US History: William Cuthbert Faulkner the Greatest American Poets who Fights Against Racism
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William Cuthbert Faulkner, an active modernist, a two times Pulitzer prize winner is considered as one of the greatest American poets of twentieth century. He was born on 1897, New Albany, Mississippi. Every moment of his life is connected with Mississippi soil as he never left the place and almost all of his writings are associated with the same place where he was born and died. Faulkner is known for reflecting his history and culture in his novels. He was the eldest out of his four brothers belonging to a family that actively served in the army. As a reluctant student, he left the school without graduation but devoted himself to “undirected reading”, first on his own and later under the guidance of a family friend, Phil Stone. In July 1918, he joined the Royal Air Force (RAF) as a training cadet but never got a chance to take part in war. He returned home and enrolled himself in various university courses and started his writing career by publishing poems and drawings in the campus newspaper. His first novel, Soldier’s Pay published in 1926, reflected a sense of alienations experienced by the soldiers returning from WWI and how they seem to lack the connection with that of the civilized world after being isolated for so long in the war zone. His second novel, Mosquitoes gave a satirical remark upon New Orleans literary scene.
The sound and the Fury, published in 1929 is considered as Faulkner master piece because it was the first time he presented an inside view and an inside voice that became a defining feature of his writings, no one had ever seen such a complicated novel before. The novel opens with a long sequence with a narrator whose mind is deranged and the reader doesn’t know where he or she is for the first thirty pages of the novel. This reflects the modernist conventions of writing a novel where one breaks free from pre-defined rules of writing a novel. Within a passage of time, smart readers gradually came to realize the innovation that William Faulkner had introduced in his novels and started appreciating his works and ideas. During 1930’s Faulkner wrote As I lay dying, Light in August (1932), and Absalom, Absalom!
That cemented his progress as one of the most prominent writer of the time being technical, completed and exquisite master pieces by the author. Faulkner wrote several of his master pieces within the period of a decade which is a remarkable accomplishment in the history of literature. His immense success as an author earned him Nobel Prize in literature in 1949. He not only got the Nobel prize for being a writer but also for his ability to document what people of his time endured during world war I including the civil war in America. He also wrote a number of screenplays later on in his life to support his lavish lifestyle like that of an aristocrat. In 1954, Faulkner wrote a novel, A Fable, which earned him a national book award. Faulkner was greatly praised in his own life time by all sorts of committees. He won a Nobel Prize, two Pulitzer price, he was given award by French government. He died of a heart attack on July 6 1962 at the age of 64. He was posthumously awarded his second Pulitzer Prize for his novel, ‘The Reivers’. Faulkner criticism is out pacing Shakespeare criticism as are moving forwards in twenty first century, scholars fins him so rich with each text open for multiple reading and various complexities.
Some of the themes that Faulkner discussed in his stories, that we also find in Dry September and Barn burning, include the decline of the south showing a true picture of a society that is highly racist and judgmental. Realism, Individualism, class conflict, racial hierarchies and the degenerative description of Southern society are some of the prominent themes that we explore in his writings especially the above two mentioned stories. He also explores the fatal flaw of slavery which itself represents the universal human’s struggle against outrageous and blind circumstances. He turns the local record or history of the time as the record of human’s spirit. Primitivism vs. Civilization informs much of his work. His work is mostly grounded in a romantic hate regarding modern civilization and how the social and political changes of the time are corrupting the minds of the people.
He held a Romantic notion in his works where there is a strong disregard of urbanization and modern development and a subtle plea towards the return of old ways. He admires those living closer to land, feeling that slaves have inherited the South and have a greater birth right because they have worked on it. The centre of essential human values in Faulkner work can be found in his black characters, which the white call as “Negroes”, the ones who are the epitome of goodness, courage, ethics, pride and sincerity. Individualism and the initiation of one’s self from childhood into adulthood is also a common theme in his work that we is also explicitly reflected in his story, “Barn Burning”, where through different experiences Sartoris gets to realize the difference between loyalty and justice and also individually develop his own sense of morality that is contrasting with the moral principles of his father.
The story of “Dry September” is set in a post slavery era, prior to civil rights movement in Mississippi where life was clearly a distinct between black and white. Even though slavery has been ended after the war and African American who have been suppressed by the colonizers and the Native Americans for such a long period finally get to free themselves from the clutches of free labor and dehumanized state, the locals were still not ready to accept this change and the society protested strongly against this change by creating a very distinct racial and class differences that lead to the moral degeneration and social perversion of the society. In the story, Faulkner explores this fact by picturing a society that is extremely racist and hasty in its judgments against the black people. A small rumor or a small misunderstanding in case of black people can result in severe consequences for them. The south of America with its history of war followed by the modernism resulting in frustration and aggression aroused a number of class and racial conflicts on a personal as well on a community level.
This experience defined southern identity and shaped its literature to mirror the sense of frustration, guilt and shame bursting from the heart of seemingly peaceful, ordered and decent communities. Though some authors saw this violence as a necessary for societies redefining themselves, Faulkner presented this truth as a vicious trap that did not allow south to grow out of the illusion of glorious past and accept the present changes. He presented the aspects of southern society that they could not or would not believe. His works provide a counterpoint to other accounts of the era and make us re-examine our assumptions and conclusions regarding the truth of this time. William Faulkner’ short story deals with an alleged accusation of rape, the victim being a white woman, and the culprit, a black man. Focusing more on the white community’s attitude and telling the story from limited perspectives, the text investigate less the black man’s tragedy, dwelling more on the white people’s reaction and the manner in which white Southern identity and white supremacy are constructed on a foundation of violence and intolerance.
The story of “Dry September” is told from an omniscient point of view but with an eye of an observer. We are not given any prior knowledge of the character; we are directly introduced with the action. The first scene of the story opens up in a barber shop where there is a heated conversation going on between Butch, Hawkshaw, the drummer and an ex-soldier and only Hawkshaw emerges as the defendant of Will Mayes. We are not told any detail of the previous event, ‘none of them… knew exactly what had happened”, but we have to infer from the conversation of these people of the presumed truth. The whole air of conversation changes with the arrival of McLendon who aggravates the people to seek revenge from the black negro, whom he consider as below him, someone who is not qualified of having a relationship with a “White” woman. ‘Are you going to sit there and let a black son rape a white woman on the streets of Jefferson?’, he brings out the anger among the white men of the society by assuming the very worst of the black man by using the word “rape”, making the character of Will Mayes highly skeptical. Even though he himself is not sure of the actual situation, he doesn’t care for the truth but the very fact that a black man is involved in a rumor is enough for him to practice his hatred for African Americans.
He considers them as vile, savage and disgusting beings that are better of being slaves than being given social freedom because they don’t deserve it. During all this commotion, only Hawkshaw remains rational insisting to find truth but is labeled as a “niggerlover”. As the people mob out of the shop to hunt for Will Mayes, we are subtly told that Hawkshaw intends to warn Will Mayes of the approaching threat. He chases after McLendon and the aggravated mob that start assuming that he had come to join them but he continues to defend Will Mayes. He is verbally deceived by the ex-soldier and McLendon that they are just going to talk to the black citizen when in fact they are just hiding their violent planning. They get into the cars to hunt for Will Mayes who works as a night guard of the ice plant. As soon as they spot the black American, he is dragged to the car as the crowd continues to cheer slogans of “kill him”. He doesn’t resist physically but verbally tries to assert his innocence. ‘What is it, captains?’ he says but he is physically stroked in response. He is forced into the car from where he is taken to an abandoned brick kiln. Hawkshaw ,who is limping towards the town after isolating himself from the mob of angry white men, he sees cars pass him with McLendon car being the last.
There are fewer men inside and the reader assumes that they have killed the black man and have disposed off his body. The last section of the story reveals McLendon coming back to his house, covered in sweat and abuses his wife for waiting up on him, he ‘half struck, half flung her across the chair’ after which he removes his shirt and places his gun on the bedside table and exits. McLendon is the story’s most obvious villain who takes advantage of being an ex-commander, even the whole act of aggravating, recruiting angry white men and killing off of a black man mimics that of a scene of a war. He seems practiced and systematic in carrying out his plan. He is an extremist who likes to assert his dominance and is unwilling to wait and search for truth especially when there is Negro involved.
The second phase of the story that revolves around the second important character of Miss Minnie Copper, of whose rape Will Mayes is accused and killed. Part two of the story begins with the description of Minnie Cooper who is a middle aged single woman around “Thirty-eight or thirty nine” with a “bright, haggard look”. The children of the town used to call her “Aunty” much to her displeasure. Through the narrator we get to know of her first affair that was twenty years back with a bank cashier who left one day, and the town people started to call her, “Poor Minnie”. At that point she forced the children of next generation to call her “cousin”, instead of “Aunty”. The narrator very subtly highlights the fading beauty of the woman who after eight years of her first affair now goes out with only the woman of the town in the evenings wearing her bright dresses but not a single man eyes her because she has journey far from her youthful days that served to attract the attention of men.
The fourth section opens up with Minnie dressing up to go out with her female neighbor after the rumors of her potential “rape” has taken over the town. She starts physically trembling as they approach the town’s square where every man is eying her now as she pass. When they arrive at the theatre to watch movies, she starts laughing hysterically and is taken back to her house where he is tended by her friends as they put ice on her temples but she continues to laugh as she is repeatedly labeled as “poor Minnie”, he her friends as they question in their mind whether if “anything really happened”. Minnie Copper was subjected to a society that had no place for woman above thirty years old. Her life was meaningless, blank and without any purpose. She couldn’t get any man to marry her and considering the mentality of Mississippi in the late early 1920’s and 1930’s, if she is not married there must be something wrong with her. She attempts to seek happiness through unconventional relationships like that with a widowed banker. She is constantly being reminded by her friends of the thriving condition of the banker after he left her, while she continues to live the same monotonous life. We cannot conclude if she felt guilty of blaming an innocent man that resulted in his death, but from Minnie’s point of view she had a very unstable position in the society. She is not a tradional woman, she is forty and still unmarried. She is rather impulsive than attractive.
Her unconventional position holds a continous threat for men in her society. Minnie might not have started the rumor but even if she did, she might not have mentioned Will’s name, regardless; his association with her in the rumor is what proves threatening for him ending his life. The detail of the event when Minnie breaks down soon after hearing that Will has been abducted, because of what he was rumored to have done with her, suggests that she didn’t intend for things to go that far. However, another Critic Paul Rogalus has a singular view. He argues that Minnie’s hysterical laughter in the movie theatre is owing to her joy, both because Will was abducted and because the men in the square have started to pay attention to her as she walked past them. It makes us think of possibility, what if Minnie made a sexual advance toward Will, and Will rejected her? We can’t conclude enough from the story to support that possibility, even though it is an important angle to consider but clearly Minnie is a woman scorned by the tradition into which she was born.
William Faulkner has very explicitly highlighted the racism that was prevalent in the South, after the ending of slavery after Civil war. The story revolves around the murder of a black man who is killed without given a chance to prove his innocence. Being acused of a rape of a white woman, the angry white men don’t even try to care for the truth or to wait till proven guily rather they act on impulse and murder a seemingly innocent man who was peacefully working in his night shift. The white woman becomes responsible for the death of an innocent man just for the sake of seeking social attention. No one seems to care for a human life that they have so easily taken just because of the fact that the accused was a black man. William Faulkner presented a realistic image, free from any alterations to picture the cruel image of the south that was trying to preserve the lower and degrading status of the black even after their seeming freedom from the so-called White Native Americans.