One Matchless Time: A Life of William Faulkner - Jay Parini (2005)
Chapter 8. Wilderness
He paddled on, helping the current, steadily and strongly, with a calculated husbandry of effort, toward what he believed was downstream, towns, people, something to stand upon, while from time to time the woman raised herself to bail the accumulated rain from the skiff.
—FAULKNER, The Wild Palms
Faulkner plunged into the writing of The Wild Palms through the spring and summer of 1938, writing the two stories that make up the novel with apparent ease. He diverted himself, on occasion, by fishing and hunting, and in early May hosted a festive fox-hunting breakfast (which featured a venison dish prepared by Estelle) at Rowan Oak, an occasion when the guests dressed up in riding outfits and costumes; the party was attended by local friends. Uncle Ned Barnett, a black family retainer for many generations, greeted those who arrived in an antique formal suit: a scene from an early chapter of Gone With the Wind. As one local man said, “I found the elite of our fair city and campus attending, and all in a very gleeful mood.”1 Faulkner himself appeared “cheerful and more talkative than usual.” This was in contrast to his usual “inward and passive” mood—what his friends and family in Oxford usually expected. Indeed, one local doctor, who sometimes looked after Faulkner, once noted that most people in Oxford “never figured out William. Sometimes he spoke, most times not. And country folk set great store in speaking on the street.”2
By June, he had more or less finished the novel, though it required another serious round of revisions. In the middle of the month, he wired his editor at Random House: NOVEL FINISHED SOME REWRITING DUE TO BACK COMPLICATIONS. SEND IT ON IN A FEW DAYS. He was, as always, typing away with two fingers, having some difficulty with the ending. After allowing Estelle to read the manuscript (she didn’t especially like the main story, about the doomed lovers, Harry and Charlotte), he packed it up in brown wrapping paper and sent the manuscript to Robert Haas, who (along with Saxe Commins) worked closely with Faulkner throughout this period and became a favorite correspondent and friend.
Meanwhile, Johncy had moved his family to Greenfield Farm, which would remain his base. Faulkner visited the farm frequently during the spring and summer, often helping with improvements on the house. A big porch was screened, and rooms were painted and repapered. Bad floorboards were replaced throughout the house. Faulkner bought a secondhand tractor, and he enjoyed riding around in the bottomlands, clearing and planting the fields. Johncy recalled that his brother left him to “do most of the work, preferring to come up with the general plans.” But Faulkner could nevertheless be seen with Jill on most weekends, walking the property, hammering in a fence post, or cutting a screen to fit a window. His interest mostly ran to the horses, which thrilled his daughter, whose love of horses never abated. “There were always horses in our life,” she recalls. “Pappy loved to ride, and loved being around horses.”3
There was a certain amount of friction over the running of the farm as plans for improvements developed. Johncy had his own ideas and would often go ahead on projects without his brother’s consent. Resentments arose, too: it was not an especially healthy situation for the younger brother of a famous man to be entirely dependent on him for a livelihood. This inherent problem was exacerbated by Faulkner’s refusal to praise Johncy for his considerable successes, as when the first crop came through and was bountiful. Faulkner responded to the news without enthusiasm: “I don’t see anything here to complain of.” This naturally led to increased tension between the Faulkners. Johncy generally found his brother totally impossible to work with: sullen, disagreeable, self-interested to a fault. That he didn’t have his brother’s full attention also irritated him.4
Faulkner was something of an anthropologist, walking the countryside near Greenfield Farm and talking to local characters, gathering their stories, which would eventually make their way into the Snopes chronicle. Johncy, throughout the spring and summer, found his brother “unusually grim” and put this down to the continuing back problem. As Faulkner explained to Robert Haas: “I have had a bad experience with my back, which has never healed. At the end of February I had the place skin-grafted. The grafts did not take. I became disgusted, I said to hell with it, let it all rot off and be damned. I was a little mad, I think, nerves frayed from three months’ pretty constant pain and inability to sleep. So I got it infected and had to have the wound scraped and constantly treated for the past two weeks, from which I am just recovering—bromides, etc.”5 He found that he could sit and type for no more than an hour at a time, and this was protracting his work in ways he had not before experienced.
The site of his accident, the Algonquin Hotel, was once again Faulkner’s home in September, when he went to New York to discuss the final shape of the manuscript with his friends at Random House. This visit lasted three weeks, and fortunately, the radiators in the room had not yet been turned on. One of the current attractions of the city was Meta Rebner, who was living there with her husband, who had been less than successful in gaining a foothold in the music business, though he did manage to accompany Isaac Stern, Ezio Pinza, and other well-known musicians now and then. The marriage had not, in Meta’s view, panned out: Rebner had failed to shoot into the skies like a meteor, and his earning capacity depended heavily on giving lessons. Meta heaped her inventory of marital problems on Faulkner, and he responded sternly. “Buck up,” he told her. “I’ve never seen you like this.”6 They met every day for a while, having drinks together in Faulkner’s hotel, and it became clear to him that Meta Rebner would in due course be available to him again, as a lover, if he wished for that outcome.
In fact, Faulkner received a frantic note from Meta after he got back to Oxford. She was leaving Rebner for good, she claimed, because “the marriage was a botch.” She needed money to get to her parents’ home in Arizona. He wired the money at once—more than she needed—and they agreed to spend a few days together in New Orleans. “We arrived in New Orleans shortly before midnight and checked into a hotel in the Vieux Carré. It was another rare manifestation of the romantic impulse in William Faulkner,” Meta wrote, “a genetic legacy from some dashing ancestor, that he would brave one of the season’s worst storms to be with the woman he loved in the beautiful city of his first youthful amours, the city where he had written Soldiers’ Pay.”7 Obviously Estelle knew nothing of her husband’s rendezvous with Meta Rebner.
Faulkner desperately needed the sexual outlet provided by Meta, but he had no intentions of disrupting his life at Rowan Oak. He brought with him a story, “Barn Burning,” that preoccupied him now. This tale about Ab Snopes and his son, eventually published in Harper’s (after many rejections by other magazines), would become one of his most widely read stories, winning an O. Henry Award for the best story of 1939. This tale set the capacious Snopes trilogy in motion, taking Faulkner back to material written many years earlier, in the unpublished Father Abraham manuscript. While in New Orleans, Faulkner also relented on changing the title of his new novel to The Wild Palms from If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem. The author much preferred the biblical title, but to Saxe Commins and others at Random House it seemed calculated to draw a small audience—as had Absalom, Absalom! The new title seemed exotic and might signal to readers that Faulkner was once again writing in the lurid vein of Sanctuary. Commins and Haas were perhaps worried about the sales of Faulkner because The Unvanquished—despite its sale to Hollywood—had sold only about five thousand copies.
The brief encounter in New Orleans with Meta appeared to stimulate Faulkner in many ways. He returned to Rowan Oak in December full of ideas for the Snopes trilogy, with plans for a first installment to be called The Peasants. Writing to Haas, Faulkner said that the story “has to do with Flem Snopes’ beginning in the country, as he gradually consumes a small village until there is nothing left in it for him to eat. His last coup gains him a foothold in Jefferson, to which he moves with his wife, leaving his successor kinsmen to carry on in the country.” He went on to outline further volumes. Number two would be called Rus in Urbe and would again focus on Flem as he begins to “trade on his wife’s infidelity” to indulge a “modest blackmail of her lover.” He rises in Jefferson society through his wiles “until he is secure in the presidency of a bank.” The final volume, Ilium Falling, would dramatize the “gradual eating-up of Jefferson by Snopes.” This remarkable letter brims with ideas for twists of plot. Faulkner’s mind was racing now, and he had a project he knew he would enjoy writing.
But what, exactly, does it mean that Faulkner’s mind now turned to Flem Snopes, to the Snopesian view of the world. I suspect it has something to do with exploring his own aggressive self. This side of him had always been there, as in the young man who determined to recover for himself the glory lost over generations in the Falkner clan. He had always loved listening to the rough country folks in the areas around Oxford, and he could easily imagine them now, in Flem and his family, as they began to gain control of the county at large. The Old South had dwindled to a few gestures and reflexive attitudes toward race and power, prestige and family relations. The Snopesian world was the modern world, in a sense; it was an American reality, truer than the cavalier tradition—which was more fantasy than fact, as few of the upper classes in Mississippi had any connection to the young aristocratic soldiers (associated with the deposed and beheaded king) who first settled in the American colonies long ago. Faulkner was able, in the Snopes trilogy, to amplify, interrogate, reify, and analyze a part of himself, and this was just the time of life to do it: he had succeeded beyond his own dreams, and he wanted to think on that success and to understand the impulses that might have led him to it.
That success was ever apparent, almost embarrasingly so, for a man who treasured his privacy as Faulkner did. The Wild Palms appeared on January 19, 1939, and a week later the author’s picture graced the front cover of Time, creating a huge upward swing in his national reputation that culminated in his election to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. (Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and John Steinbeck were also inducted that year.) Robert Cantwell, who wrote the story for Time, later recalled meeting Faulkner in the lobby of the Hotel Peabody in Memphis. “I retired to my room to wait for Faulkner,” he said. “He was dressed in a gray suit coat, and trousers that did not match it, and wore brown leather gloves. My notes on the greet card read: ‘Walks with quick short steps, very erect, head slightly thrown back. Gives an impression of slightly military self-conscious bearing. Also, quite short. Extremely thin lips concealed by his mustache. Very sharp eyes, dark. Wavy hair, now graying, gray in back. Pleasant, but not easy in his manner.’”8 Faulkner drove Cantwell back to Oxford, giving him the royal tour, which included a stop in the “old slave quarters” behind the house with the “Negro mammy, Aunt Caroline Barr.” She was described as a “bright-eyed, small, high-voiced old lady…shrewd and humorous.” They went out to Greenfield Farm, where Cantwell met the infamous Uncle Ned, “who had been Colonel Falkner’s servant, and had cared for three generations of Faulkners.” The novelist complained affectionately of his elderly retainer: “He’s a cantankerous old man who approves of nothing I do.” In effect, the mythic entourage was gathered around and would be there for American readers to savor and, of course, misappropriate. The publicity mills would never cease to grind.
The Wild Palms sold well, winning many new readers to Faulkner, even though the reviews were mediocre. The New York Times looked wanly away from the novel, noting its unpleasant characters and unreadable prose. Clifton Fadiman attacked, as usual, in the New Yorker, and Malcolm Cowley observed that the two separate stories had nothing much in common. A lot of the reviewers echoed this complaint. There was—as always—a good deal of criticism of Faulkner’s style, which Alfred Kazin once again found “tortured” in the New York Herald Tribune.9 Among the more discerning reviews was that by Conrad Aiken, who called this novel “certainly one of his finest,” although he had reservations about the style: “Mr. Faulkner’s style, though often brilliant and always interesting, is all too frequently downright bad; and it has inevitably offered an all-too-easy mark for the sharp shooting of such alert critics as Mr. Wyndham Lewis.” Aiken nonetheless saw merit in Faulkner’s “baroque” manner, which he found “as a whole” was “extraordinarily effective.” He found a “functional reason and necessity” for the way the sentences hung together, and suggested that Faulkner had designed his sentences to withhold meaning, creating a system of “confusions and ambiguous interpolations and delays, with one express purpose; and that purpose is simply to keep the form—and the idea—fluid and unfinished, still in motion, as it were, and unknown, until the dropping into place of the very last syllable.”10 In a real sense, Aiken’s view precisely nails down the virtues of Faulkner as seen by most of his later admirers.
The Wild Palms
That William Faulkner is the leading novelist of our time is a conceivable affirmation. Of his works, The Wild Palms seems to me the least appropriate for becoming acquainted with him, but (like all of Faulkner’s books) it contains pages of an intensity that clearly exceeds the possibilities of any other author.
—JORGE LUIS BORGES,
review of The Wild Palms
The Wild Palms was the eleventh novel by this highly prolific writer, and it appeared close on the heels of The Unvanquished. It represents a bold technique that was lost on many readers and reviewers at the time: the mingling of two apparently unrelated narratives into one novel. In “Wild Palms,” the title story, the author presents Harry Wilbourne, a medical internist at the end of his residency in New Orleans, who tumbles into the arms of Charlotte Rittenmeyer, a libidinous sculptor and mother of two children who is married to a sedate, Roman Catholic man who obviously doesn’t meet her emotional (or sexual) needs or respond to her artistic ambitions. The adulterous couple take off together, imagining they can simply slough off the normal restraints of middle class life in America with impunity. Obstacles get in their way, of course, including money trouble and an accidental pregnancy. The latter results in a failed abortion that leads to Charlotte’s death, by toxemia, and Harry’s incarceration.
This attempt by Harry and Charlotte to create a life that is “all honeymoon, always” leads naturally to disaster. No doubt Faulkner is pondering here the possible outcome of leaving Estelle and running away with Meta. He demonstrates to himself the disaster that would befall him by taking such an impulsive action. Certainly the ruin of Harry and Charlotte seems relentlessly pursued by the author, and there is a strong element of satire in the portrayal of their relationship, as William Van O’Connor and Edmund L. Volpe have argued.”11
O’Connor and Volpe both read Faulkner’s strangely overheated and extreme love story in the ironic context of Faulkner’s “dialogue” with Ernest Hemingway’s romance between Catherine Barkley and Frederick Henry in A Farewell to Arms, pointing out parallels and inversions. Characterizing a fundamental difference in attitude between Hemingway and Faulkner, Volpe says: “Hemingway seeks reality in the integrity of feeling; Faulkner seeks it primarily in the immutable conditions of human existence, in man’s functional relationship to nature and his fellows.”12 Thomas L. McHaney has, in his magisterial reading of this novel, found numerous parallels, in theme and style, even in specific verbal echoes, between Faulkner and Hemingway.13
The life that Faulkner’s illicit lovers choose—one of running away, to Chicago and the Wisconsin woods and to a Utah mining camp—goes nowhere pleasant. Indeed, Charlotte’s folly leads to her slow, agonizing death; Harry’s choices lead him to prison, where he must serve fifty years in the same institution to which the lead character in the contrapuntal and comic story, “Old Man,” returns by volition.
The two stories move in tandem, each reinforcing or glossing the other, as McHaney notes. He points to the “use of the motif of the circular journey” in both narratives:” ‘Wild Palms’ begins and ends on the Gulf Coast; ‘Old Man’ begins and ends in the open air penitentiary at Parch-man, Mississippi. The opening chapters of the novel, the first installments of ‘Wild Palms’ and ‘Old Man,’ both repeat this pattern. Each is a kind of miniature of the larger structure of the novel.”14
“Old Man”—the other story that makes up the novel—takes place ten years earlier than “Wild Palms,” and it tells the story of the Tall Convict, a man imprisoned for a train robbery that he planned after reading accounts of similar heists in pulp fiction (an irony Faulkner appears to savor). As his narrative begins, rain seeps into the prison, and the great 1927 flood of the Mississippi River—Old Man River, so to speak—has begun, forcing an evacuation, which in turn leads to the convict being turned loose to help search for a woman who is trapped in a tree. The woman is pregnant, which complicates the convict’s task and, of course, provides a parallel with Charlotte and Harry, for pregnancy has impeded their escape as well.
The evocative sixth section of the novel, part of the “Old Man” tale, describes the flood itself, the rescue, and the progress of the convict’s skiff in the tumult of the water, “the skiff traveling broadside then bow-first then broadside again, diagonally across the channel.”15 The prose rushes forward, mimicking the waves themselves, and the convict knows about each wave that “when it overtook him, he would have to travel in the same direction it was moving.” When the rescued woman goes into labor, the convict must ground the skiff on an Indian mound bristling with snakes; he delivers the baby himself, cutting the umbilical cord with the lid of a tin can.
Freedom comes, briefly, in the eighth section of the novel, when the convict hides in a Louisiana swamp, accompanied by an alligator hunter called the Cajun. This lasts only a while, for soon the flood reaches the bayou, and the convict, as well as the woman and her baby, must escape again. In fact, the convict wants nothing more than to get back to Parch-man Prison, with its peace and security. In the last section of this narrative, he gets ten years added to his sentence for trying to escape. In a sardonic final twist, he receives a visit, then a postcard, from his former girlfriend, who runs off with the prison guard and weirdly sends him a postcard from “Your friend (Mrs) Vernon Waldrip.”
The conclusion of the tale of Charlotte and Harry amplifies the horror of the earlier chapters, ending in Charlotte’s death and Harry’s imprisonment and, importantly, his refusal to accept bail money and the possibility of an escape to Mexico that is offered by Charlotte’s husband, Francis. Rittenmeyer then offers Harry the possibility of escape in the form of cyanide, which he can use to kill himself. Famously, Harry says that “Between grief and nothing I will take grief.”16 His argument is that he wants to possess and savor the memory of Charlotte. “Memory was just the half of it, it wasn’t enough.” That is, memory needs incarnation: “Because if memory exists outside of the flesh it wont be memory because it wont know what it remembers.” “Harry Wilbourne is not the likeliest hero in fiction,” McHaney writes, “yet he makes a choice Faulkner approved: he takes life over death.”17
The Wild Palms, now usually known under the original title preferred by Faulkner, If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, has somewhat uncertainly held its place in the Faulkner canon. “From the time it was published in January 1939,” says Daniel J. Singal, “debate has raged about its structure, quality, and meaning.”18 The subject matter, adultery and abortion, didn’t help matters in the period: Faulkner once again was seen as a risqué writer, flaunting social norms. Gradually, however, it was noticed that while Faulkner’s characters indulged in sexual experience outside of marriage, they were duly punished in the end. But how to regard Charlotte? As a horrible wife and mother who abandons her devout husband and children? As a libertine who deserves what she gets? As a rebel artist who defies conventional values and bourgeois ideas and thus becomes a pioneer in the liberation of women from conventional roles? (McHaney points out that Charlotte strongly resembles Tennessee Mitchell, his former wife, a sculptor who had also been married to the poet Edgar Lee Masters. The latter, in his memoirs, describes her—unfairly, her diaries suggest—as “a sort of congenital nymphomaniac.” The plotline of her relationship with Masters seemed remarkably like the plotline of “Wild Palms,” and includes retreats into the woods and time spent on a river up in Michigan.)19
In both narratives, there is is unquestionably a strong undertow of satire, even comedy. In “Old Man,” the humor is apparent, and rather benign; in “Wild Palms,” Faulkner seems a little uncertain of his tone, at times emphasizing the silliness and ineptitude of the lovers, at other times seeming to ennoble them through their obvious (if self-induced) suffering. My guess is that Faulkner, like most writers, worked from many different internal sources, and that these were not always sustained by a single vision. He was not really sure about himself: Should he have run away with Meta? He didn’t, of course, so he probably couldn’t. His commitments to a certain way of life were profound, and this entailed a vision of family and community that he did not feel at liberty to interrupt. With a part of his novelistic mind, he condemns Harry and Charlotte, and he makes them pay hugely for their behavior. But there is another part of him that relishes their behavior, that wants them to break away, to ruin lives if necessary, to pursue their dreams, however foolishly. Perhaps these conflicting elements in the narrative cannot, and should not, be reconciled.
This novel was largely ignored for twenty years, but in the sixties and seventies, sympathetic critics began a reappraisal. McHaney published his book-length study of the novel in 1975, tracing parallels between the contrapuntal narratives and establishing the importance of the work in Faulkner’s writing. That Faulkner intended these parallels is reinforced by Noel Polk’s definitive edition of If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, for the Library of America, where (following the lead of McHaney) he concludes that Faulkner didn’t write these stories separately and then interleave them; instead, he wrote them together, the two stories weaving in and out of his mind as he worked. That later editors, such as Malcolm Cowley, saw fit to disentangle them amounts to nothing less than an outrage.
The novel has also proved amenable to analysis by feminist critics in recent years, largely because the portrait of Charlotte raises all sorts of alluring questions; she is portrayed with a respect, as one critic notes, that is “absent from his treatments of other sexually active and assertive and intelligent women.”20 Though she pays heavily for her choices, Charlotte remains a rather impressive figure, one who manages to sway the more timid, less worldly Harry to her way of seeing things. In this, the novel may also be read, as a number of critics have recently done, as a “conversion tale,” although one in which Faulkner’s characters reach through a veil of illusion to find “truth” but without hope of redemption.21
From a biographer’s viewpoint, the novel seems strongly to suggest that Faulkner was looking for ways to think about his disastrous love for Meta, and possibly Helen Baird as well: the novel opens in Pascagoula, the site of his unhappy affair with Baird (and his honeymoon with Estelle). Writing to Joan Williams, a younger lover, in 1952, Faulkner would reflect back on this novel painfully: “Suddenly I remembered how I wrote The Wild Palmsin order to try to stave off what I thought was heart-break.” He consoled himself: “It didn’t break then and so maybe it wont now.”22 Meta herself understood that Faulkner was torn between her and Estelle, but she also understood his value system: “The pull to Oxford and the Faulkner way of life was greater than to me. Everything at Rowan Oak, even the wife…whose weaknesses bound him to her, drew him away from me.” That Harry, in the end, chooses to devote himself to the memory of his lost love, making a fetish of his grief, suggests that Faulkner saw himself, in 1939, as having to act in a similar way.
He clearly would not, like Harry, run away from a home that meant so much to him, despite the difficulties of his marriage; instead, he would dwell in the memory of Meta (and, less importantly, Helen Baird), writing out of his despair and frustration. As Singal reminds us, it was Charlotte who made the decision to leave her family, not Harry; so Faulkner is reversing things here. Perhaps even more importantly, it is Charlotte who stands in for the artist, being herself a sculptor. More than that, she is a modernist artist who says: “I don’t want to copy a deer. Anybody can do that.” Rather, she hopes to copy “the motion, the speed” of life, which is exactly what Faulkner does in his fluid fiction, which depends for its aesthetic effects on movement, on the sense of characters in action, moving from interior life to exterior life, from emotional state to state as well as from physical state to state. Faulkner self-referentially calls Charlotte “a falcon,” someone who can soar above the real world. Crows and sparrows may get “shot out of trees or drowned by floods,” Harry says, “but not hawks” like his lover.23
From his first novel through The Wild Palms, Faulkner alludes to characters as birds rather frequently, and the hawks are always the artist-types, his favorites. Charlotte is, Singal suggests, “the brave Cavalier updated and translated into the terms of the new culture,” and she represents a figure of the modern artist, who in Faulkner’s world recalls those brave (or foolish) Civil War heroes who could charge a line of Union soldiers on horseback without regard for their own lives. Certainly, Faulkner himself seems to have identified with these types and charged ahead himself, regardless of the consequences, on many occasions.
One cannot help but recall that Faulkner had come through difficult financial straits in the months before writing this novel. The memories of this crisis were fresh as he worked, and the novel tingles with awareness of the important role that money plays in the life of the artist, in the lives of couples whether in love or not. Charlotte, as the artist figure, takes over the masculine role of earning money (in the Chicago scenes), in yet another of Faulkner’s gender-bending moves. She seems masculine to the fingertips, from her role as seducer to her frank, unemotional self-presentation. The author notices her “blunt, strong, supple-fingered” hands and suggests at several points that she won’t fit into traditional categories. She likes to be called Charley instead of Charlotte, and Harry straightforwardly calls her “a better man” than he is.
She eventually teaches Harry how to live, “to be alive and know it.” This is existential knowledge of the most intimate kind, as Sartre and Camus understood. McHaney points out that Harry undergoes a kind of “rebirth” through his relationship with Charlotte, and over nine months of intimacy even seems to stop worrying about money. After his anguished tutelage, he seems able to live for the sake of life itself, in the moment.24
It may be that Faulkner was talking to himself in this regard, trying to coax himself into living as an artist, without regard for money and responsibility. That he could not do so remains obvious: he chose, always, to supply the money for himself and his extended family and friends, to assume the role of patriarch, and to worry fiercely about his income and status in the community. But he must have worried about this behavior, and certainly understood that an artist must, on some level, obtain a degree of emotional freedom from the usual constraints of bourgeois life. He did so, periodically, and often used alcohol to escape from his unpleasantly mixed emotions. He somehow managed to balance life and art, staying true to his artistic vision while, as a true gentleman, denying himself the freedom of the artist that Charlotte demands for herself.
“Old Man” seems less obviously rooted in biography, yet it contains some of Faulkner’s most engaged writing and may reflect the author’s longing for the prison of his own solitude, a yearning that corresponds to the Tall Convict’s wish to return to Parchman (after parchment?) Prison, where he can enjoy the regulated life of the prisoner. The Warden tells him when he returns: “They are going to have to add ten years to your time.” And he responds almost eagerly: “All right.” He is relieved of having to live his life in that constantly moving stream, having to deal with birth and death, with risk and mutability. He is, like Faulkner, a man resigned to his fate and willing to accept it. Faulkner may himself have more in common with the Tall Convict than with Harry or Charlotte. He has made his choice: the desk at Rowan Oak and the marriage bed as well. He will accept whatever consequences result from his choices. Much like the Tall Convict of his story, he will say “All right,” although he will not cease to flee from this choice the rest of his life, even as he insists on it.
Friends in Need
I own a larger parcel of [land] than anybody else in town and nobody gave me any of it or loaned me a nickel to buy any of it with and all my relations and fellow townsmen, including the borrowers and frank spongers, all prophesied I’d never be more than a bum.
—Faulkner to Robert Haas, June 7, 1940
In March, Faulkner discovered that his old friend Phil Stone had come on hard times. Stone was being sued, having inherited from his father and brother an estate that was harshly encumbered. His own mental condition was fragile; his wife, Emily, worried that he could not continue for long in his present state of anxiety, and she mentioned to Faulkner that their financial situation was dire. As was typical of him, Faulkner would never desert a friend, even though his own finances had once again turned shaky. But loyalty ranked among his finest traits, and Phil Stone—despite the fact that he had not been in Faulkner’s good graces during the past decade—had stood up for him on many occasions; so Faulkner loaned him the money to pull himself out of debt. He also continued to send small gifts of cash to Meta Rebner, who had temporarily returned to her husband, hoping the marriage might be rehabilitated.
For all his loyalty to friends and relations, the good citizens of Oxford still found him strange. The Eagle suggested, cynically, that his work was “vurry vurry high-brow” and wondered why he continued to write unpleasant things about them. “I think they remained deeply suspicious,” said his daughter, “right up until he won the Nobel Prize, maybe after that.” The mere fact that Time, a major middle-brow magazine, had devoted a cover story to him, didn’t change the mind of townsfolk, who began to worry about the tourists, who now came in increasing numbers to observe the little town that had become Jefferson.
Never one to rest on his laurels, Faulkner plunged ahead with the first volume of his Snopes trilogy during the winter and spring of 1939, writing with intensity, often completing five or six pages a day in his tiny handwriting. It was about this time that he discovered a brand of pipe tobacco that would give him considerable pleasure over the next decades, and doubtless contribute to his relatively early death. It was called A10528, a mixture of aromatic tobacco produced by Alfred Dunhill of London. Faulkner loved tobacco almost as much as he loved whiskey and horses: they were all parts of his authentic gentlemanly profile. One often sees pictures of Faulkner with a pipe in hand, especially in later years.
It was clear by April that The Wild Palms had become a strong seller. Bob Haas reported in April that sales had averaged about a thousand per week and would soon outdo Sanctuary. Faulkner’s finances should have been eased by this, but his commitment to Phil and Emily Stone was such that he would need even more cash than the royalties promised. In early May, he made several trips to a bank in Memphis, hoping to arrange a loan as well as cashing in one insurance policy in order to pay premiums that had come due on two other policies. He also continued to extract sums beyond whatever they owed him from Random House. “You know we’ll do anything we can to help,” Haas wrote to reassure his anxious author.25
In the meanwhile, Faulkner’s reputation continued to solidify, with a long piece by Conrad Aiken (his constant reader) appearing in November in the Atlantic. Written by someone with considerable authority as poet, novelist, and critic, the article deals frontally with the difficulties and distractions of Faulkner’s style, noting the “uncompromising and almost hypnotic zeal” with which the author “insists upon having a style, and especially of late, the very peculiar style which he insists upon having.”26 Aiken refers to the “exuberant and tropical luxuriance of sound” in the sentences, comparing it to European jazz. He says that Faulkner makes the reader “go to work” in order to understand what his fiction is about. Like Henry James, Faulkner’s writing makes it impossible to distinguish “between theme and form.” Most important, “he is not in the least to be considered as a mere ‘Southern’ writer: the ‘Southernness’ of his scenes and characters is of little concern to him, just as little as the question whether they are pleasant or unpleasant, true or untrue.” He praises Faulkner’s sense of form and makes comparisons with Balzac. “All that is lacking,” he says, “is Balzac’s greater range of understanding and tenderness, his greater freedom from special preoccupations. For this, one would hazard the guess that Mr. Faulkner has the gifts—and time is still before him.”
With this praise to lift him as he worked, Faulkner chipped away at The Hamlet, which he was now calling The Peasants. In this, he offered a nod in the direction of Balzac, whom he had specifically in mind as a model as he created the huge panorama of Yoknapatawpha County. This is important, because it points to the European lineage of Faulkner’s fiction, his self-conscious identification with a Continental model. The point was not, of course, lost on the Continent, where Faulkner began to be ranked with the great modernist writers of the day: Joyce and Mann, Proust and Gide. The “Southern angle,” which had at first consigned Faulkner to the manila folder marked “regionalist,” no longer seemed to taint Faulkner’s work; like Balzac, he was universalizing reality, staying small to go large.
If one judges only from his correspondence during this period, the latter half of 1939, it would seem that Faulkner was still preoccupied with money. The efforts to help Phil Stone, in combination with unexpectedly large expenses at Greenfield Farm and Rowan Oak, left him once again frightened about his ability to earn a living as a writer of fiction. He was, in a sense, only cash poor. He owned a lot of land, including a a big house in Oxford and a sizable farm as well as the Bailey’s Woods. He continued to beg for sums of money from Random House, and he circulated new stories to the highest paying magazines, such as the Saturday Evening Post, usually without luck. He tried to get Howard Hawks to bring him back to Hollywood at one point, but his reputation for drinking had made that difficult. Studios had begun to notice that his contributions to scripts were rather indirect, and that he was never the primary writer. (Word about his drinking habits had also begun to circulate, frightening off producers.) So Faulkner would have to rely on his novels and stories after all.
He worked throughout the year on The Peasants, soon to be retitled The Hamlet. The writing seemed to please him, and Random House remained a loyal publisher, offering encouragement and cash advances. An early version of the novel arrived on the desk of Saxe Commins on December 20. Dedicated to Phil Stone, who was currently on his mind, the novel interweaves a sequence of stories. Some of these had been written as early as 1931, although all were heavily revised. What the manuscript shows once again is that Faulkner’s imagination worked by returning to earlier scenes of inspiration, with rewriting as important as writing. He was, at heart, a revisionist, concerned with retelling stories more than telling them. “He worked in the Southern tradition of narrative,” noted Robert Penn Warren, “and this involved remaking what was made, turning a story over in your mind, finding new angles, embellishing, exaggerating, making transformations and substitutions, deepening character and motive.”27
The darkening cloud over Europe, and the possibility that the United States would be drawn into a war of massive and devastating proportions, seemed far from Faulkner’s mind at the moment, though he made a gesture in the direction of politics when he responded to a request to aid the Spanish Loyalists by donating the manuscript of Absalom, Absalom! to someone who was raising money for that cause. In an unusual gesture, Faulkner also went on record as being “unalterably opposed to Franco and fascism, to all violations of the legal government and outrages against the people of Republican Spain.”28
A milestone in his life came at the end of January, when Mammy Callie died; she was perhaps a hundred years old (her actual birthdate remains in question) and still living in a small house behind Rowan Oak. Having only recently ceased to work actively around the house, she continued to help with the cooking and spent a good deal of time with Jill. She had raised Faulkner as a child, and, as noted earlier, he felt deeply connected to her; indeed, versions of Mammy Callie, as in Dilsey (from The Sound and the Fury), haunt his fictional world. Her death came as a stinging blow, though it had long been expected. “She meant so much to the family, and to Pappy,” Jill reflected. Faulkner himself gave the eulogy, with tears brimming his eyes and flooding his cheeks. The Commercial Appeal, a Memphis paper, recorded his words about Mammy: “She had the handicap to be born without money and with a black skin and at a bad time in this country. She asked no odds and accepted the handicaps of her lot, making the best of her few advantages. She surrendered her destiny to a family. That family accepted and made some appreciation of it. She was paid for the devotion she gave but still that is only money. As surely as there is a heaven, Mammy will be in it.”29 After this heartfelt eulogy, a choral group recruited from three black churches sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” at Faulkner’s request. The hymn had always been a favorite of Mammy’s.
Harold Ober was acting as Faulkner’s agent in New York now, and he managed to relieve his author’s immediate financial crisis with the sale of a story, “A Point of Law,” to Collier’s for one thousand dollars. The sale encouraged him to keep at writing stories, and he produced some new ones, including “Gold Is Not Always” and “The Fire on the Hearth,” a lengthy tale that grew out of “A Point of Law” and begins the saga of the McCaslin family, which would unfold in the improvisational sequence called Go Down, Moses. Another new story (written during the first two weeks in March) was called “Pantaloon in Black.” It was sent to Collier’s, which agreed that it was among the strongest pieces of fiction they had seen from Faulkner, but still rejected it, considering it “not for their readers.” This rejection frustrated its author, who wanted the money more than the publication. He was once again, it seemed, spiraling into a cycle of anxiety and depression linked to the need for money.
During March the first copies of The Hamlet appeared at Rowan Oak. Faulkner awaited the reviews more nervously than usual, aware that sales might well depend on them. Typical of the responses to this book was that by Columbia University professor Fred Dupee, who wrote in the New York Sun on April 2, 1940: “In The Hamlet Faulkner’s anger at humanity has put forth another bitter flower. All the usual Faulknerian passions are in it, but primarily it is a tale—or string of anecdotes—about money, greed and rapacity as typified by a family named Snopes. The weasel-like Snopeses lurked in the background of several of Faulkner’s early novels. Here they swarm out of their holes and literally overrun the country.”30 Dupee praised Faulkner as “the most brilliant and fertile novelist in America today.” The well-known Burton Rascoe, a New York critic, complained in the American Mercury that Faulkner was generally “praised by people who haven’t the vaguest notion what he is writing about,” while the Times Literary Supplement moaned that Faulkner was “more nearly unreadable in this new novel than in any previous one.”31 Even a great supporter like Robert Penn Warren found many problems with the formal structure of the work, writing: “In the previous novels, as Conrad Aiken has pointed out, Faulkner has exhibited a concern very much like James’s concern with fictional organization. His movement has not been linear, but spiral, passing over the same point again and again, but at different altitudes. From this method has derived the peculiar suspense which is present in Faulkner’s best work. But in The Hamlet there is no such central suspense; the various stories refer, finally, to Flem, the various contrasts are patterned about the theme, but in comparison with Light in August, for instance, the effect is loose and casual.”32
It’s a humorous book—I mean it’s a tribe of rascals who live by skullduggery and practice it twenty-four hours a day.
—FAULKNER, Lion in the Garden
The Hamlet marked a return to earlier obsessions and characters as well as a break from the personally difficult material of The Wild Palms. As noted above, the return to Flem and the Snopesian world can be seen as explorations of a part of the author’s deepest self, a way of coping with modern life as it presented itself to him and as he moved through it. Faulkner’s view of the novel as “a humorous book” seems right, too, especially if we think of comedy as tragedy gone wrong. That is, the tragic elements are normalized here and given a twist that makes them accessible, and bearable. The novel itself is really sequence of stories, full of hyperbolic storytelling in the tradition of the tall tales that kept families in the South and Southwest entertained by the fireplace in the years before television put a bullet into the national brain.
Father Abraham—that quarry of anecdotes and characters written in the mid-twenties—had contained passages about the Snopes clan, some of whom lived at the edges of Faulkner’s writing throughout the late twenties and thirties. Indeed, Faulkner had already written a series of stories about this entertaining if horrible family, who descended on Yoknapatawpha County from nowhere, poor sharecroppers become small-time crooks and businessmen, rising through the social ranks of Jefferson, eventually gaining a foothold in society. In many ways, their story is pretty much the American dream. The Snopeses are immigrants, resented at first, vilified as outsiders, considered dirty and corrupt by the classes in control, then gradually assimilated. It therefore seems a bit simplistic to consider the Snopeses “evil,” as early commentators often did.
Flem Snopes, the wily character at the center of The Hamlet, certainly has few redeeming features, apart from doggedness and singleness of vision. His only wish is to make a buck, by whatever means are available to him, no matter what the human cost. He is, as Cleanth Brooks suggests, “pure single-minded acquisitiveness.”33 The novel might be regarded as an ironic version of the popular Horatio Alger story, a tale about a young man who conquers the system, rags-to-riches style, and marries the boss’s daughter. Flem’s story may be central—thematically—to The Hamlet, but his tale doesn’t have the raw dramatic appeal that marks some other narrative veins in this novel.
This is not really a novel but a collection of stories, not unlike The Unvanquished. To make this book, Faulkner revised numerous old stories and bits of stories, including “Spotted Horses” (1931), “The Hound” (1931), “Lizards in Jamshyd’s Courtyard” (1932), “Fool about a Horse” (1936), and “Afternoon of a Cow.” If the novel has any unity, it involves the contrasting themes and tones of these various stories, which form a pattern and create a definite impression.34 For example, the unrelenting drive of Flem Snopes to add to his personal bank account finds a remarkable contrast in the unrelenting drive of Labove, the schoolteacher, to get himself through the university, even though he seems to have disliked the books he has read. Labove is a name that seems to combine a version of “love” and “above,” which seems wonderfully apt, given the abstract nature of his affection for a girl in his class, a “heady” love that leads to his downfall. He is a fierce ascetic, too, “a militant fanatic who would have turned his uncompromising back upon the world with actual joy.”35 His natural integrity, though disfiguring in its way, is prodigious, opposing Flem’s expediency and lack of integrity, which also disfigures.
Faulkner writes well about obsessions, especially those of a carnal nature, and The Hamlet brims with earthly passions—some requited, others not. One of the central female characters in the novel is Eula Varner (later Snopes, wife of Flem), who excites passion in all men who enter her magnetic field. As a young teen, she drives poor Labove mad; he is likened to “a man with a gangrened hand or foot [who] thirsts after the axe-stroke which will leave him comparatively whole again.”36 Mink Snopes, a fascinating if crude fellow, falls in love with a nymphomaniac, while Ike Snopes (another of Faulkner’s sacred idiots) falls in love with a cow. The macho Jack Houston, whose cow so attracts young Ike, himself falls in love with a former schoolmate, Lucy Pate, who is killed by the powerful (and blatantly symbolic) horse that he buys her for a wedding present. He grieves over this loss a full four years “in black, savage, indomitable fidelity.” Prudish reviewers, always on the lookout for depravity in Faulkner, found a lot of material here to whet their appetites.
The novel becomes a sequence of contrasting or parallel stories, moving on different levels of society, all yoked by the spirit of the place, Frenchman’s Bend, a settlement that arose around Will Varner’s general store and a cotton gin, “a section of rich river-bottom country lying twenty miles southeast of Jefferson,” as we learn in the opening sentence. The Bend is the site of a pre-Civil War plantation, with its gutted shell of a big house, fallen stables, and cabins for the slaves out back. It’s a familiar sight in Faulkner: the ruins of the slave system, the ruins of great wealth extracted from slaves. The landscape has been hewn from the jungle of cane and cypress—a tangle of vegetation; now it has returned to this tangle, and the human lives growing up here amid the tangle are themselves tangled, if not strangled, by their elemental power, the drives toward eros and thanatos that consume them.
Faulkner counterpoints these basic drives rather brilliantly. The lust of men for Eula, the lure of Lucy Pate for Houston, the nymphomaniac for Mink, and Jack Houston’s cow for Ike, all exist against the spiritual extinction of Labove, the brutal death of Lucy Pate, and the murder of Houston by Mink (because Houston took possession of his scrub yearling), which includes a scene of brutal defilement as Mink tries to pound the slime-covered, decaying corpse of Houston into the hollow of a pin oak to hide his crime. The stink of death pervades many of these pages, although there is often a comic element—almost a giddiness—present at the same time. Faulkner layers scenes of bawdy or exaggerated humor against the gothic scenes of murder and desecration. So the murder of Houston offers a contrast to the riotous horse auction in the fourth section or the ludicrous but parodic search for buried pre-Civil War treasure at the end.
One quickly comes to like Ratliff, a sewing machine salesman, with his affable face and “pleasant, lazy, equable voice.” He observes the goings on around him with a kind of generous detachment and shows himself a kind man at times, as when he takes in the wife and children of Mink Snopes, supplying them with overcoats. He is also smart, in a worldly sense, able to spot falsity and ruse at some distance. That he is finally bested by Flem Snopes in a trade that is the springboard to great success for Flem seems mildly implausible. But plausibility is never a deciding factor in Faulkner, who made no attempt at verisimilitude in his fiction. Ratliff’s duping is further evidence, perhaps, that the tribe of Snopes cannot be underestimated. Quite intentionally on Faulkner’s part, Flem and Ratliff form a study in contrasts, with Flem being icy and unloving where Ratliff is warm and considerate. Flem wears cheap white shirts (that easily get filthy) and machine-made bowties; Ratliff prefers comfortable blue shirts of the kind worn by local farmers. The opposition of these figures creates tension in the novel and gives the book a narrative arc of sorts.
Rather than seeing The Hamlet as a failed novel, it should be regarded as a cleverly entertaining portrait of life at Frenchman’s Bend, with its utterly wild, shocking, amusing stories of passion and depravity, love and loss, scheming and generosity. The writing is more accessible than in many of Faulkner’s earlier novels, with a fresh, vivid air. Several characters in the mix—Ratliff, Ike, Mink Snopes, Eula—are among the most memorable of Faulkner’s vast catalogue of creations, drawn from the population of country people who lived on the fringes of Yoknapatawpha (rather like the characters in As I Lay Dying, some of whom put in an appearance here, such as Tull and Bookwright). Flem Snopes fails to dominate the narrative and that seems appropriate in this ironic story about a small-time capitalist who succeeds in spite of his unconvincing presentation. Flem’s life and times are an implicit critique of the American system and a send-up of the Horatio Alger story that continued to captivate Faulkner’s fellow citizens.
The novel ends with Flem’s ascendance, his pockets full of change, a beautiful wife at his side. He is heading into town: “Snopes turned his head and spat over the wagon wheel. He jerked the reins slightly. ‘Come up,’ he said.” What happens to him in Jefferson is the subject of The Town, the second novel in the Snopes trilogy, but interested readers had to wait seventeen years for the sequel.
Black and White
The only fighting anywhere that ever had anything of God’s blessing on it has been when men fought to protect does and fawns.
—FAULKNER, Go Down, Moses
One has to wonder if Faulkner didn’t envy Flem Snopes. The man seems unfazed by anything, even his most miserable foibles and afflictions. The fact that he is sexually impotent—as we learn in The Town—doesn’t appear to trouble his wife, who is generally as unfazed as her husband by the ups and downs of life. Snopes feels no allegiance to the culture that sustains him, the community that empties its pockets on his behalf. He can swindle and cheat with impunity. He feels no burden of the past and is oblivious to ancestors, history, previous deeds. His morality is wholly expedient: he does whatever it takes to make a profit, to climb another step on the social ladder. He may be a rueful joke to his neighbors, but he doesn’t care what they think. He takes them to the cleaners.
Faulkner could not have been more different. The past haunted him, challenged him, goaded him into action. He was living in the shadows of the Old Colonel and the Young Colonel. He had a vision of antebellum luxury and superiority that he wanted, above all else, to re-create in his daily life. As a result, he spent money he didn’t have, adding to Rowan Oak, improving his study, making his life conform to some ideal. The film Gone With the Windhad recently appeared, taking the nation by storm. Faulkner didn’t need to see it. It was his life’s story.
Flem was a perpetual motion machine, and here he has something in common with his creator. Faulkner had, indeed, spent the past year watching his bank account dwindle. Now he returned to old schemes to increase his income. He decided to spend six months of the year writing stories to make money, thus giving him leisure in the latter six months to write whatever he liked, even if it might not sell. His eye was mainly on the Saturday Evening Post, which had accepted his stories in the past. He began working on a series of stories about hunting, recalling “The Old People,” which he’d written a year before. That evocative tale was set at the hunting camp of Major de Spain and brought into play several hunters: Sam Fathers, Boon Hogganbeck, and Ike McCaslin. He had written well there, and elsewhere, about the Beauchamp family, which included black and white members, and the legends of that clan began to grow in his imagination. With astonishing rapidity, the outline of Go Down, Moses formed in Faulkner’s head as he saw a way to combine several new stories to make a book along the lines of The Unvanquished—a sequence of linked tales—but centering on the issue of race.
Financial woes continued to plague him through 1940 and 1941. He had done a poor job of estimating taxes during the boom years of the late thirties, when Hollywood had funneled large sums into his bank account. In 1940, back taxes came due, giving Faulkner a nasty shock. The problem was that he’d spent the money, and his income had fallen dramatically, to under four thousand dollars a year. The weight of these financial problems grew heavier and heavier and soon had an impact on his writing. The initial burst of creativity that marked the winter and early spring of 1940, when much of Go Down, Moses was written, gave way in later spring and summer to a strange lethargy and depression. Faulkner attempted to break from these bleak moods by drinking, which of course only worsened the situation.
“He went on binges,” said his daughter, Jill. “He would suddenly withdraw from the family and begin to drink. He could become quite violent during these binges, which could last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. We had to keep away from him, and there were a couple of men assigned to keep him from us, to protect us. He would drink till he collapsed, and when he woke up, he would drink again, till he collapsed again. There was no way of knowing when the whole thing would come to an end, but it would. He would go into the kitchen, pour himself a big bowl of Worcestershire sauce and raw egg. He’d drink that—a purgative. That would signal the end of the binge. After that, he would return to his usual drinking habits, just a drink or two before dinner, some wine with dinner, nothing more. When he wasn’t on a binge, he could be quite disciplined about his drinking.”37
It may seem odd that Faulkner had a couple of black servants who could devote themselves to him during these “down” periods, but this was another world. The Old South lived on, in various traditions and habits. Faulkner was still able to expect a supporting cast of servants, a number of men around the house to assist with tasks, a cook, maids, babysitters. These were hardly salaried positions, as noted earlier: Faulkner gave them their room and board and a little spending money. They expected him to pay their bills. He fulfilled his obligations to them, as had the Old Colonel and the Young Colonel before him. He also helped his mother, whose meager savings had been erased by the Great Depression. In addition, he paid a salary to his brother Johncy, at Greenfield Farm.
He managed to eke out two stories before the end of 1940: “Go Down, Moses,” the title story of his next book, and “Delta Autumn,” written just before Christmas. But the holidays were dark on two fronts, with his finances dwindling and the war in Europe widening every day. Faulkner could no longer concentrate on writing and diverted himself as best he could with a variety of activities that included flying and sailing. After the attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent U.S. entry into the war, he began to entertain old notions of military valor, letting his imagination roam. On March 21, for example, he wrote to Bob Haas: “I am flying fairly steadily, still very restless. Civilian Pilot Training is not enough. If I had money to take care of my family and dependents, I would try for England under my old commission. Perhaps I can yet. I could navigate, or teach navigation, even if I could not fly service jobs because of my age.”38
Random House responded well to his proposal for the book that became Go Down, Moses, sending Faulkner a small advance, which was welcome. As he explained to his agent, Harold Ober, “When I wired you I did not have $15.00 to pay electricity bill with, keep my lights burning.” He also received payment for the title story of the book, which appeared in Collier’s. Encouraged by this, he wrote another tale, “The Tall Men,” which would bring into play some of his deepest political convictions with an explicitness not previously seen in his fiction.
The story concerns the white hill people that he admired, an independent-minded strain of the local population. Politics had begun to seep into the lives of these people, who had previously lived on the fringes of society, unaffected by world events. Now the war raged in Europe and the Pacific, and the government was coming after the McCallum boys, who had unintentionally failed to register for the draft. The federal agent encounters a grisly scene: the father of the boys has had his leg so badly mangled in a mill accident that it has to be amputated. At their father’s behest, the boys go to Memphis to enlist. Unlike other Faulkner stories, this tale contains lots of incidental talk about the current political situation, as when the investigator complains about country people who “lie about and conceal the ownership of land and property in order to hold relief jobs.” That assumption, easily made, is undermined when he discovers the truth about the McCallums, who had actually refused a federal subsidy for their crops. They didn’t want the federal government meddling in their lives, trying to control how they worked their land.
In his memoir, Johncy later spoke of Faulkner’s feelings about the federal government and the New Deal during this period. “Bill had watched the W.P.A. bring our independent hill farmers into town and transform them into recipients of public handouts,” he wrote. “He didn’t like what he saw, what the W.P.A. was doing to them, his people.”39 In “The Tall Men,” Faulkner was able to ruminate on the government and its attempts to control the lives of these remote people, about whom Faulkner felt warmly possessive. They were “his people,” even though he did not belong to them. What Faulkner disliked was any effort by the government to “steal the independence of people who prized that independence.” As the sheriff says in Faulkner’s story: “We done forgot about folks. Life has done got cheap, and life ain’t cheap. Life’s a pretty durn valuable thing. I don’t mean just getting along from one WPA relief check to the next one, but honor and pride and discipline that make a man worth preserving, make him of any value.”40 Here Faulkner shows his truly conservative streak—an admirable streak.
Faulkner (like his peers Steinbeck and Hemingway) wanted badly to do something in connection with the war. He had been recommended by the local American Legion to become an aircraft warning chief for the region, and he accepted this position with enthusiasm. A committee was formed under his command, and they opened an office over a drugstore in the southeast corner of the town square in Jefferson. Faulkner settled in, spending several afternoons a week at his desk, but he preferred roaming the county in search of people willing to serve as airplane spotters. This work brought him into contact with a lot of people, and it buoyed him up. Typically, of course, the local paper, the Eagle, cast aspersions on Faulkner’s efforts, seeing the whole thing as “far-fetched” though perhaps good for morale.
The work on Go Down, Moses moved forward, but slowly—slowly for William Faulkner, that is. Throughout the stifling summer of 1941, with long breaks at the war office or roaming the countryside in search of spotters, Faulkner worked on “The Bear,” his finest story, a version of the obsessive American quest story that can be seen from Moby-Dick to The Great Gatsby. It was as though two decades of hard-won skills came into play at once, with the formidable pressure of Faulkner’s imagination equaled by his skills as a writer. The writing in this tale, from first to last, is nothing short of miraculous, and the story has become a standard piece in anthologies of American fiction, read by generations of high school and college students.
That same summer, Johncy—who longed to follow in his brother’s footsteps as an author—published a novel called Men Working, a harsh but often comical look at Mississippi’s hill country and the impoverished white sharecroppers who toiled there. (The novel seemed to echo As I Lay Dying as well as Tobacco Road, the popular backcountry novel by Erskine Caldwell.) There was a small flurry of activity around this publication, with a reporter from Life coming to town in order to create a pictorial (which never, in the end, appeared). This would have been a coup for Johncy, of course. Disappointing everyone, especially his brother, Faulkner himself refused to be photographed and was mildly upset that Miss Maud was dragged into the publicity. On the other hand, he loved Johncy and wanted the best for him. But Johncy’s book came and went in a twinkling—as Faulkner probably hoped it would. He did not want writing competition from a member of his own family.
After heavy revisions requested by the editor, “The Bear” was accepted in November by the Saturday Evening Post, which paid him one thousand dollars. Faulkner was relieved to get the check. His finances had been pushed to the brink, and he was once again putting out feelers with Hollywood friends and agents. It so happened that Warner Bros. had in hand a lame adaptation of a novel by Harry C. Hervey called The Damned Don’t Cry, published in 1939. It told the story of Zelda, a poor white girl from Georgia. Perhaps the subject matter suggested Faulkner as a script doctor. In any case, he was contacted by the studio and responded by ordering a copy of the book, then quickly writing a treatment. The plot concerned a sensitive young girl, her crude, selfish brother, and her alcoholic father. She gets involved with a shady character, whom she marries; she has a child by another man. It’s a sad tale, not unlike the sort of thing Faulkner often wrote, but the studio was unimpressed by his treatment and filed it away. Nothing further came of this project.
Though Faulkner had promised the new book to Haas by December, he could not meet that deadline. The stories of Go Down, Moses had proven more challenging and complex than Faulkner originally imagined. “There is more meat in it than I thought,” he wrote Haas on December 2. He predicted “careful writing and rewriting to get it exactly right.”41 Working with intensity and buoyed by a feeling of success, he needed only a couple more weeks. With the final typescript he included this note to the printer: DO NOT CHANGE PUNCTUATION NOR CONSTRUCTION. It had taken him a lot of effort to get the book “exactly right” and he didn’t want anyone to mess with it.
The book was dedicated fondly to “Mammy, Caroline Barr.” This was not superfluous in a book about the deep, complicated interrelations between blacks and whites in Mississippi over the past century. It spoke to a vital tie, one that in Faulkner’s imagination could never be broken.
Having gotten Go Down, Moses—whether a novel or collection of related stories—to his publisher, Faulkner turned his attention once again to stories after the New Year passed. He had in mind a collection to be called Knight’s Gambit, in which he would gather previously uncollected and new work. That this book would require another seven years to complete would have astonished Faulkner at the time: he was used to quick turnovers, dropping books on the doorstep of his editor on an almost yearly basis. But the war was taking its toll, as was the constant pressure of having to earn money by his pen. Faulkner was, in short, exhausted.
He refused to give up on Hollywood, however, and had contacts with two separate agents, William Herndon, who had been in touch about the Zelda story, and H. N. Swanson, a colleague who worked with Harold Ober as a coagent on the West Coast. The conflict about who actually represented Faulkner in Hollywood led to accusations from Herndon that Faulkner had “failed in integrity.” The plain truth was that Faulkner didn’t pay much attention to agents, regarding them as facilitators. In the end, he took less money to work with the younger (and hungrier) Herndon, who wangled a contract for options from Warner Bros. that extended seven years into the future. Faulkner believed there was plenty of room in this arrangement for him to make some real money in scripts.
In late March, copies of Go Down, Moses arrived at Rowan Oak, provoking the usual mild interest. Faulkner wrote to Haas that it looked good. He understood that this was a bad time to publish anything, and he felt lucky to have a book coming out at all. Bennett Cerf reinforced this point, writing to Faulkner soon after publication: “The book is selling well, but there simply isn’t very much that can be done with a collection of short stories in times like these.”42 Cerf also noted that the reviews were, overall, splendid—perhaps the best Faulkner had ever received.
Lionel Trilling, among the finest of the younger critics, called the book “admirable” in the Nation and said that the six McCaslin stories (there are seven stories in the collection) “are temperate and passionate, and they suggest more convincingly than anything I have read the complex tragedy of the South’s racial dilemma.”43 Horace Gregory wrote in the New York Times Book Review: “The entire book—and it should be read as a book and not as a mere selection of stories which have been reprinted from current magazines—is proof that William Faulkner’s early promise has matured and that he is one of the few writers of our day who deserve increasing respect and admiration.”44 As usual, reviewers carped about the difficult style, wishing that Faulkner had not felt it necessary to write obscurely, although this note was less insistent now. In London, the anonymous reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement called Faulkner “an exasperating writer,” but nevertheless conceded “the somber force of his imagination, a smoldering and smoky pictorial power, a harsh striving intensity of nervous passion.”45 It seemed, at last, that readers had settled in, acknowledging that Faulkner would be Faulkner, accepting his flaws and praising his virtues. The praise was often couched in superlatives, as when Time declared that Faulkner was “the most gifted of the living U.S. writers.”46 Few serious readers doubted that Go Down, Moses was an important book, one that confirmed Faulkner’s status as a writer of extraordinary interest to serious readers.
Go Down, Moses
I’m a nigger. But I’m a man too. I’m more than just a man. The same thing made my pappy that made your grandmaw.
—Lucas Beauchamp to Zack Edmunds,
Go Down, Moses
In Absalom, Absalom!, Faulkner offered a complex meditation on the lingering effects of racism in the South. Go Down, Moses can be seen as an afterecho of the former, as complex and in many ways as important. Patrick O’Donnell points to the obsession with “blood and genealogy, with inheritance and dispossession, and, above all, with the connection between race and identity” that permeates both novels.47 These obsessions recur, in various forms, in the seven stories here, most of which focus on one family, the McCaslins, and the mingling of races in one bloodline. As ever, the single case stands in for the whole, as Faulkner manages to make almost every incident in these linked stories symbolic.
The first three stories consider the consequences of racial hatred. “Was” offers a fairly mild version of antebellum life, featuring a slave who is the half-brother of his white masters, though consigned (blithely) to a role of degradation. It seems that Tomey’s Turl (a slave nickname) is given to running away in search of a girl he cannot marry because their masters can’t figure out who will pay whom. Every time he runs off, he is hunted down like a beast. For all the violence inherent in the story, “Was” moves through an amber zone of nostalgia for the Old South; the ancient patterns of slavery seem benign here, and comfortable. The white masters, Buck and Buddy McCaslin, have apparently been so stricken by feelings of guilt that they have given over the Big House to their slaves. The brothers feel compelled to make up for their fathers’ crimes, and they do so willingly. (In “The Bear,” the central story in this book, we learn from reading the ledgers of the estate that there are perhaps darker reasons for the McCaslins’ sense of guilt.) Buck usually chases after Tomey’s Turl, though he does so reluctantly because it brings him into contact with the neighboring family, the Beauchamps. There is a conspiracy afoot to marry Buck to Sophonsiba Beauchamp, and this relationship is drawn with subtle humor.
All nostalgia for the old order is dismantled in the second story, “The Fire and the Hearth,” set in 1940, though much of the tale is told in flashback. The vexed mingling of white and black produces nothing but anguish for everyone involved. Lucas Beauchamp is the son of Tomey’s Turl (and so a grandson of the founding white father, Lucas Quintus Carothers McCaslin, or L.Q.C.), and he refuses to behave like a black man ought to behave within the code of the South. Because he has black parents, he must act with deference and forbearance. Complications arise when his best friend, Zack Edmonds (who is also his white cousin), takes Lucas’s wife, Molly, into his house to look after his baby when his own wife dies in childbirth. This leads to a furious confrontation at daybreak one morning between Zack and Lucas, with Lucas insisting on the return of his wife. Neither of the former friends seems willing to behave in ways ordained by tradition, and the reader intuits that life will never be the same for these characters, their friends or family. There will be serious consequences.
The burden of the racist past presses on everyone in “The Fire and the Hearth,” including Roth Edmonds, a cousin of Ike McCaslin and the great-great-great-grandson of L.Q.C. and son of Zack Edmonds. Roth has been raised with black children, treating them as brothers and sisters, but suddenly one day “the old curse of his fathers” descends on him from nowhere, and he refuses to let a black boy lie in the same bed with him, as they had been used to sleeping. He knows, indistinctly, that “something…had happened between Lucas and his father.” He must henceforth sleep alone, “in a rigid fury of the grief he could not explain,” full of shame and anger. That he cannot understand his guilt is part of his tragedy and one of the elements in the racial divide that Faulkner attempts to understand in these stories.
“The Fire and the Hearth” is the second-longest part of Go Down, Moses, and it has undergone many changes of interpretation over the years, as Karl F. Zender notes: “To commentators writing from the liberal consensus of the 1960s and 1970s, [it] seemed a warm celebration of African American family life, a sympathetic (if near-tragic) portrayal of a black male’s struggle to affirm his dignity, and a forward-looking meditation on the theme of southern racial relations.” More recently, feminist and post-structuralist critics have tended to look at the story (and other racial representations in Go Down, Moses) as “a subtle defense of the southern status quo in which African American challenges to oppression either are defused through humor or are displaced to the margins of the text (and thereby trivialized).” For his part, Zender believes it is possible to argue for “a valuable and livable, even a desirable, politics for southern blacks inside the represented world of ‘The Fire and the Hearth.’”48
Faulkner meditates fiercely on the consequences of racism in “Pantaloon in Black,” also set in about 1940. A pantaloon is a fool, and the story concerns a black man called Rider, a tenant of Roth Edmonds’s, who refuses to act as a black man is expected to act, deferential and willing to bear sorrows in self-obliterating silence. Rider has lost his young wife, Mannie. His grief is overpowering, and he winds up killing a white man who has been cheating black workers at a local mill. In jail, he manages to destroy an iron cot, tearing it “clean out of the floor it was bolted to,” and ripping out the steel bars of the cell—in a futile display of anguish that moves the sheriff who watches him. Upset by his own sympathy for Rider, the sheriff later talks to his wife in these disingenuous terms:
“Them damn niggers,” he said. “I swear to godfrey, it’s a wonder we have as little trouble with them as we do. Because why? Because they aint human. They look like a man and they walk on their hind legs like a man, and they can talk and you can understand them and you think they are understanding you, at least now and then. But when it comes to the normal human feelings and sentiments of human beings, they might just as well be a damn herd of wild buffaloes. Now you take this one today—”49
The story is terrifying and sad, yet it provides an indelible portrait of Rider and his grief. As Philip Weinstein notes, “The story is keyed to Rider’s body, the sentences moving in mimicry of his powerful motion.”50 There is a kind of visceral lyricism in all the description of Rider’s body in motion, as “his moving body ran in the silver solid wall of air he breasted.” Faulkner invites the reader to contemplate the agony of the man’s soul through the body itself, which seems more metaphysical at times than physical, an agent of the soul itself.
Throughout the stories of Go Down, Moses, Faulkner allows his focus to rest on the black community with a special intensity, looking at the relations between black and white members of the community with a fascinating sense of awe and respect for the complexity of this entity that has evolved over seven generations. In “Pantaloon,” the author also presents a moving portrait of a sheriff fighting against his own humane and civilizing impulses, who is forced to realize that the black man in his cell is, indeed, a man, and therefore subject to the same losses and disillusions that beset all men, black or white.
While “Pantaloon” has no obvious connections with the other stories in the collection, the fourth tale, “The Old People,” lives at the emotional center of the book, centering on Ike McCaslin in his boyhood. The figure of Sam Fathers is introduced, a half-breed woodsman who is part black, part Chickasaw. He has abandoned a more settled and civilized life as a blacksmith on a plantation to live in the big woods. In this absorbing story, he teaches young Ike to hunt—and hunting becomes (in Faulkner’s elliptical symbology) a form of writing or imagining. “At first there was nothing,” the story opens. It’s what every writer confronts: the blank page, the unfocused gaze. Then suddenly, the deer materializes: “Then the buck was there. He did not come into sight; he was just there, looking not like a ghost but as if all of light were condensed in him and he were the source of it, not only moving in it but disseminating it, already running, seen first as you always see the deer, in that split second after he has already seen you, already slanting away in that first soaring bound, the antlers even in that dim light looking like a small rocking-chair balanced on his head.”51
Such brilliant writing—concrete, poetic, aphoristic, haunting and haunted—permeates “The Old People.” Ike learns from the masters, the old people who have themselves been educated in the ways of the forest, in the habits of animals, in the play of light and weather, in the craft of hunting. It’s a tale of mentors and mentoring, with Sam and Boon Hogganbeck and other elders passing on a long-evolved wisdom. This knowledge of the big woods is something that Ike, in turn, will pass along. The story might also be considered a rite of initiation, as Sam Fathers “bloods” his initiate, young Ike, rubbing the blood of the deer on the face of the young hunter.
Indeed, the theme of mentoring meant a great deal to Faulkner, especially in later years. On December 5, 1942, he wrote a long letter to his stepson, Malcolm Franklin, praising his decision to go to war and a similar letter to Jimmy Faulkner, his favorite nephew, who had recently joined the Marines. As Karl F. Zender notes, these letters “are among the earliest examples we have of Faulkner explicitly taking on the role of tutor to the young.”52 The theme enters the fiction at about this time and continues to the end as a major motif, what Zender calls “scenes of instruction,” citing the consistent interplay in later works between Chick Mallison and his uncle, Gavin Stevens, and between so many other figures (such as Lucas Beauchamp and Mallison in Intruder in the Dust, Stevens and Linda Snopes in The Town, or Grandfather Priest and Loosh in The Reivers).
Blood ties and blood itself remain central to this and other stories in the collection. Speaking of Sam Fathers, Cass Edmonds, a cousin of Ike’s, says: “When he was born, all his blood on both sides, except the little white part, knew things that had been tamed out of our blood so long ago that we have not only forgotten them, we have to live together in herds to protect ourselves from our own sources.”53 Sam does have a touch of white blood on his mother’s side. So he contains pretty much the whole of the South in one circulatory system: red, white, and black. The fact that he has only one-eighth black blood in him condemns him to live the life of a Negro, of an inferior person, in the Old South. So he reinscribes himself into the Native American heritage, takes to the woods, befriending only the young (Ike) and a full-blooded Chickasaw called Jobaker, who regularly journeys onto the plantation from his home in the woods to visit Sam. When Jobaker dies, Sam is free to claim—or invent—his full inheritance as a Chickasaw; he abandons his old self and retreats to the woods, the source.
Young Ike, ten years old, learns a lot from his time in the forest with Sam Fathers, coming away with “an unforgettable sense of the big woods—not a quality dangerous or particularly inimical, but profound, sentient, gigantic and brooding, amid which he had been permitted to go to and fro at will, unscathed, why he knew not, but dwarfed and, until he had drawn honorably blood worthy of being drawn, alien.”54 The story is essentially a religious one, in the sense of re-ligio—the root meaning of the term suggesting that one must “link back” to one’s sources, in nature or the unconscious. The natural man, in Faulkner’s complex ideology, must shun society, which is perverse and divisive, even corrupt; he must plunge into the big woods, get lost in order to get found.
It’s difficult to uncouple “The Old People” from “The Bear,” the central tale in Go Down, Moses, and a story in which Faulkner writes at his best. The prose moves forward with a kind of inexorable ferocity, as though Faulkner composed in excited reverie: “There was a man and a dog too this time. Two beasts, counting Old Ben, the bear, and two men, counting Boon Hogganbeck, in whom some of the same blood ran which ran in Sam Fathers, even though Boon’s was a plebeian strain of it and only Sam and Old Ben and the mongrel Lion were taintless and incorruptible.”55 The writing almost tumbles over itself, barely keeping up with the swiftness and pressure of the author’s imagination.
The story itself is simple and mythic and concerns the destruction of Old Ben, the massive and enduring bear, who has become a legend in “the wilderness of the big woods, bigger and older than any recorded document.” Faulkner’s emphasis on oral tradition dominates the tale, the spoken mode providing “the best of all listening, the voices quiet and weighty and deliberate for retrospection and recollection and exactitude.”56 This weighty hush permeates the narrative, which seems to exist in a world beyond the text, the only print being the footprints of Old Ben, a text that lures readers into the wilderness of Faulkner’s poetry.
The main narrative centers on the yearly hunt for this animal who seems more than just a bear as the hunters pursue their “yearly pagan-rite of the old bear’s furious immortality.” Old Ben represents the “apotheosis of the old wild life which the little puny humans swarmed and hacked,” and the hunters, like the readers of any immortal text, return to that source again and again. By comparison, young Ike McCaslin, the protagonist of the tale, who is frequently mocked by others for his naive attitudes, distrusts all written texts, including the ledgers that contain the history of his family, its dark deeds, this “chronicle which was a whole land in miniature.”57 These ledgers, in fact, provide clues to the disruptive past that continues to bear upon the present of the story, as Richard God-den and Noel Polk make clear in their groundbreaking article, “Reading the Ledgers.”58
These ledgers, so crucial in the reconstruction of the past for Ike, consist of a crude, scattered record that become, for Ike, sacred. They are, as Godden and Polk suggest, “far from readable, since they manifestly present no evidence that proves what Isaac wants to believe, and are indeed far more complex than he wishes to understand.” The ledgers are only quoted in passing and in part, and Ike goes straight to that part of the text that he imagines will support his presuppositions about his grandfather’s incestuous behavior and that would put miscegenation at the core of the family secrets—much as the Old Colonel’s possible fathering of a mulatto may have lay in Faulkner’s own closet. But Godden and Polk draw different conclusions, suggesting that the ledgers imply a homosexual relationship between Buck and Buddy or at least that Buck has purchased the slave Percival Brownlee for sexual purposes, thus enraging his brother. They look back to “Was” and part four of the “The Bear” to show that Buck’s activities as “cook, housekeeper, and even sometimes nagging wife of the ‘couple’ feminize him.” “It is less important,” they say, “to prove that Buck and Buddy are homosexual lovers than to understand that Isaac believes they are, that his father is a homosexual miscegenator, and that these beliefs, conscious or unconscious, are what drives his renunciation of the land and of his family tradition, not his grandfather’s presumptive heterosexual miscegenation and incest.” On the other hand, it must be said that the scenes of heterosexual miscegenation and incest that occur in the text are central and disruptive, while the homosexual miscegenation remains a subtext, though a powerful one.
Overall, the thematic material of “The Bear” largely concerns the education of Ike into the nature of his own past: his realization that his family bears a heavy burden of guilt for its participation in slavery being only part of it. As everywhere in Faulkner, so much of what goes on is about reading and interpretation, and in this case there is a literal (if cryptic and partial) document that lives at the center of the text, a text within a text. One cannot, of course, know “the truth,” one can only see how Ike reads his own past from evidence; more importantly, we suspect that his misreading of these documents has obscured his understanding, led him down paths of self-justification that warn the reader of Go Down, Moses against easy assumptions or facile interpretations.
Sitting around the fire at Major de Spain’s hunting camp, the reader gets pulled into the vortex of the narrative possibilities, its swirl of telling and retelling. Ike is pulled into the story with us, into scenes of initiation, into the endlessly shifting yarns of the older hunters, who offer hints about the McCaslin past. Sam Fathers is his guide, as in the previous story. He is “the chief, the prince,” especially in Ike’s mind. Old Ben (who represents time itself, as in the hourly gong of Big Ben in London) becomes a symbol of the old ways, the old forest, the old time that is now being eaten away and destroyed, inch by inch, as modern life intrudes, as developers clear away the big woods, as the values of Sam Fathers become irrelevant in a world where commerce is all that matters.
The reader becomes intimate with Ike’s experience, his gradual absorption of the past, the way he must weave a text from disparate strands, seeming to prefer Truth to Beauty (Ike actually quotes from Keats toward the end of the story), though shying away from the hard truths about his father, about Buck and Buddy. The reader certainly shares his revulsion, his sense of dislocation, when he appears to discover that his legendary ancestor, old Carothers, raped his own daughter, whom he had fathered with a slave girl called Eunice. We also share his need to repress the truth about Buck and Buddy and the slave, Percival Brownlee. Reading the ledgers, Ike has needs he wishes to satify as he proceeds. As Godden and Polk say: “He brings those needs to his reading—as, to be sure, do we all—and forces the text to conform to his needs, focing from them certainty, closure, and truth—even Truth—where in fact they offer little more than quasi-related statements purporting to be facts, accumulated helter-skeleter over several decades.”
Ike forges his own flawed interpretation of the past, coming to believe that God allowed the Civil War to happen so that southern whites could pay for their sins and slavery could be eradicated. This is the “curse of the South,” Ike tells his cousin, Cass Edmonds. The curse is not on “the land,” as Cass imagined; it is on the whites who sustained the cruel system of slavery.
Ike clearly identifies with the values of Sam Fathers as he comes to realize he must reject his past and give over his inheritance; he cannot accept the sins—the literal transgressions—of his fathers, whatever they might be. He must step aside from his tainted lineage. Yet problems of interpretation arise, as Richard Gray makes clear: “The illusions of power over nature and ownership are clearly being dismissed: Ike has come to learn that nobody owns the land. Now he is casting aside a past and a patrimony that claimed to possess both land and people, and that still seems to proclaim, ‘They’re mine!’—in other words, that nature and human nature are available for use and profit.”59
In fact, Ike doesn’t really reject his past; he merely steps out from under his responsibilities. He gives the estate he has inherited to his cousin. This act produces obvious tensions in his life, ruining his marriage and making him a solitary figure, a version of Sam Fathers without the mystical aura. The story finally becomes a sad, ruefully comic tale as the older Ike returns to the Big Woods to encounter Boon Hogganbeck, whose rifle is jammed and who cannot even kill the squirrels springing from limb to limb above. Even so, when he sees Ike, he shouts: “They’re mine!”
Faulkner must have experienced conflicts on this subject. He understood on some deep level that nobody really owns the land and that possession itself is a kind of illusion, if not an actual sin. Yet he himself had worked hard to own Bailey’s Woods. He took immense pride in his estate, Greenfield Farm, and adored his home, Rowan Oak. In a sense, fiction allowed Faulkner to have it both ways: he could in his real life own as much land as he could afford; in his writing, he could let Ike speak out for the side of him that was troubled by his inheritance. But even then, he made Ike pay a big price—total alienation from his society—for the extreme decision to give up ownership of the estate.
In the end, Ike undergoes a measure of spiritual growth, especially in the crucial scene where the hunters engage in a final, fatal meeting with Old Ben. He himself comes so close to the mythic beast that he can see a tick on its leg. Thus, he opens himself to the wilderness, to the deepest and darkest nature available, identifying to an extent with the bear, this savage embodiment of everything that is sustaining, powerful, and crafty in the natural world. Ike also learns about the pattern of life and death that nature insists on, developing a reverence for Old Ben. Even so, the killing of the bear has many ramifications, symbolizing the insane attempt to kill nature itself in the hands of a fool like Hogganbeck. Sam Fathers collapses when the bear dies, leaving Ike further isolated, alone in the forest, outside the text.
Faulkner’s symbolism operates on many levels, as when after the death of Old Ben the camp itself is sold to a logging company. The railroad, that potent symbol of the machine age and modernization, is coming through as well, described by Faulkner in primal terms as it “shrieked and began to move: a rapid churning of exhaust, a lethargic deliberate clashing of slack couplings traveling backward along the train, the exhaust changing to the deep slow clapping bites of power as the caboose too began to move and from the cupola he watched the train’s head complete the first and only curve in the entire line’s length and vanish into the wilderness, dragging its length of train behind it so that it resembled a small dingy harmless snake vanishing into the weeds.”60 But the snake is not harmless. Its invasion of the woods is virulent, and the woods will die; the old time of the bear will vanish, replaced by the sterile modern world reflected in the ultimate sterility of Ike’s choices, which leave him alone in the end, sonless, the last McCaslin, without inheritance.
In “Delta Autumn,” which follows, Faulkner picks up the theme of miscegenation that lay at the obscured center of “The Bear,” the secret that brings the line of McCaslins, on its white side, to conclusion. Old Carothers McCaslin’s original sin was (supposedly) to mate with a slave, father a daughter, then mate with the daughter as well, doubling his sinfulness. He lacked all sense of discrimination or morality, forcing boundaries, transgressing in the most literal way. In this story an elderly Ike discovers that another generation has reenacted the old scene, crossing boundaries of race and (a form of) incest in sleeping with a granddaughter of James Beauchamp (Tennie’s Jim), brother of Lucas Beauchamp. The man responsible this time is a younger Roth Edmonds, although it seems difficult to blame him, given the confusing ancestry to which he is heir. Ike recoils from Roth’s transgression, telling the young girl to go north and marry somebody from her own race, but the young woman refuses to be told such nonsense. “Old man,” she asks him pointedly, “have you lived so long and forgotten so much that you dont remember anything you ever knew or felt or even heard about love?”
This confrontation upsets Ike terribly, especially when he sees he has not been able to get beyond the racism that he thought he had repudiated by giving up his inheritance. The story also returns to the theme of the disappearing wilderness, which forms a kind of complex fugue with the theme of racism. It now requires a lengthy car ride to get into the big woods, and old Ike has witnessed the perpetual shrinking of this sacred ground. The hunting grounds are “drawing yearly inward” just as Ike’s life is drawing inward. The old vastness is mostly gone, and now “a man drove two hundred miles from Jefferson before he found wilderness to hunt in.”61 Here Faulkner shows his genuine conservatism, which includes a wish to keep modern life from encroaching, for preserving the “forest primeval” that Longfellow celebrated. (As opposed to the fake “conservatives” of today, who wish to drill for oil or log anywhere that seems—in the short term—profitable.)
The concluding and title story involves the sad tale of Samuel Worsham Beauchamp, grandson of Lucas and Molly, who is run off the estate by Roth Edmonds because he broke into the commissary. He commits murder in Chicago, where he had fallen into a life of crime. After his trial and execution, the body is brought back to Yoknapatawpha County for burial, its transportation paid for by local white citizens, who seem to concede their part in this misfortune. As Weinstein remarks, Samuel is “dead on arrival, set up for capital punishment the moment we meet him. Faulkner invests his subjective life with no narrative value, for the chapter’s focus is upon the traditional community that receives his corpse back into the fold.”62
A crucial part of this story is Faulkner’s portrait of the local white population who organize the reception of the corpse back in Yoknapatawpha. One of these is Gavin Stevens, who has a doctorate from Heidelberg University; a kind and gentle figure, he has never wrestled in any profound way with the racism of the South and treats black people like children. He cannot comprehend the grieving of the black family and community for Samuel when he walks in upon their ritualistic ceremony, which includes a haunting lament. Their expression of feeling seems rooted in a something primal and essentially human, and Stevens—the educated man—cannot understand such a basic thing as this.
Stevens, as John T. Matthews suggests, “is another of the alien proprietors to whom Faulkner occasionally entrusts the conclusions of his stories. Like the furniture salesman in Light in August or the deputy sheriff in ‘Pantaloon,’ Stevens loses his story’s meaning in the very act of trying to find it.”63 Obviously limited in his understanding of racial matters, Stevens speaks for a point of view that in the Old South would have been that of a liberal. He resents all federal interventions, believing that he understands and sympathizes with the black community. But his incomprehension is finally devastating as well as poignant. As Arthur Mizener has said, the final story demonstrates “the grandeur and pathos, the innocence and incongruity of the community’s solidarity,” as exhibited by the effort of the white Jeffersonians to help pay for Samuel’s burial, even if they cannot quite comprehend the depth of the grief at hand or the full arc of the tragedy that this death represents in an oblique but telling way.64
The story ends with a ceremonious procession of the hearse through Jefferson itself, “into the square, crossing it, circling the Confederate monument and the courthouse while the merchants and clerks and barbers and professional men who had given Stevens the dollars and half-dollars and quarters and the one who had not, watched quietly from doors and upstairs windows.” Faulkner has, indeed, summoned a vision of community here, with all its faults and virtues, casting a cold eye on the whole. In a sequence of stories focused primarily on Ike McCaslin and his efforts at expiation, there is nevertheless a consistent effort to portray black men and women. Focusing on a single family, Faulkner traces a century and a half of oppression, showing how the women endure and the men rebel or attempt to escape from the situation, often winding up recaptured, jailed, or executed.
Faulkner can only conceive of “narratives of endurance,” as Robert Stepto has called this framework, which encapsulates black experience in a way comprehensible to white readers in particular. Thus Lucas Beauchamp or Rider must remain within the traditional responses to slavery or oppression. Other possible narrative structures, such as “the narrative of ascent” or “the narrative of immersion,” would typify an African American genre.65 But Faulkner was writing out of his own experience, working from (and within) his own subjectivities. In Go Down, Moses he puts forward the last truly great text in his large and distinguished body of work.