Black people in Faulkner’s world: Some passages from Faulkner, Mississippi

William Faulkner at Rowan Oak, his home outside Oxford, Mississippi, 1962. Photograph by Martin C. Dain. Image found here.

I’ve just finished having a look at Edouard Glissant’s book, Faulkner, Mississippi (you can find some preliminary comments over at my other blog). Short review: I don’t know if he’s right (see below), but he’s a thoughtful and provocative reader of Faulkner.

Back in a 1992 summer institute at LSU, I had the privilege of hearing Glissant, so his notion of Faulkner as a Caribbean writer–within the context of Glissant’s trope of the Plantation–which he explores in Faulkner, Mississippi, was not entirely new to me. But what I didn’t remember him discussing at LSU is his take on the place of black people in Faulkner’s vision of the South. What follows, then, are some passages that I hope will serve as a fair summation of that view.

For what it’s worth: Glissant genuinely admires Faulkner’s refusal to look away from his central theme of “the human heart in conflict with itself” as that theme applies to the South’s tragedy; even so, I think he also makes clear why many African-American readers have real troubles with Faulkner’s depictions of black people–though not, perhaps, for the reason(s) they or Faulkner’s white readers would offer by way of explanation for their ambivalence toward him.

In this hidden inquiry into origins (of the county and its maledictions), to which his works always give (or rather propose) answers that are postponed (into the infinity of Time and Death), Blacks are and represent the unsurpassable point of reference, those who remain and who assume.

Here, we find that the extended African family has no claim to constitute a family lineage. So it never meets with failure [. . . .] On Faulkner’s agenda, the only means of change for Blacks would be miscegenation: the advent of hte mulatto, some sort of genetic and cultural Snopes. That, at least, is what we read between the lines. (59-60)

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Melville’s “isolatoes” and mulattoes: a query

First, a couple of passages to consider.

From The Cambridge History of American Literature:

If black characters possess a double consciousness [see: W. E. B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk], would mulattoes be trebly conscious? On an individual level the mulatto’s fortunes seem to reflect the larger society: as blacks can’t belong to mainstream America, so mulattoes struggle to fit in with black America. Often seen as doomed wanderers of the racial borderlands, the mixed-race character had been popular since the nineteenth century. Few of these stories had optimistic endings. White writers generally saw the mulatto figure simplistically, as the tragedy of a white person trapped in a black body. African Americans knew the shallowness of such a reading, and often used the double whammy of black race and female gender to get at the nature of such liminal figures. To be mixed race was not simply not to be white. Such individuals struggled to belong anywhere. (318)

And this, from Melville’s conclusion to his description of the crew of the Pequod:

How it is, there is no telling, but Islanders seem to make the best whalemen. They were nearly all Islanders in the Pequod, Isolatoes too, I call such, not acknowledging the common continent of men, but each Isolato living on a separate continent of his own. Yet now, federated along one keel, what a set these Isolatoes were! An Anacharsis Clootz deputation from all the [119] isles of the sea, and all the ends of the earth, accompanying Old Ahab in the pequod [sic] to lay the world’s grievances before that bar from which not very many of them ever come back.

My Norton Critical Edition (2nd ed.) of the novel footnotes “Isolatoes” this way: “Apparently a word invented by Melville to play on ‘isolated’ and ‘island'” (107). However, given this blog’s central preoccupations, and given the fact that Melville thought as deeply as Faulkner would later about the meaning of slavery and questions of race, it’s difficult not to wonder if Melville, for “isolato,” also had in mind something of a thought-rhyme with “mulatto.”

I’ve done some online searching for explicit discussions of these two terms in relation to each other but without success. I’m headed to the library today to look at some older criticism and articles; in the meantime, though, I wanted to post this little query on the off chance someone who knows about such things might bump into it. To perhaps heighten the chances of someone finding this post via other interests: In my dissertation, I have an extended comparison of Joe Christmas in Faulkner’s Light in August and Octavio Paz’s discussion of the pachuco in El laberinto de la soledad (The Labyrinth of Solitude). The protagonist of The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man would fit here as well. The book project will retain that material and develop it further; just off the top of my head, though, those figures seem to bear more than a little resemblance both to nineteenth-century treatments of mulattoes in literature and to Melville’s Isolatoes.

Feel free to comment as you see fit, even if to tell me I’m wrong-headed.