While I still have two consecutive minutes in which to think, I’m taking notes on the novel that will be the focus of my next chapter: Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses. I am not in the habit of giving book recommendations, since I know full well that the Faulkner I enjoy is rarely the best place to start with his fiction (if, as Sydney wonders, it’s worth starting at all). But in rereading the first short story of the book, “Was,” I’m reminded once again how masterfully Faulkner treats what are, particularly for my students, thin-ice issues.
The story is set in 1859, and it opens with the escape of a black man from his plantation to the neighboring plantation, where his sweetheart lives. We learn that this is something of a regular occurrence, and always creates a big hassle because his masters are two bachelor brothers who, though eager to “give chase,” don’t want to go anywhere near the other plantation, where a single, husband-hunting woman lives. Much comedy ensues as the escapee gives the brothers a rousing chase, and as the single woman on the other plantation lays her plans to trap herself a husband. The story ends with a poker game to determine whether one of the brothers will be forced to marry the single woman, and which landowner is going to buy which slave so that they can stop this running-off business.
Once you dig your way through the obscure hunting terms and figure out the complicated histories of these people you get a great laugh out of the situation. Faulkner is, quite often, knee-slapping funny. But, as my students are horrified to realize, we are talking about an escaped-slave narrative here, no matter how benign the owners and no matter how routine the escape. To make matters more complicated, the brothers’ father had a child by one of his slaves; the escapee in the story is, we realize, the half-brother of the two brothers who own the plantation. Faulkner’s never shy about tackling race as a complicated issue in the South, but I think this story takes the cake. What I like about it is that he does show the issue as complicated, breaking down the clear distinction between the master’s house and the slave quarters and showing characters who struggle with their roles as either master or slave. And I like the way that he brings comedy back into the discussion, as well as everyday events, so that investigations of race relations come as part of the package of living in the South, rather than as the only topic out there.
Very good stuff. I’ve got to find some way to teach this again soon . . .