"Light in August" Faulkner's modernists approach to his life - a thesis excerpt
“William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha: Recreating (His)story”
Chapter Three: Light in August
In 1908 nine-year-old William Falkner was a child with a passion for stories that would eventually lead him to (re)create his own narratives. Upon enlisting in the Royal Canadian Air force he fabricated his birthplace, and birth date, and he began spelling his name, ‘Faulkner’ (Blotner 64). However, in 1908 the young Falkner was just beginning to explore his imaginative prowess; he would join in the stories with one of his more frequent storytellers, Mammy Callie. However this year a story that derived from actual events occurring in the Oxford community “was grislier than anything Mammy Callie or Billy could have told, and as it swept through the county, it drew in its wake an aftermath terrible and violent” (Blotner 31). As a young child much of the violence that he encountered was through the imaginative histories that seemed glorious when admired from the safe distance created by time. The story of violence fueled by racial hysteria confronted the nine-year-old Falkner; this was not the romantic violence of the past, and the events that occurred seemed to have an effect on the young William Faulkner. It would take about thirty-six years of time, maturity and distance for the man to reexamine the complexities of these events.
In 1908 Mrs. Mattie McMillan was residing one mile from the center of town with her three children. The family had moved to Faulkner’s community to be close to Mr. McMillan, who was in the county jail. According to the story re-told by Blotner, “On the morning of September 8 he (the imprisoned McMillan father) asked Nelse Patton, a Negro trusty, to carry a message to her (Mrs. McMillan).” Patton arrived at the cottage drunk and made sexual advances towards Mrs. McMillan. She refused, and Patton would not leave. A struggle ensued and Mrs. McMillan reached for a pistol, “Before she could grasp it, Patton slashed her with a razor blow that nearly took her head off” (Blotner 31). When Mrs. McMillan fled her cottage, in terror, her seventeen-year-old daughter came to her aid and was grabbed by Patton. The daughter managed to break free of Patton’s grasp and run to a neighbor for help. The neighbor called the sheriff, who then called two deputies. One of the deputies, Cullen, had two sons who were forbidden to pursue the criminal. The two boys disobeyed their father, and tracked the fleeing Patton down. The fifteen year old John Cullen raised his shotgun, and when Patton did not obey to the teenager’s orders to halt, “Cullen fired and hit him with both loads of squirrel shot” (Blotner 32). The boys then held Patton until the posse arrived. The story of the crime and apprehension of the criminal spread quickly and, “By sundown a murmuring crowd of hundreds had gathered around the jail.” Despite the pleas of a judge and several ministers, the crowd, “by eight o’clock, had turned into a mob” (Blotner 32). The events that transpired, following the growing strength of the surging mob, were not unique. The power of a mob, frenzied by the thought of a crime committed against a white woman at the hands of a black man, superseded justice, law, or morality in Southern communities whose values were suspended in backwards logic based on the belief of racial superiority. However, the events clearly demonstrate the power of shared beliefs and the trust that is placed in community narratives. It was the story of a black man attacking two white women that was embraced by the mob. Despite the pleas for justice and orderliness by the ruling parties of the community; the story that became the community narrative inspired the mob to surge, “to the windows and (the mob) boosted John Cullen and the sons of some of the other guards through them. They held their fathers while the doors were flung open. Because the sheriff had hidden his keys, the men labored with crowbars and pickaxes to break through a wall and reach Patton’s darkened cell.” Initially, Patton feebly attempted to fight off the mob; he soon cowered in the corner, refusing to come out of the cell, all too aware of the fate that awaited him. Eventually the mob, “dragged the body out through the powder smoke, castrated it, and mutilated the head. By a rope tied around Nelse’s Patton’s neck, they dragged him behind a car to the square. Then they hung his naked body from a tree” (Blotner 32).
Regardless of Faulkner’s reaction to this incident at the time it would be apparent the timing of this incident coincided with a marked change in the young boy. The story of Mrs. Mattie McMillan and Nelse Patton seemed to confront the young boy with the vast differences between imaginative and actual violence. In the wake of the story, and then its immortal retellings, the young boy changed, he no longer blindly accepted the lessons that his community regarded as important. The one time honor student was uninterested in formal schooling. A former classmate reported that, “He seemed to care for nothing but his writing and drawing” (Blotner 33). He was not interested in the required lessons that his community adhered to; instead he began to take ownership, through his curiosity and interests, of his own intellectual development. Following this violent community event, Blotner correctly assumes that Faulkner, “must have been changing rapidly as he entered adolescence and the outside world impinged more and more upon his extraordinary consciousness” (33). This juxtaposition of the story of community violence with the personal development of the writer can be seen in Light in August. This novel’s climatic event includes the castration and lynching of a man who was rumored, although never confirmed, to be part ‘black’. This victim of lynching, Joe Christmas, is a man, who is defined by the community and without an identity, due to presumed miscegenation. The work done by Eric J. Sundquist in, Faulkner the House Divided, explores Southern society, which popularly accepted misconceptions of racial superiority, and fed their ignorance with inaccurate justifications in the legislature, film, literature, and therefore the community. Sundquist connects the history of Faulkner’s world to the community narrative that is Light in August. The novel has at its tragic center the story of Joe Christmas; Faulkner shows that it was “the people that destroyed him made rationalizations about what he was. They decided what he was. But Christmas himself didn’t know and he evicted himself from mankind” (Gwynn 72). Faulkner again explored his world and people, and displayed an existence where the past has a firm grip on the present. This chapter will demonstrate that as the artist matures the craft evolves, and with Light in August Faulkner begins to explore the power and dynamism of the community narrative. It will be shown that Faulkner recognizes the authority of the community narrative and explores this through the character of Joe Christmas, whose depiction shows a complex and more representational character whose presence embodies the issues of race. In the juxtaposition of Joe Christmas with Gail Hightower, a man who embraces the past at the expense of the present, the chapter seeks to show that Faulkner is demonstrating that a life lived in the past is without action or transcendence, and the commonality between Christmas and Hightower is a distance between themselves and humanity. Finally, it will be shown that Faulkner frames the hectic violence of the community with the peaceful stoicism of Lena Grove, the perpetual outsider, to show the ability of the individual to endure.
In Flags in the Dust and The Sound and the Fury Faulkner explores the Southern community only through the perspective of the characters. Through the various perspectives and narrative voices Faulkner demonstrates that the community shares stories that help to create and define their collective ideologies. However, Light in August is the first novel in which Faulkner explores how the community itself can provide a narrative voice, and in turn have a power over the individual. In The Narrative Forms of Southern Community Scott Romaine recognizes the differences in purpose and form between Light in August and Faulkner’s previous novels, calling it “unusual among Faulkner’s novels, which often contain, as Ralph Ellison noted in a 1953 essay, the ‘benign stereotype’ of the ‘good nigger’ so prevalent in the paternalistic tradition. Likewise, the figure of the family, so central elsewhere to Faulkner’s representation of race, is nearly invisible” (150). Faulkner’s previous novels explored how the individual was shaped by their familial legacy; however, with Light in August Faulkner examines how the individual is shaped by their communal legacy. In Romaine’s work he recognizes that in the absence of a family presence, Faulkner explores the relationship between the shared stories of the community and the individual. Romine’s argument is that “the essential ether of Faulkner’s narrative is narrative itself. Narrative is how community happens; community, in one sense, is a form of narrative. As a social transaction as an ideological vehicle, narrative obtains coherence in response to a central symbol: black blood” (151). On all levels the narrative of Light in August reflects the ambiguity associated with community perception and self-definition. As the community reflects on the actions of one man, Joe Christmas, they all try to construct a narrative that will fit their ideological beliefs. The community, like a writer, takes fact, history, influence, and imagination and combines these elements to construct a narrative. As the narrative style often shifts from a third person authoritative voice, to first person reactions, indicated by italics, we as readers then digest it all and assume that what is presented is truth. One of the important representative perspectives belongs to Byron Bunch who looks back on the events surrounding Joe Christmas and realizes:
That was the first time Byron remembered that he has ever thought how a man’s name, which is supposed to be just the sound for who he is, can be somehow an augur of what he will do, if other men can only read the meaning in time. It seemed to him that none of them had looked especially at the stranger until they heard his name. But as soon as they heard it, it was as though there was something in the sound of it that was trying to tell them what to expect; that he carried with him his own inescapable warning, like a flower its scent or a rattlesnake its rattle, Only none of them had sense enough to recognize it. ( Faulkner 33)
Although Byron Bunch is a man who lives on his own without any recognizable family, his perspective, as related through a third person narrator uses plural pronouns. This use of language and narrative voice does not describe the events that ‘he’ knew; instead this voice describes the events that ‘they’ knew. This emphasizes the importance of Bunch as a reflection of the community; this role is established in the beginning of chapter two, which begins, “Byron Bunch knows this:” ( Faulkner 31). Beginning in this chapter, and at times throughout the novel, the third person narrator relates the events of the novel, and the beliefs of the characters, through the perspective of Byron Bunch. Although there are other important perspectives throughout the novel Bunch’s importance to the narrative structure is also emphasized in the plot, as he is the one character who connects all others in the novel, either directly or indirectly. Romine highlights critics like Hugh Ruppersburg and Stephen Ross who have indicated that the narrative shifts between a third person authoritative voice, and first person reflections are sometimes difficult to distinguish from each other (Romaine 159). This is true, however, what Romine and the aforementioned critics do not illuminate is the brilliance of this technique, which supports Faulkner’s continued explorations into the individual, the community, and history; demonstrating that the individual is defined by the narratives that he embraces and his reactions to these stories can be determinate of his further actions. Although Light in August is a complicated novel that shifts between fact, fiction, presumption, and perspective at its core is an artist reflecting his world:
Yet, for all its complexities, the narrative style of Light in August is singularly fitted to capture the nuances of this particular social world, with its uncertain and unstable boundaries between private and public space, between subject and object, between individual and community. Light in August posits a grammar, or set of structural imperatives, that cannot be reduced to the level of the individual and that, to some extent, is shared between individuals. In thus establishing something like the community’s continuous mind, Faulkner’s narrative style refuses to recognize the discrete cognitive boundaries normally associated with individual persons. To put the matter another way, although the community is different from, it is not separate from the individuals who comprise it. While Light in August frequently reifies ‘the community’ as an agent in and of itself – an entity greater than the sum of its citizens, so it speak – it also registers how the community is part of the minds of the citizens. (Romaine 159-60)
With Flags in the Dust and The Sound and the Fury the individuals stand center stage, and they appear to live in a community that reflect their individual and familial values. However, with Light in August, the community as a collective individual stands center stage, and Faulkner explores how the individual is a product of his or her community. What also proves to be essential to the novel is the recognition that although communal truth is created and shared, it is not as dynamic as it may seem. The novel explores “the idea of social role in its literal sense, as a playing out of already –scripted actions and words. Narrative is extremely malleable; it is also perfectly rigid. Paradoxically, the community’s stories are always in the process of becoming what they already are” (Romaine 164). Light in August contributes to Faulkner’s ongoing exploration of self, history, and legacy; he constructs the stories of individuals who do not fit the accepted pre-patterned history through which the backward looking community seeks to define their present, and through this exploration Faulkner surges closer to the recognition of his authorial power.
Faulkner recognized the challenges associated with becoming accepted in Southern society. Although he was from a family whose roots were firmly placed in Mississippi soil there was still harsh criticism bestowed on him as a young artist, and he at times must have felt like an outsider. As Faulkner tried to find his place in his world he adapted many personas. In his teen years, “He would dress carefully, knotting rich silk ties beneath high starched white collars. There was a kind if dandyism that came out now, and he had a grateful slim figure that the tight clothes flattered” (Blotner 41). This propensity for fancy dress and appearance eventually afforded him the critical nickname of “The Count”. In analyzing an early short story of Faulkner’s, Blotner categorizes it as somewhat autobiographical. Blotner recognizes that the story also reveals that in his late teen years Faulkner may have, “felt intellectually superior to almost all those he knew, no doubt he still felt somewhat inferior socially to the friends with professional fathers.” These conflicting feelings of superiority and inferiority would be representative of Faulkner’s unease and yet comfort with his home. Although he was unhappy with his father’s level of financial success he would also, at the same time, say that money, “was a contemptible thing to work for.” As he explored who he was as an artist and a man, “It seemed to most of his family that this son gave no sign of doing even as much with his life as his father had done with his” (Blotner 52-53). Until Faulkner absorbed himself completely in his art he was volleying back and forth between attempts at respectability and blatant disregards for community acceptance. Possibly in reaction to “The Count” nickname that was bestowed upon the young Faulkner, in his twenties he was typically, “dressed in worn cotton trousers, wearing sandals without socks and with a shirt that had not been buttoned completely, revealing the hair on his chest. He was also unshaven” (Blotner 117). His exploits as the postmaster at the University of Mississippi are legendary and his termination from this job ultimately led to his confident assertion that, “‘I reckon I’ll be at the beck and call of folks with money all my life, but thank God I won’t ever again have to be at the beck and call of every son of a bitch who’s got two cents to buy a stamp’” ( qtd. in Blotner 118). It seems that by the time he was fired from the post master’s job he had completely given up on community acceptance and, “He was free now, he said, to be outdoors, once again the observer he had been for so long. People had called him a dreamer. Well, now he could smoke and dream on his own time. And he could write. His first book was in press, and he was formulating other plans in mind” (Blotner 119).
Although Faulkner’s alienation was not nearly as extreme as that of the characters that he crafted in Light in August, his experiences afforded him to opportunity to recognize that he could create his identity within the community and that the community did not have to define him. In addition, he had a sense of sympathy for the man who was not allowed in, a man who struggled against his rejection. It seems that the character of Gail Hightower was crafted in a sympathetic light. Hightower was a man who lived in a past that existed only in his imagination “who for twenty-five years has been doing nothing at all between the time to wake and the time to sleep again.” At the moment of personal evolution when he resolves to finally take action in the present, he takes a book form his shelf and chooses not the usual Tennyson. This time Hightower, “chooses food for a man. It is Henry IV” (Faulkner 405). However, Gail Hightower is not similar to the figure of heroic action, of King Henry. He resembles instead the inactive and loquacious Falstaff, whose physical description also shares similarities with Hightower’s physical description arguably receives the most attention out of any of Faulkner’s characters. Faulkner repeatedly reminds readers of Hightower’s, “flabby body” (Faulkner 389).
According to the community narrative bestowed upon Byron Bunch, the Reverend Gail Hightower was an outsider because of birth and action. He sought to immerse himself in the past in an attempt to connect to his heroic grandfather who burned the Yankee stores in Jefferson during the Civil War. The story told to Bunch describes Hightower as “Done Damned in Jefferson anyway, they told him. And how Hightower had come straight to Jefferson from the seminary, refusing to accept any other call; how he had pulled every string he could in order to be sent to Jefferson.” He greeted the church elders with exaggerated excitement and they thought it was, “As if he did not care about the people, the living people, about whether they wanted him here or not (Faulkner 61). Gail Hightower did not care for the living because he “grew to manhood among phantoms, and side by side with a ghost.” The first phantom described was Hightower’s father, “who had been a minister without a church and a soldier without an enemy, and who in defeat had combined the two and become a doctor, a surgeon. It was as though the very cold and uncompromising conviction which propped him upright, as it were, between puritan and caviler, had become not defeated and not discouraged, but wiser” (Faulkner 474). Similar to Quentin Compson, Gail Hightower was without an effective mother. She was described as the second phantom, “whom he remembers first and last as a thin face and tremendous eyes and a spread of dark hair on a pillow, with blue, still, almost skeleton hands. If on the day of her death he had been told that he had ever seen her otherwise than in bed, he would not have believed it” (Faulkner 475). As a child Hightower felt a connection to the sickly mother. He felt as if they both were, “like two small, weak beasts in a den, a cavern, into which now and then the father entered – that man who was a stranger to them both, a foreigner, almost a threat”. The father is described as “frustrated” and distant. When his mother dies Gail is left with, “The third phantom (who) was the negro woman, the slave” (Faulkner 475). It was the third phantom that gave life to the ghost who would become the only constant companion throughout the life of Gail Hightower. The third phantom and the child reveled in the stories of the ghost, the grandfather, and the young boy’s namesake, Gail Hightower:
They never tired: the child with rapt, wide, half dread and half delight, and the old woman with musing and savage sorrow and pride. But this to the child was just peaceful shuddering, of delight. He found no terror in the knowledge that
his grandfather on the contrary had killed men “by the hundreds” as he was told and believed, or in the fact that the negro Pomp had been trying to kill a man when he died. No horror here because they were just ghosts, never seen in the flesh, heroic, simple, warm; while the father which he knew and feared was a phantom which would never die. (Faulkner 477)
Hightower’s father was an outsider, “he took an active part in a partisan war on the very side whose principles opposed his own, was proof enough that he was two separate and complete people, one of whom dwelled by serene rules in a world where reality did not exist” (Faulkner 473). As a child Hightower had found it difficult to connect to his father whose own contradictions made him a phantom. As a result, Hightower lives in the past where he finds warmth and comfort with a ghost. This leads Hightower to conclude that, “It’s no wonder that I had no father and that I had already died one night twenty years before I saw the light.” And it makes sense that a man who lives in a world people with phantoms and made glorious and warm with ghosts would enter the seminary and conclude, “ my own salvation must be to return to the place to die where my life had ceased before it began” (Faulkner 478).
When Hightower arrives in Jefferson, he excitedly expects a homecoming but his confusion over religion and history make the congregation distrust his motives. Hightower arrived in Jefferson in an attempt to reconnect to the glorious heroism of the immortal ghost of his grandfather, and in doing so he disconnects himself from the present. The community “told Byron how he seemed to talk that way in the pulpit too, wild too in the pulpit using religion as though it were a dream. Not a nightmare, but something which went faster than the words in the Book; a sort of cyclone that did not even need to touch the actual earth. And the old men and women did not like that either.” The community views Hightower’s excited combination of legacy and religion as self indulgent, and this obsession affords him no time in the present and no time for his wife. “It was as if he couldn’t get the religion and that galloping cavalry and his dead grandfather shot from the galloping horse untangled from each other, even in the pulpit. And then he could not untangle them in his private life, as home either perhaps” (Faulkner 61-62). As his quiet wife distances herself more and “the neighbors would hear her weeping in the parsonage” and Hightower ignores her escalating signs of distress. The community, “said that if Hightower had just been a more dependable kind of man, the kind of man a minister should be instead of being born about thirty years after the only day he seemed to have ever lived in – that day when his grandfather was shot from the galloping hose – she would have been all right too” (Faulkner 62). Hightower fails to assimilate to the community’s expectations of a minister and a husband. He is an outsider in time and place. He retreats to the past because of cowardice: “a fellow is more afraid of the trouble he might have than he is ever of the trouble he’s already got. He’ll cling to trouble he’s used to before he’ll risk change. Yes. A man will talk about how he’d like to escape from the living folks. But it’s the dead folks that do him the damage. It’s the dead ones that lay quiet in one place and don't try to hold him, that he can't escape from” (Faulkner 75). Like the “third phantom” (the “negro woman”) Hightower becomes a man who clings to the past, because it is what is known. However, when the events of the community are inescapable, Hightower emerges from the past and lives in the present.
Although it is Byron Bunch who forces a resistant Hightower into the present, Hightower eventually views himself and his place in the world from a different perspective. Hightower “seems to watch himself among faces, always among enclosed and surrounded by, faces, as though he watched himself in his own pulpit, from the rear of the church, or as though he were a fish in a bowl” (Faulkner 490). What is revealed to him is his identity in the eyes of the community. He sees in the community a reflection of who he is and:
there comes upon him a consternation which is about to be actual horror. He is aware of the sand now; with the realization of it he feels within himself a gathering as though for some tremendous effort. Progress now is still progress, yet it is now indistinguishable from the recent past like the already traversed inches of sand which cling to the turning wheel, raining back with a dry hiss that before this should have warned him. (Faulkner 490)
Hightower realizes the consequences of his life lived in the past. An understanding that he was culpable in his wife’s destruction is difficult to comprehend and he avoids this realization, “I don’t want to think this. I must not think this. I dare not think this.” (Faulkner 490). Although living in the present causes Hightower anguish, it also compels him to realize that, “if I am the instrument of her despair and death, then I am in turn instrument of someone outside myself. And I know that for fifty years I have not even been clay: I have been a single instant of darkness in which a horse galloped and a gun crashed” (Faulkner 491). Hightower realizes that he has lived; his life has existed in the present. The events in his life reverberate clear. All at once, in the conclusion and climax for Hightower, he realizes the mistakes of his life, and then he is absolved for them. In recognizing that he has affected others living in the present (regardless of the outcome of his involvement) Hightower gives proof of his life, his mark on the world. Additionally, the truths of his life are not categorized as good or bad - they just remain as truths without judgment, creating peace. What have changed in Hightower are his spiritual beliefs. He had been a man who had hidden himself behind his religion. The protestant teachings of a determinist and judgmental God are revealed to him, “He sees the churches of the world like a rampart, like those barricades of the middleages planted with dead and sharpened stakes, against truth and against peace in which to sin and be forgiven which is the life of man” (Faulkner 487). Hightower’s religious teachings do not allow for the unknown of the present and future and allow him to continue to live in the past. As the “faces” of his life pass before him, Hightower sees himself when he was rejected, assaulted, and ostracized by the community and his church. He regards himself as continuing “without shame, with that patient and voluptuous ego of the martyr, the air, the behavior, the How long, O Lord until, inside his house again and the door locked, he lifted the mask with voluptuous and triumphant glee”(Faulkner 490). The triumphs of his ancestors, of his life lived in the past, enabled him to escape from the realities of the present and the future. However, when Hightower is forced to confront the “faces” of his life he is enlightened, and brought back to the now:
The wheel, released, seems to rush on with a long sighing sound. He sits motionless in its aftermath, in his cooling sweat, while the sweat pours and pours. The wheel whirls on. It is going fast and smooth now, because it is freed now of burden, of vehicle, axle, all. In the lambent suspension of August into which night is about to fully come, it seems to engender and surround itself with a faint glow like a halo. The halo is full of faces. The faces are not shaped with suffering, not shaped with anything: not horror, pain, not even reproach. They are peaceful, as though they have escaped into an apotheosis; his own is among them. In fact, they all look a little alike, composite of all the faces which he has ever seen. (Faulkner 491)
Faulkner again constructs Christian imagery using the halo of “faces”. This Christian imagery is optimistic and forgiving, without judgment or scorn. As quickly as Hightower is a changed man, he is thrust back to his life of stasis.
In observing the unity of the “faces” eventually their identities become distinct and he recognizes individuals. Among these, “he can see that it is two faces which seem to strive (but not of themselves striving or desiring it: he knows that, but because of the motion and desire of the wheel itself) in turn to free themselves one from the other, then fade and blend again.” Hightower recognizes the two faces that in trying to free their histories from each other merge continuously, as those of the now lynched, Joe Christmas and his murderer, Percy Grimm. Hightower acknowledges these faces with incredulity. These faces and their actions cause Hightower to lose any optimism and hope, “it seems to him that some ultimate dammed flood within him breaks and rushes away” (Faulkner 492). He is left without the hope for progress, “the wheel turns on. It spins now, fading, without progress, as though turned by the final flood which had rushed out of him, leaving his body empty and lighter than a forgotten leaf” Hightower seeks comfort and hope for courage and transcendence. He gives in, “it is as though they had merely waited until he could find something to pant with, to be reaffirmed in triumph and desire with, with this last left of honor and pride and life. He hears above his heart the thunder increase, myriad and drumming” (Faulkner 492). Any chance of escaping the circle of history that enslaved him his whole life is lost. Hightower’s spiritual journey is particularly significant in the scope of the Yoknapatawpha novels because he is the first white male who desires to improve.
For a short time Hightower escapes the endless motion of the circle of history and finds peace and redemption in spiritual belief outside the constraints of the Protestant church. However, the fact that Hightower is unable to sustain any real improvement is also especially significant and a point that is often overlooked. It is widely accepted and acknowledged that Light in August is a community narrative. In Hightower’s return to the cyclical existence of immortal ghosts Faulkner is making an important comment on the opposing forces which compel his community to be perpetually isolated from progress. The only two faces amongst all those in the halo that appear to him as “striving” are Christmas and Grimm. For the first time in the Yoknapatawpha novels Faulkner explores the issues of race from multiple perspectives and is able to capture the complexities of the problems that plague his home. Faulkner’s Mississippi, like much of the South after the Civil War, was engaged in the difficult task of redefining itself. The future as it stands in the present of Light in August seems to offer nothing but Grimm possibilities.
Imposing a contemporary reading on Christmas and Grimm, the only two characters who are “striving” to create a definition for themselves in the present, the violence of the community appears ominous, especially when considering the violence that plagued the South during the civil rights battles during the 1950’s and 1960’s.Romaine recognizes that Faulkner’s construction of Light in August is different from Faulkner’s construction of his other novels: the community that is depicted in Light in August is better equipped to capture the complexities of the region than the communities depicted in other Faulkner novels. Romaine states that, “This is a community entirely unlike anything the reader has previously encountered, a town whose normal systems of exchange have broken down and whose citizens are virtually at each other’s throats. Yet out of this community seething with violence, the rape narrative produces not only a consensus, but a single body. The crowd gathers” (174). The uniting factor for the community that still seems floundering and judgmental is the violent adherence to social misconceptions of racial superiority of whites. Law and order is left powerless to the vigilante justice that unites the white community around an easy scapegoat for the problems of the region, the black man. Although Faulkner is writing specifically about the region and the community that he knows so well he is also seeking to capture human nature that ignorantly seeks to place blame when the realities of the mistakes made are too difficult to comprehend. Faulkner clearly stated this when he was asked about the prevalence of the Percy Grimm type throughout his community. He responded by saying, “he exists everywhere, I wrote that book in 1932 before I’d ever heard of Hitler’s Storm Troopers, what he was a Nazi Strom Trooper” ( qtd. in Gwynn 41). Although in the same statement Faulkner regards the fact that there are probably more of the Grimm types in the South than elsewhere, he is resolute in his belief that they exist everywhere. So, like the Southern white people whose misguided beliefs of racial superiority allowed them to blame the ills of the region on African Americans, Nazi Germany found, in the Jewish citizens of Europe, an enemy that was frighteningly easy to persecute because the disenfranchised people of Germany sought strength and unity. Many German people accepted the misinformed fallacies of Jewish economic power just as many Southern people believed the misconceived notions about tainted black blood.” Hightower, like many of the German people years later, may have recognized the impending doom, but he is unable to transcend or to remedy the problem. He, as his name would indicate, is just an observer. He fails to recognize as later characters like Isaac McCaslin do, that the solution is not in changing the community but in changing the individual. In the development of Faulkner as a writer as viewed through the Yoknapatawpha novels, however, Hightower does demonstrate some progress. At least he recognizes the problems that plague him and his community, although he fails at transcending them. Faulkner stated that, “Hightower was a man who wanted to be better than he was afraid he would. He had failed his wife. Here was another chance he had, and he failed his Christian oath as a man of God, and he escaped into the past where some member of his family was brave enough to match the moment” ( qtd. in Gwynn 45). Hightower’s narrative is also important because of the similarities and the differences that he shares with the character who Faulkner calls his “antithesis” Joe Christmas.
What Light in August achieves in terms of capturing the complexities of the problems that plague the South is due to the construction of the character of Joe Christmas. Joe Christmas was similar to Gail Hightower in the sense that he was a perpetual outsider in Jefferson. He was also, like Hightower, a man without a present. For all their similarities that they share because of their searching for identity there are marked difference between Hightower and Christmas. Although Hightower embraces with ignorant zeal his life lived in the past and chooses to ignore the present, he is without the courage to act and transcend the spinning circle of history. However, for Christmas, “his history makes it clear that he has been shaped largely by his environment – though the propensity for violence that contributed to his tragedy may well have been inherited” (Blotner 301). Christmas is without choice: he has limited free will. He is brave enough to act; however, his actions are constricted by societal expectations. His act of violence is an act of self - definition. In essence, the tragedy of Christmas is the tragedy of the region that seeks to define and categorize its entire people according to antiquated and misguided notions of racial superiority. According to Faulkner, Christmas “deliberately evicted himself from the human race because he didn’t know which he was. That was his tragedy, that to me was the tragic central idea of the story – that he didn’t know what he was, and there was no way possible in life for him to find out. Which to me is the most tragic condition a man could find himself in – not to know what he is and to know that he will never know” ( qtd. in Gwynn 72). Unlike the character of Thomas Sutpen who has the ability to attempt to define himself, Christmas is without that option because of the mere suggestion of black blood.
Eric J. Sundquist’s Faulkner: The House Divided makes the important connection between Light in August and the history of Faulkner’s region. For a writer who admittedly merged fact, imagination, and possibility to create the stories of his home and his people the historical circumstances are of particular importance. Sundquist points out that:
the novel appeared approximately at the crest of a forty year wave of Jim Crow laws that grew in part out of a threatened economy, in part out of increasingly vocal demands for black equality during and after World War I, and in greater part out of the reawakened racist fears that has, at least in contrast, simmered restlessly for a generation between Reconstruction and the twentieth century. To be more exact, they grew out of the Supreme Court’s decision in favor of the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) – a decision that rested the burden of its argument on a case involving a ‘Negro’ who was ‘seven-eighths white’ and could pass as white. (68-69)
Sundquist also points to many of Faulkner’s public and direct statements about the issues of race and miscegenation. These statements, as well as some of the depictions of African American characters, have caused some to criticize Faulkner and categorize him as a racist. However, as Sundquist states, “nothing is to be gained by accusing Faulkner of blatant racism” (69). If the construction of Light in August is accepted by readers then the truth that is clearly presented must also be applied to the author, that no progress can be achieved through judgmental assumption. Although Faulkner’s public comments about the issues of race that plagued his community are often interpreted with scorn it is important to consider that he was a descendant of the Reconstruction and lived his life in the Jim Crow South.
Faulkner’s hesitation at immediate integration is best understood when examining his controversial comments in 1956, following the ruling of a federal court that instructed the University of Alabama to allow a young black woman, named Autherine Lucy into the institution. Riots broke out on campus and Faulkner was anxiously awaiting an opportunity to speak on the issue. Faulkner wrote a piece for Time called “A Letter to the North”. In this letter Faulkner stated that, “The Southerner needed time to assimilate the knowledge of what could happen if he did not institute integration himself. Without this pause, the South – with dissidents like himself drawn to the majority in its imposed role of underdog – would resist, even knowing that the cause was both doomed and wrong” (Blotner 617). He categorized himself as a centrist, acknowledging the necessity of integration, but he thought that integration must come slowly. Faulkner recalled the comments of his brother Johncy, who said that if an African American were admitted to Oxford schools Johncy would be one of the many to take arms against this forced integration. Faulkner was torn, and he knew that if he had to choose between a just cause and loyalty to his family, he would take the latter. Faulkner clearly stated in an interview in the London Sunday Times, “‘I will go on saying that the Southerners are wrong and that their position is untenable, but if I have to make the same choice Robert E. Lee made then I’ll make it.’” Eventually Faulkner, similar to Hightower, realized that he could not change others and may have felt somewhat powerless, and he reverted to the comfort of his previously held beliefs, “Faulkner said that he started thinking, if it came to shooting and my family were involved, where would I stand then? And he became so upset he started drinking” (Blotner 617-618). In considering Faulkner’s position on the issues of race that plagued his community and his admitted centrist views it is rather remarkable that Sundquist would state:
that Light in August is the greatest American treatment of the problem of ‘passing,’ to bear in mind what is obvious – that it is written by a white man often slow to sort out his own doubts and confusions about Jim Crow; for the enslaving myth of racial hysteria in the twentieth century necessarily surrounds and contains ‘within’ itself the literal horrors of slavery it refers to but suppresses at the same time. The paradox, in this respect, seems almost a simple one: not how can a black man be a white man, but how can a white man be a black man? (71)
Joe Christmas is a shifting reflection of the community in which he lives. His own confusion about who he is, and the ambiguity about his history, is reflected in the opening lines to the chapter that begins the story of his early life: “memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders” (Faulkner 119). As Faulkner constructs the narrative of the child who would be named by the orphanage that was his first home, readers see that there was little to no opportunity for him to achieve a happy life. As Blotner states, “Faulkner’s sympathy was clear, particularly in the episodes where the helpless child is at the mercy of the sluttish dietitian, his mad grandfather, and his harsh adoptive father” (301). What lies at the center of all the reflections that Christmas consumed is the fact that he has black blood, and his fate has been sealed. However, there is never any proof that Christmas had black blood:
it hardly matters that the evidence of Christmas’s ‘black blood’ boils down to the second –hand testimony of a circus owner who had employed his reputed father, and that we receive that testimony from Christmas’s fanatical grandfather, who has murdered the father; what matters is the other point of view, the climate of fantasy in which the evidence, whichever way it may point counts for little beside the suspicions that overwhelms and submerges it, repressing and distorting it at the same time. (Sundquist 68)
The mere suggestion that the child might have ‘black blood’ is enough for the grandfather to insist on placing the child up for adoption and then taking a job as a custodian in order watch the “abomination”. The grandfather combines racist thoughts with Calvinistic determinism when the orphan is called a “nigger” by the other children at the orphanage it cause the grandfather, Hines, to conclude:
Out of the mouths of little children He never concealed it. You have heard them. I never told them to say it, to call him in his rightful nature, by the name of his damnation. I never told them. They knowed. They was told, but it wasn’t by me. I just waited, on His own good time, when he would see fitten to reveal it to His living world. And it’s come now. This is the sign, wrote again in woman-sinning and bitchery. (Faulkner 128)
When Christmas is adopted by a strict Christian man named McEachern, he then adds to the compiling of his reflections about his identity, violence. When greeted by his adoptive father, he is told that he “will find the food and shelter and care of Christian people” (Faulkner 144). He is also told that he will toil with hard work, “that will keep you out of mischief. For I will have you learn soon that the two abominations are sloth and idle thinking, the two virtues are work and the fear of God” (Faulkner 144). He is raised with the same rigidity and inflexibility that he was born into. McEchern encounters any resistance to the judgmental teachings of a strict Puritanical Christian belief with violence, continued until the point of submission. Throughout his life with the McEcherns’ Christmas withholds from his adoptive parents the secret of his black blood. It is clear to Christmas, because of the people in his life, that he is the product of sin.
The combination of “Calvinistic damnation” and the issues of miscegenation “bring[…] into view a very peculiar strain of Southern racist thought” (Sundquist 80). Sundquist points to the historical and cultural phenomena in Faulkner’s South that viewed the mixing of the white and black races as an American original sin. Sundquist continues he points to the fact that, “Faulkner had already begun developing a psychology of American original sin that would include its most troublesome, because undeniably ‘real,’ form – the mixing of white master and black slaves” (Sundquist 80). Because Light in August is a community narrative in form and plot (Christmas’s identity almost throughout most of the novel is a reflection of the community’s perceptions), Faulkner was showing the way that his community encountered the problem of miscegenation. As Sundquist states that issues of original sin and miscegenation are only examined “tangentially” in Light in August (80) . This tangential reading of miscegenation and original sin is accurate because it is a justification for oppression that is without validity. Within the community there are those who are often overlooked, but whom Faulkner does not ignore. Hightower recognizes that his Christian faith provides him the ability to live a life in the past and ignore the present and the possibility of a future. Christmas becomes a man who rejects anyone or anything that seeks to define him. The community seeks to categorize miscegenation as the original sin, but as Light in August shows deterministic Christian ideals are just a vehicle for the societal myths of white superiority.
Christmas, whose tortured life is plagued with the confusion and violence that he reabsorbs from the people around him, is best summarized with his recollection that, “Sometimes he would remember how he had once tricked or teased white men into calling him a negro in order to fight them, to beat them or be beaten; now he fought the negro who called him white” (Faulkner 225). He seeks an identity, but only on his terms. Therefore, when Joanna Burden categorizes Joe Christmas as black, and she seeks to save him through prayer, he recalls that, “I had to do it” (Faulkner 280). Christmas kills Joanna Burden: and in doing so, he defines himself as “black”. Within Yoknapatawpha county a man who is suspected of having black blood has neither the social nor the legal leverage to define himself as he chooses. As word of the murder spreads, the community concludes that, “He don’t look any more like a nigger than I do. But it must have been the nigger blood in him. It looked like he had set out to get himself caught like a man might set out to get married. He had got clean away for a whole week. If he had not set fire to the house, they might not have found out about the murder for a month” (Faulkner 349). Ironically, the murder of Joanna Burden not only creates an identity for Christmas as a black man, but also changes Joanna in the eyes of the community. She is no longer the outsider, the daughter of the New England abolitionist. Instead, “she becomes as white and respectable and Southern as the communal hysteria requires” (Sundquist 84). Despite having sealed his fate and identity with the murder of Joanna Burden it also becomes apparent that although he chose his actions and accepted their consequences, in reality his options were limited “The circle of bondage that Joe Christmas at first seems to have broken in murdering Joanna Burden only leads him fatefully back to his place of birth” (Sundquist 73). It is not until he is lynched that his identity becomes immortally sealed: “Then his face, body, all, seemed to collapse, to fall in upon itself, and from out the slashed garments about his hips and loins the pent black blood seemed to rush like a released breath. It seemed to rush out of his pale body like the rush of sparks from a rising rocket; upon that black blast the man seemed to rise soaring into their memories forever and ever”( Faulkner 465).
In the end, the relationship between Hightower and Christmas seems more complicated than that of mere parallel characters. Hightower ends as he began still trapped in the same recurring moment of bravery and action. He chooses to remain, or he cannot resist the power and comfort of the immortal past. Hightower is a man of imagination, which makes him capable of resurrecting the past and living in his created history. He sits in judgment of those around him because in comparison to the gallant bravery and sacrificial violence of his imagination, the realities of the people around him are as he describes the church, “in adjuration, threat, and doom” (Faulkner 487). Hightower sees in Christmas and Grimm these same violent portents, so to the imagined and controlled violence, to, “the wild bugles and the clashing sabers and he dying thunder of hooves” Hightower retreats (Faulkner 493).
The novel concludes as it began with Lena Grove on the move. At first it may seem that her placement in the novel is a coincidental connection to the major characters. However, Lena frames to the novel because she stands as the only character who endures. She stands outside of any societal expectations and is described by Faulkner as a character who:
Had something of that Pagan quality of being able to assume everything, that’s – the desire for that child, she was never ashamed of that child whether it had any father or not, she was simply going to follow the conventional laws of time in which she was and find its father. But as far as she was concerned, she didn’t especially need any father for it, any more than the women that – on whom Jupiter begot children were anxious for a home and a father. It was enough to have had the child. (Gwynn 199)
Lena has a value system that stands without judgment or complaint. She endures and does not try to define. After experiencing all the violence and chaos of the community she appears unaffected and simply concludes, “‘My, my. A body does get around. Here we aint been coming from Alabama but two months, and now it’s already Tennessee.’” (Faulkner 507).
Blotner, Joseph. Faulkner: A Biography. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2005.
Faulkner, William Light in August. New York: Vintage, 1990.
Gwynn, Frederick L. and Joseph L. Blotner. Faulkner in the University. Charlottesville:
U of Virginia P, 1995.
Romaine, Scott. The Narrative Forms of Southern Community. Baton Rouge: Louisiana
State UP, 1999.
Sundquist, Eric J. Faulkner: The House Divided. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1983.
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