What does Roth know, and when does he know it? Some further thoughts

One of the sharecropper's houses with sweet potatoes and cotton on the porch, Knowlton Plantation, Perthshire, Mississippi Delta, Mississippi, 1939

A sharecropper’s house, with cotton and sweet potatoes on the porch. Knowlton Plantation, Perthshire, Mississippi, 1939. Via.

To the reader: This is a follow-up to my most recent post.  It’s not crucial that you read that one before proceeding with this one, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt.

I think that what follows is more speculative than anything else; whatever legitimacy these claims have rests on the textual fact that the “now” of Go Down, Moses‘ section “The Fire and the Hearth,” set in 1941, takes place (depending on whose genealogical chart one consults) one or two years after the “now” of “Delta Autumn,” even though sequentially, “The Fire and the Hearth” appears second in the novel, while “Delta Autumn,” appearing sixth, serves as the novel’s climactic section.  Thus, even though Roth Edmonds (who figures prominently in both) never hints, not even obliquely, in “The Fire and the Hearth” that he’s ever had a lover, much less that she was a black woman by whom he’d conceived a child, and very much less that, as we learn in “Delta Autumn,” she and Roth are distant cousins, it’s reasonable to begin by assuming the events we learn of in “Delta Autumn” have a shaping influence on Roth’s actions and, more crucially, thinking in “The Fire and the Hearth.”  The trick is in the locating of those influences.  Maybe I have found some of those moments, without being guilty of squinting too hard at them.

(Note: What with the beginning of the new semester all but upon me, I really shouldn’t be taking the time I’m taking to post on this at all, much less shape it into a more elegant form; what follows, then, are more like notes than anything else.)

First, here’s a quick summary of the plot of “The Fire and the Hearth”: The story’s central character is Lucas Beauchamp, a black man who crops shares on Roth Edmonds’ land, and who, after finding a gold coin in a mound of dirt while trying to hide his still, becomes so obsessed with finding the rest of the buried treasure that he manipulates Roth, agrees to his daughter’s marriage to her beau so that she will not be able to testify against her now-husband so Lucas can avoid prosecution for having a still, and very nearly destroys his marriage.  Related in this way, the story sounds like a combination of frontier humor and Uncle Remus tales, and it certainly has such qualities.  However, it also has two extended flashbacks, which give the story its gravitas and link it to the other sections of the novel.  Through the first one (related via Lucas’ recollection) we learn that Lucas and Roth are actually related to each other via the land’s original owner, Lucius Quintus Carothers McCaslin–that, indeed, the black man Lucas is actually a closer relative to “Old Carothers,” as Lucas refers to McCaslin, than the white man Roth is.  Moreover, Lucas’ wife Molly had nursed and then for many years was Roth’s primary caregiver when Roth’s mother had died after giving birth to him.  In the second flashback, via Roth, we begin to learn of Old Carothers’ black progeny–in particular his grandchildren, of whom Lucas is one.  My previous post started with the following passage, which for convenience’s sake I’ll re-quote here (all quotes are from the Vintage 1990 edition):

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 save when it met the white man’s humor of the moment. (102)

In the earlier post, I noted that Roth’s use of “James” here (rather than “Tennie’s Jim,” which is how Isaac “Ike” McCaslin and the other whites tend to refer to him) is striking, given that in “Delta Autumn” Roth’s lover will also pointedly refer to her grandfather by that name.  While I have no reason to doubt the woman when she tells Ike that she had not told Roth that she is kin to them both (if it were otherwise, we’d have a very different novel in front of us), I also said in that post that, because Roth knows his lover is black, perhaps this moment here is a quiet acknowledgement of and respect for his lover’s agency and, by extension, that of James in his choosing not to accept the money left to him.

Here, then, are two other examples of Roth’s thought in “The Fire and the Hearth” that perhaps are shaped by the events we learn of in “Delta Autumn”:

p. 69: Roth, as he looks at Lucas’s face (italics in the original): “He thought, and not for the first time: I am not only looking at a face older than mine and which has seen and winnowed more, but at a man most of whose blood was pure ten thousand years when my own anonymous beginnings became mixed enough to produce me.”  Surely if, as a thoughtful Southerner with his particular family’s history, he had not already often thought about the notions of race and racial purity, Roth’s year-long affair with the woman and his grounds for not marrying her would have led him to contemplate these ideas.  (“Delta Autumn” makes clear that the woman is so fair-skinned she could have passed for white if she had wished.)  What’s interesting here is that Roth casts his own race as having been pure for a much shorter time than Lucas’s has been, an implicit contravention of the a priori assumption of white racial superiority.  There’s much evidence elsewhere in the story that Roth is not insistent on using his whiteness as a bludgeon in his dealings with black people generally; since we’re told that this is not “the first time” Roth has thought this, his musings on the subject perhaps precede his affair.  But: contrast this with Ike’s angry, even apocalyptic denunciation of miscegenation in “Delta Autumn.”

p. 104: In the scene recounting Lucas’s approaching Ike to claim his share of the money bequeathed to him by Ike’s father, the narrator (3rd-person, cast in the guise of being omniscient but ultimately limited to Roth) comments on Ike’s response to his wife’s bitterness that Ike had refused to accept the farm (what had been Old Carothers’ plantation):

He could ask her forgiveness as loudly thus as if he had shouted, express his pity and grief; husband and wife did not need to speak words to one another, not just from the old habit of living together but because in that one long-ago instant at least out of the long and shabby stretch of their human lives, even though they knew at the time it wouldn’t and couldn’t last, they had touched and became as God when they voluntarily and in advance forgave one another for all that each knew the other could never be. (emphasis added)

Roth was not even alive when Lucas visited Ike (that story was relayed to him from Ike via Roth’s father Zack).  That is important to keep in mind when comparing its language to this exchange between Ike and Roth in “Delta Autumn”:

“I think that every man and woman, at the instant when it dont even matter whether they marry or not, I think that whether they marry then or afterward or dont never, at that instant the two of them together were God.”

Then there are some Gods in this world I wouldn’t want to touch, and with a damn long stick,” [Roth] said.  He set his coffee cup down and looked at Wyatt.  “And that includes myself, if that’s what you want to know.” (332, emphasis added)

The earlier passage is part of a longer story long familiar to Roth, one that, no doubt, he has pondered many times over the years in the course of his dealings with Lucas.  As I noted, though, Roth knows of the encounter between Ike and Lucas via his father, to whom Ike had related it.  What presents a challenge to us here is determining what of this scene is likely to have been transmitted from Ike to Zack, what from Zack to Roth, and what Roth has since added over the years.  It was certainly no secret that Ike had refused to take ownership of Old Carothers’ farm, and likely no secret, at least to members of the extended McCaslin family, that Ike’s wife bitterly resented this.  Thus, the core of the scene and its attendant emotions–though almost certainly not the language we have here–have likely always been known or assumed by Roth via Zack.  Little if any of that language comes from Ike, or from Zack.

The bolded passages, it seems to me, are another matter.  Their striking similarity to the bolded passages in the excerpt from “Delta Autumn” suggests that that language is Roth’s new addition to his version of the narrative of Ike’s and Lucas’s meeting, one shaped both by his assumption that, in “Delta Autumn,” Ike is thinking of himself and his wife, and by some projecting regarding his subsequent thinking about his affair with the woman.  In the Now of “Delta Autumn,” Roth is not happy with the decision he has taken regarding her; hence his angry response to Ike both here and elsewhere in the story when the general subject of men and women comes up.  But perhaps by the time of “The Fire and the Hearth,” a year to two years later, Roth has found some peace with his decision not to marry his lover.  After all, in “Delta Autumn” the woman assures Ike again and again that she had known what she was doing–she had known Roth would not marry her; she says they had talked of it again and again; and yet, out of love for him, she pursued the relationship with him anyway, going so far as to bear a child by him.  Though, as she also makes clear, she would much prefer to share her and her son’s life with Roth, she is at peace with her choices–she has, in effect, already forgiven Roth for what he could never be.  Therefore, it is not difficult to imagine Roth’s eventually coming to realize that his lover’s actions are the embodiment of Ike’s understanding of lovers as God in the moment of intercourse, even if Ike himself, in the moment of his meeting the woman, refuses to allow himself to think of her and Roth in that way.

None of this, I’m pretty sure, is going to end up in the book project.  However, as I revisit its second chapter, having thought through all of this gives me some clarity regarding the sequencing of Go Down, Moses‘ sections that I hadn’t had before.  Moreover, spending so much time with “The Fire and the Hearth” has shown me that the novel’s different ways of discussing the land and its relationship to culture actually begin to appear there instead of “The Bear,” and that will show up in the project.  Also, this serves well as the beginning of a stand-alone examination of Roth.  What is here doesn’t fully explain his reticence regarding his lover and son, but I do think we can find hints, here and there, of their effect on him.

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