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The Past Is Not Past. Or Is It?


William Faulkner, “The Old People,” Harper’s, Sept. 1940.

William Faulkner, “Pantaloon in Black,” Harper’s, Oct. 1940.

What do two short stories by William Faulkner published by Harper’s in the fall of 1940 have to do with the 2008 presidential campaign? Faulkner finalized them in the midst of a presidential election campaign, as Franklin Roosevelt sought his third term, a fact which breaks through in a few spots. These stories seem to be a simple narrative of life in the rural South, one is a rite of passage story and the other a strange tragi-comedy. But these stories are indeed intensely political, and their message was one that the readership would hardly have been prepared to cope with, in those dark days as the specter of war loomed over America. It seems we have to go forward seventeen presidential elections to come to the day when they become a matter of public discussion.

Last Tuesday, Senator Barack Obama, facing a withering assault over his relationship with his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, delivered a carefully measured and thoughtful speech on race relations in America. The speech was by almost every measure something extraordinary. It was delivered against the advice of Obama’s advisors, who felt—probably correctly—that any discussion of the race issue would only be used to isolate him in public debate. But more significantly, the language of the speech was not measured and shaped by focus groups. It proceeded assuming an educated and intelligent audience. As Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan reminded us in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, no political advisor would ever hear of such a thing. She points to two give-aways: the use of the word “endemic” and a quotation from Faulkner.

The words quoted were

‘The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.’

But actually the language is just off. The actual words are “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” They come from Requiem for a Nun. But the meaning and use that Obama takes is from an earlier Faulkner novel, Go Down, Moses, a brave and profound work about race relations in America. Being bound to, but struggling to overcome the past is a key message of that work. In fact these words could be taken as a sort of moral test that he has put to a focal character: will he remain a servant to the past, or will he succeed in shaking those chains free? The protagonist fails that test, with his very Southern attitudes and bigotries. In fact, Faulkner did himself at least once–in an outburst in an interview in the fifties, which Faulkner later attributed to too much alcohol. But Faulkner left a transcendent message: Some day, he tells us, some day the people will rise above these divisions and will recognize the ties that bind all. They will recognize the fundamental lie of racism. This was not, of course, a message which could be easily delivered to an American audience in 1940. Today, however, the message finds people ready to listen and to believe.

Random House first published Go Down, Moses as a “collection of stories,” a subtitle introduced by one of its editors. But Faulkner was very clear: this was a novel. The stories published separately were merely the building blocks of a structurally daring work. Faulkner turned to magazines to publish the elements of his novel out of financial despair—he was facing bankruptcy, and at this time sent several appeals to Hollywood studios volunteering his services as a writer. He got $400 for each of the stories from Harper’s (about $12,000 in current dollars for the pair). The two stories that Harper’s published in the fall of 1940 were key elements of the whole, they lay a foundation that helps us understand the two more critical pieces, “The Bear,” and “Delta Autumn,” the latter being the piece that comes closest to Obama’s theme.

At one level, Go Down, Moses is the story of Isaac McCaslin, who comes to be owner of the McCaslin plantation. McCaslin is “uncle to half a county and father to no one,” and in much of the novel he seems little more than a bridge to a wide array of other characters. But the work’s essence is an exploration of race relations. Deep in the McCaslin past are some untold truths: the family has a black line who go by the family name Beauchamp.

In “The Old People,” Faulkner takes us back to McCaslin’s youth, in the era of Reconstruction. He is being taught to hunt and, while he departs on the hunting expedition with a group of social equals, his real teacher is Sam Fathers–the son of a Choctaw chieftain and a run-away black slave– was betrayed and turned back to slavery by his father. Sam is a “wild man not even one generation from the woods, childless, kinless, peopleless.” There are three critical strands to this story. The first is a sort of rite-of-passage tale. McCaslin understands that learning to be a hunter marks the passage from adolescence to adulthood. (As Sam tells him when he doubts he will bag a prey, “Yes you will. You wait. You’ll be a hunter. You’ll be a man.”) This is combined with a primal understanding of man’s relationship to his environment (“blood shed and fallen leaves,” Faulkner tells us, are signs of a perpetual cycle). The human existence, we learn, may be fleeting, brutal and unpleasant. It may involve noble thoughts, but more often than not they will be betrayed. Sam is concerned about living at one with his environment and protecting it. But the white men who accompany McCaslin on the hunt don’t share these values; they lack a sense of mystery and wonder in their attitude towards the forest.

But finally, and critically for the novel as a whole, it is a story of race and racism. Two figures in the story, Sam and Turl—the son of a McCaslin ancestor by a black woman—are cast out and condemned to live a life in slavery, until the Civil War, and as outsiders thereafter. Both of them are mixed race, and it is clear that this is why they were cast out.

Faulkner calls this story “The Old People,” and this title is essential to his purpose. He points to some beliefs that unify the “old people,” by which he means the earlier generation of white settlers, slaves and the Native Americans. Some of these are ennobling, such as the hunt which brings them together. Others are heartless and cruel—racism, in particular.

“Pantaloon in Black” is a tragicomic work, though one in which the tragic elements overwhelm the comic. But Faulker builds off of the commedia dell’arte tradition—he calls the protagonist of this tale, a black man of phenomenal physical strength, “Rider,” but in the title “Pantaloon,” for the character Pantalone. In the commedia dell’arte tradition, Pantalone is a miserly misfit, the butt of coarse jokes and physical mistreatment.

Faulkner’s Rider is a far more tragic figure, turned to ridicule and laughs in the eyes of a crude bigot. As the story opens, we learn that Rider’s wife, who had forced him to reform and live a righteous life, had suddenly died. He is beside himself with grief, and he undertakes a series of self-destructive acts, including hurling a log in an unequaled feat of human strength. In most of the story, we see Rider through the eyes of a racist deputy. Rider killed a security guard named Birdsong who falsely accused him of cheating in a game of dice. Rider is imprisoned, then taken and lynched.

Faulkner’s critical eye here is turned on white society which is incapable of understanding Rider and his torment, and reduces him to the level of a primitive animal. He also focuses on the utter corruption of law enforcement, making it clear that Rider was lynched because the sheriff was more concerned about appeasing the Birdsong family (which could bring him 42 votes in any election) than in enforcing the law.

These two works set the stage for “Delta Autumn,” which was written and is set in the weeks in which the two Harper’s installments appeared on the stands. Faulkner gives it a contemporary setting. It is the fall of 1940, and Franklin Roosevelt is campaigning for re-election. McCaslin is back on a hunting trip again, but he and his friends are worried about the threat of fascism. They scoff at the fair-weather patriots who make a show of singing “God Bless America” and “wearing dime-store flags in their lapels.” (Faulkner, lest there be any doubt, stands squarely in Obama’s corner on that issue as well.)

But much has changed from the hunting trip described in “The Old People.” They have to drive hours into the delta to find game. McCaslin is an old man now, approaching 80. The white man has mastered the forest, McCaslin muses, taking what he needs for his prosperity, and refusing to return to nature that which is nature’s. The radical environmentalism in this work is surprising:

This land which man has deswamped and denuded and derivered in two generations so that white men can own plantations and commute every night to Memphis . . .

But “Delta Autumn” is about the failed reconciliation of the two branches of the McCaslin family—whites and blacks. McCaslin’s cousin Carothers Edmonds, who is in his forties, has taken a black mistress, a woman from the black line of the McCaslin family and his distant cousin. It’s curious that Faulkner never gives this woman a name. But he portrays her as Carothers Edmonds’s superior in every way, starting with education (she “has been to college” and “talks like a Northerner”).

The mistress is truly in love with Carothers and wants him to return that love. But Carothers wants to be rid of her; he offers only an envelope with some money. In this context old McCaslin, the scion of the family offers her some advice:

Maybe in a thousand or two thousand years in America, he thought. But not now! Not now! He cried, not loud, in a voice of amazement, pity, and outrage: “You’re a nigger!”

And the mistress responds to that word by calling McCaslin “uncle,” which he literally is. This does little to soften the situation. McCaslin tells her there is no hope for her in Mississippi—no reconciliation with her own white kin, no chance of acceptance. Take the money and go North, he tells her, it’s only there that you will have a chance of a decent life. “Then you will forget all this, forget it ever happened, that he ever existed. . .”

Will the McCaslins recognize that they are one family? Faulkner gives us a new generation. The best and most promising of the McCaslins is, as we learn, a black woman. Love appears as an essential medium of redemption and reconciliation. But Carothers and McCaslin both are chained to the social values of their generation. They cannot see blacks as their equals. Faulkner puts a test and they fail it. This is the vital moment of Go Down, Moses.

Barack Obama’s speech is tied perfectly to Go Down, Moses. Obama is, as Faulkner says, “a half-breed” like Sam and Turl but he notes the great distance that America as a nation has traveled from the day of Faulkner’s writing, in which the idea of finally crossing that bridge was unthinkable. Now, Obama tells us, the day has come.

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