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You've heard of rooting for the underdog, and William Faulkner's The Unvanquished gives us the nittiest, grittiest picture of the losing team this side of the Mississippi. The 1938 novel takes place in Mississippi during and after the Civil War. In a word, the South is getting itself whupped by the Union.
The narrator, Bayard Sartoris, is a kid who's got to grow up fast to defend his home from the northern soldiers. He's also got to avenge several deaths, including (spoiler alert!) that of his father. And you thought starting high school was tough!
The Unvanquished isn't Faulkner's most famous novel, and it's not considered his best work, either (although you could cut him some slack—he'll go on to win the Nobel Prize and a Pulitzer, as well as writing American classics like The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, and Light in August).
Anyway, that's because The Unvanquished was originally written as a series of short stories that Faulkner sold individually in order to make enough money to keep working on Absalom, Absalom!, another of his masterpieces. The Unvanquished, on the other hand, is the result of his squashing all those short stories into a novel, so it's a little bit jerky at times. It also doesn't use his signature, stream-of-consciousness style or the multiple perspectives he's so famous for. Which may make it a tad easier, but you're not gonna find yourself saying "that is sooo Faulkner." Well, not as much.
What it does have is exciting, page-turning action, a look at the American Civil War from an unusual perspective, and some truly beautiful descriptions of what it's like to grow up in extreme conditions. It may not look like the life we live today, but reading it sure can give you some serious appreciation for the way history played itself out.
So: the Civil War. The South tried to secede, the U.S. didn't allow it, and everyone accepted the outcome gracefully, right? Um, nope. There is still bitter, deep resentment about the Civil War throughout the South, which you can see whenever disputes over whether to wave a Confederate flag pop up in the news. Yes, still.
Of course, many—probably most—people in the U.S. think that the Confederate flag is a racist relic of an ugly time in our nation's history. But there are other folks who see it as a way to show that they weren't beaten: that they were unvanquished. It might be hard to understand, if you don't come from that tradition. But that's what this book is for.
The Unvanquished lets us have a peek about why some Southerners were such sore losers, or never accepted their defeat. It doesn't try to pretty up the ugly parts of pre-Civil War life (like, duh, slavery), but it does let us see the deep effect that the war had on the general population. If you don't believe us, take a look at this video for a reminder of Northern General Sherman's terrifying tactics.
As perhaps you can guess, burning down houses and stealing food and livestock was tough on everyone, not just soldiers, and probably had a lot to do with Southern resentment toward the North that continues to this day. It's a tough world Faulkner is showing us in this novel, and it's one that lives on in American culture. So have a little shiver about that, and read on!
Way to go, Will
Faulkner was the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949.
Faulkner on the Web
The University of Mississippi has a whole page dedicated to their favorite son.
There are no film versions of The Unvanquished, but Faulkner did pick up extra cash writing for the movie business.
A Grouchy Interviewee
In this interview, Faulkner explains why he doesn't like interviews.
Go Ahead and Quit Your Day Job
Read about Faulkner's many jobs, and how he lost them.
A video bio of the author.
Watch Faulkner getting the Swedish prize. Hint: he was drunk at the time.
Speech, Speech, Speech!
Listen to Faulkner speaking at the University of Virginia. His voice really brings the whole "Suthen" thing to life.
William Faulkner's Nobel acceptance speech.
All Gathered Up In One Place
The first edition bunching together the multiple stories that ultimately made The Unvanquished.
A photograph of William Faulkner. Ever so dignified.