What does Roth know, and when does he know it? Chronology and names in “The Fire and the Hearth” and “Delta Autumn”

McCaslin genealogy

The McCaslin-Edmonds-Beauchamp genealogy in Go Down, Moses. Via.

Go Down, Moses is a tangle of a novel, both chronologically and genealogically, as this chart shows.  I already knew these things, of course.  In the course of my rereading, though, I am finding it to be even more tangled than in just the ways I had realized or had intended to address in the book project.  Two of those tangles are the sequencing of the stories (almost all of which, just to remind the reader, had prior existences as short stories) and the material Faulkner added to them in order to unify them into his novel.  The sequencing has nothing to do with chronology but, I am rather sheepishly realizing, with the gradual revelation of the extended McCaslin genealogy; the link to the webpage where I found this chart does a good job of tracing out the tree as each novel’s section in its turn reveals its branches.  (In this regard, Go Down, Moses‘ gradual, decidedly unchronological revelation of information from various sources/directions most strongly resembles Faulkner’s other great examination of the tragedy of slavery, Absalom, Absalom!)  But more to the point of this post, I have found myself paying closer attention to Carothers “Roth” Edmonds, whom the novel introduces us to in “The Fire and the Hearth.”  Roth is the man who now owns the McCaslin plantation that Ike McCaslin had refused to accept as his inheritance, and he is also, as we’ll learn in “Delta Autumn,” the father of the baby the woman brings to the hunting camp in hopes that maybe, finally, Roth will acknowledge them.  Lucas Beauchamp is “The Fire and the Hearth”‘s central figure, but he will barely figure into Go Down, Moses‘ other sections.  Rather, it is through Roth that “The Fire and the Hearth” introduces the novel’s central mystery: Why Ike has refused to take ownership of the family land.  This post’s subject, though, is a smaller mystery, one that, for me, anyway, has the potential to make Roth a more sympathetic figure than most take him to be.

Up until this week, it had never really occurred to me to wonder much about the year in which “The Fire and the Hearth” is set, but it was after reading the following passage that I became curious.  Roth is recalling (through a third-person narrator) the history of the black offspring of Carothers McCaslin (“Old Carothers,” as Lucas calls him), and he reaches this part of the telling:

But James, the eldest, ran away before he came of age [to receive the money bequeathed him and the other black offspring in McCaslin’s will] and didn’t stop until he had crossed the Ohio River and they never heard from or of him again at all–that is, that his white kindred ever knew.  It was though he had not only (as his sister was later to do) put running water between himself and the land of his grandmother’s betrayal and his father’s nameless birth, but he had interposed latitude and geography too, shaking from his feet forever the very dust of the land where his white ancestor could acknowledge or repudiate him from one day to another, according to his whim, but where he dared not even repudiate the white ancestor same when it met the white man’s humor of the moment. (102)

“James” here is better known, to his white kindred, as “Tennie’s Jim”–and, even more important, is the grandfather of the woman who becomes Roth’s lover, as she edgily informs Ike in “Delta Autumn”: “James Beauchamp–you called him Tennie’s Jim though he had a name–was my grandfather.  I said you were Uncle Ike” (344).  For it will be in “Delta Autumn” that the woman sketches out the rest of James Beauchamp’s story.  (Also, Roth’s lover’s returning North, after having hoped for but not begging for, as she puts it, “Yes,” serves as a powerful analogue to the motives Roth assigns to James’ heading North.)  Roth’s recollection above has “James,” which his lover calls him, but no mention of her, which at first made me think that the events of “The Fire and the Hearth” take place before he meets the woman.  How to date this story, though?

Here’s a pro tip when reading a Faulkner story in which family history figures prominently: If a character keeps talking about how old s/he is, pay attention.  In “The Fire and the Hearth,” that character is Lucas, who says several times that he is 67 years old.  We learn in “The Bear” that he was born in 1874 (269), which means that “The Fire and the Hearth” occurs in 1941.  “Delta Autumn,” though, occurs just before or right at the beginning of World War II–either 1939 (by Cleanth Brooks’ reckoning in his chart of the McCaslins in William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country, 448) or 1940 (according to the chart at the beginning of this post).  Whichever year it is, though, “The Fire and the Hearth” clearly is set after “Delta Autumn,” yet the former story contains no mention whatsoever of Roth’s lover or the son he fathered by her–not even a sense of his loss, or even that he has lost anything or anyone at all.

Or perhaps there is, just a trace?  I want to reread “The Fire and the Hearth” to see if there might be more to than this one trace, but I’ll say this for now: In “Delta Autumn,” the woman tells Ike that she had chosen not to reveal her family history (and, thus, their distant kinship) to Roth.  Perhaps that is true.  He does know that she has black blood, however, and that is the reason he does not marry her.  I cannot help but wonder if it is out of his knowledge of her mixed blood, in combination with his memories of having been raised by Mollie Beauchamp (Lucas’s wife) that Roth’s use of “James” rather than “Tennie’s Jim” is in some quiet but marked sense Roth’s way of respecting and honoring the names that slaves and their descendants would give each other, and, thus, honoring the woman he had fallen in love with.  As a man who knows he is a father but who had taken from himself the right to help choose a name for his son, Roth can at least do this little thing.  He can preserve the names that his lover’s people wanted to be known by.

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One thought on “What does Roth know, and when does he know it? Chronology and names in “The Fire and the Hearth” and “Delta Autumn”

  1. Pingback: What does Roth know, and when does he know it? Some further thoughts | Domestic Issue

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