No American writer has been more preoccupied with the “Negro problem” than William Faulkner. Yet one searches his books in vain for any clear “view” or program leading toward improvement of the intolerable tensions between white and black in the South; at least, there has been endless controversy among critics as to what Faulkner thinks, feels, or regards as desirable in that area—a matter of even wider concern now that he speaks under the accolade of his recent Nobel Prize.
The world of William Faulkner is neither social photography nor historical record; it is rather an appropriation from a communal memory, some great store of half-forgotten legends, of which Faulkner is the last, grieving recorder. No longer available to public experience, it seems still to live fresh and imperious in his mind, as the memory of the Civil War lives in the mind of the Reverend Hightower in Light in August: a tragic charade of the past. We are here confronted not with an imaginary world of which every aspect is carefully designed, but with a complicated story known in its essentials to the narrator but still unordered in his mind—a story of old, confused family records that can be unraveled only with difficulty. Behind the telling of this story there is always a desperate search for order, not merely as a strategy in narrative but also as an actual motive for composition.
What Faulkner is trying to tell us is hardly to be formulated in simple terms, nor is it at all the same as the sum of his attitudes toward the South. Malcolm Cowley has described Faulkner’s social view as that of an “antislavery Southern nationalist,” while George Marion O’Donnell, the pioneer Faulkner critic, finds him a “traditional moralist” defending the “Southern socio-economic-ethical tradition.” Perhaps if Faulkner’s responses to the South were kneaded into a tight ideological ball it would resemble anti-slavery nationalism, but actually his work contains almost every conceivable attitude toward the South, from sentimentality to denunciation, from identification to frigid rejection. The Yoknapatawpha novels verge in attitude from the suicidal romanticism of Bayard Sartoris to the grave ethical responsibility of Isaac McCaslin; and in the contrast of these extremes, as well as in the numerous shades between them, one can see a controlling preoccupation of Faulkner’s work: the relation of the sensitive Southerner to his native myth, as it comforts and corrodes, inspires and repels. While in his earlier books Faulkner may be designated a “traditional moralist” and a defender of the old South, his work shows a gradual recognition that his values can now be realized only in new, untested social groups and relationships.
All of the tensions in Faulkner’s work reach an extreme in his treatment of Negro character. Complex and ambiguous responses to the Negro are predictable, almost conventional, among sensitive Southern writers; they stem partly from an inheritance of uncertainty and partly from a ripening of heart. But in Faulkner’s fiction, beneath its worried surface of attitude and idea, there is also a remarkable steadiness of feeling toward the Negro. His opinions change, his early racial complacency evaporates, his sympathies visibly enlarge; but always there is a return to one controlling image, an image of longing and childhood memory.
In The Unvanquished the boy Bayard Sartoris and his Negro friend Ringo eat, play, and live together. When the two boys and Granny Rosa Millard begin a long journey, Bayard and Ringo, to whom Miss Rosa is also “Granny,” take turns holding a parasol over her head. Another time, after harassing a Yankee patrol, they hide, in familiar equality, beneath Miss Rosa’s roomy skirts. “That’s how Ringo and I were,” Bayard nostalgically recalls, “we were almost the same age, and Father always said that Ringo was a little smarter than I was, but that didn’t count with us, any more than the difference in the color of our skins counted. What counted was, what one of us had done or seen that the other had not, and ever since that Christmas I had been ahead of Ringo because I had seen a railroad.” Bayard is here articulating an ideal of boyhood friendship, unaffected by social grade and resting on that intuitive sense of scruple so often available to boys.
The same ideal, or a similar one, appears in other Faulkner novels. In The Sound and the Fury the only happy memories the Compsons retain are of scenes in which white and Negro children play together. In Absalom, Absalom there are no glimpses of friendship between boys of the two races, but the pioneer innocence of young Sutpen is defined as freedom from both racial feeling and economic acquisitiveness. The boy Isaac McCaslin in “The Bear” unconsciously—and then with considered assent—claims as his spiritual parent the old Negro, Sam Fathers; and a similar claim determines the relationship between Chick Mallison and Lucas Beauchamp in Intruder in the Dust. In the story “Go Down, Moses” an old white woman, Miss Worsham, explains her wish to help an old Negro woman, Mollie Beauchamp, by invoking a childhood friendship of decades ago: “Mollie and I were born in the same month. We grew up together as sisters would.” By contrast, Joe Christmas in Light in August seems the most deprived of Faulkner’s characters precisely because he does not have such childhood memories to fall back on: his was always the adult condition.
The most dramatic rendering of this theme occurs in the story “The Fire and the Hearth.” For the white man Roth Edmonds, Mollie Beauchamp is “the only mother he ever knew, who had not only delivered him on that night of rain and flood . . . but moved into the very house, bringing her own child, the white child and the black one sleeping in the same room with her so that she could suckle them both.” As a boy, Roth feels that his home and the home of his Negro friend Henry Beauchamp have “become interchangeable: himself and his foster-brother sleeping on the same pallet in the white man’s house or in the same bed in the negro’s and eating of the same food at the table in either, actually preferring the negro house. . . .” And then the moment of pride: Roth refuses to share his bed with Henry and lies alone “in a rigid fury of the grief he could not explain, the shame he would not admit.” Later he knew “it was grief and was ready to admit it was shame also, wanted to admit it only it was too late then, forever and forever.”
Beneath the white man’s racial uneasiness there often beats an impatience with the devices by which society keeps men apart. Ultimately the whole apparatus of separation must seem too wearisome in its constant call to alertness, too costly in its tax on the emotions, and simply tedious as a brake on spontaneous life. The white man is repeatedly tempted by a memory playing on the rim of his consciousness: a memory of boyhood, when he could live as a brother with his Ringo or Henry Beauchamp—his Nigger Jim or Queequeg—and not yet wince under the needle of self-consciousness. The memory—is it a longing in the guise of memory?—can be downed by the will and blunted by convention, but it is too lovely and in some final sense too real to be discarded entirely. Beneath the pretense to superiority, the white man reaches for what is true: the time when he could compare bits of knowledge about locomotives with Ringo, share food with Henry Beauchamp, not in equality or out of it, for the mere knowledge of either is a poison, but in a chaste companionship. This is what the white man has lost, forever and forever; and the Negro need never remind him of it, he need only walk past him on the street.
It is a memory fed by guilt. As a confession of failure within society, it proves that status has brought not satisfaction but grief and shame. By questioning the entirety of adult relations, it reveals a hidden weight of despair. Because it glances at the possibilities of life beyond society, the writer can imagine it only in a setting of pastoral simplicity or childhood affection. It is a plea to be forgiven for what is and perhaps—but here Faulkner is uncertain—must be. And it is a yearning to find release, to fall away from one’s whiteness.
Touching as this vision of lost fraternity is, it also involves a wry and almost outrageous naivety. As Leslie Fiedler has remarked in a suggestive essay, the white man “dreams of his acceptance at the breast he has most utterly offended. It is a dream so sentimental, so outrageous, so desperate that it redeems our concept of boyhood from nostalgia to tragedy.” Miss Worsham says of Mollie Beauchamp, “we grew up together as sisters would”—but how many decades of distance have intervened she does not add. It is as though she and Roth Edmonds and all the other whites unconsciously hoped they need but turn again to their childhood companions to find in undiminished purity the love destroyed by caste. How the Negroes themselves might look upon this violated dream they do not think to ask.
This image of the white man’s longing is not, of course, unique to Faulkner; it appears with astonishing frequency in American writing, and often together with that pastoral impulse so strong among our novelists and poets. Faulkner has rendered it with a particular urgency and a profound sadness, in a setting where at best the races live in quiet rancor. That he has repeatedly turned to this image may be considered a triumph of instinct, but the shape and weight he has given it are a triumph of art.
No such singleness or steadiness can be found in Faulkner’s conscious attitudes toward the Negro. One finds, instead, a progression from Southern stereotype to personal vision, interrupted by retreats to inherited phobias and to an ideology that is morally inadequate to the vision. These shifting attitudes may be broken into three stages, each symbolized by a major Negro character: Dilsey, Joe Christmas, Lucas Beauchamp.
In Soldier’s Pay, Faulkner’s first novel, a Negro briefly appears as a conventional accessory: George the train porter. In Sartoris the Negro servants are regarded with truculent condescension, Joby and Simon, the old family retainers, being mere comic stereotypes. When Joby lights a fire on Christmas Day, Faulkner assures us that he feels “the grave and simple pleasures of his race.” And when Simon visits some Negro ladies, there is some uncomfortable low comedy:
“Ef it ain’t Brother Strother,” they said in unison. “Come in, Brother Strother. How is you?”
“Po’ly, ladies; po’ly,” Simon replied. He doffed his hat and unclamped his dgar stub and stowed it away in the hat. “I’se had a right smart mis’ry in de back.”
“ . . . Whut you gwine eat, Brother Strother?” the cook demanded hospitably. “Dey’s party fixin’s, en dey’s some col’ greens en a little sof ice cream lef fum dinner.”
“I reckon I’ll have a little ice cream en some of dem greens, Sis Rachel,” Simon replied. “My teef ain’t so much on party doin’s no mo’. . . .”
Faulkner does this sort of thing skillfully enough, and since the speech of some Negroes does verge on self-burlesque, the passage cannot simply be dismissed as “unreal.” But its reality is of a superficial order, displaying a gift for condescending mimicry rather than the moral perception and sympathy we may expect from a novelist of the first rank. Faulkner is not yet interested in looking very deeply into Negro life; he is largely content with the conventional.
In The Unvanquished a similar stereotyped response to the Negro soon gives way to an awareness that his mind is not quite so accessible to the white man as the latter would like to believe. Faulkner stresses the free and easy relations between white master and Negro slave in the ante-bellum South, the peculiar intimacy between a man sure of his command and another who sees no possibility or feels no desire to challenge it; and we know from historical record that, together with institutionalized brutality, such relationships did once exist. But new voices appear now, particularly the voice of Loosh, a discontended Negro who deserts the Sartoris manor for the Northern lines. “I done been freed,” says Loosh, “God’s own angel proclamated me free and gonter general me to Jordan. I don’t belong to John Sartoris now; I belong to me and God.” When asked why he has spirited the Sartoris silver to the Yankees, Loosh replies with vehemence and point: “You ax me that? . . . Where John Sartoris? Whyn’t he come and ax me that? Let God ax John Sartoris who the man name that give me to him. Let the man that buried me in the black dark ax that of the man what dug me free.”
Loosh’s pregnant questions are repeated, in Sartoris, by a Negro of a later era. Caspey, home from the First World War, announces: “I don’t take nothin’ fum no white folks no mo’. . . . War done changed all dat. If us cullud folks is good enough ter save France fum de Germans, den us is good enough ter have de same rights de Germans is. French folks think so, anyhow, and ef America don’t, dey’s ways of learnin’ em.” For such “sullen insolence” Caspey is knocked down by Bayard Sartoris with a stick of stove wood and told by Simon, his father, to “save dat nigger freedom talk fer town-folks.”
Neither Loosh nor Caspey is conceived in warmth: they are singled out for ridicule and distrust, and their rebelliousness is hardly taken seriously. Implicit in Faulkner’s early treatment of Negroes is the assumption that they are easily knowable—particularly by Southerners experienced in handling them. But since Faulkner at his weakest is still an artist of some consequence, overtones of doubt and uneasiness shade his portraiture of Negroes even in the minor novels: the discontented ones are seen as absurd or loutish, but this impression is undermined by the power with which their discontent is reported.
A gifted artist can salvage significant images of life from the most conventional notions: witness Dilsey. Neither the greatest nor best realized of Faulkner’s Negroes, she is still remarkable for her ability to maintain her selfhood under humiliating conditions. But the conception behind Dilsey does not seriously clash with the view of the Negro that could be held by a white man vaguely committed to benevolent racial superiority. Accepting her inferior status and surviving as a human being despite that acceptance, Dilsey is the latest of Faulkner’s major Negro characters who feels that the South is a community to which she entirely belongs.
In The Sound and the Fury one can observe an important modulation of attitude toward the Negro. While Dilsey’s strength and goodness may be acceptable to traditional paternalism, she gradually assumes a role far from traditional for the Southern Negro: she becomes, toward the end of the book, an articulate moral critic, the observer upon whom the action of the novel is registered and through whom its meanings are amplified. She is not merely the old darky in the kitchen champing at the absurd and evil ways of the folks up front; at the climax of the novel she rises to a concern with universal problems of justice. This is not to suggest that Dilsey is in any way a rebel against the old order of Southern life. She regards most of the Compsons with contempt not because they are white or representative of the dominant social group but because they do not fulfill the obligations that have accrued to their status. Judging the whites in terms of their own proclaimed values, she criticizes not their exploitation of Negroes but their moral mistreatment of each other. This judgment, held with force and purity, leads Dilsey to a principled respect for the human person as such. When the name of the idiot Compson child is changed from Maury to Benjy, she snaps: “He aint wore out the name he was born with yet, is he.” When her daughter whines that “people talk” because Dilsey brings Benjy to the Negro church, the old woman replies: “Tell um the good Lawd dont keer whether he smart or not. Dont nobody but poor white trash keer dat.” This sense of honor toward every person in her orbit is Dilsey’s most admirable trait—and a sign, as well, of the more complicated treatment of Negroes that is to appear in Faulkner’s books.
From traditional paternalism to an awareness of the injustice suffered by the Negro in Southern society—this, one could say, is the change that now occurs in the Yoknapatawpha novels. But the change is more complicated still, for the growing concern with injustice as a problem in society flows from an expansion of paternalism to its widest human limits. Dilsey and Joe Christmas are very different kinds of people, but Christmas is possible only because Dilsey already exists.
With Light in August the Negro assumes a new role in Faulkner’s work: he is now the victim, the symbol of the lowly and the oppressed. If Dilsey is characterized by an unbreakable sense of “belonging” in a world she knows to be falling apart, Joe Christmas knows that he has no home, that he always has been and must always remain homeless. If in the earlier work the focus of attention is on the white man’s feelings toward the Negro, now there is a shock of discovery—a discovery of the Negro as Negro, blackness stripped to pariah.
None of Faulkner’s characters has been so grotesquely misunderstood as Joe Christmas; few are more important. Malcolm Cowley has called him a “villain,” but Christmas is neither hero nor villain, he inspires neither admiration nor loathing. He signifies the appearance, for the first time in Faulkner’s work, of a type frequent in 20th-century European literature: man as helpless victim. In The Sound and the Fury Benjy suffers but his idiocy forms a moat between himself and the world. Christmas, however, is entirely vulnerable, and if he were to formulate a creed he might say that the condition of his humanity is that he remain vulnerable. Though incompletely realized, he is an extraordinarily poignant image of the homeless and depressed human being trapped in a limbo between brute physicality and human consciousness.
Before he talks to anyone, before the explanatory flashbacks to his childhood, the man Christmas is defined in all his baffled aggression: working in a sawmill he keeps “jabbing his shovel into the sawdust slowly and steadily and hard, as though he were chopping up a buried snake.” With Negroes he must assert himself as a white man, with whites as a Negro, for he represents in himself the expense of our society’s division. Christmas tries to reject both roles, the white and the Negro, but is unable to formulate that rejection and must release it through violence against the most neutral features of his environment. He is the most alienated figure in the Yoknapatawpha world and one of the most alienated in all modern literature; “there was something definitely rootless about him, as though no town nor city was his, no street, no walls, no square of earth his home. And . . . he carried his knowledge with him always as though it were a banner, with a quality ruthless, lonely and almost proud.”
“All I wanted was peace,” he tells himself in his manhood. At times he wants “to passively commit suicide,” to relive the humiliations that have come to him since childhood: his infancy in a frightening orphan asylum, his adolescence as the ward of a brutal and loveless religious fanatic, his young manhood, wandering through cities, unable to live either as Negro or as white. He remains forever an orphan, his world a chaotic enlargement of the asylum of his childhood. But in his dull brooding way he knows that there is something to be done and toward which to aspire. Considering marriage with Joanna Burden, the Northern white woman who has kept him for several years, he recognizes that it would mean “ease, security for the rest of your life. You would never have to move again.” But he cuts himself short: “No. If I give in now, I will deny all the thirty years that I have lived to make me what I chose to be.” To be categorized as either white or black is, for Christmas, to “give in,” and he has chosen to be something else, nothing less than a man. In his wretched and brutal way Christmas, as few other characters in Faulkner, tries to determine his identity and break through to his freedom. Even his most evil act, the murder of Joanna Burden, arises from this desire. Since she, more than anyone else, has given him something of the manhood he desired, she must now pay most heavily for failing him. In bed with Christmas she demands that their love be a pantomime of violation (“Negro, Negro, Negro,” she gasps in her corrupted hunger)—she will not give him that final measure of acceptance, the sheer indifference to the shade of skin, for which he yearns.
After the murder, only death; and Christmas meets it with sardonic ecstasy. He forces the deputies to a chase not because he intends to escape or hopes to, but simply because he wishes once more to act out his defiance. In his last extremity, when he emerges from the swamps hungry and ragged, he makes that seemingly gratuitous human gesture which for Faulkner is the ultimate redemption of man’s life: “Can you tell me what day this is?” he asks a woman. “I just want to know what day this is.” During his flight he tells himself, “Yes I would say Here I am I am tired I am tired of running of having to carry my life like a basket of eggs.” With awed pain he sees that the Negroes “were afraid . . . of their brother afraid.” And after his death the whites know what it was about him that “made folks so mad.” It was that “he never acted like either a nigger or a white man.”
The Faulkner to whom the Looshes and Caspeys and even Dilsey had seemed so accessible now emphasizes that for the whites the Negro often exists not as a distinct person but as a specter or phantasm. In Light in August a lynch mob “believed aloud that it was an anonymous negro crime committed not by a negro but by Negro . . . and some of them with pistols already in pockets began to canvass about for someone to crucify.” The phrase “not by a negro but by Negro” reflects a deepened understanding of the power which prejudice commands in modern life; the reference to man canvassing “for someone to crucify” suggests that Faulkner has been thinking hard about the role of frustration in shaping white behavior. In Percy Grimm, the small-town boy who has absorbed sadism from the very air, Faulkner concretizes his pained awareness that a society of inequality can result only in abuse of status and arbitrary violence. This idea is expressed more abstractly in The Wild Palms when Faulkner describes the “indelible mark of ten thousand Southern deputy sheriffs, urban and suburban—the snapped hatbrim, the sadist’s eyes, the slightly and unmistakably bulged coat, the air not swaggering exactly but of a formally pre-absolved brutality.” Precise in each detail, this description flares to brilliance in the final phrase, “a formally pre-absolved brutality”—a phrase which epitomizes a vision of society.
That the white man has been calloused by status and the fear and guilt inevitable to status is hardly a novel insight; but to a writer wrestling with the pieties of the Southern tradition the price of such knowledge can hardly come low. For it is not, after all, the “South,” that convenient abstraction of geography or history, about which Faulkner sees this: it is his own immediate cut of land, the place where he will spend his remaining time and die. Consider, then, the significance of the scene in Light in August where a sheriff, preparing to sweat some information out of a Negro, tells his deputy, “Get me a nigger”—Get me a nigger, no matter which, they are indistinguishable, duplicable, objects for manipulation.
We witness in Faulkner’s novels a quick and steep ascent: from benevolence to recognition of injustice, from amusement over idiosyncracies to a principled concern with status, from cozy familiarity to a discovery of the alienation of the races. Realizing that despite their physical nearness Negroes must coil large parts of themselves beyond the sight of white society, Faulkner remarks in the story “The Old People” upon “that impenetrable wall of ready and easy mirth which negroes sustain between themselves and white men.” Rather than easily reached, the Negro now seems locked behind suspicion; and while he may be, as Quentin Compson has said, “not a person so much as a form of behavior . . . [an] obverse reflection of the white people he lives among,” he is also and more importantly something else: a human being whom the whites can seldom know. (One of Faulkner’s later stories, “Pantaloon in Black,” dramatizes this idea: after the death of his wife, a Negro runs berserk with grief while the whites, blind to the way he expresses it, sneer at his apparent insensitivity.) As Faulkner discovers the difficulty of approaching Negroes, he also develops an admirable sense of reserve, a blend of shyness and respect; trusting few of his preconceptions, he must look at everything afresh.
A curious result of this growth in perception is that he tends to portray Negroes in somewhat abstract terms: if the mob in Light in August looks upon black men as “Negro” in order to brutalize them, Faulkner sometimes looks upon them as “Negro” in order to release his anguished sympathy. To be sure, Joe Christmas and Charles Bon are sharply individualized characters, but there also hangs over them, beyond the needs of their portrayal, a racial aura, a halo of cursed blackness. In an early story, “Dry September,” this tendency toward the abstraction of character is still clearer: like a paradigm of all lynching stories, it is populated not with men but with Murderer and Victim.
Nor is it accidental that those Negroes whom Faulkner most readily imagines in the posture of the victim should be mulattoes. Trapped between the demarcated races, the mulatto is a natural candidate for the role of victim. Charles Bon is a man adrift: the Negroes “thought he was a white man and believed it only the more strongly when he denied it,” while the whites, “when he said he was a negro, believed that he lied in order to save his skin.” Joe Christmas is cursed by “that stain on his white blood or his black blood, whichever you will.” Whether Christmas actually has Negro blood is never clear; this uncertainty points a finger of irony at the arbitrariness of the whole racial scheme.
Such symbolic uses of the mulatto do not exhaust the reasons for his appearance in the forefront of Yoknapatawpha. Mulattoes are living agents of the “threat” of miscegenation, a “threat” which seems to disturb Faulkner whenever he is most sympathetic toward the Negro. All rationalizations for prejudice having crumbled, there remains only an inherited fear of blood mixture, a fierce emotional resistance against the requirements of the mind. In the two novels where the prospect of miscegenation figures most prominently, Light in August and Absalom, Absalom, it arouses a painfully mixed response: it releases the phobias of the white unconscious and, as Faulkner himself will hint in a later book, it suggests an ultimate solution to the racial dilemma. Even as it provides a last irrational defense for a shaken dogma of superiority, the thought of miscegenation opens a vision of a distant time when distinctions of blood and barriers of caste will be removed. And because of this ambivalent response, the mulatto occasions some of Faulkner’s most intense, involuted, and in a few instances hysterical writing. As a victim the mulatto must be shown in all his suffering, and as a reminder of the ancestral phobia must once or twice be made to suffer extravagantly. Since, however, Faulkner is struggling to free himself from both phobia and the social values it bolsters, the mulatto also excites in him his greatest pity. On the mulatto’s frail being descends the whole crushing weight of Faulkner’s world.
Faulkner commits himself, in Intruder in the Dust, to an explicit position on the “Negro problem.” As with other matters, he is not nearly so impressive in the direct expression of ideas as in the creative development of a vision of life.
When Gavin Stevens, Faulkner’s spokesman in the novel, launches his lectures in behalf of Southern separatism and “homogeneity” (a term happily left undefined), he becomes one of the more tedious figures in the Yoknapatawpha world. Stevens does recognize the Negro’s claim to justice: “Someday Lucas Beauchamp . . . will vote anywhen and anywhere a white man can and send his children to the same schools anywhere the white man’s children go. . . .” He insists that the South do the job alone: “We must expiate [the injustice] and abolish it ourselves, alone and without help or even (with thanks) advice.” Only—and here Faulkner crowds upon Southern apologetics—this injustice cannot be “abolished overnight by the police.” He urges the Negro to be patient, and suggests that when the South has given him full justice, “together we would dominate the United States.” For what end? To oppose those citizens whom Faulkner, in an uncharacteristic descent to meanness, calls the “coastal spew of Europe”? Perhaps he intends to say that the Southern whites and Negroes could together resist the evils of Northern capitalism, its “frantic greed for money” and its reduction of men to adjuncts of machines. Then he must reflect on the irony that it is the industrialization (the “Northifying”) of the South which is destroying the traditional patterns of its life, including many of the Negro-white relations he would want to see destroyed. Once the South ceased to be a predominantly agrarian society and alleviated the injustice suffered by the Negro, what claim could it then make to separateness?
Far more impressive than Faulkner’s experiment in ideology is the leading figure of Intruder in the Dust, Lucas Beauchamp. With the appearance of Lucas, most of Faulkner’s previous attitudes toward the Negro are transcended.
Lucas is neither at home in the South, like Dilsey, nor homeless, like Joe Christmas; he exists in himself. He is well enough aware of white society and he knows exactly what it is; in the story “The Fire and the Hearth,” where he is seen in weak foreshadow, he does not hesitate to unloose his bitterness toward it. But as he looms into sight in Intruder in the Dust, powerful and complete, he is entirely on his own: he has put society behind him. Lucas carries a quantum of white blood but belongs neither to the whites nor the blacks as the two cohere into polar groups; he rejects white society, but does not rebel against it; he neither cringes nor defies; he rather gives white society its ultimate due: he ignores it. His contempt for those who have falsely accused him is so great that he is ready to be lynched in silence rather than beg for pity; his confidence in their power to discern the truth so small that he will not even deal with the liberal lawyer Stevens. Too proud to acquiesce in submission, too self-contained to be either outcast or rebel, Lucas has transformed the condition of alienation into a stance of dignity and assurance. The gain is high, so too the price; for Lucas is friendless, and his grandeur is a crotchety grandeur. Apparently meant by Faulkner as a tribute to the strength and endurance of the Negroes, Lucas is something better still: a member of an oppressed group who is presented not as a catalogue of disabilities but as a human being. He is not a form of behavior but a person, not Negro but a Negro.
Occasionally, Faulkner lets Lucas slip into the “stubborn old nigger” who grumbles and bumbles his way to domination over the helpless whites. This may, however, be a justifiable device, for to an extent which cannot be precisely determined the “stubborn old nigger” is Lucas’s social mask—the mask, as Faulkner realizes, which many Negroes must employ in white society. And because he is so aware that they can seldom risk spontaneity in the company of whites, Faulkner, like the boy Chick Mallison, circles about Lucas with humor and a shy respect, never daring to come too close lest the old Negro growl at him. He feels about Lucas somewhat as Chick and Stevens do, sharing the boy’s irritated awe and the man’s uneasy admiration. Toward no other character in any of his books does Faulkner show quite the same uncomfortable deference, of none other can it be said that Faulkner looks up to him with so boyish and pleading an air. We are likely to admire men who have insulated themselves against the world not through weakness but through strength: and Lucas is such a man.
By indirection, Lucas challenges a good many of the notions Faulkner has previously expressed about the Negroes. In the final scene of Intruder in the Dust he shows himself unyielding and unforgiving: he insists upon taking the white man’s gesture of equality as if it came from condescension—and who will flatly contradict him? In an earlier scene Lucas stares up at Stevens from his jail cell, refusing to speak to him openly because he sees that the white lawyer believes him guilty. Completely dramatized and without any oracular intrusions, this scene suggests the relatively startling insight that even the best of the whites are full of ambiguous feelings toward the Negroes and hence not wholly to be trusted by them.
This insight gained, it is necessary to call into question one of Faulkner’s recurrent attitudes toward the Negro. Throughout his writing one finds an emphasis on the Negro’s patience and “endurance.” In the appendix to The Sound and the Fury Dilsey and her family are honored with the bare sentence, “They endured.” In the famous colloquy between Isaac McCaslin and his cousin midway through “The Bear” the Negroes are declared to be “better than we” because “they will endure.” Such sentiments are fondly quoted by “traditionalist” critics; but if, as Faulkner strongly suggests, they are meant not merely as statements about the past but as prediction or prescription, they invite a certain amount of soul-searching and doubt.
How the Negroes “really” feel about Southern society is extremely difficult for any white man to say, though we all know, of course, how they should feel. Preconceptions aside, it is still doubtful that they are quite as ready to endure as Faulkner suggests. Even if we ignore the considerable evidence of Negro restiveness, we must suppose that any human beings long subjected to humiliation will impatiently resent it, no matter how deeply circumstances may force them to bury their intimate feelings. The patience and readiness to endure which Faulkner admires among Negroes may, in part, be another of the masks they assume to survive in an inhospitable society.
Though he has given us a wider range and taken a deeper measure of Negro character than any other American novelist, Faulkner has yet to present a Negro who will speak for his people as Gavin Stevens speaks for the whites. That such a Negro may not be within Faulkner’s personal knowledge is of very slight importance—unless, of course, one accepts the naive assumption that fictional characters must always be based on a writer’s direct experience. The inner logic of Faulkner’s own work, his marvelous honesty, his continuous moral growth—all require that he confront the kind of Negro who is in serious if covert rebellion against the entire Southern structure and whose worth cannot be impugned by easy references to Northern “uplift societies.”
To present such a character, Faulkner might have to take a very considerable imaginative risk: he might have to view Negro consciousness from within rather than as it is seen or imagined by white characters. By way of objection, it may be said here that precisely Faulkner’s awareness of the distance between the races and of the Negro’s ultimate inaccessibility makes him hesitate before the use of a Negro as his center of consciousness. This seems a persuasive argument, but ultimately it will not do. For great writers are always coming up with characters whom “they do not know”—and this must be part of what we mean when we say they are using their imagination. To portray Negro consciousness from the inside would surely be hazardous for Faulkner, but the need for such an attempt rises from his own achievement, and no other American writer has shown a greater readiness or better equipment for taking chances.
In any case, Faulkner’s most recent books indicate that the Negro continues to play an almost obsessive part in his imaginative life. Requiem for a Nun casts a Negro prostitute ana dope addict, Nancy, as scourge and savior of white society. Her murder of a white child is traced back to the earlier guilt of the child’s parents; and even as she prepares to die she becomes a nemesis chastising the corrupted whites and a voice of faith calling them back to moral duty. In assigning this symbolic role to Nancy, Faulkner seems to be placing too heavy a weight on the Negroes, and she consequently figures more as an abstract agent than a human being; lacking the rich particularity of a Lucas Beauchamp, she is Negro rather than a Negro. The novel, however, suggests the possibility that as Faulkner continues to brood over the Negroes some of the problems raised here may be worked out in his books.
The shift of response toward the Negro forms a moral history, a record of growth from early work to last. It would be a grave distortion, however, to suppose that this history is entirely reckoned when one has traced opinions and attitudes and even underlying themes—these are only the raw materials from which literature is made or, perhaps more accurately, the abstractions which critics like to extract from literature. Despite the ideological passages in Intruder in the Dust, Faulkner is not, and should not be considered, a systematic thinker; he has no strictly formulated political position on the “Negro question,” and as a novelist he is under no obligation to have one. His books suggest that in the more than two decades of his literary career he has come a long way—a journey of painful self-education, beginning with an almost uncritical acceptance of the more benevolent of the conventional Southern notions and ending with a brooding sympathy and humane respect for the Negroes. His recent books indicate that no other social problem troubles him so greatly, and that his mind is constantly driven to confront it. What counts in his work is not the occasional splinter of program that can be scratched out of it—whoever wants a clear and definite platform or a coherent sociology for the Negroes will have to look elsewhere. Faulkner’s triumph is of another kind, a novelist’s triumph: a body of dramatic actions, a group of realized characters. No other American novelist has watched the Negroes so carefully and patiently; none other has listened with such fidelity to the nuances of their speech and recorded them with such skill; none other has exposed his imagination so freely to discover, at whatever discomfort to himself, their meaning for American life.
In the end, one need only hear and see. There is the sermon (“I got de ricklickshun of de blood en de Lamb”) delivered by the visiting St. Louis preacher in the Negro church at the end of The Sound and the Fury, as magnificent in its way as the sermons of Father Mapple in Moby Dick, Dinah Morris in Adam Bede, and the Jesuit father in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Since the St. Louis preacher speaks at great length, listen instead to the shorter movement of dialogue, the subtle ripples of accent and meaning, as Jason Compson, in The Sound and the Fury, reports an exchange with a Negro.
And then a Yankee will talk your head off about niggers getting ahead. Get them ahead, what I say. Get them so far ahead you cant find one south of Louisville with a blood hound. Because when I told him about how they’d pick up Saturday night, and carry off at least a thousand dollars out of the country, he says,
“I dont begrudge um. I kin sho afford my two bits.”
“Two bits hell,” I says. “That dont begin it.
How about the dime or fifteen cents you’ll spend for a damn two cent box of candy or something. How about the time you’re wasting right now, listening to that band.”
“Dat’s de troof,” he says. “Well, ef I lives twell night hit’s gwine to be two bits mo dey takin out of town, dat’s sho.”
“Then you’re a fool,” I says.
“Well,” he says, “I don’t spute dat neither. Ef dat uz a crime, all chain-gangs wouldn’t be black.”
And finally the cadences of the passages in “Red Leaves” where the Negro slave who has run away is captured by his Indian masters; a passage which forms an elegy for all human effort, all human defeat:
Two Indians entered the swamp, their movements noisy. Before they reached the Negro they stopped, because he began to sing. They could see him, naked and mud-caked, sitting on a log, singing. They squatted silently a short distance away, until he finished. He was chanting something in his own language, his face lifted to the rising sun. His voice was clear, full, with a quality wild and sad. “Let him have time,” the Indians said, squatting, patient, waiting. He ceased and they approached. He looked back and up at them through the cracked mud mask. His eyes were bloodshot, his lips cracked upon his square short teeth. The mask of mud appeared to be loose on his face, as if he might have lost flesh since he put it there; he held his left arm close to his breast. From the elbow down it was caked and shapeless with black mud. They could smell him, a rank smell. He watched them quietly until one touched him on the arm. “Come,” the Indian said. “You ran well. Do not be ashamed.”