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

GoDownMoses_musicofyesterday

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.

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

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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.

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Pedro and Ike and Culture and Land: Some Comments on Tent of Miracles and Go Down, Moses

tenda-dos-milagres-jorge-amado-

The cover of a Brazilian(?) edition of Amado’s novel, via (though this particular copy of the book is no longer for sale at that site).

I have begun my reread of Brazilian writer Jorge Amado’s novel Tent of Miracles, which I have paired with Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses in chapter 2 of the book project. I’ll start off this post by making a couple of points regarding Ike McCaslin’s relationship to the land, and then I’ll make some comparisons between that and Tent of Miracles‘ treatment of Bahia, along with some initial remarks comparing Ike to Tent of Miracles‘ protagonist, Pedro Archanjo.  A good starting point for where I will be headed, though, is to compare the cover art for the Amado novel (which appears to be a scene from the 1977 film version) with that of the first edition of Go Down, Moses, which I posted here.  Though admittedly a bit of a cherry-pick on my part, that cover, with its depiction of a vast landscape empty of people, contrasted with the cover of Amado’s novel–the frame crowded with people, dressed and equipped with a fusion of Western and African-diaspora clothes and instruments–serves quite nicely as a starting point for this post.

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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.)

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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.

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