Critical Analysis: William Faulkner's The Reivers
William Faulkner's 1962 best selling novel The Reivers is much different from most best sellers in that Faulkner had already been a celebrated American novelist for decades before its release. Interestingly, The Reivers was William Faulk
ner's only best selling novel in his entire career. However, his collection of novels has been canonized by academia. This presents an interesting problem: what made Faulkner's final novel a best seller when, since 1962, it has not received nearly the a
ttention from the academic world as have Faulkner novels like The Sound and the Fury, Requiem for a Nun, Sartoris, Light in August, and others?
1962 Praise of The Reivers
Upon publication, the novel became an immediate best seller. Reviewers from literary reviews such as Virginia Quarterly and Reader's Digest to daily news publications such as The Washington Post and The New York Times to po
pular magazines such as McCalls's and Playboy all had plenty to say about the master's newest novel, which was written in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was overwhelmingly praised as much easier to comprehend than any of his previous novels.
Perhaps the less enigmatic styling of Reivers contributed to it's popularity. As Prescott of the New York Times pointed out quite enthusiastically, "The longest sentence is only 26 lines." Others hailed the novel as a very light hearted
work. Many reviewers were quite pleased to see this particular change in the writing of Faulkner. In general, reviewers tended to agree that the novels of Faulkner had been, before Reivers, traditionally dark works. Much to the delight of many r
eviewers, Blacks and women were treated much less harshly within the context of this particular novel than Faulkner had treated them previously. Indeed, it is the rascally Boon Hogganbeck, a white, who is portrayed as a buffoon in the novel. Ned William
McCaslin, a Black (whom the fly leaf calls "a Negro"), proves to be a rather wily character. This novel leaves out women like we find in Sound and the Fury such as Mrs. Compson, a notorious hypochondriac, for virtuous prostitutes who have hearts
of gold. Perhaps readers were impressed as much as the reviewers by Faulkner's thematic diversion from the loss of the "Old South." Indeed, in this particular novel, Faulkner dwells less on the loss of the grandeur of the South of his childhood as he ha
d in any previous work. It was interpreted by many reviewers as an acceptance of the changes that the American South had undertaken. I think that all of these factors certainly contributed to making Reivers a best seller. It makes sense that a s
hift in Faulkner's writing style or thematic direction would change the sales of his work; Far more people read this different type of Faulkner than ever before.
Public Persona of Faulkner
Faulkner had been, throughout his writing career, a very private man, especially when it came to his family life. This is rather interesting considering that most of his novels are in some way genealogical of the Falkner family (he changed his name to
Faulkner after he began publishing). By the time Reivers was published, Faulkner had gained notoriety as an academically accepted writer. By 1962, his writing had helped define what we refer to now as Modernist. After winning the Pulitzer and N
obel Prizes, Faulkner became somewhat of an American ambassador to the rest of the world; during the 1950's he traveled around the globe to give speeches and meet with various dignitaries. When his final novel was published Faulkner had lived in Charlot
tesville, Virginia for many years, teaching as the writer in residence at The University of Virginia. However, the administration of The University did not hold him in as high regard as the literary world. Even in the late 1950's and early 1960's when T
he University was years from racial integration, the administration disliked Faulkner's old-school , traditional American South racial views. By the time Reivers was published, William Faulkner was a well known alcoholic and spent many separate vi
sits in sanitariums in both Mississippi and Virginia. He disliked writing Hollywood screenplays, yet composed many including an adaptation of Ernest Hemmingway's novel To Have and to Have Not; while the novel was his most successful medium in the
long run, screenplays payed much more handsomely.
I don't think that, however, that William Faulkner's public perception had much to do with Reiversbecoming a best seller. If the audience liked his personality previously, they certainly did not show it by buying his earlier books. Likewise, h
is personality as a lush and a racist did not stop the novel from becoming a best seller.
Events Contemporary to Publication
Published in 1962, Reivers coincided with the early stages of the American civil rights movement. Perhaps a novel which was, at the time, considered such a turn around from Faulkner's traditional sexism and racism inspired some sort of hope in
the reading world. Perhaps Reivers was less offensive to an increasingly liberal audience. Certainly, the novel was not a best seller because it was better written than his previous works.
Books Compared to Reivers
Reivers was most often compared by reviewers to the work of Mark Twain, specifically The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The surface comparison, I think, is quite obvious. Both novels deal with the Mississippi area. Both works are of t
he road, or travel, genre. Young White youths travel, and come of age with, older Black men in both Reivers and Huck Finn. Both novels contain many events where the characters participate in "hi jinx" and hoodwinking of other characters.
However, continuing with the tradition of addressing Reivers as a member of the entire Faulkner cannon of novels, it is important to note that this particular light hearted novel was out of character of Faulkner; Twain, on the other hand, was know
n for his role as defining the American satire. I really don't think it fair to compare Reivers to other best sellers. Faulkner was first and foremost a Modernist. With the exception of Lillian Smith's novel Strange Fruit I have yet to fi
nd an example of the Modern on the best sellers list. Perhaps there is something about Realism that appeals to the American reader, but Faulkner certainly is almost peerless (speaking of genre) among best sellers. I see more Holden Caulfield (from J.D.
Salinger's Catcher in the Rye) and Stephen Deadalus (from James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man)in Lucius Priest (the main character of Faulkner's novel) than I see Huckleberry Finn. It is, again, more appropriate to compare t
his novel to other works by Faulkner--or at least to other Modernist texts.
The most interesting comparison of Reivers to another text came, again, from the novel's 1962 reviews. That is, the comparison of Faulkner's last novel to William Shakespeare's final play, The Tempest. It has been long said that Tem
pest was, in fact, meant to be Shakespeare's farewell to play writing. Faulkner died in 1962, however was alive when the novel was published in the same year. It would not be fair, I think, to call this a farewell novel considering Faulkner did not
know that this would be his last published work. However, that this particular novel is so different than any of his previous works, it is interesting to consider that Faulkner was possibly evolving into a new type of writer towards the end of his career
. If this is the case however, literary scholars would tend to disagree; Reivers has been, in retrospect, paid far less attention to than any other novel by Faulkner since its 1962 release.
Duration of Popularity
William Faulkner's final novel did not remain on the best sellers list for more than a year. The length of it's stay may have been due to Faulkner's death shortly after the novel's publication; perhaps the authors death may have spurred sales, although
it is important to note that Reivers
was on the list before Faulkner's death. Even though it has not remained one of the more popular works in the Faulkner cannon, Reivers
has maintained a presence (however weak) in academia. This is prima
rily, I think, because Faulkner's works as a whole are looked at more than individually.
Resurgence of Popularity
This novel never returned to the best seller list after 1962. However, the novel was made into a successful feature film in 1969 starring action star Steve McQueen. I can find no increase in sales figures for this year nor evidence of the film being
market as a novel by William Faulkner. Faulkner wrote the screenplay, and his name appears so in the credits of the film.
The popularity of William Faulkner's final novel is difficult to explain. I think that it was due in large part to Faulkner actually writing something that the average American consumer of literature could comprehend. Reivers is certainly a de
parture from Faulkner's usual enigmatic and verbose style. I believe that in this novel Faulkner offered a more mellow and generally happy product than the public was used to. It is important to point out that even though this text is "watered down" Fau
lkner, it is still a Modernist text. It is not surprising, therefore, that readers of popular texts lost interest once and for all after only one year.