William Faulkner, John Hughes, and the 14-Year-Old Boys’ Sense of Longing

William Faulkner–August 12, 1954

For years, Emerging Civil War would commemorate July 3rd by reposting William Faulkner‘s famous sentence about Pickett’s Charge from Intruder in the Dust. I eventually gave it up because it just seemed a little too Lost Causey: “if only….!” I, for one, am thankful the Union survived. It’s something for us to think about on what is, literally, the eve of Independence Day.

But I found myself this morning, thinking about Faulkner‘s sentence and sentiment. First, I have always admired it from an artistic point of view as a well-crafted sentence on so many levels. As a sentence, it accomplishes much by its willingness to play fast and loose with grammar “rules,” intentionally breaking and bending to achieve specific effects. (I’ve written about that more extensively here.)

But the real point of the sentence, of course, is to capture that sense of possibility that still existed before Pickett’s Charge begins. In that moment of contingency, the Southern dream has not yet failed and all the possibilities are still laid out in a future that has not yet happened. Faulkner couples that with the sense of disappointment Southern whites lived with from the moment the charge was repulsed through the time Faulkner wrote that sentence 85 years later.

While there will always be a lot to unpack there, I’m thinking this morning about the tension of that inherent longing.

The late John Hughes, modern genius

My wife and I recently watched a bunch of John Hughes movies from the 80s. He’s the writer/director who gave us The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, etc. As a writer, he scripted Some Kind of Wonderful. They were movies that captured and chronicled the teenage lives of my generation. They weren’t literally true, but they sure felt true.

A key component of all those movies is the idea of “liking” someone and really, really hoping and wishing they will like you back. I would call it “unrequited love” because, at that age, it certainly feels like love. I was reminded, for instance, how fast Molly Ringwald’s character fell in love after a single date in Pretty in Pink. And I suppose, it is a kind of love for what it is, because it certainly rang true at the time to the young romantic me, although older, wizened me would  pshaw it as such today.

“Pretty in Pink”

Every 14-year-old and 15-year-old and 16-year-old boy knows that sense longing, to be so close to something you hope for, close to something you desire, and yet have it feel so far away and unattainable. There is hope and infatuation and angst and loneliness in that crush. Butterflies compete with heartbreak. (I assume that’s all true for every teenage girl, as well, but I learned as a teenager, and later as the father of a teenage girl, that I found teenage girls largely un-understandable!)

So I understand that moment Faulkner writes about, at least in more universal terms. I think about those 14-year-old boys in his sentence but also about those soldiers he writes about. But that universality also invites us to think about other longings: the soldiers longing for home, the enslaved people longing for freedom, the wife or mother or sweetheart who longs to have her loved one home, the child longing for daddy, the heartbroken longing for peace.

With each soldier death, those sorts of longings went unfulfilled. They created their own kinds of generational trauma. They triggered their own pleas of “If only…”, plaintive, mourning, wistful.

This is all, of course, a lot heavier than a nostalgic John Hughes movie, which always found some way to reach a happy ending for most of the characters. But in every one, there’s always a Jon Cryer or Michael Anthony Hall or Lea Thompson who has made a sacrifice that has left them, at the end, alone, wondering, “If only….”


Here’s a reading I did a few years ago of the Faulkner sentence at Gettysburg.

3 Responses to William Faulkner, John Hughes, and the 14-Year-Old Boys’ Sense of Longing

  1. Great insight! I think Faulkner’s writing also shows that the Confederacy as a political structure might have been defeated in 1865, but the Confederacy as an “idea” has lived long after.

    Also, awesome connection between John Hughes and William Faulkner! That’s a duo I never thought would share the same sentence let alone an ECW post!

    1. I never thought of a Faulkner/Hughes connection, either, to be honest. I suppose that’s the fun part of just letting the mind wander and then seeing where it goes!

  2. The “idea” does indeed live on. To paraphrase Robert Penn Warren it offers “a gallery of great human images for our contemplation.”

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