Go Down, Moses, William Faulkner’s 12th novel, is generally ranked as one of his greatest—not least because it doubles as a unique collection of short stories. Most of these stories had been published separately between 1935 and 1942, in such popular magazines as Harper’s, Collier’s, and the Saturday Evening Post. Their middlebrow magazine audience differed greatly from the tiny highbrow public interested in Faulkner’s novels. Thus, the genesis of this text—the transformation of what Faulkner at first derisively called “stories about niggers” (Grimwood 228) into tragic tales of racial torment, each an unexpected prism on the others—is virtually a story in its own right. Delayed recognitions that vividly recast all that has gone before are a signature event in Faulkner’s work. In like manner, the making of Go Down, Moses is premised on his discovery (with almost all the individual pieces already done) that he has on his hands the saga of a single seven-generational black and white family. Their interlocking lives—humorous, abusive, guilt-driven, above all inextricable—convey his version of the haunted South itself.
Although the formal structure of Go Down, Moses is unique, Sherwood Anderson‘s Winesburg, Ohio (1919) and James Joyce’s Dubliners(1914) may well have served as models. Anderson was Faulkner’s first mentor, and Joyce was his great modernist precursor. Both of them deploy the multiple stories of stymied individual lives to suggest the contours of a larger shared malaise. For Anderson and Joyce the community in distress is a town. For Faulkner it is both less and more: a family but also a culture and a history. The seven stories of individual lives join to produce a novel of Faulkner’s entire racetormented region.
The opening story, “Was,” is whimsical in tone (its narrator is a nine-year-old boy), and it revolves around a series of hunts. Two white brothers (Uncle Buck and Uncle Buddy) are chasing their escaped “nigger” (Tomey’s Turl), another white man (Hubert) is trying to marry off his sister (Sophonsiba) to Uncle Buck, the black man (Tomey’s Turl) is escaping his owners in order to court his sweetheart (Tennie, one of Hubert’s slaves), and the unmarried white woman (Sophonsiba) is trying to snare Buck for a husband. These hunts merrily echo each other, climaxing in a game of poker between Hubert and Buck that will determine who pairs off with whom and (literally) at what price. Only later will the reader recognize that Turl is Buck and Buddy’s half brother (concealed miscegenation is at the heart of this text) and that the year of these shenanigans is 1859—just before the outbreak of the civil war and the end of innocence.
In the next story, “The Fire and the Hearth,” set in the 1940s, Faulkner painstakingly explores the perspective of the black characters. Lucas Beauchamp (offspring of Turl and Tennie) ceases to be a stereotypical “nigger.” Faulkner devotes page after page to Lucas’s memories, ordeals, and desires. These poetic passages reveal the fineness of Lucas’s mind, and although he remains a black man caught up in the racist South, he is agile enough to outwit the various whites who would exploit him. Despite his restless schemes, Lucas manages to preserve his marriage with Molly. The title of this story points to a domestic warmth outside the reach of any white family in Faulkner’s work. Lucas heroically accommodates all the pressures—racial, domestic, gendered—that surround him. In this he is the counterpart for Faulkner’s other heroic figure (yet to appear): Isaac (Ike) Mccaslin, a dreamer, idealist, and hunter who finds sustenance in the unspoiled wilderness.
“Pantaloon in Black,” the next story, may be the most moving story about race that Faulkner ever wrote. He positions us inside the mind of Rider, the grief-stricken black man whose young wife has just died. Inconsolable, inarticulate, suffocating, Rider moves through the woods at an almost epic pace, desperately seeking release in liquor or violence. Our bond with this character is so intimate that we watch, hypnotized, as Rider finally seals his fate by killing with a razor the white man who has just cheated him with crooked dice. Then, suddenly, after this moment-by-moment intensity, the story switches from Rider’s mind to that of the deputy who has tried unsuccessfully to jail him and has seen his body once the white man’s family has taken its revenge. The deputy understands nothing of what he has witnessed, for Faulkner has rendered a distress no white person in Rider’s world can understand when it rages inside a black body.
The next pair of stories—“The Old People” and “The Bear”—build on each other, as they gradually introduce the boy Ike McCaslin to his twin heritage: the guilt-saturated inheritance of McCaslin property and the liberating ritual of the wilderness hunt. Ike’s childhood is structured on the promise, and then the reality, of participating in the autumnal hunt in the big woods. For this development a further cast is needed: Sam Fathers, part Indian and part black, Ike’s guide in both the art of the hunt and the communal sharing with the wild that it permits; Old Ben, the legendary bear; Lion, the wild dog that is alone capable of bringing the bear down; and Boon Hogganbeck, part Indian, wholly untamed. In a climactic encounter that is both embrace and murder, celebration and farewell, Boon and Lion and Old Ben merge in an act of pure beauty and violence. Ike watches as Boon bestrides the beleaguered bear, “working and probing the buried blade,” finally taking them all down together.
Four of the five sections of “The Bear” rise to and descend from this climactic moment in which the figures of the wilderness—Old Ben, Lion, Sam Fathers— embrace, deal out their death, and die themselves. The wilderness enters its autumnal phase, yet Ike McCaslin will be shaped by this scene forever. Five years later, at age 21, he renounces his McCaslin property and heritage, telling his cousin quietly that “Sam Fathers set me free” (286). Indeed, this narrative of renunciation fills the experimental fourth section of “The Bear,” in which Faulkner explores the widest cultural ramifications of the hunt. Ike discovers, in the ledgers of the McCaslin commissary, the race-tormented history of his family, sees that Tomey’s Turl is actually his grandfather’s son by a black woman and realizes that the old man evaded this bond by giving money instead: “I reckon that was cheaper than saying My son to a nigger he thought” (258). Brooding on his family’s refusal to acknowledge their own black offspring, Ike rejects his blood heritage, becoming “uncle to half a county and father to no one” in his lifelong retreat to the woods.
Faulkner treats Ike’s withdrawal with compassion, yet he shows, in the next story, “Delta Autumn,” that the family’s racist history continues unabated. In this last hunt (dated 1940s) Ike encounters a mysterious woman with a child; she is looking for Ike’s great-nephew Roth. As in a dream, it turns out that, although her skin does not reveal it, she is black (is in fact the great-granddaughter of Tomey’s Turl) and that her fleeing lover is Roth. Miscegenation upon miscegenation, the 1940s non-acknowledgment echoing that of the 1830s, Ike sees the futility of his attempt to escape, as he gazes on the woods ruined by loggers and their machinery.
Futility is likewise the theme of the last story, “Go Down, Moses,” which centers on a ceremonial returning of the corpse of the black Samuel Worsham Beauchamp to his grieving southern family. Roth had earlier “exiled” Samuel from the plantation for theft. The young man had moved to the urban North, turned criminal, and been caught and executed. Samuel’s family awaits the return of his body, singing of Roth’s casting out of Samuel as betraying him to Pharaoh—“ ‘Sold him in Egypt and now he dead.’ ‘Oh yes, Lord. Sold him in Egypt.’ ” (363). If this 150-year history is powerless to envision black life freed from white Pharaoh’s grasp, it at least acknowledges the pathos of black death, the community (white and black) bringing one of their own home to be laid to rest. On this note of ceremonial grief, Faulkner concludes Go Down, Moses.
Faulkner, William, Go Down, Moses. New York: Random House, 1942. Grimwood, Michael. Heart in Confl ict: Faulkner’s Struggles with Vocation. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987. Harrington, Evans, and Ann J. Abadie, eds. Faulkner and the Short Story. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1992. Matthews, John T. The Play of Faulkner’s Language. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1982. Snead, James. Figures of Division: William Faulkner’s Major Novels. New York: Methuen, 1986. Sundquist, Eric. Faulkner: The House Divided. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983. Wagner-Martin, Linda, ed. New Essays on Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Weinstein, Philip M., ed. The Cambridge Companion to William Faulkner. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.