Barack Obama gave a speech today taking on the complicated history of racial relations in America. Considering the how difficult a topic this is to tackle, it was a brave move. Embedded within the speech was a quote from Faulkner, “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.”
Andrew Sullivan at The Atlantic ran a letter from a reader explaining why “what Obama was signaling – that his speech – and his candidacy – are about confronting history from a Faulknerian standpoint was, to me, the bravest thing he did.”
This famous Faulkner quote was spoken by Gavin Stevens, “the intellectual, philosophical, and deucedly clever county attorney,” according to one reviewer at the time. Stevens turns up in several works by Faulkner, including the “Snopes trilogy” (The Hamlet, The Town, The Mansion) and stories collected in Go Down, Moses and Knight’s Gambit.
Obama got the spirit of the quote right, though not quite the wording. It’s actually simpler and more stark: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” and it refers to the way in which history seemed to haunt Southerners. The quote is taken from Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun, a book that is part prose and part play, a sequel to Sanctuary, and generally not considered one of Faulkner’s best works.
Obama meant the quote in a sense that captures the spirit of Faulkner’s South, that the legacy of our country’s racial history is so present all around us that it can’t really be considered “past.” Interestingly enough, though, the phrase has been borrowed from time to time to refer to the way in which our political campaigns have a way of repeating themselves. In 2004, Robin Toner in the New York Times trotted out a variant of Faulkner’s famous line – “The past, in other words, is never really dead in presidential campaigns. It’s not even past.” – to cap off a column describing how the Republicans used very much the same gameplan in going after John Kerry in 2004 as they did Michael Dukakis in 1988.
Perhaps more relevant to the current race was the prominent placement the quote was given by Time magazine’s neocon columnist William Kristol about a year ago. His take: “For major political parties, which outlive their individual leaders and partisans, the past is never dead.” He went on to posit that the ultimate nominees 2008 campaign would be in the mold of a pair of beloved, departed politicians, Robert Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. It’s looking possible that Kristol will be half right in his guess that the RFK legacy will be filled by Obama; Fred Thompson as Reagan reincarnate is looking less prescient, however.
These examples, though they arise from a different context entirely, can nonetheless be contrasted with Obama’s wielding of Faulkner. In what might be called an echo of the central themes of his candidacy, Obama used the Faulkner quote not in terms of the political reruns that go on cycle after cycle, but in terms of facing up to – and trying to get past – a difficult history.