In his second installment of literary analysis, Lee Miller explores how surging rivers and raw humanity converge in the work of William Faulkner.
As water recedes from near record flooding of the Mississippi River this spring, residents along the “Old Man” and the Atchafalaya spillway will never forget the profound and metaphysical power that they witnessed in May 2011. Slowly rising rivers destroyed acres of farms and drove construction worker Leandro Lugo, his pregnant wife and two children from their mobile home with a pickup truck full of belongings. “We were a little frustrated at one time,” Lugo said [in USA Today], “but we couldn’t control what God has in store for us.” This same deep eternal movement of God and water is adroitly explored in William Faulkner’s forgotten masterpiece, The Wild Palms.
This original novel combines two short stories, “The Wild Palms” and “Old Man,” into one movement. “The Wild Palms” follows a disastrous love affair between Henry, an almost-graduate of medical school, and Charlotte, a married woman. Like Adam and Eve, they search for a paradise of two, traveling to a secluded cabin in Wisconsin and a Utah mining camp before returning to the Mississippi Delta. “Old Man” follows the misadventure of a Mississippi convict who is subscripted to fortify a levee against the Great Flood of 1927. As the river devours the countryside, this “tall” convict is sent out on a row boat to rescue a pregnant woman stuck in a tree. The hand of God and fate, through the powerful flood waters, carries the convict to unforeseen places and states of mind before he voluntarily returns to his prison cell.
Faulkner achieves a magical counterbalance between the two stories. Their central ideas never directly intersect, yet they constantly interlace and overlap, creating a thematic assonance. In one section, the tall convict witnesses a baby’s birth on an Indian burial mound covered with copperhead snakes that projects out of raging flood waters. This improbable victory of life counters a later section where Charlotte perishes in a vividly sterile hospital after Henry botches her abortion operation. Like an Arvo Part musical composition, each movement is interesting alone, yet transcends to a flush human experience when juxtaposed in open space. Faulkner utilizes stream-of-consciousness to punctuate the mentality of his characters, yet this literary technique is far more judiciously applied in The Wild Palms (1939) than the more incoherent and esoteric The Sound and the Fury (1929).
William Faulkner created The Wild Palms at the apex of his writing ability. He seems to know the inner feelings of the convict, Charlotte and Henry, as if he had personally experienced all of their travails. A tremendous empathy extends to the underlying rhythm of humanity, to the deep movement of water, and to the universal approach of death. As the convicts wait to work on the levee, in long lines and crowded tents, they stare over miles of open water and hear it: “What is that sound?” the tall convict asks. “Dat the Ol’ Man,” another replies simply.
Exploring elusive metaphysical and spiritual questions is one joy of reading quality literature. Great novels transport the reader to exotic settings and unique armchair adventures while exploring what it means to be human. Great books cultivate empathy from a wide range of flawed characters. One can engage a newspaper or other media for sound bytes of human experience, for timetables and statistics of the 2011 Mississippi flood. Yet to understand the unforgettable feeling of those who watched a great power displace their lives this past spring, to know a more profound empathy for Leandro Lugo and his family, read and enjoy The Wild Palms.
Lee Miller is the author of the Bengali novel Kali Sunset (www.clovercreekpress.com).