashing wagons and raising all kinds of hell. In perhaps the story’s most hilarious scene, one pony that storms into Mrs. Littlejohn’s boarding house is only chased off when the brave woman whacks it on the snout with a washboard. Like Henry, other buyers of the Texan’s ponies pursue their animals all night.

The following day, Mrs. Armstid, whose husband broke his leg during the stampede, shows up at the general store to collect her money. Snopes tells her that the Texan, now long gone, forgot to give him the $5. No one knows whether he’s telling the truth, but given that he’s a Snopes, it’s doubtful. The story ends with a gesture perfectly fitting for a Snopes: He tells the poor woman to wait, enters a store, and returns with a few pennies worth of candy for her hungry children.

If you choose the shorter tale, pick some of your best student readers to read it aloud, start to finish. In one of my classes, it was the first time I ever heard a rich Manhattan kid actually guffaw.

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