When William Faulkner Set the World Record for Writing the Longest Sentence in Literature: Read the 1,288-Word Sentence from Absalom, Absalom!

Image by Carl Van Vecht­en, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

“How did Faulkn­er pull it off?” is a ques­tion many a fledg­ling writer has asked them­selves while strug­gling through a peri­od of appren­tice­ship like that nov­el­ist John Barth describes in his 1999 talk “My Faulkn­er.” Barth “reorches­trat­ed” his lit­er­ary heroes, he says, “in search of my writer­ly self… down­load­ing my innu­mer­able pre­de­ces­sors as only an insa­tiable green appren­tice can.” Sure­ly a great many writ­ers can relate when Barth says, “it was Faulkn­er at his most invo­lut­ed and incan­ta­to­ry who most enchant­ed me.” For many a writer, the Faulkner­ian sen­tence is an irre­sistible labyrinth. His syn­tax has a way of weav­ing itself into the uncon­scious, emerg­ing as fair to mid­dling imi­ta­tion.

While study­ing at Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­si­ty, Barth found him­self writ­ing about his native East­ern Shore Mary­land in a pas­tiche style of “mid­dle Faulkn­er and late Joyce.” He may have won some praise from a vis­it­ing young William Sty­ron, “but the fin­ished opus didn’t fly—for one thing, because Faulkn­er inti­mate­ly knew his Snopses and Comp­sons and Sar­toris­es, as I did not know my made-up denizens of the Mary­land marsh.” The advice to write only what you know may not be worth much as a uni­ver­sal com­mand­ment. But study­ing the way that Faulkn­er wrote when he turned to the sub­jects he knew best pro­vides an object les­son on how pow­er­ful a lit­er­ary resource inti­ma­cy can be.

Not only does Faulkner’s deep affil­i­a­tion with his char­ac­ters’ inner lives ele­vate his por­traits far above the lev­el of local col­or or region­al­ist curios­i­ty, but it ani­mates his sen­tences, makes them con­stant­ly move and breathe. No mat­ter how long and twist­ed they get, they do not wilt, with­er, or drag; they run riv­er-like, turn­ing around in asides, out­rag­ing them­selves and dou­bling and tripling back. Faulkner’s inti­ma­cy is not earnest­ness, it is the uncan­ny feel­ing of a raw encounter with a nerve cen­ter light­ing up with infor­ma­tion, all of it seem­ing­ly crit­i­cal­ly impor­tant.

It is the extra­or­di­nary sen­so­ry qual­i­ty of his prose that enabled Faulkn­er to get away with writ­ing the longest sen­tence in lit­er­a­ture, at least accord­ing to the 1983 Guin­ness Book of World Records, a pas­sage from Absa­lom, Absa­lom! consist­ing of 1,288 words and who knows how many dif­fer­ent kinds of claus­es. There are now longer sen­tences in Eng­lish writ­ing. Jonathan Coe’s The Rotter’s Club ends with a 33-page long whop­per with 13,955 words in it. Entire nov­els hun­dreds of pages long have been writ­ten in one sen­tence in oth­er lan­guages. All of Faulkner’s mod­ernist con­tem­po­raries, includ­ing of course Joyce, Wolff, and Beck­ett, mas­tered the use of run-ons, to dif­fer­ent effect.

But, for a time, Faulkn­er took the run-on as far as it could go. He may have had no inten­tion of inspir­ing post­mod­ern fic­tion, but one of its best-known nov­el­ists, Barth, only found his voice by first writ­ing a “heav­i­ly Faulkner­ian marsh-opera.” Many hun­dreds of exper­i­men­tal writ­ers have had almost iden­ti­cal expe­ri­ences try­ing to exor­cise the Oxford, Mis­sis­sip­pi modernist’s voice from their prose. Read that one­time longest sen­tence in lit­er­a­ture, all 1,288 words of it, below.

Just exact­ly like Father if Father had known as much about it the night before I went out there as he did the day after I came back think­ing Mad impo­tent old man who real­ized at last that there must be some lim­it even to the capa­bil­i­ties of a demon for doing harm, who must have seen his sit­u­a­tion as that of the show girl, the pony, who real­izes that the prin­ci­pal tune she prances to comes not from horn and fid­dle and drum but from a clock and cal­en­dar, must have seen him­self as the old wornout can­non which real­izes that it can deliv­er just one more fierce shot and crum­ble to dust in its own furi­ous blast and recoil, who looked about upon the scene which was still with­in his scope and com­pass and saw son gone, van­ished, more insu­per­a­ble to him now than if the son were dead since now (if the son still lived) his name would be dif­fer­ent and those to call him by it strangers and what­ev­er dragon’s out­crop­ping of Sut­pen blood the son might sow on the body of what­ev­er strange woman would there­fore car­ry on the tra­di­tion, accom­plish the hered­i­tary evil and harm under anoth­er name and upon and among peo­ple who will nev­er have heard the right one; daugh­ter doomed to spin­ster­hood who had cho­sen spin­ster­hood already before there was any­one named Charles Bon since the aunt who came to suc­cor her in bereave­ment and sor­row found nei­ther but instead that calm absolute­ly impen­e­tra­ble face between a home­spun dress and sun­bon­net seen before a closed door and again in a cloudy swirl of chick­ens while Jones was build­ing the cof­fin and which she wore dur­ing the next year while the aunt lived there and the three women wove their own gar­ments and raised their own food and cut the wood they cooked it with (excus­ing what help they had from Jones who lived with his grand­daugh­ter in the aban­doned fish­ing camp with its col­laps­ing roof and rot­ting porch against which the rusty scythe which Sut­pen was to lend him, make him bor­row to cut away the weeds from the door-and at last forced him to use though not to cut weeds, at least not veg­etable weeds ‑would lean for two years) and wore still after the aunt’s indig­na­tion had swept her back to town to live on stolen gar­den truck and out o f anony­mous bas­kets left on her front steps at night, the three of them, the two daugh­ters negro and white and the aunt twelve miles away watch­ing from her dis­tance as the two daugh­ters watched from theirs the old demon, the ancient vari­cose and despair­ing Faus­tus fling his final main now with the Creditor’s hand already on his shoul­der, run­ning his lit­tle coun­try store now for his bread and meat, hag­gling tedious­ly over nick­els and dimes with rapa­cious and pover­ty-strick­en whites and negroes, who at one time could have gal­loped for ten miles in any direc­tion with­out cross­ing his own bound­ary, using out of his mea­gre stock the cheap rib­bons and beads and the stale vio­lent­ly-col­ored can­dy with which even an old man can seduce a fif­teen-year-old coun­try girl, to ruin the grand­daugh­ter o f his part­ner, this Jones-this gan­gling malar­ia-rid­den white man whom he had giv­en per­mis­sion four­teen years ago to squat in the aban­doned fish­ing camp with the year-old grand­child-Jones, part­ner porter and clerk who at the demon’s com­mand removed with his own hand (and maybe deliv­ered too) from the show­case the can­dy beads and rib­bons, mea­sured the very cloth from which Judith (who had not been bereaved and did not mourn) helped the grand­daugh­ter to fash­ion a dress to walk past the loung­ing men in, the side-look­ing and the tongues, until her increas­ing bel­ly taught her embar­rass­ment-or per­haps fear;-Jones who before ’61 had not even been allowed to approach the front of the house and who dur­ing the next four years got no near­er than the kitchen door and that only when he brought the game and fish and veg­eta­bles on which the seducer-to-be’s wife and daugh­ter (and Clytie too, the one remain­ing ser­vant, negro, the one who would for­bid him to pass the kitchen door with what he brought) depend­ed on to keep life in them, but who now entered the house itself on the (quite fre­quent now) after­noons when the demon would sud­den­ly curse the store emp­ty of cus­tomers and lock the door and repair to the rear and in the same tone in which he used to address his order­ly or even his house ser­vants when he had them (and in which he doubt­less ordered Jones to fetch from the show­case the rib­bons and beads and can­dy) direct Jones to fetch the jug, the two of them (and Jones even sit­ting now who in the old days, the old dead Sun­day after­noons of monot­o­nous peace which they spent beneath the scup­per­nong arbor in the back yard, the demon lying in the ham­mock while Jones squat­ted against a post, ris­ing from time to time to pour for the demon from the demi­john and the buck­et of spring water which he had fetched from the spring more than a mile away then squat­ting again, chortling and chuck­ling and say­ing ‘Sho, Mis­ter Tawm’ each time the demon paused)-the two of them drink­ing turn and turn about from the jug and the demon not lying down now nor even sit­ting but reach­ing after the third or sec­ond drink that old man’s state of impo­tent and furi­ous unde­feat in which he would rise, sway­ing and plung­ing and shout­ing for his horse and pis­tols to ride sin­gle-hand­ed into Wash­ing­ton and shoot Lin­coln (a year or so too late here) and Sher­man both, shout­ing, ‘Kill them! Shoot them down like the dogs they are!’ and Jones: ‘Sho, Ker­nel; sho now’ and catch­ing him as he fell and com­man­deer­ing the first pass­ing wag­on to take him to the house and car­ry him up the front steps and through the paint­less for­mal door beneath its fan­light import­ed pane by pane from Europe which Judith held open for him to enter with no change, no alter­ation in that calm frozen face which she had worn for four years now, and on up the stairs and into the bed­room and put him to bed like a baby and then lie down him­self on the floor beside the bed though not to sleep since before dawn the man on the bed would stir and groan and Jones would say, ‘fly­er I am, Ker­nel. Hit’s all right. They aint whupped us yit, air they?’ this Jones who after the demon rode away with the reg­i­ment when the grand­daugh­ter was only eight years old would tell peo­ple that he ‘was lookin after Major’s place and nig­gers’ even before they had time to ask him why he was not with the troops and per­haps in time came to believe the lie him­self, who was among the first to greet the demon when he returned, to meet him at the gate and say, ‘Well, Ker­nel, they kilt us but they aint whupped us yit, air they?’ who even worked, labored, sweat at the demon’s behest dur­ing that first furi­ous peri­od while the demon believed he could restore by sheer indomitable will­ing the Sutpen’s Hun­dred which he remem­bered and had lost, labored with no hope of pay or reward who must have seen long before the demon did (or would admit it) that the task was hope­less-blind Jones who appar­ent­ly saw still in that furi­ous lech­er­ous wreck the old fine fig­ure of the man who once gal­loped on the black thor­ough­bred about that domain two bound­aries of which the eye could not see from any point.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

5 Won­der­ful­ly Long Lit­er­ary Sen­tences by Samuel Beck­ett, Vir­ginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzger­ald & Oth­er Mas­ters of the Run-On

Sev­en Tips From William Faulkn­er on How to Write Fic­tion

William Faulkn­er Reads from As I Lay Dying

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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