“His normal sensitivity to negro behavior”: Looking for black and heterotopic spaces in Go Down, Moses


Eudora Welty, Home by Dark/Yalobusha County.  1936.  Via.  This is also the cover image for the 1990 Vintage edition of Go Down, Moses.

What follows is some thinking-out-loud that will be part of the chapter on Go Down, Moses and Tent of Miracles–specifically, an attempt to tie together land and cultural expression in the two novels.  (Progress report: It’s coming along, but it has felt at times like I am a vulture circling high in the sky over an animal to make sure it is dead before I will alight on it.  I’m pretty sure it’s dead now.)

It’s below the fold to spare those who won’t be interested; here, though, is the tl;dr version: 1) At the time he wrote it, Go Down, Moses was Faulkner’s most intimate exploration of not just black-white relations but of black lives and black interiority.  Still, though, it is a novel that is ultimately more concerned with white attempts to come to terms with the post-bellum South.  Thus, those glimpses of black lives we have are (mis)read by whites, but some of them resist any attempt to read them.  This brings me to: 2) You can learn a heck of a lot about how to read Faulkner from Minrose Gwin.

In my last post on these two novels, I mused on Ike’s near-complete detachment from the place that we have come to call “The South” and at one point said this, more out of frustration than anything else: “If one wants to read a novel that would introduce one to Southern folkways, Go Down, Moses would not be that novel.”  His position, which we see most clearly in “The Bear,” is a rather strange one: He seems to have trouble understanding why his grandfather’s slaves and their descendants would want to leave the only land they’d ever known, but he himself wants no part of that land, either.  Ike’s idea of utopia (not heterotopia, because he is able to read its space as few others can) is the trackless, traceless wilderness he had come to think of as home under the tutelage of Sam Fathers.  This is pure inference on my part, but what we would call Southern culture he would find difficult to separate from the South’s historical legacy–which, as far as he is concerned, ceased to advance past 1865.  (This isn’t far from the actual truth, of course, a fact which remains very much to the South’s detriment to this day.)  The McCaslin plantation ledgers embody this, to Ike’s mind: Ike himself will add two entries upon the 21st birthdays of James “Tennie’s Jim” Beauchamp (who ran away the night before his 21st birthday; Ike could never find him, though in a sense he would return in the form of James’ granddaughter, Roth’s lover, in “Delta Autumn”) and Fonsiba (who married a black man from the North whom Ike and Zach had never seen or heard of before), the black grandchildren of Ike’s grandfather.  However, when Lucas Beauchamp turns 21 and Ike gives him his share of the McCaslin bequest of money, Ike does not enter this exchange, for this curious reason (italics in the original):

there was no need: not Lucius Quintus @c @c @c, but Lucas Quintus, not refusing to be called Lucius, because he simply eliminated that word from the name; not denying, declining the name itself, because he used three quarters of it; but simply taking the name and changing, altering it, making it no longer the white man’s but his own, by himself composed, himself selfprogenitive and nominate, by himself ancestored, as, for all the old ledgers recorded to the contrary, old Carothers himself was

and that was all[.] (269)

Ike doesn’t enter Lucas’ claiming of his financial legacy because Lucas has deracinated himself of his grandfather’s name and/but then re-planted himself in the soil of the McCaslin land and (much to Roth’s frustration in “The Fire and the Hearth”) will work it as he sees fit.  Lucas is his own man in more ways than one, but his methods of farming and his name-change are his own ways of relinquishing the McCaslin legacy, just as Ike has done in his own way.

As may be obvious why once one sees the title of her essay, Minrose Gwin does not mention this not-written entry in “Her Space, His Hand: The Spaces of African American Women in Go Down, Moses” (found here), but it is her demonstration of her reading strategy that caused me to pay closer attention to it and to another little moment in the novel that I’d always been curious about but had not know what to say with regard to it.  Gwin, starting with Toni Morrison’s discussion of “bound blackness” in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, looks for “the relations between material, cultural, and narrative space as they are occupied by African American women in the novel,” whether “their stories push at the boundaries created by the white male characters whose narrative spaces exceed theirs and whose stories may appear to confine theirs to the space of objectification,” and whether “their stories radicalize Faulkner’s text in ways we have not yet recognized” (75-76).  “In short,” she succinctly puts it, “where are these stories located [her italics] in Go Down, Moses?  And what do they mean?” (75)  Gwin finds and (with one crucial exception) brilliantly discusses some of these stories, but she offers no definitive conclusions to whether or not they radicalize Faulkner’s text.  (I would argue–and do, within the specific context of this project–that they do; the short version of my response is that in this novel, Faulkner is not completely in control of the forces created by certain of his black characters’ narratives as they push against the confines of the world in which they find themselves.)  Still, it is in those readings that I now have a way getting at the link between land and culture proposed by Edouard Glissant but that I hadn’t been seeing in Faulkner’s novel but which is predominant in Amado’s.  They are there; it’s just that I was looking at the wrong set of people, and the wrong stories, for signs of them.

A recurring question in Go Down, Moses is, just what do black people own that is truly theirs?  The answer seems to be something like, “Cultural repurposing with the soil as medium.”  I had already mentioned how Lucas’s farming methods irritate Roth; by insisting that he work his land in the same way Roth’s father and grandfather had (mules instead of tractors), it is as though Lucas seeks to maintain a culture and not merely produce a crop.  But we can also find traces of more ordinary cultural expression.  It is curious, for example, how the front yards of Faulkner’s white characters’ houses are not described at all as characters approach them, but in “The Fire and the Hearth” the omniscient narrator twice describes the front yard of Lucas and Molly Beauchamp’s house, once from Lucas’s perspective and once from Roth’s.  Lucas’s description is the fuller one; given its context–Molly has spent most of her days for a whole year at Zach Edmonds’ house, serving as wetnurse to both Zach’s infant son Roth and her own son, Henry–we can see that for Lucas the yard’s maintaining is not merely a matter of aesthetics but an outward sign of others’ respect for his position as husband to Molly (italics are the author’s):

He entered the gate in the paling fence which he had built himself when old Cass gave them the house, as he had hauled and laid the field stone path across the grassless yard which his wife used to sweep every morning with a broom of bound willow twigs, sweeping the clean dust into curving intricate patterns among the flower-beds outlined with broken brick and bottles and shards of china and colored glass.  She had returned from time to time during the spring to work the flower-beds so that they bloomed as usual–the hardy, blatant blooms loved of her and his race: prince’s feather and sunflower, canna and hollyhock–but until today the paths among them had not been swept since last year.  Yes, he thought.  I got to kill him or I got to leave here.  (48)

A similar moment–and one that moves us closer to the cultural space of Tent of Miracles–appears in that section of Go Down, Moses whose connection to the rest of its sections many readers have difficulty seeing, “Pantaloon in Black.”  Rider and his recently-deceased wife, Mannie, are tenants on Roth’s land, but its narrative is not about the McCaslins, black or white.  It is about the cultural space of black people, as embodied early in the section by the description of the graveyard where Rider buries Mannie.  It is an indeterminate space in which the bounds between not only the living and the dead are blurred but also those between Christianity and folk tradition, and between blacks and whites, make this space difficult to read for our narrator, who has been allowed to observe but cannot serve as an informed guide.  Somewhat perversely, he can show us, but he cannot tell: “[T]he grave, save for its rawness, resembled any other marked off without order about the barren plot by shards of pottery and broken bottles and old brick and other objects insignificant to sight but actually of a profound meaning and fatal to touch, which no white man could have read” (131-132).  A bit later on, as Rider’s aunt and fellow mill-workers try to persuade Rider not to go back home just yet, they do so, as the narrator explains (here, he can inform us), “[E]verybody knew it–the dead who either will not or cannot quit the earth yet although the flesh they once lived in has been returned to it, let the preachers tell and reiterate and affirm how they left it not only without regret but with joy, mounting toward glory: ‘You dont wants ter go back dar.  She be wawkin yit.'” (132).  Here, as the reader can see throughout Tent of Miracles, we catch a glimpse of religious syncretism.

I will be developing this last bit further in the chapter itself, but it is in Gwin’s discussion of the scene in “The Bear” in which Ike tracks Fonsiba and her new husband to a farm in Arkansas that I realize that we find a powerful demonstration of how heterotopic space works when others encounter it.  Ike sees an impoverished farm; a husband more intent on the pension he receives than on the labor he will need to give to make the farm a success; and, in Fonsiba, a young woman who watches him “without alarm, without recognition, without hope.”  But when Ike asks her how she is and she replies only, “I’m free,” the narrative shifts, in that same paragraph and with no transition whatsoever, to a description of Midnight, the town nearest the farm.  As Gwin observes, Ike has no response to her words, not even, apparently, to himself, but “rapidly retreats from Fonsiba’s material space, which he has trespassed upon.  He re-enters the space of the ledger, the world of commerce in which debts of all kinds can be paid in money” (88).  How Gwin sees this so clearly in this scene but later argues, in her discussion of “Delta Autumn,” that Roth’s lover is ensnared in patriarchy–that is a mystery for another place and time.  But in both instances, we see examples of what Natalie Melas calls in All the Difference in the World: Postcoloniality and the Ends of Comparison the de-territorializing effect of heterotopia on other languages (79): it claims for itself space from other  languages or, failing that, seeks its own physical space–Fonsiba and her husband on their farm; the woman and Roth during their brief sojourn in New Mexico.  Or, in the case of Amado’s novel, Bahia.


One thought on ““His normal sensitivity to negro behavior”: Looking for black and heterotopic spaces in Go Down, Moses

  1. Pingback: “I was listening to myself”: African-American space and the forcing of Faulkner’s narrative hand in Go Down, Moses | Domestic Issue

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