But criticism, real criticism, is essentially the exercise of this very quality; it obeys an instinct prompting it to try to know the best that is known and thought in the world...
-- Matthew Arnold "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time" (1864)
Not long ago, when I was near the Univesity of Kentucky's campus in Lexington, I swung by the William T. Young library, hoping to take a look at something I wrote ten years ago.
On a bookshelf in the basement, I have a version of my Master's Thesis that I preserved in the most resplendent form available to my grad student means: a Kinko's strip binding.
However, I knew that unless the Graduate School took my $80 and bought a seat cushion for the basketball team, a leather bound, golden embossed copy of my contribution to English Literature rested somewhere in the tower atop the William T. Young library. After a good discussion with my former committee member, Jonathan Allison, I saddled up to a computer, looking for my manifesto.
Sadly, the as-of-yet-uncorrected misspelling in my Thesis's catalog citation ("The Yankees of Yoknapatawpha: William Faulkner and the Hartless [sic] Yankee Myth") was an inauspicious beginning to my glorious return to the halls of academia. But, having spent a solid year of my life both arriving and departing this building under starry skies, I had little difficulty ascending the steps and finding the appropriate bookshelves.
The Young library's stacks are the space-saving mechanical kind that slide back and forth--the racks compressing and decompressing like an accordion. Having found the right rack and waited for it to groan open, I slid my finger along the spines.
There it was.
No misspelling on the binding, thank God. Jason McKinley Williams in a golden sheen surely commensurate with the glorious revelations within this thin tome.
Unfortunately, when I opened it, the crisp pages crackled like those in a college dropout's Calculus book. It seems neither the world of Faulkner studies nor (shockingly) the public at large had been poring over my analysis of how Faulkner reframed popular turn-of-the-century narratives about "Bloody Reconstruction" in his own treatments of both that historical era and the desegregation struggle that filled him with both immeasurable hope and intense anxiety.
I hardly even looked at it beyond the Acknowledgments page. After all, though eighty pages and ten years in my past, I could probably recite it from memory. I slid it back into the shelf, content.
Then, my fingers crept across the names of old colleagues, and I think about those stacks of books piled up in each of the monastic cells that passed for Teaching Assistant offices (6 TA cubicles in the same space as one professor's office). I think the strain and preparation of sharing our ideas at conferences. I think of literally reams of paper crumpled and marked over--the ideas discussed over turkey sandwich lunches or beers at McCarthy's.
Though you might expect disappointment to be my appropriate response, I assure you this is not a lament. "Terminal Master's students" (as those of us not going on to Doctoral study were known) understood that after our degree comes in the mail, the best end for our scholarship was to end up in someone else's works cited page. But to stand there in those racks was simply a valuable lesson on having perspective in our daily lives. To ponder the wondrous toil and passion of those days, and see it neatly stacked in alphabetical order, resting quietly in endless row of other people's black, gold embossed legacies.
Faulkner, who wrote so prolifically and almost exclusively about the inhabitants of his fictional Yoknapatawpha County once said, "I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it."
Even if the influence of my scholarship remains limited to a few colleagues at UK and the audiences of a couple of sessions at the Twentieth Century Literature Conference, I'm very pleased at my little postage stamp of Faulkner studies. It wasn't specious, it wasn't pretentious, and it will remain my little brick in UK's symbolic tower of knowledge (at least until they clear out the Thesis and Dissertations and turn the tower into sports equipment storage or a Kindle repair shop.)
I can say I learned it, said it, finished it, and, in the end, it was the best I knew and thought.