Last year for Black History Month, I wrote an article about how the work of William Faulkner documents and maintains a legacy of racial interaction in the American south, with all of its complexities, contradictions, and emotion. This year, I’d like to take a closer look at Go Down, Moses, a novel that encapsulates Faulkner’s ability to bring and keep the past alive. People often refer to Go Down, Moses as a book of short stories, but it is more a novel told through a series of disjointed vignettes across the span of several generations. With Faulkner, form always complements function, and as we will see, the very telling of this story reflects the reality of America’s slavery-ridden past and our attempts to deal with its memory.
Briefly, Go Down, Moses is the story of a slave-owning, white family, the McCaslins, in Faulkner’s fictitious Yoknapatawpha county. The book focuses on the interrelations between blacks and whites before, during, and after the American Civil War. The power of the book comes from Faulkner’s coupling of a rather mundane southern family history (mundane because its dynamics were so commonplace in the old south) and the epic telling of their tale. Faulkner elevates the cold realism of his narratives with an epic style that better reflects the emotional and social import of slavery in America. Go Down, Moses interweaves the changes in race relations with the oncoming industrial revolution and the changes in labor and technology that corrupt the human spirit in the same way as holding another human being in bondage.
Go Down, Moses consists of seven short vignettes, the centerpiece of which is The Bear, a hunting story with a deep and disturbing undercurrent of racial inequality and injustice. It is in the second half of The Bear that Faulkner lays out some of his most direct and revelatory ideas on slavery and race relations:
[He] looked about for one last time, for one time more since He had created them, upon this land this South for which He had done so much with woods for game and streams for fish and deep rich soil for seed and lush springs to sprout it and long summers to mature it and serene falls to harvest it and short mild winters for men and animals and saw no hope anywhere and looked beyond it where hope should have been, where to the East North and West lay illimitable that whole hopeful continent dedicated as a refuge and sanctuary of liberty and freedom from what you called the old world’s worthless evening and saw rich descendents of slavers, females of both sexes, to whom the black they shrieked of was another specimen another example like the Brazillian macaw brought home in a cage by a traveler, passing resolutions about horror and outrage in warm and air-proof halls: and the thundering cannonade of politicians earning votes and the medicine shows of pulpiteers earning Chatauqua fees, to whom the outrage and the injustice were as much abstractions as Tariff or Silver or Immortality and who employed the very shackles of its servitude and the sorry rags of its regalia as they did the other beer and banners and mottoes redfire and brimstone and sleight-of-hand and musical handsaws: and the whirling wheels which manufactured for a profit the pristine replacements of the shackles and shoddy garments as they wore out and spun the cotton and made the gins which ginned it and the cars and ships which hauled it, and the men who ran the wheels for that profit and established and collected the taxes it was taxed with and the rates for hauling it and the commissions for selling it
This entanglement between the business of the supposed free north and the ‘shackles of servitude’ of the slave south is an important reminder that, despite Faulkner’s deep feelings for southern guilt in the atrocity of slavery, every American, southern or northern, is tied to that atrocity in a very meaningful way.
The first story in Go Down, Moses, titled Was, sets the stage for the rest of the book by establishing the fundamental fact that African American slaves were treated as, not like, livestock. Was tells the story of how Uncle Buddy and Uncle Buck won a slave girl in a poker game. It is the very banality with which this story is treated that gives it its power. Using human beings as objects, commodities, to be bartered is at the very heart of the philosophy of slavery. The importance of showing how one group of people can subject and dehumanize another group of people without even giving the ethical implications of their actions a second thought is crucial for Faulkner to present the guilt-laden dilemma of future generations. “Was” is a southern way of saying “It used to be that,” for instance, ‘was, a man could buy an acre of land for ten dollars,’ so even in the very title, Faulkner leaves clues for the interpretation: this is how it used to be.
In another story, The Fire and the Hearth, Faulkner explores how the white man’s love of money corrupted the natural values and traditions of the Africans and their American descendents. Lucas, the old black man, an illegitimate child of one of the white slave owners, becomes obsessed with the idea of finding buried gold on the farmland after stumbling across a thousand dollars hidden in the earth. Within this story of avarice and obsession, Faulkner draws a clear picture of power dynamics between whites and blacks in the post-Civil War era. Although Lucas and the other blacks are no longer slaves, they maintain a de facto slave relationship to the white land owner, who steers the wills of these men just as if he held a riding crop in his hand. This iniquitous power dynamic is juxtaposed against the close familial ties that the whites and the blacks formed growing up. A small flashback within The Fire and the Hearth shows how, when they were young, the white boy and the black boy were fast friends. Then somewhere along the way, the white boy developed the contradictory sense of shame and superiority over his black friend, simply because of the history and environment with which he lived.
This familial aspect of slavery permeates nearly all of Faulkner’s novels. From The Sound and the Fury, where Quentin and the others are raised by the black servants, to Absalom, Absalom! which deals directly with miscegenation and incest within the Sutpen family, Faulkner continues to show how the alienating, dehumanizing horror of slavery is bound up irrationally with a very tight and intimate familial bond between the races. In fact, Go Down, Moses itself is dedicated to “Mammy,” a Caroline Barr, “who was born in slavery and who gave to [Faulkner’s] family a fidelity without stint or calculation of recompense and to [his] childhood an immeasurable able devotion and love.”
By fragmenting the time and telling of his narrative, Faulkner more closely approaches the complexity and confusion of the human condition, especially that of bondage, power, freedom, and responsibility. Go Down, Moses, like Absalom, Absalom! is a puzzle to be solved by the reader; it acts as an open-ended question that forces the reader to make his or her own judgments and opinions on the dark and difficult subject matter it presents. Like many Faulkner novels, it would take multiple readings to truly grasp the scope and detail of human life presented in the work, as well as the subtleties and revelations about the ghost of slavery that haunts our society to this day.
To understand black history, clearly one must read the black writers: Ellison, Wright, DuBois, Washington, Douglass, and their peers; but one can also glean a shard of insight into their struggle by reading the greatest writer of Southern legacy, William Faulkner, who with his gifts of language, observation, and compassion, has presented with Go Down, Moses, a kaleidoscopic portrait of how an atrocity as horrible as slavery becomes a multi-generational curse, handed down father to son, as something that must not be forgotten, but confronted, acknowledged, and if at all possible, rectified.