Strange Fruit: Some comments

Lillian Smith. Image found here; Wikipedia entry here.

I’ve just finished rereading Lillian Smith’s 1944 novel, Strange Fruit, a novel that, though still in print, I suspect not many people read today. That’s a shame, really. Given its title’s origin (the Billie Holiday song), its setting (early Depression-era rural southern Georgia), its chief subject (an interracial relationship between a white man and a black woman) and the time of its publication–not to mention the fact that it was banned in some places when published–Strange Fruit is brave in ways that better-known Southern novels whose big subject is racism finally aren’t (To Kill a Mockingbird, good as it is (and happy 50th anniversary, by the way), comes to mind here). Which, after all, is braver for a Southern novelist in the pre-Civil Rights Act South to do: to show us as we’d like to think of ourselves as being, or to show us as most of us in fact are–and why we are the way we are?
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The “ideology of form” and Go Down, Moses

The Vintage edition of Go Down, Moses. Image found found here.

Hosam Aboul-Ela’s book, Other South: Faulkner, Coloniality, and the Mariátegui Tradition, begins at the same place Glissant’s Faulkner, Mississippi does: that it might be useful to read Faulkner not as a Modernist or American writer, but as one whose region has much in common with those of other colonized places of the world, what Aboul-Ela calls the Other South. But whereas Glissant limits his discussion to Faulkner as a Caribbean (or Plantation) writer, Aboul-Ela’s range is more global and more overtly materialist in orientation. He uses the work of Peruvian intellectual José Carlos Mariátegui (1894-1930), a progenitor of (economic) dependency theory as a starting point for articulating a theory of postcolonial experience that originates in those regions rather than in Europe or the United States. He devotes a little over half his book to laying out the resulting “Mariátegui Tradition” before moving on to reading Faulkner’s Snopes Trilogy (The Hamlet, The Town, and The Mansion) and Absalom, Absalom! through this critical lens.

Given the orientation of the intellectual tradition of the Other South that Aboul-Ela outlines, it’s understandable why he chooses these works to discuss at length: they are the Faulkner novels that lend themselves most readily to such readings, driven as the plots of each are by the arrival in Mississippi of outsiders and their getting and controlling of property and wealth and the attendant power to the benefit of the Few As Possible and the detriment of local folks. But a chapter section entitled “The Ideology of Faulkner’s Form,” his lead-in to his reading of Absalom, Absalom!, made me curious, in connection with some comments I made here, what Aboul-Ela might have to say about the ideology inherent in Go Down, Moses‘ form. So, below the fold I once again mount my GDM hobby-horse.
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“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.
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On the “Primary Sources” page . . .

. . . the curious and interested can find the beginnings of a list of novels, short fiction and historical narratives, predominantly from the United States, in which miscegenation (racial or cultural) is a central theme or plot or narrational device. I encourage visitors here to offer suggested texts (which will eventually include films; there is also an Images page which I’d be interested in receiving leads for as well), either here in comments or via e-mail at johnbuaas425 AT sbcglobal DOT net.

Thanks in advance.