Revisiting the Classics: Rereading William Faulkner's Go Down Moses

Glynn Custred

William Faulkner’s fiction ranges across the spectrum of genres from poetry ("The Marble Faun," 1924) to short fiction and the novel. He also used a variety of styles to achieve different effects from the prosaic to the lyrical, biblical cadence in some places and stream of consciousness in others. He also employs ordinary speech in its regional and social variation to bring to life the characters he has created in a realistic manner. Since the late 1920s Faulkner experimented with style, genre, and point of view in works such as As I Lay DyingThe Sound and the Fury, and Wild Palms

There is, however, a strong thematic unity in Faulkner’s work, for with only a few exceptions it deals with a single place, the South over a single span of time, from 1807 to 1961 ranging from the first entry of the white man and his black slaves into a wilderness inhabited by native peoples, to the verge of what would be a major turning point in the history of the South and of the country as a whole. Faulkner’s work, however, is not just regional literature, for although the characters, events, and conditions he describes are typically, even in some cases uniquely Southern they also reflect what is common to the human experience everywhere, made real by their tie to a particular time and place.     

Go Down Moses (1947) is representative of Faulkner’s prose fiction as a whole in both style and theme. The narratives that constitute the book loosely trace the lives of people in, and associated with, a particular family, the McCaslins; from the time when the first McCaslin acquired the land from a Chickasaw chief, to the end of the 1940s. Faulkner insisted that Go Down Moses is a novel, although it focuses on no single character and does not have a single unifying plot. Instead, the seven stories that comprise the work jump from one time period to another, each story featuring different, though in some cases reappearing, characters and each telling of different events that in their own way represent the wider flow of Southern history. In this respect, Go Down Moses might be regarded as one of Faulkner’s experiments with genre, for in it he integrates fragments to develop larger themes, themes which run throughout his work and which, as they are woven together in Go Down Moses, are the point of the narrative rather than any one set of characters or any adherence to a single plot. It was perhaps in that sense that he thought of these collected narratives as a single novel.

The themes most developed here also appear elsewhere in his writing—the contemplation of time; the confrontation of nature and civilization; the frontier and new beginnings, lost worlds; and, most notably, race, slavery, and miscegenation. What brings those themes together is the location, Faulkner’s fictionalized Yoknapatawpha County, and the McCaslin family, their slaves, and their descendants, some of whom are related to one another by blood. One story, “Pantaloon in Black” is connected with the others merely by virtue of taking place on MaCaslin land. Yet it fits into the whole by providing a view of real people who are closely associated with one another in daily life, yet who are deeply divided by race, a topic which complements the other stories in the book. What stands out in “Pantaloon in Black” is the misunderstood depth of grief of a young black man who has just lost his wife. Part of the story is told by the sheriff to his wife. The sheriff completely misunderstands the turn of events which has led to the young man’s death, for he views those events through the racial stereotype of the day. She, however, senses the human element in what has happened, another theme that runs through the conjoined narratives.

The first story in the book, “Was” gives us a look into the antebellum South and one example of its varied master-slave relationship. It also introduces the McCaslin family, as well as one of the central characters in the book, Isaac McCaslin, “Uncle Ike,” whose life we follow from his youth to old age in three closely related stories: “The Old People,” “The Bear” (Faulkner’s best known work of short fiction) and “Delta Autumn.” The final story, “Go Down Moses,” is an account of a young black man gone bad. He goes north to Chicago where in the course of events he murders a policeman and is eventually executed for the crime. In this story we see the intimate yet highly asymmetrical connection between black and white, where, at the insistence of the young man’s great grandmother, a white lawyer with no connection to the McCaslin extended family (black or white or mixed) collects money to have his body brought home for burial, an act which parallels the human element that runs throughout the book. The title of that story, and of the book, is taken from an old Negro spiritual which tells the biblical story of Moses who demands that the pharaoh release his people from bondage. The title and the stories, especially the exchange between Ike and his kinsman in “The Bear,” describe from the white perspective the Southern burden of slavery and race as expressed through Faulkner’s experience.

We can reread (or read for the first time) Go Down Moses in the terms described above; in terms of style, genre, point of view, theme, and how the author has skillfully employed them to tell his stories to best effect and how those stories express in their own way our wider human experience. Beyond such considerations, however, there is always the unique perspective of every reader, the specific feelings and images which readers bring to, and what they take from what they read. For those brought up in the South during Faulkner’s time, the characters, settings, and details of everyday life that he depicts evoke a reality which others will miss. And, for many of those who came of age in the South in the 1960s, there will be an appreciation of the release from one aspect of the bondage of Southern history, a release begun at that time with the ending of formal segregation. For the general reader today Go Down Moses provides the opportunity to look beyond the stereotype of our recent past and to catch a glimpse, in fictionalized form, of the reality from which the present has emerged—an antecedent reality as perceived by a sensitive author who wrote about what he experienced with insight, honesty, and feeling. 

Image: Wikipedia, Public Domain

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