“They endured”: Further comments on Glissant’s Faulkner, Mississippi

Caroline Barr (1840-1940), the Faulkner family maid, to whom Go Down, Moses is dedicated. Image found here.

“They endured,” as readers of “Appendix: Compson” know, is the sum total of how Faulkner describes Dilsey, the Compson’s black maid in The Sound and the Fury. Glissant finds that a crucial textual touchstone in his effort to determine how Faulkner locates African-Amercans in his (Faulkner’s) vision of the South. If you read closely the excerpts from Glissant’s Faulkner book that I included in my previous post, two arguments emerge.

The first is that Faulkner confers not merely a sort of nobility upon black people relative to whites, he even holds them aloft–or prefers to hold them aloft–from History. They, unlike Faulkner’s whites, have no fate, no destiny to work out:

[Zack Edmonds] thought [as he looks at Lucas Beauchamp], and not for the first time: I am not only looking at a face older than mine and which has seen and winnowed more, but at a man most of whose blood was pure ten thousand years when my own anonymous beginnings became mixed enough to produce me. (Go Down, Moses 69, italics in the original).

Though Glissant does not say so explicitly, his early statement that Faulkner’s vision is that of epic invites the analogy: In that epic vision of the South, blacks are to the gods as whites are to mortals . . . except, of course, blacks are by and large unable to shape circumstances to their own advantage. Marginalized deities? The second is that, while Faulkner clearly sees such a positioning as honorific and ennobling of black people, Glissant and, by extension, African-Americans, see this (or should see this) as patronizing at best and, at worst, a denial of the same human agency that Faulkner’s whites have been cursed with.

All the above is why, as I’ve thought about all this, Go Down, Moses seems such a central text in the Faulkner canon–perhaps even the central text–and I’m not just saying that because if it weren’t for this novel I might very well not have written the dissertation (such as it is) that I did, much less be revisiting it now. In GDM, it seems clear, we find not only, through Ike McCaslin in particular, Faulkner’s clearest iteration of his conception of black people, we also find its most forceful rebuttal–as forceful as any that Glissant or any other critic could offer. The question that arises in my mind is, just how aware was Faulkner that his novel does that.

Those familiar with the history (publishing and critical) of Go Down, Moses know that its structure began posing problems from the very beginning: The initial dust jackets sent to Faulkner for his approval had the book’s title as “Go Down, Moses and Other Stories,” which angered the author. Even though much of the book consists of previously-published short stories, Faulkner added (most crucially, section 4 of “The Bear”) and reworked material in those stories so as to make them cohere into something he insisted was a novel.

The critical given is that Go Down, Moses is a novel, albeit a rather oddly-constructed one. Its chapters–if that’s the right word–have discrete titles which are not arranged in chronological order and whose characters do not often appear from one story to the next. The first-time reader would be forgiven if s/he thought this book were a short-story collection. Yet when one tries to write about one of the chapters in isolation, one realizes one more often than not has to take up material in one of those other chapters–sometimes several others. All that is Faulkner’s design.

That design, James A. Snead argues in his reading of the novel in his book Figures of Division, is a miscegenated design: it has attributes of, and confuses the traditional distinctions between, both novels and short story collections. Thus, Snead writes, because narrative is traditionally a site of authority and rule, a structure which disrupts conventional notions of narrative implicitly calls into question other such rules of ordering. Therefore, “[t]he prose of Go Down, Moses is in the truest sense a ‘dialogue,’ not an authoritative ‘telling'” (206).

That all makes sense, except that miscegenation is surely a central theme of this novel: it is Ike McCaslin, having learned that his grandfather had fathered a daughter by one of his slaves and then a son by that same daughter, who relinquishes his inheritance of his grandfather’s land and distributes the legacies set aside in that inheritance for his grandfather’s black descendants, so as to begin to do his part to atone for those sins. In more ways than one, Ike seeks to close the book on the past (here symbolized by the plantation ledgers where Ike learned of his grandfather’s outrages) so as to never have to re-open them and begin afresh. One cannot get more “authoritarian” in intention than that.

Yet, in “The Bear” with his cousin Cass and, even more important, in “Delta Autumn” with his kinsman Roth’s lover, Ike has conversations with people who call into serious question the wisdom of his actions–actions which, if Glissant’s reading of Faulkner generally is correct, Faulkner himself would approve of but which, when critiqued, seem allowed to stand (at least, as I read these moments): just because Ike feels despair does not mean that we have to, no matter how much we may find him a sympathetic figure. Consider, for example, this scene from “Delta Autumn,” what Eric Sundquist calls the grandest moment in all of Faulkner:

“That’s right. Go back North. Marry: a man in your own race. That’s the only salvation for you–for a while yet, maybe a long while yet. We will have to wait. Marry a black man. You are young, handsome, almost white; you could find a black man who would see in you what it was you saw in him, who would ask nothing of you and expect less and get even still less than that, if it’s revenge you want. The you will forget all this, forget it ever happened, that he ever existed–” until he could stop [talking] at last and did, sitting there in his huddle of blankets during the instant when, without moving at all, she blazed down silently at him. Then that was gone too. She stood in the gleaming and still dripping slicker, looking quietly down at him from under the sodden hat.

“Old man,” she said, “have you lived so long and forgotten so much that you dont remember anything you ever knew or felt or even heard about love?” (346)

You can’t get more dialogic than that. More crucially, though, it is an answer for which Ike literally has no reply.

But Roth’s lover–not just a mulatto (what Glissant, characterizing what he takes to be Faulkner’s opinion of them, calls a “genetic and cultural Snopes”) but also, as she reveals, the granddaughter of the son that Ike’s grandfather had fathered by his own daughter–got all that?–clearly is more admirable than the parasitic Snopes. Yet neither is she a stoic like Lucas Beauchamp or Sam Fathers, content to sit in silent judgment on the doings of white folks. She wants, as she says, only “Yes” from Roth–only affirmation of the love she feels for him–gets only money and a “No” from him. She leaves, her dignity intact, for somewhere–one gets the feeling that it is some place, even if she only returns to Vicksburg, that Ike (and perhaps even Faulkner, if Glissant is right) cannot even conceive of.

All this is a long way of saying that, at least as far as this woman is concerned, I would argue that Glissant is mistaken about the role of mulattoes in Faulkner–and, frankly, it’s a puzzle to me as to why that is, given how intelligently he reads Faulkner otherwise. Joe Christmas, this woman, and her grandfather James Beauchamp (known by the white McCaslins as Tennie’s Jim), Faulkner’s most prominent mulattoes, certainly destabilize the order of things in Yoknapatawpha County, but not in the ways the Snopes clan does. Indeed, James had deliberately chosen to leave the county on the eve of his 21st birthday, when he would be able to receive his inheritance from the McCaslin estate, so Ike could not find him to give that inheritance to him; and though it appears that Roth’s lover has returned to Mississippi to stay, she works as a schoolteacher: not the sort of job that either removes one from History or, one could hope, causes one to be a blight on the community. (Joe Christmas, by the way, is harder to characterize in these terms because it is only assumed but never definitively determined that he is of mixed race.) Indeed, Walter Taylor and others have argued that, in an alternate chronology of events, Roth’s lover would actually have made an ideal wife for Ike, that together they could have expiated Old McCaslin’s sins and, symbolically for Faulkner, the South’s as well.

Even so, Glissant argues that Faulkner isn’t interested in depicting alternate universes, or even alternate Souths: only his own, as he sees and comprehends it. However, the fact that we can see those alternate Souths in Faulkner’s work raises some tantalizing questions about reading and authorial intent. To fully work out what I’m mulling over just now would require another substantive post. For now, though, I’ll just say that there is such a thing as an author not fully comprehending the scope of his work and that, as embodied in Roth’s lover, “Delta Autumn”‘s–and Go Down, Moses‘–power (for this reader, at least) derives in large measure from precisely Faulkner’s not being entirely in control of all that material’s plausible meanings

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One Response

  1. […] Sommer’s reading here is another way of stating the terms of that tension between Reason and Nature that I mentioned earlier regarding a society’s attitudes about race. Whatever the truth of Sommer’s claim of Cooper’s “obsessive social neatness,” though, I’d argue that within the text–or more precisely, within Cooper’s characters–that debate is far from resolved, much less resolved neatly. The extent to which Cooper is actually aware of all this messiness–for which, after all, he as the author bears some responsibility–is a question Sommer, given how she characterizes Cooper seems not even to see as a question. This question of whether writers who create racially- and culturally-miscegenated characters are fully aware of how they destabilize narrative is an important one for this project. […]

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