Monday, January 4, 2016

The Unvanquished by William Faulkner

There is a limit to what a child can accept, assimilate; not to what it can believe because a child can believe anything, given time, but to what it can accept, a limit in time, the very time which nourishes the believing of the incredible.  And I was still a child at that moment when Father's and my horses came over the hill and seemed to cease galloping and to float, hang suspended rather in a dimension without time in it and I heard Ringo's half blind beast crashing and blundering among the trees to our right and Ringo yelling, and looked quietly down at the scene beneath rather than before us--the dusk, the fire, the creek running quiet and peaceful beneath a bridge, the muskets all stacked carefully and neatly and nobody within fifty feet of them; and the men, the faces, the blue Yankee coats and pants and boots, squatting about the fire with cups in their hands and looking toward the crest of the hill with the same peaceful expression on all their faces like so many dolls.  Father's hat was flung onto his head now, his teeth were showing and his eyes were bright as a cat's.

The stories in William Faulkner's The Unvanquished tell the story of the Civil War from a child's point of view.  In the first story, the narrator, young Bayard Sartoris and his friend (and family slave) Ringo shoot at a Union officer who has appeared, like something out of a myth, near their Mississippi home.  Bayard's father John is a Confederate Colonel, off fighting in Memphis, but the war has come to Yoknataphawa County, which means that it is very nearly over.  As Bayard grows up over the course of these stories, he witnesses a profound change in his world.  At one point Union soldiers burn down his family home, forcing him, Ringo, and his grandmother, to live, as so many genteel Southerners had to, in the slave quarters, with all the irony that suggests.

What is one to make of a Civil War story written from the Confederate perspective?  They're certainly more permissible than, say, a World War II story written from a Nazi point of view, and sometimes even wildly popular.  Yet something uneasy about them remains.  Are we meant to see the equality between Bayard and his friend Ringo as a kind of apologetic?:

Father always said that Ringo was a little smarter than I was, but that didn't count with us, anymore 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, a locomotive.

I think Faulkner has a deep regard for the old gentility and the gritty resolve of the Confederate South.  There's a kind of wild-eyed heroism in Colonel Sartoris, whose perpetual absence makes him a kind of myth to his own son.  And there's Granny Rosa, whose shrewdness fuels a long-running scheme in which she, Bayard, and Ringo fake Union requisition orders to steal mules in droves, only to sell them back to the Yankees.  There's Bayard's cousin Drusilla, a kind of Amazon who fights alongside Col. Sartoris' regiment and says things like,

"...Who wants to sleep now, with so much happening, so much to see?  Living used to be dull, you see.  Stupid.  You lived in the same house your father was born in and your father's sons and daughters had the sons and daughters of the same negro slaves to nurse and coddle, and then you grew up and you fell in love with your acceptable young man and in time you would marry him, in your mother's wedding gown perhaps and with the same silver for presents she had received, and then you settled down forever more while your husband got children on your body for you to feed and bathe and dress until they grew up to; and then you and your husband died quietly and were buried together maybe on a summer afternoon just before summertime.  Stupid, you see.  But now you can see for yourself how it is, it's fine now; you dont have to worry now about the house and the silver because they get burned up and carried away, and you dont have to worry about the negroes because they tramp the roads all night waiting for a chance to drown in homemade Jordan, and you dont have to worry about getting children on your body to bathe and feed and change because the young men can ride away and get killed in the fine battles and you dont even have to sleep alone, you dont even have to sleep alone at all and so all you have to do is show the stick to the dog now and say Thank God for nothing..."

But Drusilla cannot see the irony: the same violent upheaval of the old ways that have freed her from the conventional life is the same that has freed the Sartoris' slaves.  She thrives in the chaos of the war, but in defense of a social order that, sure enough, comes to force her into marriage with Colonel Sartoris later in the novel out of its iron sense of propriety.

Similarly, I think I read the moment when Granny, meeting a freed slave on her way north who has fallen behind from illness and starvation, offers her food for the promise that she'll "go back home," as a moment when an idealized Southern culture comes face-to-face with a likeness of itself that has not been able, or refused, to recognize.  "Hit's Jorden we coming to," the woman says, "Jesus gonter seem that far," and her steadfast resolve is the image of Granny's.  This story, where Granny, Bayard, and Ringo find themselves among a mass migration of freed slaves, is a lyric reminder of the stakes beyond the limited worldview of the Sartorises:

They were coming up the road.  It sounded like about fifty of them; we could hear the feet hurrying, and a kind of panting murmur.  It was not singing exactly, it was not that loud; it was just a sound, a breathing, a kind of gasping murmuring chant and the feet whispering fast in the deep dust... We couldn't see them and they did not see us; maybe they didn't even look, just walking fast in the dark with that panting hurrying murmuring, going on.

(Every now and then Faulkner will toss up a phrase to remind you of how calmly in control of his prose he is--here, "the feet whispering fast in the deep dust.")  In the last story, Bayard, grown up now, learns that his father has been killed by a business rival.  He confronts the killer, as the townspeople urge him to, but unarmed, relying on nothing more than his familial resolve.  In doing so, he rebukes violence and war.  He beats his sword into a ploughshare.  Bayard establishes a legacy different from, and greater than, his father's.  This is, I think Faulkner is suggesting, a way that is more true to the best of the South, wholly different from rebellion and from war. 

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