“But the days themselves were unchanged—the same stationary recapitulation of golden interval between dawn and sunset, the long quiet identical day, the immaculate monotonous hierarchy of noons filled with the sun’s hot honey, through which the waning year drifted in red-and-yellow retrograde of hardwood leaves sourceless and going nowhere.”
— William Faulkner, If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem
William Faulkner on the cover of Time magazine in 1939, the year The Wild Palms was published
Ever since I discovered his novels in the mid-1990s, when I was a college student in my early 20s, William Faulkner has been my favorite American author. I have always been a fan of formally innovative literature and I was immediately taken with Faulkner’s singular use of long, flowing sentences, multiple narrators, “stream-of-consciousness” interior monologues and, in the case of Absalom, Absalom! (my favorite of his works), the audacious juxtaposition of two separate narratives taking place many decades apart. Last month, for my recently formed “cigar and book club,” I had the good fortune to read for the first time If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, the celebrated novel that Faulkner originally published under the title The Wild Palms in 1939. If I Forget Thee, Jerusaelm was published just three years after Absalom, Absalom! and similarly alternates between two different narratives and sets of characters; being a relatively short novel that is told entirely in the third person, however, arguably makes Jersualem more accessible than its epic predecessor. Rediscovering Faulkner’s unique manner of juxtaposing multiple narrative threads got me wondering to what extent his sense of narrative structure, and that of the other “jazz age” American writers who rose to prominence in the 1920s, may have been influenced by the movies, even if only subconsciously. The cinema, the language of which had become incredibly sophisticated by the end of the silent era, must have seemed to possess an almost-magical ability to instantaneously zap viewers not only from one location to another but from one timeframe to another — in a way that had no precedent in the other narrative arts.
“Parallel editing,” also known as cross-cutting, is a technique where filmmakers cut back and forth between scenes occurring in different locations, usually to suggest simultaneous action. Although instances of the technique can be found as early as in Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery from 1903, parallel editing did not become widespread until D.W. Griffith popularized it in the mid-1910s by using it to generate suspense during climactic chase/rescue scenes (the deplorable climax of The Birth of a Nation , where the Ku Klux Klan rides to the rescue of white characters holed up in a cabin besieged by a black militia, is a good example). Griffith took the technique to greater and more ambitious poetic heights the following year with Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Through the Ages by freely intercutting between four separate stories taking place at different times throughout history: ancient Egypt during the fall of Babylon, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ at Golgotha, the massacre of the Huguenots in 16th century France, and a contemporary American story about a man wrongfully convicted of murder. Griffith’s provocative idea, so ahead of its time that it alienated contemporary audiences and resulted in costly financial failure from which the maverick director never recovered, was for viewers to infer thematic connections between the different stories based upon their juxtaposition. It is in a similar manner that Faulkner uses parallel editing in If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem a novel whose stories and characters may be unrelated on a narrative level (unlike those in Absalom, Absalom!) but are profoundly related on a thematic level.
The fall of Babylon in Intolerance
According to Faulkner expert Noel Polk: “Faulkner began work on (If I Forget Thee, Jersualem) in 1937 at first as a short story entitled ‘Wild Palms’ that was set on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Perceiving that there was material here for a longer work, he did not sell the story but began work on the novel and completed it in 1938. The typescripts and manuscripts in the Alderman Library demonstrate that Faulkner did not take two separate stories and interleave the, but rather wrote, in alternating stints, first a ‘Wild Palms’ section, then an ‘Old Man’ section. He invented the story of the ‘tall convict,’ he later said, as a counterpoint to the story of Harry and Charlotte, in an effort to maintain the intensity of the latter story without allowing it to become shrill.” Counterpoint is the operative word, for the “Old Man” sections, set in 1927, both mirror and are the polar opposite of “The Wild Palms” chapters, set a decade later. Among the points of comparison and contrast between the two stories:
— Both are about the relationship between a man and a pregnant woman (in “The Wild Palms,” the main characters, Harry and Charlotte, are romantically involved, in “The Old Man” the main characters, identified only as “the tall convict” and “the woman,” are strangers thrown together by chance).
— “The Wild Palms” begins in Louisiana before Harry and Charlotte travel out-of-state, eventually ending up in Mississippi. In “The Old Man,” the tall convict and the woman start off in Mississippi and wind up in Louisiana.
— Both stories deal with the themes of imprisonment, escape, sacrifice and redemption. In “The Wild Palms” Harry and Charlotte deliberately flee from the conformity of mainstream society and its constricting social roles (Charlotte leaves behind her husband and two young children). In “The Old Man,” the tall convict is a literal prisoner who is granted temporary freedom in order to rescue the pregnant woman who has been stranded at home by the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.
— “The Wild Palms” begins in the present, where Charlotte is on her deathbed from the abortion Harry has performed on her, before “flashing back” to tell the story of how they met and the events that led to this tragedy. “The Old Man” begins in the past, where the tall convict is temporarily released from captivity in order to help victims of the flood; but the narrative continually “flashes forward” into the future where the convict has returned to prison and is being questioned about his story by another prisoner, “the plump convict.”
— The protagonists have very different narrative arcs that nonetheless lead them to the same fate: a lengthy prison sentence. Harry is middle-class and well-educated (he nearly completed medical school) but has let his potential go to waste. He brings about the ruin of a family, and causes the deaths of his lover and unborn child. The tall convict, by contrast, is a blue-collar criminal who has “greatness thrust upon him”: he’s in jail for trying to rob a train but performs heroically in rescuing the pregnant woman, helping her give birth and delivering her to safety. He is repaid for his efforts by having 10 more years added on to his sentence.
Postscript: The most famous movie reference to If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem occurs in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless when Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg) quotes to Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) what she claims is the novel’s last line: “Between grief and nothing, I will take grief.” This isn’t quite true: it’s actually the last line of the penultimate chapter. The true last line of If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, however, would have been a perfect last line for Michel: “‘Women, shit,’ the tall convict said.”
Faulkner, William, and Noel Polk. If I forget thee, Jerusalem: the wild palms. New York: Vintage International, 1995. Print.