#63 – Go Down, Moses, by William Faulkner

Faulkner is one of those writers who makes me feel woefully underqualified when I attempt to write about his work. Faulkner insisted that Go Down, Moses is a fragmented novel made up of related short-stories, what we here in Canada would most likely call a short-story cycle (indeed, the first edition of the book was published by Random House as Go Down, Moses and Other Stories). No matter Faulkner’s own opinion (which anyway I didn’t know until after the fact) I read Go Down, Moses as a short-story cycle.

Any discussion of Faulkner’s work must necessarily deal with issues of race and family, both of which are central to this book. The various stories relate the history of the McCaslin family from a time not long before the American Civil War until roughly 1940. “Was”, which opens the book, can be a difficult story to read given that Faulkner treats it straightforwardly, matter-of-factly, with no obvious judgement of either the characters or the society that allowed them to exist as they treat men and women, slaves, as they would animals or even worse than animals. It’s only by reading the later stories that the reader can see where they fit in Faulkner’s moral universe; the wealthy white plantation owners are revealed to be more ignorant and less dignified than nearly any other characters in the book, black or white, master or servant, criminal or citizen, and indeed their (posthumous) punishment is Isaac McCaslin’s denial of their patrimony, a thing of paramount importance not only within the McCaslin family but within Southern society as a whole. So much of the action and moral consequence of these stories depends on inheritanceses, either their setting aside or losing or their denial. Isaac McCaslin’s refusal to accept the family plantation (and there is here some further dispute regarding the relationships between race and family; there are black and white branches of the McCaslin family, with the white branch inheriting the name and property despite their claim being solely matrilineal and therefore contrary to accepted custom, while the black branch inherits nothing perhaps an endurance and authority othwerwise unknown or unacceptable among the black community, despite their claim being patrilineal and therefore of greater worth: the rules of race trump the rules of patrimony) is the finest moment of dignity and acknowledgement of spiritual connection to the land and to men and women as part of that land in the entire book, but it is misunderstood—perhaps cannot be understood—by his family as a denial of the proper order of things. It is instead an honest, if belated and futile, attempt to acknowledge and return to the order of things as it ought to have been.

The true wonder of this book for me, as it is for all of a Faulkner’s books, is his slow, beautiful prose. It rolls around in my mouth like a caramel, sweet and gentle and long. I pity the reader who cannot be moved by this:

He was sixteen. For six years now he had been a man’s hunter. For six years now he had heard the best of all talking. It was of the wilderness, the big woods, bigger and older than any recorded document:—of white man fatuous enough to believe he had bought any fragment of it, of Indian ruthless enough to pretend that any fragment of it had been his to convey; bigger than Major de Spain and the scrap he pretended to, knowing better; older than old Thomas Sutpen of whom Major de Spain had had it and who knew better; older even than old Ikkemotubbe, the Chickasaw chief, of whom old Sutpen had had it and who knew better in his turn. It was of the men, not white nor black nor red but men, hunters, with the will and hardihood to endure and the humility and skill to survive, and the dogs and the bear and the deer juxtaposed and reliefed against it, ordered and compelled by and within the wilderness in the ancient and unremitting contest according to the ancient and immitigable rules which voided all regrets and brooked no quarter;—the best game of all, the best of all breathing and forever the best of all listening, the voices quiet and weighty and deliberate for retrospection and recollection and exactitude among the concrete trophies—the racked guns and the heads and skins—in the libraries of town houses or the offices of plantation houses or (and best of all) in the camps themselves where the intact and still-warm meat yet hung, the men who had slain it sitting before the burning logs on hearths when there were houses and hearths or about the smoky blazing of piled wood in front of stretched tarpaulins when there were not. There was always a bottle present, so that it would seem to him that those fine fierce instants of heart and brain and courage and wiliness and speed were concentrated and distilled into that brown liquor which not women, not boys and children, but only hunters drank, drinking not of the blood they spilled but some condensation of the wild immortal spirit, drinking it moderately, humbly even, not with the pagan’s base and baseless hope of acquiring thereby the virtues of cunning and strength and speed but in salute to them. Thus it seemed to him on this December morning not only natural but actually fitting that this should have begun with whisky. (“The Bear” p. 183-4)

The seeds of Isaac’s repudiation and the reasons for it are present in that paragraph (the second in the story), but so too is the foreknowledge, the reader being decades removed from the action and presumably acquainted with the South as a far different place by then and besides Isaac already having been introduced as a figure of folly in the eyes of his family in “The Fire and the Hearth”, that his repudiation will mean nothing and have no effect except to perhaps estrange him from that which he loves best.

Next: Be Good, by Stacey May Fowles.


Writer. Editor. Critic.

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