Faulkner Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In Go Down, Moses, American literary giant William Faulkner reexamined Mississippi culture from the nineteenth century into the first half of the twentieth. His unsparing yet compassionate treatment of his African American characters as they struggled under the heavy weight of the past eventually guided him to a more moderate position on civil rights.

Summary of Event

William Faulkner’s true subject was always Mississippi—specifically, the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, his “own little postage stamp of native soil” located somewhere near his home in Oxford. By 1942, he had published sixteen books, including The Sound and the Fury (1929), Light in August (1932), and Absalom, Absalom! (1936). Go Down, Moses, published on May 11, 1942, marked a notable shift in his attitude toward his African American characters, African Americans;representations of as he traced the history of the multiracial McCaslin-Edmonds-Beauchamp family for more than a century. Go Down, Moses (Faulkner) Literary movements;Southern fiction Literary movements;modernism Modernism;literature [kw]Faulkner Publishes Go Down, Moses (May 11, 1942) [kw]Go Down, Moses, Faulkner Publishes (May 11, 1942) Go Down, Moses (Faulkner) Literary movements;Southern fiction Literary movements;modernism Modernism;literature [g]North America;May 11, 1942: Faulkner Publishes Go Down, Moses[00520] [g]United States;May 11, 1942: Faulkner Publishes Go Down, Moses[00520] [c]Literature;May 11, 1942: Faulkner Publishes Go Down, Moses[00520] [c]Social issues and reform;May 11, 1942: Faulkner Publishes Go Down, Moses[00520] Faulkner, William Barr, Caroline Cowley, Malcolm

Initially, each chapter was written as an individual story (most were published separately); the stories were then reworked into a multilayered novel. Faulkner focused on historical African American family life, as well as on the uneasy coexistence of the legitimate white family and the unacknowledged “shadow” family descended from slaves. He dedicated the book to Caroline Barr, an elderly family servant who had been born into slavery, who had cared for him as a child, and who served as the diminutive model for the character of Molly Beauchamp.

Faulkner’s shift in perspective may be observed best in Molly’s husband, Lucas Beauchamp, who first appears in the chapter “The Fire and the Hearth” as a sly trickster who outwits two white men by claiming to have found gold. In the course of the novel, Faulkner transforms him into a more serious, even dignified character. Lucas is part of a tortured bloodline; he shares a common white ancestor, the patriarch and slaveholder Carothers McCaslin, with his white cousins Ike McCaslin and Roth Edmonds. In the 1940’s, Lucas was indeed an artistically bold character as the stable cousin balanced between two erratic extremes—sensitive Ike and irritable Roth. Proud Lucas does not call any Edmonds “sir.” He does not go either to their front door or the back, but raps on the veranda to announce his presence. Roth admits admiringly that Lucas is “more like old Carothers than all the rest of us put together.”

One of the most dramatic African American characters is Rider, in “Pantaloon in Black.” Rider is a study in the overwhelming anguish of a husband whose beloved young wife has suddenly died. He sees her ghost in the kitchen doorway and, as she fades, is tenderly preparing a plate of supper for each of them. He tries to eat, tries to drink moonshine, and refuses his aunt’s pleas to stay with her. As the leader of a black sawmill crew, he attempts to work but has to walk away. When he later returns to a crap game, he challenges the white night watchman, who is using loaded dice to cheat them all, and kills him. Rider cannot bear to live, and he fully understands that he will not. A modern reader should be aware of how unusual it was during this period for a white southern author to attribute such emotions to a black man. Rider’s intolerable human grief is very much out of touch with the public perception of the time.

Ironically, the second half of this chapter is told through the eyes of a white deputy, to whom Rider’s pain is completely incomprehensible. One critic suggests that, as the man recounts Rider’s story to his indifferent wife, he is really talking to himself, trying to make sense of what has happened. Faulkner skirts the stereotypes of black man and white deputy to show the psychological chasm that divides them.

Faulkner’s well-known story “The Bear” "Bear, The" (Faulkner)[Bear, The (Faulkner)] exists in several forms, including a short version published in The Saturday Evening Post (1942) and the longer, five-part chapter of Go Down, Moses that became his showpiece. Part Four, a shattering glimpse into southern history, has also been published separately, revealing more of Faulkner’s keen insight into moral corruption. The yellowing commissary ledgers read by Ike McCaslin reveal that lecherous old Carothers fathered a daughter, Tomy, with his slave Eunice and that he later fathered a son with Tomy—Lucas Beauchamp’s father. Carothers was in fact the direct instrument of both women’s deaths. This information so appalls Ike that he renounces his claim to the tainted land he would inherit as old Carothers’ grandson, making Lucas the true, yet forever unrecognized, heir of the plantation.

For Faulkner, this troubled family bears the curse of slavery. Miscegenation and incest are its by-products, but these problems are compounded by the whites’ refusal to accept their black descendants, just as old Carothers found it easier to will his black son a thousand dollars than to acknowledge him.

Critical reaction to Go Down, Moses was uneven. Published six months after the United States had entered World War II, the book appeared during a period of great unrest and concern in the nation, as the military built up its strength on the European and Pacific fronts. Reviews were mixed, praising Faulkner’s genius and complaining of incoherence from his use of stream of consciousness. By 1944, all of his books except the notorious Sanctuary (1931) were out of print. Although the publishers said he was finished, however, fellow writers still spoke of him admiringly. Friend and critic Malcolm Cowley was impelled to revive public interest in his work by collecting and editing The Portable Faulkner (1946), a best-selling anthology that again put the author in the public eye. A renaissance of Faulkner studies began soon after its publication.

Significance

In August, 1948, the Mississippi Dixiecrats marched out of the Democratic convention in opposition to the civil rights plank in the party platform. That fall, Faulkner published Intruder in the Dust, perhaps his most important fictional treatment of race in the South. Some readers believed that his character Gavin Stevens, who also appeared briefly in Go Down, Moses, represented Faulkner’s own view. Lawyer Stevens argued that the South should solve its race problems without interference from the rest of the country, a position in line with that of other southern moderates.

Following the Supreme Court’s decision outlawing school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), Faulkner began to speak out publicly. A loyal son of the South, he nevertheless supported integrated schools, a view resented by many. After the murder of the black teenager Emmett Till in 1955, Faulkner wrote in a letter to The New York Herald Tribune, “If we in America . . . must murder children . . . we don’t deserve to survive.” He urged African Americans to “go slow now,” and in 1956 and 1957 he published more essays and letters in national magazines, including Life, Harper’s, and Ebony, urging caution and patience. He became involved in the case of Autherine Lucy, a black student attempting to enroll at the University of Alabama, because he genuinely feared she would be killed. Speaking out made Faulkner unpopular with both liberals and conservatives and even within his own family. He was vilified as a fascist, racist, and communist and was subjected to angry telephone calls, hate mail, and even death threats.

William Faulkner’s work reflected not only his own changing position on civil rights but eventually that of the whole nation. He advocated nonviolence, patience, courtesy, and acceptance of responsibility. In his books and in his personal life, Faulkner could see both sides of the civil rights debate and responded with ambivalence and compassion, yet unquestionably his greatest gift to America was his literary brilliance, which left an indelible imprint on the twentieth century. Go Down, Moses (Faulkner) Literary movements;Southern fiction Literary movements;modernism Modernism;literature

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Faulkner, William. Essays, Speeches, and Public Letters. Edited by James B. Meriwether. New York: Random House, 1966. All of Faulkner’s mature articles, speeches, and letters intended for publication, many dealing with civil rights.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Peavy, Charles D. Go Slow Now: Faulkner and the Race Question. Eugene: University of Oregon Books, 1971. An in-depth analysis of Faulkner’s public statements on race.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Polk, Noel. “Man in the Middle: Faulkner and the Southern White Moderate.” In Faulkner and Race, edited by Doreen Fowler and Ann J. Abadie. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1987. Comments on Faulkner’s refusal to sentimentalize his African American characters and his locally unpopular position on segregation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Singal, Daniel J. William Faulkner: The Making of a Modernist. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997. Features a chapter on Go Down, Moses and a defense of Faulkner’s portrayal of African American culture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wagner-Martin, Linda, ed. New Essays on “Go Down, Moses.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Wagner-Martin’s excellent introduction illuminates five diverse essays on this novel.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Williamson, Joel. William Faulkner and Southern History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. An award-winning historian offers an overview of the South’s past and examines the correlation between Faulkner’s turbulent family history and his subject matter.

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