Go Down, Moses — William Faulkner

The first Faulkner book I ever read was Go Down, Moses. I was 19 and on Christmas break. I chose it as the book to read on the airplane (I never board without a book) as I traveled from San Francisco State to Cleveland, OH. I hadn’t read any Faulkner yet, but as an English/Creative Writing major I thought I better start finding out what the big deal was. I bought the Viking Library paperback edition. That year I was especially lucky because after Christmas our family was heading to Düsseldorf, Germany (home of German Altbier) to stay a week with my step-mother’s family, and then stay a week in Zermat, Switzerland to ski. dsc_0001 Trust me, jaunts to the Swiss Alps were not the norm for our family. This was also the trip where I had forgotten to bring my passport, prompting incredulous looks and stunned silence when  I had to answer this question posed by my father soon after arriving. “You brought your passport, right?” With the dorms closed and locked, I had to fly to Washington D.C. where I spent the day getting an emergency passport, walking Pennsylvania Ave., visiting the monuments and museums. I mention this because A) the book logged a lot of miles that winter, and B) a visit to D.C. is such an evocative place for American History. You can’t stand in front of the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King Jr. spoke and not have it inform what you read in Faulkner.

Because I read Go Down Moses in December, and because most of the stories tend to occur in the Fall and early Winter, I will always associate the book with crisp November days, of woods, and frost on dawn mornings. This was reinforced by the book cover, the sinewy old roots absent of any green, running deep below the pine needle wilderness floor. So whenever I think it’s time to re-read the book, I always save it for a November or December. I believe this is now the fifth time I’ve read it, and each time I’m reminded why.

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The is the Modern Library edition… a rather disappointing dust jacket.

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The inside jacket, a pressed leaf, an embossed page.

Go Down Moses is a collection of seven inter-related stories that span approximately a hundred years and several generations beginning with a White slave owner family, the McCaslins. By the end of the book the reader has witnessed the work of a kind of poison pill–the ruthlessness of slavery and misuse of land working its way down as a curse through each subsequent generation. At the crux of the story, the Grandfather of the primary character Ike McCaslin, has spawned a mulatto branch of the family tree when he has intercourse with one of his slaves. Go Down Moses is primarily about the relationship of the white and negro races in the South, heritage, blood lines, and the shrinking diminshment of man co-related to the diminishment of the wild wilderness.

Go Down Moses is so densely packed with the American experience and social history of the South, and written so well, it seems to become some innate experience passed on through DNA. This may raise the question, “Why would anyone want to time travel to experience Mississippi from the 1850’s to the 1950’s?” Fair enough. Yes, Go Down Moses will drop you right in the midst of the ugliest chapters in American history. The “n” word is used consistently, (at least in one case in describing a white lynch mob—not that that makes it any better), but then the absence of that word in literature of the South of that era would be whitewashing the reality of how the word was used. This of course does not mean that this book incites any kind of racism, or puts Faulkner in some questionable light. Quite the opposite. The book itself is inscribed to Caroline Barr, the tiny African-American housekeeper born into slavery and was a fixture of the Faulkner family until her death. Faulkner saw her as integral to his raising as anyone else. Written around 1940 and 1941, Faulkner should get at least some credit as a white Southern man to promote the counter to the prevailing sentiment of southern whites towards blacks.

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Oates. S. B., (1987) William Faulkner, The Man and The Artist.  New York: Harper & Row

Faulkner doesn’t make race issues black and white. There is little “good versus evil.” Rather than zero in on injustice, Faulkner instead writes to show a common humanity. In a sense there is no injustice or inequality until black people are first accepted as equal human beings in the first place. Keep in mind Faulkner is writing during a time when most White Southern men, and underscored by laws of U.S. government, did not place Black people on the same equal level. So to focus solely on the injustice of slavery and racism would be less effective, until it could be shown and experienced on an emotional level that Black men and women share the same deep loves, foibles, and human emotions we all experience. And to help make things equal, the stories in Go Down Moses primarily involve a complex family tree in which there is a White branch and a Black branch, with blurred lines beyond simple white and black. Characters may be of equal family heritage, but the color of their skin and slave heritage creates separate stations in life. As you can read in the letter below, Faulkner may have been more concerned with his bank account than championing Black equality, but still…

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Blotner J., (1977) Selected Letters of William Faulkner. London: The Scolar Press

I remember reading the book for hours at a time on the long flight and during the layovers, the white noise of the airplane and that cramped feeling of reading with the seat trays of food waiting to be removed. I don’t know just how much I absorbed that first reading in that environment of airplanes and airports. To anyone reading Faulkner the first time, it can be difficult and dense. Dialogue can be cryptic and seem wholly unnatural and overly philosophic in a colloquial way (see Chapter 4 of “The Bear”). I don’t believe the first reading struck me right off the bat, except perhaps “The Bear.” But it certainly laid the first imprint. Go Down Moses in fact are a little like fables told and re-told by ancestors until they become the fabric of your own memory. When I reread these stories I’m reminded of my own Grandfather and of our farm where there are 40 acres of woods. It’s the book I want to reread when I want hunting legends, and being in the woods among great woodsmen, or being a moonshiner, and get a real vision of the South. It is also very much a book about the relationship of men with animals, both domestic and wild. These are stores where one-eyed mules, horses, dogs and bears are characters deserving of names, of foxes running through the house to hide behind a clock on a mantel, of deer and turkey, and of a time when it was a natural, common skill to know the tracks of bear and even of your own daughter. Go Down Moses is very much about men deeply connected and in tune with the animal world.

Frankly, this is also a complicated book to follow, which perhaps is the reason I find it a good book to re-read. I pick up something new each time, or even experience that the story is different than my memory of it. There’s also a reason why a Google search of “Family Tree chart for Go Down Moses” produces multiple results. Even armed with a chart it can be challenging to know just which McCaslin or Edmonds or third cousin of one or both is talking. But every time I pick the book up I don’t worry about that, and neither should you. As I quickly learned early on when reading Faulkner, it’s better to give up trying to follow each sentence (or pages in some cases) but rather continue on and allow your mind to absorb it all—akin to looking at an abstract painting as a whole, rather than the brush strokes.

As a whole, Go Down Moses is a mix of deep dark material balanced with some humor, love,  human nature, and simply brilliant writing involving the natural world. As the back flap of the Viking edition more eloquently sums up, ”Faulkner examines the changing relationship of black to white and of man to the land, and weaves a complex, interrelated work that is rich in implication and understanding of the human condition.”

I’ve including the following summaries of each story, which I wrote more for myself than anything. With difficult writers like Faulkner, for me a little summary before I read helps my comprehension as I go. Sort of like watching the movie before reading a complicated book—doesn’t spoil the book, but rather helps you comprehend more the first time through.

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“Was”

Set around 1850, a story about a slave, Tomey’s Turl, owned by twin bachelors Uncle Buck and Uncle Buddy. Tomey’s Turl has a history of running away to see his love Tennie at a neighboring plantation. Buck and Buddy aren’t aware at the time, but Tomey’s Turl is actually their half-brother, the product of their father and a slave. The story actually begins with an escaped fox running through the house chased after by a boiling pack of dogs, which sets up a consistent thread through nearly every story: the chase, the hunt, the relationship of men tied deeply with the wilderness using animals to tame the land and hunt their quarry. Animals (and slaves) are integral in the Southern white men’s conquering of the land and it’s wild animals. As the land becomes tame and the wilderness recedes, it all becomes more and more fouled (on top of it already being fouled with the advent of, and later the defeat over, slavery).

On the plantation of Mr. Hubert is Miss Sophansiba (with a roan tooth) his unwed sister who has a thing for Uncle Buck. She has lines like, “Nothing sweetened a Missippi toddy like the hand of a Missippi lady.” And she gives Uncle Buck a little piece of red ribbon for “success” on the hunt, which he holds “like it was a little water moccasin.” She insists on calling their plantation “Warwick” which may be Faulkner’s way of pitting the romanticized version of the South against its brutal, untamed reality.

Staying the night at the plantation, Uncle Buck accidentally enters the bed of Miss Sophansiba, thinking it empty. The only right thing to do is marry her. A poker game is decided on between Mr. Hubert and Buck–if Buck loses he has to buy Tennie and marry Miss Sophansiba. Buck loses, then doubles down on another bet. In the end Uncle Buck marries Miss Sophansiba and Tennie comes to live with Tomey’s Turl. The end of the story has the dogs chasing the fox again.

“Fire and the Hearth”

Jumping forward in time to about 1940, at 100 pages the story is more of a novella centering on Lucas Beauchamp, 67 year old moonshiner, a Black and proud McCaslin who feels he’s as much or more McCaslin than any of the “woman born” white side of the family (the Edmondses). Lucas’ daughter, Nat, has a fiancé George Wilkins who also has a still, but is more reckless about it. Lucas wants to prevent the marriage by getting George caught with a still on the land owned by Roth Edmonds, the son of Lucas’ cousin. This would put George in prison for some time and Lucas can continue on with his business. His plan is to hide his own still and then tell Roth about George’s still, as this will attract every authority with a badge to comb the property and bust up George’s still. But when Lucas is trying to first hide his own still in an old Indian mound so that the authorities won’t find it, Lucas finds a gold coin in a piece of pottery. He becomes obsessed with finding treasure. His daughter Nat is on to his plan anyway, and the day after Lucas tells about George’s still, Nat and George place all of George’s moonshine on Lucas’ back porch just as the authorities are pulling up to his property.

In an almost dream-like way, the story then dips back in time. When Lucas first married his wife Molly, he lit a fire on the hearth of their home that they kept alive ever since. They have an infant son at the same time that Zach Edmonds, his cousin, also is expecting a child. A great flood occurs just as Zach’s wife is in delivery. Lucas is sent to fetch a doctor through the flood in total darkness risking his life and “at one time he had believed himself gone, done for, both himself and the mule soon to be too more white-eyed and slack-jawed pieces of flotsam.” At the same time, Molly is sent to assist in the birth. When Lucas returns with the doctor, “it was as though the white woman had not only never quitted the house, she had never existed.” His own wife taking her place, nursing Zach’s newborn child as if it were her own. Later he demands his wife to come home. When she does she brings the white boy with her to raise alongside her own child. Both white and black children suck at the same breast, sleep in the same bed and grow up together until tragically, the white boy later realizes his white advantage in society. He separates himself and almost immediately suffers the associated guilt that comes with it.

Lucas, will later face off with Zach, with a dramatic duel-like scene in which they literally holding each others arms across a bed with a pistol in the middle. Lucas gets the gun, jams it into the white man’s side and fires, but it’s a miss-fire. The next paragraph begins, almost with an ironic exhale, “That had been a good year, though late in beginning after the rains and flood: the year of the long summer.” Lucas keeps the misfired shell with the little indent in the cap as a reminder of the lives he nearly took (Zach’s and what surely would have been his own for murdering a White man).

The story takes a lighter tack when Lucas essentially cons a metal detector salesman to come all the way down from Memphis and demo the tool. Rather than buy it for $300, through a series of trades and cons, Lucas ends up owning it for free and renting it back to the salesman for $25 a night, who he has gotten hooked on the idea of buried treasure.

“Pantaloon in Black”

A Black man named Rider is fraught with grief having to bury his wife of 6 months. Unable to contain his grief, he buys a jug of whiskey and more or less commits “suicide by redneck.” That is to say, with a razor he cuts the throat of the white man who had been cheating them all in dice for years, foreknowing what the outcome of such a crime will be. The extended family of the murdered white man form a lynch mob and kill Rider.

“The Old People”

A sort of prelude to “The Bear.” In this story we’re with Ike McCaslin, age 10. It is primarily about his relationship with Sam Fathers, son of a Chickasaw Chief and a Negro slave, who teaches Ike how to hunt and be a woodsman. In a sense it is about the relationship of a grandfather figure to a young boy. Ike gets his first buck and Sam wipes his face with the blood of the deer, initiating him to the relationship of the wilderness and the animals. The story also sets up the family tradition of packing up mules and wagons for two weeks every November for the ritualistic hunt out at Major De Spain’s camp, which is a vast plot of prime hunting land.

“The Bear”

One of Faulkner’s most well known and popular stories, “The Bear” is one of the best hunting stories I’ve ever read. I’m sure it probably stoked a lot of envy in Hemingway. It is about a ritualistic hunt for a “trap-ruined foot” old bear named Old Ben who for years has savaged corn-cribs, shoats, and even calves for miles around. No dog can keep it at bay, and no gun has been able to kill it. If the idea of a hunting story is off-putting to you, take it from someone who has never killed a thing with a gun in my life. Ok, maybe I have taken out some birds with a BB gun, but what this story primarily offers is the seamless relationship of people and wilderness and animals and vice versa. Anyway it’s not about the glory of killing, in fact almost the opposite since they all seem to know what the killing of “The Bear” will mean to their world. The story places you in the cold frosty November mornings in the woods before dawn, in the spongy undergrowth, and guided by the grandfatherly Sam Fathers. Sam ties the story to a time far earlier than the white man’s arrival.

What may be the most endearing aspect of the story for me is the character Boon Hogganbeck (also half Chickasaw), and his relationship to Lion, a wild dog Sam captures by baiting a trap with the carcass of a colt the dog has already killed. Channeling Jack London, Faulkner has Sam starve the vicious dog in order to slowly train him for one purpose, to hunt Old Ben. This is the only dog that could possibly stand up to Old Ben. No one wants to go near the vicious dog, but when it is finally docile enough, Boon takes the dog as his own companion and they become inseparable, even sleeping in the same bed. The yearly chase of Lion and Old Ben become the stuff of local legend and soon attract a yearly audience.

I won’t spoil the outcome of the story, but somewhat sticking out like a sore thumb, Chapter 4 (of 5) in “The Bear” has nothing to do with hunting. Ike has turned 21 and renounces his heritage and inheritance in a long conversation with his cousin McCaslin Edmonds (yes, the names get quite confusing). They discuss the history of the South using the commissary ledgers as a microcosm of all the South. Dating from the beginning of the plantation in the 1830’s, the ledgers display the entries of every slave bought and sold, of the supplies and goods plus and minus, and the births and deaths of the past 100 years. Ike is convinced the whole land is cursed, and could never be owned by anyone to begin with, even by the Chickasaw chiefs who first traded it to the white men who came.

“Delta Autumn”

This story can be seen as the third part of “The Old People” and “The Bear”. The wilderness is ever-shrinking by the work of logging companies, made into rectangles and parallelograms of cotton and other crops. The sound of the forest is spoiled by the sound of trains going in light and empty and coming out thundering under the load of logs. Ike is nearly 80 now but still goes into the woods each November with the progeny of men he once knew and went hunting with. But it has never been the same after Old Ben and Lion and Sam Fathers. It is fouled and gameless, the travel done by auto instead of wagons, and they have to resort to killing does for any sport. One of Ike’s younger relatives, Roth, has illegitimately gotten a woman pregnant the year before and given birth to a son. He can’t face the task of paying her off and refusing to marry her so he leaves Ike in the camp with an envelope of money. She arrives with the child and in speaking with Ike, it is discovered that she too is a distant relative, a McCaslin descendant still paying the price of Ike’s Grandfather’s incestuous act generations before.

“Go Down Moses”

The story is a both literally and figuratively a funeral procession of this family tree. Samuel Beauchamp, Lucas Beauchamp’s (“Fire and the Hearth”) grandson, is an organized criminal who is executed in Chicago for killing a cop. Molly Beauchamp, Lucas’ wife, now ancient, wants him to be buried at home. The townspeople, white and black alike, chip in for the cost to bring his body home. The casket is loaded from the train station to a hearse which travels past spectators in the square and out into the country cemetery. In a sense it is the end sum of the sins committed by those white slave owners that set off a chain reaction that influences each generation after. And in many ways, that’s what makes Go Down, Moses just as relevant today as ever.

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