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


An arrangement of the spiritual “Go Down, Moses,” which is the source of Faulkner’s novel’s title.  The Wikipedia article for the spiritual notes that Harriet Tubman used this song as one of two for codes with slaves she helped to escape.  I have no idea if Faulkner knew that history of the song, but for purposes of this post I do like the happy coincidence of Tubman’s using the song as a means by which to create black space for the people she helped to liberate.

Here is part of the compositional history of Go Down, Moses as told in Heart in Conflict: Faulkner’s Struggles with Vocation by Michael Grimwood (my source for this is p. 147 of Philip M. Weinstein’s book Faulkner’s Subject: A Cosmos No One Owns): after he added additional material to “Pantaloon in Black” and “Delta Autumn,” Faulkner both created “The Fire and the Hearth” out of three previously-existing stories and, even more crucially, added the long fourth section of “The Bear.”

What happened, that compelled Faulkner to engage in writing this additional material?  Basically, Roth’s lover is what happened.

(Here and below the fold follow some speculation inspired by Minrose Gwin’s insightful readings of Faulkner.)

While, yes, it was Faulkner’s conscious decision, when reworking the first version of “Delta Autumn,” to have Roth become Ike’s kinsman and to make Roth’s lover the granddaughter of James “Tennie’s Jim” Beauchamp, something in that new material compelled Faulkner to add that section to “The Bear.”  In that fourth section, we learn why Ike decided not to inherit his grandfather’s plantation (something we learn nowhere else in the novel), and we learn of Ike’s attempts to find and pass on to them the money bequeathed by Ike’s grandfather to his (the grandfather’s) black descendants.  (Regarding the specifics of Ike’s passing on the money to Lucas Beauchamp, Faulkner provides a fuller description of that moment in the material added to “The Fire and the Hearth.”)  All of this is past information that Roth’s lover at least alludes to in the new material in “Delta Autumn.”  Ike signals his reluctance to revisit those past memories when he says to her, a couple of times, “Never mind that” (341, 343; except where indicated, all quoted passages are from this edition of Go Down, Moses).  Yet, here we are in Go Down, Moses, reading these things.

In this post on the novel I wrote a while back, referring to Gwin’s excellent essay “Her Space, His Hand: The Spaces of African American Women in Go Down, Moses” (found here), “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.”  I think this is especially true of what we see happening in “Delta Autumn” and Faulkner’s post hoc emendations to, in particular, “The Bear.”  Ike may not have wanted to hear or think about what Roth’s lover says to him in that hunting camp; but then again, it’s probably the case that she does not much care what Ike thinks: her description of herself while on her sojourn with Roth, “I was listening to myself,” could just as easily apply to her conversation with Ike as well.  Even so, she sure gets Faulkner’s attention.  Still, as I’ll discuss below, that additional material does not neatly close up what otherwise would have been narrative gaps in the novel.  Rather, they reveal still other spaces in his narrative created by African-Americans that Faulkner himself only vaguely understands but, to his immense credit, lets stand as vaguely understood.

“Never mind that”: Re-opening the McCaslin ledgers

A take on Ike’s and Roth’s lover’s conversation that at least at one time was standard in writing on “Delta Autumn” is that Ike has trouble understanding the woman’s meaning as she describes her relationship with Roth, and that that trouble is her fault and not Ike’s.  In my book’s chapter on Go Down, Moses, I argue that listening to what she actually says, rather than reading her through the filter of Ike’s incomprehension, reveals that she speaks from a heterotopic space defined by her love for Roth, one that transcends–even ignores–the animosity borne of racial difference and anger that Ike presumes should exist on the woman’s part toward Roth.  Here, though, I would add to this one other observation: that Ike in a couple of instances, instances that do not appear in the original version of “Delta Autumn,” hears the woman all too well yet refuses to engage with her at those points.  Instead, he tells her, “Never mind that,” in order to signal that refusal.  At one level, Faulkner-as-writer realizes that he has to prepare his reader for all of this by adding the material that explains the reason for Ike’s refusal to inherit his grandfather’s plantation.  But I would also argue that at a deeper level, Faulkner-as-white-Southern-writer is also choosing to engage with her, resulting in material added to the fourth section of “The Bear” that, from the standpoint of Ike’s story, does not absolutely need to be included but nevertheless is.  More about those sections later.

Here are those points where Ike signals his resistance:

The first is shortly after the woman arrives at the hunting tent and Ike attempts to hand her the money that Roth had left for her; the narrator describes the awkwardness of Ike’s gesture thusly–“as if he had never performed such an action before” (significantly, the original version of “Delta Autumn” does not describe this awkwardness)–and she regards him with “immersed contemplation, that bottomless and intent candor of a child” (341; this is another passage that is not in the original version).  Then:

“You’re Uncle Isaac,” she said.

“Yes,” he said.  But never mind that.  Here.  Take it. He said to tell you No.” (341)

Neither Ike nor we yet know that the woman is James Beauchamp’s granddaughter, but we have here just a hint of her kinship with Ike in her addressing him as “Uncle Isaac” as opposed to, say, “Roth’s uncle Isaac.”  Ike, for his part, naturally assumes his kinship with Roth is of little importance at this moment and, in any event, is an embarrassment to him under the circumstances.  But she will return to the subject of Ike’s kinship with Roth few minutes later via her assessment of how Roth’s coming to own the land that Ike had relinquished had affected Roth:

“I would have made a man of him.  He’s not a man yet.  You spoiled him.  You, and Uncle Lucas and Aunt Mollie.  But mostly you.”

“Me?” he said.  “Me?”

“Yes.  When you gave to his grandfather that land which didn’t belong to him, not even half of it by will or even law.”

“And never mind that too,” he said.  “Never mind that too.”  (343)

In the original version of “Delta Autumn,” we learn Ike had once been married and had children by his wife, but he has outlived them all; that version makes no mention of the land he’d refused to take ownership of.  In the version in Go Down, Moses, the night before the woman arrives in the camp, the narrator makes passing reference to Ike’s relinquishment of the land so as to “repudiate the wrong and shame, at least in principle” (334) and to spare his future son from the “regret and grief” he in his turn would experience.  However, there would be no son; as the fourth section of “The Bear” explains in more detail, Ike’s wife refuses to have sex with him beyond her consummating their marriage when he refuses her pleading with him to take back the land, and they remain childless.  Here in Roth’s lover’s recrimination, though, the land still curses those who own it, or it curses Roth at least, in her estimation.  Surely Ike must believe this to be true as well, or else why would he tell the woman that his (Ike’s) relinquishing the land is none of her affair?

I find all of this fascinating to think about because, as noted at the beginning of this post, the sequence in which Faulkner worked on these stories (“Delta Autumn” and then “The Bear”) is, of course, not the sequence in which those sections appear in Go Down, Moses.  Also as I’ve mentioned, readers need to know the reason Ike relinquishes his inheritance so that the woman’s condemnation of his decision will make sense when they encounter them.  But I also cannot help but think that Faulkner is, in some sense, reproving Ike as well by adding this material.  Ike’s “Never mind that”s make clear that he does not want even to think about these matters much, let alone talk about them; however,  it is as though Faulkner, via the woman’s recitation of the black McCaslins (342-343), is telling Ike that he must revisit those ledgers after believing he would never need to look at them again (259), whether or not he wants to.  Hence the recreation of that scene in the fourth section of “The Bear” when Ike reads his grandfather’s plantation ledgers and comes to understand that his forbear had fathered a child by one of his own daughters (256-259) and his long argument over his decision with his cousin Carothers McCaslin, Roth’s grandfather, which sandwiches those pages.

But as readers of Go Down, Moses know, Faulkner goes far beyond only providing that back story in “The Bear.”  He relates as well Ike’s meeting of his obligation to pass on his grandfather’s bequests of money to his (the grandfather’s) black descendants–material that, from the perspective of the novel’s narrative arc, Faulkner does not have to do.  I want to suggest here that that going-beyond in “The Bear” is meant to honor the narrative space Roth’s lover opens up in “Delta Autumn” as she briefly relates her past as a descendant of James Beauchamp.  By speaking, she becomes an incarnation of the ledgers that Ike had thought he would never have to open.  Indeed, when one thinks about all of this at the level of the novel’s composition, her speaking causes Faulkner to have to write them, and to honor the lives of Ike’s grandfather’s black descendants by telling their stories.

“I was listening to myself”: African-American space in “The Bear”

Maybe the most striking change in the description of Roth’s lover from the first version of “Delta Autumn” to the version in Go Down, Moses is one word in one sentence, but it sums up well the role she plays in the later version.  In the original version, Boyd, the character who will become Roth, says “There will be a woman here sometime this morning, looking for me” (Uncollected Stories of William Faulkner, 276). In the version in Go Down, Moses, “woman” becomes “message” (339).  Not even “messenger,” but “message.”  When she arrives at the camp and begins telling Ike about her brief time together with Roth, it is as though, the narrator says, “she was not even speaking to anyone but herself”–and she herself indirectly confirms it, saying she knew Roth would not marry her,

long before honor I imagine he called it told him the time had come to tell me in so many words what his code I suppose he would call it would forbid him forever to do.  And we agreed.  Then we agreed again before he left New Mexico, to make sure.  That that would be all of it.  I believed him.  No, I don’t mean that; I mean I believed myself.  I wasn’t even listening to him anymore by then because by that time it had been a long time since he had had anything else to tell me for me to have to hear.  By then I wasn’t even listening enough to ask him to please stop talking.  I was listening to myself.  (341-342)

“Honor” and “code”–Roth apparently is something of a “message” himself, based on what she says here–are also words by which Ike has tried to live his whole life.  It may in fact be this passage that prompted Faulkner to include those lengthy passages in “The Bear” in which the narrator elaborates how Ike has tried to live his life.  Whether he intends for the woman’s casual dismissal of “honor” and “code” to be quite so devastating a rebuke (for this reader, at least) is something I cannot determine.  What I do feel certain of, though, is that the woman is making clear that “honor” and “code” and their claim to represent some universal set of principles simply do not matter to her.  They do not govern how she has chosen to live her life: “I was listening to myself”–and see as well her response, after Ike tells her to go back North and “Marry: a man in your own race” as a way to exact revenge on Roth: “Old man, have you lived so long and forgotten so much that you don’t remember anything you ever knew or felt or even heard about love?” (346).

The woman is also the granddaughter of James Beauchamp, who had left the McCaslin place on the night he turned 21 (before Ike could pass on to him his inheritance) and thus through his actions shows he also knows about listening to himself.  As I said earlier, for purposes of his novel’s overarching narrative Faulkner did not need to include the stories of Ike’s attempts to pass on the inheritances to his grandfather’s black descendants.  Yet here Beauchamp’s story is–or, rather, what we have is the story of Ike’s attempting and failing to find him.  It is as though Faulkner’s having the woman announce who her grandfather is creates the need in him to tell that story; or, perhaps, because strictly speaking Faulkner still does not need to tell it, he creates the need to honor James Beauchamp’s story by telling it.

However, something extraordinary happens: Faulkner not only adds, in both “The Bear” and “The Fire and the Hearth,” extra material to the story of Lucas Beauchamp’s coming to Ike’s house to claim his inheritance and deposit it in the bank, he also creates the story of the marriage of Sophonsiba “Fonsiba” Beauchamp, James’ and Lucas’ sister, to a man neither Ike nor his cousin had ever seen before, she herself never having left the McCaslin place before, and Ike’s subsequent encounter with Fonsiba and her husband in Arkansas.

Though in very different ways, each of these stories has its black characters freeing themselves of the legacy of the plantation (which includes whatever expectations Ike and his other white relatives might have for them).  Lucas changes his name from Lucius, his white grandfather’s name, “making it no longer the white man’s but his own, by himself composed, himself selfprogenerative and nominate, by himself ancestored” (269).  At the same time, we learn in “The Fire and the Hearth,” Lucas refuses to use a tractor to plow the land on the old McCaslin place he rents from Roth, as though using a tractor would violate how the land should be cultivated.

Ike’s encounter with Fonsiba and her husband in Arkansas, by contrast, bears a couple of striking similarities to his conversation with Roth’s lover in “Delta Autumn.”  Each woman meets her partner by happenstance (Ike never learns how Fonsiba met her future husband; Roth and the woman meet the previous year when Roth has to go into town to replace supplies that had been damaged on the trip to the hunting camp); and each endures hardship (Fonsiba) or rejection (Roth’s lover) in favor of an ideal that, in each case, leaves Ike (and, in the case of Fonsiba’s story, even the narrator) speechless.  I have already noted that Roth’s lover insists on coming to the camp, despite having no doubt that Roth refuses to marry her, out of love for him.  As for Fonsiba, the narration for Ike’s journey to Arkansas works hard to establish the desolate setting through Ike’s eyes–mid-winter, an icy rain, the “farm” as not even having a barn or stable, no fire burning in the kitchen where he finds Fonsiba–and presents a lengthy exchange between Ike and her husband in which Ike makes clear his outrage at what he takes to be the man’s shiftlessness and over-reliance on the army pension he receives each month: all to set up this narratively-remarkable moment when Ike speaks to Fonsiba for the last time:

only the tremendous fathomless ink-colored eyes in the narrow, then, too thin coffee-colored face watching him without alarm, without recognition, without hope. ‘Fonsiba,’ he said.  ‘Fonsiba.  Are you all right?’

‘I’m free,’ she said.  Midnight was a tavern, a livery stable . . . (268)

Note the abrupt jump from Fonsiba’s statement to the description of Midnight.  We have no response of any kind from Ike, not even a description of the journey back to Midnight.  Ike has encountered a heterotopia, you are thinking, an instance of those spaces that, as Foucault famously describes them, “desiccate speech, stop words in their tracks, contest the very possibility of grammar at its source; they dissolve our myths and sterilize the lyricism of our sentences” (The Order of Things, xviii).  Yes.  But though Minrose Gwin does not use the word “heterotopia” to describe black women’s space in her essay on Go Down, Moses, “Her Space, His Hand,” the signs she is in search of to my mind are clearly heterotopic in nature as she

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) (This passage from here)

In her summations of Ike’s encounters with both these women, Gwin uses Toni Morrison’s term “bound blackness” to describe how white characters (and their writers) tend to police black bodies and, by extension, their narratives, saying of Ike, “[H]e is unable to construct new ideological foundations in place of the narratives he decries because he is unable to read black women’s texts outside the space of the ledger, the space of bound blackness” (87).  Gwin also notes in passing that Faulkner, too, lacks this ability, and mentions that Faulkner, too, abruptly leaves Fonsiba along with Ike.  She also points to his problematic dedication of Go Down, Moses to Caroline Barr, the black woman who served Faulkner’s family as their mammy and whom, in the dedication, he seems not to be able to imagine for her a life apart from his own.  I cannot argue against Gwin’s reading of the novel’s dedication, but I will push back a bit against her thinking of Ike as Faulkner’s proxy.  Whereas Ike would have been perfectly content to let these memories lie dormant, unknown to all except himself and as closed as those ledgers he’d never (want to) feel he has to look at again, Faulkner is also listening to that woman in Ike’s tent in “Delta Autumn”; he understands that those ledgers do not tell the entire stories of the black lives who appear in them and that they need telling, even if he cannot fully understand them himself.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s