Forensic Fictions: The Lawyer Figure in Faulkner.

Author:Weisberg, Richard H.
 
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By Jay Watson. Athens: University of Georgia Press. 1993. Pp. viii, 277. $35.

Jay Watson(1) writes interestingly about the lawyer figure in William Faulkner. Using the helpful concept of "forensic fictions," or storytelling about the process of legal investigation, analysis, and rhetoric, his work will appeal to Faulkner scholars, as it constitutes the first book-length claim for the significance of Faulkner's interest in law. The book should also appeal to the many lawyers who already delight in Yoknapatawpha County's homegrown attorneys, litigious citizens, and horsetrading manners and mores. Watson's contribution to law-and-literature scholarship, as compared with his articulated debt to it, needs also to be considered. Before addressing this contribution and engaging his arguments, however, I will first mention two obvious paths that Watson chose not to follow.

Watson teaches English literature at Ole Miss, but he imparts no special regional flavor to his understanding of Faulkner's characters. Watson's approach relies little on biographical elements, although early in the book he mentions Faulkner's lifelong Oxford friend, lawyer Phil Stone -- in whose copies of the Mississippi Reports Faulkner found ideas for some of his wittiest tales -- and although Watson is fully familiar with such excellent Faulkner biographers as Susan Snell and Joseph Blottner.(2) More disturbingly, perhaps, Watson pays scant attention to the literary sources of so much of Faulkner's interest in law -- to such regional writers as Mark Twain, to whose Puddnhead Wilson the clever and often hilarious relation of law and literature can in part be traced.(3) Watson also largely ignores Dickens and Dostoevski, despite Faulkner's clear debt to their legalistic techniques,(4) and hardly mentions Camus's contemporaneous and arguably more powerful forensics.(5) Balanced against these omissions, however, is Watson's effective use of broader historical materials that emphasize the South's special place in the relation of law and letters.

Watson's book deals intensively with only two of Faulkner's many lawyer figures. The focus on Horace Benbow and Gavin Stevens is natural, as these are the best known and also the most widely found lawyer figures in Faulkner's fiction. Benbow's weaknesses cost an innocent client his life in Sanctuary;(6) Stevens is far craftier and quickly takes over as Faulkner's principal lawyer figure, appearing in a host of stories(7) and eventually a Hollywood film -- Intruder in the Dust 8 -- over four decades of Faulkner's productive life. But one will miss, in a volume committed to this exclusive topic, wider treatment of the significance of such characters(9) as the "little lawyer" Faulkner signals as important in Light in August,(10) the invading lawyer with "the long pale nose"(11) who stereotypically infects the courtroom in Sanctuary,(12) and the justice of the peace whose property decision in the Spotted Horses episode is so essential to lawyers who want to know Faulkner's view of legal ratiocination.(13) Moreover, other scholars have extensively analyzed Horace Benbow and Gavin Stevens along the lines of many of Watson's perceptions.(14)

Nonetheless, Watson contributes measurably to our understanding of Faulkner's legal storytelling, and he does so in both his manner and his method of textual criticism. Watson sets out to display Faulkner's sense that doing "good" -- and not just "well" -- in the law particularly requires the skill of communication, that is to say, the lawyer's immersion in the other at the moment of verbal exchange. One who, like Horace Benbow in Sanctuary, consistently fails to reckon with the rhetorical needs of his various audiences -- clients, witnesses, court, and jury -- will be both a "loser" and, more importantly, a malefactor; Gavin Stevens, on the other hand, listens, evokes, and weaves tales that affect the audience. He wins, but beyond this he teaches, he delights, and he weaves meritorious chapters into the larger story of his community.

Watson artfully imbeds strong readings of individual passages from Faulkner within a tetralogical structure that, although not apparent from his chapter headings,(15) elevates the significance of forensics in Faulkner to a virtual cultural commentary. I will employ Watson's four major themes as a structuring device to state what looms largest within his book.

(a) Cincinnatus. The legendary Roman soldier-citizen, who successfully defended his city against an invading army and then returned to private life, serves as an exhilarating model for the best in Faulkner's lawyer figures. For Watson, as for the sources on which he relies,(16) American tradition locates Cincinnatus among the ranks of practicing lawyers. The first four-score-and-seven years of the Republic produced men, from presidents on down, who saw public service in times of crisis as a natural concomitant to their often homey and highly localized law practices. A striking number of these lawyers hailed from the South, and no small percentage of them also wrote stories.(17)

Although it is easy today to be cynical about Cincinnatus -- and I will shortly wonder aloud about other of Watson's unabashed kudos to our beleaguered profession -- I believe that the image evokes what Faulkner, at least, thought of southern law at its best. Gavin Stevens, like Cincinnatus, gains not only private satisfaction from public duty but also public competence from private relationships. His is not a model for late-twentieth-century American law generally, but perhaps it should be. Our media-driven society dichotomizes the public and private worlds; lawyers, like most folks, now tend to think of their public personae as disjoined from their personal lives, which are nuclearized bastions against the difficulties of the workday or even -- to the extent they may be interesting in a Faulknerian sense -- fodder for their professional enemies if brought to the light of day. Discourse in the public arena is carefully crafted and reveals little of the richness of the individual speaker's life and mind. What an impoverishment...

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