Wednesday, February 2, 2011

383. Go Down, Moses – William Faulkner

History: Although originally published in 1942 as Go Down, Moses and Other Stories (apparently against the desires of the author) Go Down, Moses is a collection of seven related pieces of short fiction sometimes considered a novel. The most prominent character and unifying voice is that of Isaac McCaslin, "Uncle Ike", who will live to be an old man; "uncle to half a county and father to no one." Though originally considered (by the public) a collection of short stories, Faulkner insisted in his later years that the book was truly a novel.
It spans more than a century in the history of the McCaslin family, viewing their hardships and triumphs by examining their daily lives. Its plantation and the fictional Yoknapatawpha County are in Mississippi. It deals with such issues as slavery and race, the relationship between man and nature, the vanishing wilderness, stewardship versus ownership of land, and property and inheritance.
The title refers to the spiritual "Go Down Moses", which draws a comparison between the enslavement of blacks in America and the Jews in Egypt, as is evidenced by Molly(ie) Beauchamp's comments in the final story, where she repeats that her grandson has been "sold to pharaoh".
Plot: “Was” - This story takes place in the childhood of McCaslin Edmonds, who is simply referred to as "the boy" and is understood to be the object of all masculine pronouns. The year is about 1859, and depicts events that took place before the birth of any character who appears in the remaining chapters. Also, it is the only story depicting events prior to the Civil War and emancipation; i.e., it takes place while slavery still exists.
"Cass" lives with his uncles Theophilus and Amodeus McCaslin, called "Uncle Buck" and "Uncle Buddy" respectively by most of the characters in the book. Buck/Buddy are bachelor twins, live like boys who never grew up. As we learn in "The Bear": as soon as their father died, they freed the slaves at least in title (couldn't literally have freed slaves in the Deep South by that time), moved them into the big house, themselves moving into a cabin they built for themselves on the plantation; "sealing" the slaves into the big house with a single nail each evening, actually allowing them to roam free. Evidently Buck - who married Sophonsiba and became Ike's father after the Civil War - was unwilling to marry/ pass on any legacy so long as the institution of slavery remained.
The story opens with the news that Tomey's Turl, a slave on the McCaslin plantation, has run away. But this is not the first time this has happened and Uncle Buck and Buddy know where he always goes, to Hubert Beauchamp's neighboring plantation to see his love, a slave girl named Tennie. The "hunt" for Tomey's Turl a comical imitation of a slave hunt. The whole event only dimly comprehended by Cass, who's too young to understand the force of erotic passion that drives Tomey's Turl to the Beauchamps. Beauchamp himself has an unmarried sister, Sophonsiba, who seems romantically interested in Buck. Forced to stay the night to look for Tomey's Turl, Buck and Cass accidentally enter Sophonsiba's room, thinking it to be their room. This situation is exploited by Hubert who tries to pressure Buck into marrying Sophonsiba. Buck does not agree to Hubert's exploitive interpretation of events.
Hubert Beauchamp is unwilling to resolve the issue by purchasing Tomey's Turl because he doesn't want "damned half-white McCaslin" (who by virtue of being Carothers McCaslin's son exhibits the injustice/ arbitrariness of the slave system) on his plantation. Buck, Buddy and Hubert settle both their situation and that of Tomey's Turl by tying them to the outcome of a poker match. If Buck loses, he is to marry Sophonsiba and must agree to buy the slave girl Tennie so Turl will stop running away to see her. Buck loses, but coaxes Hubert into allowing another game, Hubert against Buddy, to determine the marriage and property issues. The stakes are changed many times, but in the end Buddy wins and the McCaslins take Tennie for free.
Uncle Buck and Sophonsiba Beauchamp eventually marry and become the parents of Isaac McCaslin, the central character who serves to unify most of the stories in the novel.
Tennie was married to Tomey's Turl in 1859.
"Was" serves to introduce the reader into the practices and mentality of the antebellum South. Where Tomey's Turl is first introduced, he seems to be referred to more as an animal, such as a horse, than a person. When Hubert and Buck are taking bets on where Tomey's Turl will show up, the reader further sees how far removed from human the slaves are in the eyes of the owners. (This is particularly revealing in light of Faulkner's later revelation that Tomey's Turl is, in fact, Buck and Buddy's half-brother, the son of their father, Lucius Quintus Carothers McCaslin, and his slave Tomey.) Additionally, it is possible Faulkner intends for the entrapping of Buck into marriage with Sophonsiba to be analogous to slavery, although Buck seems to accept it silently.
"The Fire and the Hearth" Many generations later (around 1941) Lucas Beauchamp, the son of Tomey's Turl and Tennie, lives and works on the McCaslin plantation, now owned by Carothers "Roth" Edmonds, the grandson of McCaslin Edmonds (who is Isaac's elder cousin, and Lucas' as well). Lucas discovers a gold coin on the land and becomes convinced of a large hidden treasure. Also, Lucas's daughter is being pursued, in spite of Lucas' wishes, for marriage by a poor black man George Wilkins. Lucas and George both distill liquor illegally and Lucas decides to prevent Wilkins' marriage to his daughter by telling Roth, since the liquor is being made on Roth's land. Roth calls the authorities, but they arrive just as Wilkins has put large jugs of whiskey on Lucas's porch and as his daughter hides the still in his own backyard. While Lucas's daughter cannot testify against him due to kinship, George Wilkins can. Consequently, Lucas is forced into allowing the marriage between Wilkins and his daughter to prevent Wilkins from having to testify against him. Lucas returns to the plantation, and cons a salesman out of a metal detector to search for the treasure he adamantly believes exists. The search becomes an obsession and Lucas's wife asks Roth for a divorce. Lucas initially agrees to the divorce, but recants at the last moment, deciding that he's too old. The treasure isn't meant for him to find.
Here, Faulkner explicates the nature of the relationship between the black and white sides of the McCaslin family tree. One recurring theme seems to be the historical irony in the distribution of land, power, and surname: the Beauchamp name is taken by the black side of the McCaslin family, even though it is the side to descend through male blood, while the white descendants of Lucius Quintus Carothers McCaslin, the patriarch of the family, inherit his land and wealth notwithstanding their lineage coming from the patriarch's daughter. Lucas makes much of this difference as well as the fact that he is two generations closer to McCaslin than Roth, perhaps believing himself to somehow be of nobler blood and/or feeling that his descendence deserves more of McCaslin's original legacy.
Also touched upon is the impotence of the black man's actions. Lucas must persuade Roth, a man a generation younger than him and seemingly less deserving of the Carothers plantation than Lucas is, to report George Wilkins in order for the tip off to be taken seriously by authorities.
"Pantaloon in Black"
First and foremost, this is a story of overwhelming grief. Rider, an incredibly strong and large negro who lives on "Roth" Carothers McCaslin's plantation, is bereaved by the death of his wife. He digs his wife's grave at incredible speed, and the visitors at the funeral wonder why he is digging his wife into the ground so quickly. That night, Rider believes he sees the ghost of his wife. He returns to work at a sawmill the next day, but after chucking an incredibly large log down a hill, walks off the job and buys a jug of whiskey, drinking copiously. Rider goes to the tool room at the mill and confronts a man named Birdsong, who has been cheating negroes in dice for years. Rider cuts Birdsong's throat. The narrative shifts and the story is now in the home of the local sheriff's deputy, who is telling his disinterested wife the remainder of the story about Rider. The reader learns that after killing Birdsong, Rider is caught and arrested. In jail, he rips the door to his cell completely off and fights the other prisoners. Two days later Rider has been found, hanging from a bell-rope in a negro schoolhouse.
Perspective is important in this story. The first part is a third-person examination of the stages of grief, particularly denial and rage. The second is the sad tale of Rider's fate, as seen through the unreliable eyes of a callous white deputy sheriff who describes vividly what he cannot understand.
"The Old People"
This story takes place in 1878, and provides background information for “The Bear”. In the forest, Sam Fathers, the son of a Choctaw chief and a quadroon (person of ¼ African and ¾ caucasion) teaches Isaac McCaslin how to hunt. When Isaac is deemed old enough to go on the yearly hunting expeditions with Major de Spain, General Compson, and Isaac's older cousin McCaslin Edmonds, he kills his first buck, and Sam Fathers ritualistically anoints him with its blood.
Isaac remembers Sam Father's history; Sam's Indian surname means "had two fathers"; his "biological" father was the Indian chief Ikkemotubbe, his mother the quadroon slave woman purchased by Ikkemotubbe and subsequently sold (along with the slave to whom he married her and her child Sam) to Carothers McCaslin. Ikkemotubbe ruthlessly made himself chief by poisoning his nephew, son of the old chief. He showed himself no less ruthless than Carothers, who bought the land from him. Sam left the Jefferson area for the big forest after the death of Jobaker, his Chickasaw friend. Sam now tends the hunting camp of Major de Spain and McCaslin Edmonds.
After Isaac kills his buck, the group is making ready to leave, when Boon Hogganbeck rides in on a mule declaring that he has just seen a massive buck. The group disperses to try to hunt the big deer before they leave. Sam leads Isaac to a clearing; they hear Walter Ewell's horn, and Isaac assumes the buck has been killed. But then a giant buck comes down the slope toward them and looks at them with gravity and dignity. Sam calls it "grandfather". They do not shoot at it.
That night, McCaslin and Isaac stay at Major de Spain's house near Jefferson, 17 miles away from the McCaslin plantation. In bed, Isaac tells McCaslin about the buck, and McCaslin speculates that it represented some form of indomitable, primal energy that grows up out of the earth from all the blood that seeps into it and all the lives it absorbs. Isaac thinks that McCaslin does not believe him, that he is accusing him of claiming to have seen a ghost; but McCaslin tells him solemnly that he, too, has seen the buck: Sam took him into that same clearing the day he killed his first deer.
The two main features of this short story about Isaac McCaslin's childhood are, first, its portrayal of the first steps in the development of Isaac's beliefs about nature and the land, and second, its portrayal of the history of Sam Fathers, whose betrayal at the hands of his father, Ikkemotubbe, and subsequent upbringing as a slave mirrors several other familial displacements throughout the book. Isaac's first lessons in the tradition of the hunt lead him to experience two pristine moments: his anointment in the blood of the buck and his vision of the giant spirit-buck. His acceptance of the tradition passed down to him by Sam Fathers and implicitly understood by the other "old people" of the story's title represents another kind of patrimony, this one free of corruption and violence (except the violence of the hunt): the patrimony of moral tradition, whereby values are handed down from one generation to another. As McCaslin Edmonds notes in theorizing about the spirit-buck, life is always too short for those living it and always diffuses itself into its environment. Just as blood and fallen leaves are absorbed by the earth, the values of the hunt are absorbed by young Isaac. If the spirit-buck represents a concentrated manifestation of this kind of energy, it is significant that Sam Fathers calls it "grandfather"; there is a patrimony between nature and man, as well. Sam Fathers's history shows another example of cultural displacement and another example of a son brought up in an environment outside his normal family. Just as McCaslin is raised by his uncles and Isaac is raised by McCaslin, Sam Fathers is raised by his mother and a man who is not his father. His father betrays him, just as Carothers McCaslin betrays Turl (letting him be raised as a slave, leaving him a bequest only after he dies), and probably for the same reason: the mixed racial status of the child.
"The Bear"
As Isaac grows older, he becomes an expert hunter and woodsman, and continues going with the hunting parties every year. The group becomes increasingly preoccupied with hunting Old Ben, a monstrous, almost immortal bear that wreaks havoc throughout the forest. Old Ben's foot was maimed in a trap, and he seems impervious to bullets. Isaac learns to track Old Ben, but it is useless to hunt him because all the hounds are afraid of him. Sam Fathers, who teaches Isaac Old Ben's ways, says that it will take an extraordinary dog to bring Old Ben down. Isaac sees Old Ben several times. Once, they send a tiny fyce-dog with no sense of danger after him, and Isaac even has a shot at the huge bear. But instead of taking it, he runs after the fyce and dives to save him from the bear. He looks up at Old Ben looming over him and remembers the image from his dreams about the bear.
At last they find the dog capable of bringing Old Ben to bay: Lion, a huge, wild Airedale mix with extraordinary courage and savagery. Sam makes Lion semi-tame by starving him until he will allow himself to be touched; soon, Boon Hogganbeck has devoted himself to Lion and even shares a bed with him. Using Lion, they nearly catch Old Ben, but Boon Hogganbeck misses five point-blank shots. General Compson hits the bear and draws blood, but Old Ben escapes into the forest. Isaac and Boon go into Memphis to buy whisky for the men, and the next day, they go after the bear again. General Compson declares that he wants Isaac to ride Kate, the only mule who is not afraid of wild animals and, therefore, the best chance any of the men have to get close enough to the bear to kill him.
In the deep woods, near the river, Lion leaps at Old Ben and takes hold of his throat. Old Ben seizes Lion and begins shredding his stomach with his claws. Boon Hogganbeck draws his knife and throws himself on top of the bear, stabbing it in its back. Old Ben dies, and a few days later, Lion dies as well. Sam Fathers collapses after the fight and dies not long after Lion. Lion and Sam are buried in the same clearing.
Isaac returns to the farm near Jefferson, to the old McCaslin plantation. Time passes; eventually he is 21, and it is time for him to assume control of the plantation, which is his by inheritance. But he renounces it in favor of his cousin McCaslin Edmonds, who is practically his father. Isaac has a long argument with McCaslin in which he declares his belief that the land cannot be owned, that the curse of God's Earth is man's attempt to own the land, and that that curse has led to slavery and the destruction of the South. McCaslin tries to argue with him, but Isaac remembers looking through the old ledger books of Uncle Buck and Uncle Buddy and piecing together the story of the plantation's slaves, and he refuses the inheritance. (One of Isaac's inferences is particularly appalling: Tomey, the slave who Carothers McCaslin took as a lover and the mother of Turl, may also have been Carothers McCaslin's daughter by another slave, Eunice. Eunice committed suicide shortly before Turl's birth, and from this and other factors, Isaac deduces that she must also have been Carothers McCaslin's lover.)
So, Isaac refuses the inheritance, moves to town, and becomes a carpenter, eschewing material possessions. He marries a woman who urges him to take back the plantation, but he refuses even when she tries to convince him sexually. He administers the money left to the children of Tomey's Turl and Tennie, even traveling to Arkansas to give a thousand dollars to Fonsiba, Lucas's sister, who moved there with a scholarly negro farmer who never seems to farm. Isaac continues to hunt and to spend all the time he can in the woods.
Once, he goes back to the hunting camp where they stalked Old Ben for so many years. Major de Spain has sold it to a logging company and the trains come closer and louder than before. Soon, it will be whittled away by the loggers. Isaac goes to the graves of Lion and Sam Fathers, then goes to find Boon Hogganbeck. Boon is in a clearing full of squirrels, trying to fix his gun. As Isaac enters, Boon shouts at him not to touch any of the squirrels: "They're mine!" he cries.
"Delta Autumn"
This story serves as a sort of sequel or coda to "The Bear". Ike McCaslin and Roth Edmonds are in a car with some friends, headed for what Ike suspects will be the last of his annual hunting expeditions. The wilderness has receded in recent years, and it is now a long trip by automobile. Along the way they discuss the worsening situation in Europe, with Roth taking the cynic’s view against Ike’s idealism. At one point Roth slams on the brakes, as if he saw someone or something standing along the road. He seems preoccupied and out of sorts.
The men eventually arrive at their campsite and set it up under Ike’s direction. During the night, the old man thinks about his bygone life, and about how he and the wilderness are dying together.
The next morning the rest of the party set out to hunt while Ike chooses to sleep in. Roth gives him an envelope full of cash and mentions that a messenger might show up during the day. Ike is to hand over the money and “tell her I said ‘No.’” Later that morning a boat arrives. It carries a dark-eyed young woman with a baby wrapped in a blanket. Ike, ashamed of acting as a go-between in such a sordid matter, informs her that Roth has left and tries to thrust the money on her. She refuses to take it immediately, and remarks that Roth has abandoned her. Ike contemptuously asks how she could have expected anything different from him.
As the conversation goes on, it becomes clear that the young woman knows a great deal about Ike’s family and his own life, more than Roth would probably have told her. For she is part of the family herself, a distant Beauchamp cousin. Ike is dismayed at the miscegenation, even though he imagines that the human race might one day be ready for interracial alliances. He tells the woman to marry a man “of her own race” and go far away. She replies that he is hardly qualified to advise anyone about love and leaves with the money.
Ike is still pondering this disturbing incident when one of his hunting companions runs in, frantically looking for a knife. The old hunter deduces that Roth has killed a doe and is trying to hide the evidence; another family sin that must be covered up.
"Go Down, Moses"
The book's final story begins with a census interview, which places the action in 1940. A well-dressed and well-spoken young black man identifies himself as Samuel Beauchamp, a native of Yoknapatawpha County. After completing the census form, he is led back to his cell on Death Row.
The action shifts to Jefferson, the Yoknapatawpha county seat. The protagonist is Gavin Stevens, a local attorney and amateur Biblical scholar and detective. Mollie Beauchamp (Lucas' wife) has had a premonition of harm involving her long-lost grandson Samuel. She begs Stevens to discover his whereabouts and condition. He pities the old woman and accepts the job for a token fee.
Stevens soon discovers that Samuel Beauchamp is due to be executed in Illinois within hours. Without quite understanding why, he donates and collects enough money to bring the young man's body home for a proper funeral. That evening, Stevens drops by the memorial service, but quickly leaves because he feels out of place. The funeral is held two days later.
This is the shortest and most straightforward story in the book. The action is minimal. Its real importance lies in the fresh perspective it provides through Gavin Stevens, an educated and worldly man of the 20th century who would eventually become a key figure in Faulkner's later fiction. Stevens is like several other white characters in Go Down, Moses in that his impression of blacks in general is quite paternalistic and tradition-bound. He is, however, capable of change; at the story's end he experiences an epiphany when he learns that Mollie wants the funeral to be covered in the local newspaper "just like anyone else's". His realization ends the book on a somewhat hopeful note; perhaps the old cycle of exploitation and willful ignorance will not last forever after all.
Review: Faulkner is always challenging. "Go Down, Moses" is no exception. In particular, the genealogy of the McCaslin-Edmonds-Beauchamp family causes no end of confusion. You will encounter characters named McCaslin Edmonds, Carothers McCaslin, Carothers McCaslin Edmonds, etc... (I found drawing a family tree helped me immensely)! Furthermore, the narrative is hardly linear; characters jump around in space and time, tell stories of other peoples' experiences in the midst of their own reminiscences, and in general relate their tales in a manner that will keep you constantly flipping back and forth through the book. The reader is not a passive recipient of information but actively engaged in the process of determining plot, characters, and truth. I like this style because it reminds me of how we construct narratives in our own minds. We go off on tangents, we ramble endlessly before returning suddenly to our original subject, we remember things as they occur to us more often than we do in chronological order. Faulkner is more psychologist than novelist: he puts us inside the minds of his characters and lets them tell the story for themselves.
The particular thoughtful and intimate history portrayed in "Go Down, Moses" is that of a Mississippi plantation family and their relationships with their slaves, their land, and their own histories from the antebellum era to the Depression. This is a book about race, and I have yet to see a more chilling, touching, and humanly accurate description of race relations in the South. An equally crucial, yet often-overlooked, theme of "Go Down, Moses" is the issue of man's relation to land, ownership, and the natural world. Faulkner's descriptions of the virgin Mississippi forest and the vanishing Delta region are both beautiful and powerful, and I think contribute equally to the book in providing it with its distinctive flavor and voice.
Reading "The Bear" as a standalone story is simply not sufficient. For one, it is the longest section by far in the book, and new readers of Faulkner may easily lose track of the story, or just as easily lose interest altogether. Furthermore, the remainder of this excellent work provides a framework for an understanding and identification with the characters and the landscape of rural Mississippi that they inhabit.
Opening Line: “Isaac McCaslin, “Uncle Ike”, past seventy and nearer eighty than he ever corroborated any more, a widower now and uncle to half a county and father to no one.”
Closing Line: “Come on,” he said. “Let’s get back to town. I haven’t seen my desk in two days.”
Quotes: “To the sheriff Lucas was just another nigger and both the sheriff and Lucas knew it, although only one of them knew that to Lucas the sheriff was a redneck without any reason for pride in his forbears nor hope for it in his descendants.”
“God created man and He created the world for him to live in and I reckon He created the kind of world He would have wanted to live in if He had been a man--the ground to walk on, the big woods, the trees and the water, and the game to live in it. And maybe He didn't put the desire to hunt and kill game in man but I reckon He knew it was going to be there, that man was going to teach it to himself, since he wasn't quite God himself yet.”
Rating: Very Good

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