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Go Down, Moses | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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Go Down, Moses | Context


History of the American South

The history of the American South provides the backdrop of Go Down, Moses and explains the basis of the racial tensions that drive much of the conflict in the book. From their founding, the economies of most states in the Southern United States centered on agriculture. Although urban areas in the South grew quickly in the late 20th century, farming had remained a staple of the economy. Before the Civil War (1861–65), much of the South's agrarian economy was driven by the institution of slavery, in which people were forcibly transported from Africa and then sold to provide free labor on the plantations and farms in the United States. For example, the McCaslin family fortunes are built on their ownership of a plantation originally worked by slaves. To preserve this economic system it was necessary for landowners to view slaves as less than human, similar to the animals used to work farmland. In "Was" the McCaslin brothers Buck and Buddy use the lives of slaves as collateral in a card game with their neighboring plantation owner, Hubert Beauchamp. Such attitudes and treatment led to the deeply entrenched racism against slaves and their descendants that lasted well beyond the abolition of slavery in 1863. Evidence of this racism is visible in the tense relationship between Lucas Beauchamp and the McCaslin plantation owners over several generations.

The Civil War began after the election of President Abraham Lincoln, who opposed slavery. The abolitionist movement had also gained traction in the United States Congress, so Southern states, starting with South Carolina and Mississippi, elected to secede from the Union rather than give up their slaves. The bloody conflict lasted until the Confederate States of America—made up of the states that had seceded—rejoined the Union. Isaac McCaslin remembers his own father's participation in the Civil War, and several members of Cass McCaslin's hunting party continue to use their military titles, such as General Compson and Major de Spain.

After the war, the economy of the South was devastated, as most plantations were either confiscated or destroyed. Money and supplies for planting crops had been spent on the war, and free labor was no longer available after Lincoln emancipated the slaves. Some land owners continued to rent plots of land on their plantations, either in exchange for shares of crops grown or for money, just as the McCaslins rent land to farmers such as Lucas Beauchamp and others.

The United States federal government responded to the devastation in the South through Reconstruction, a set of programs enacted between 1865 and 1877 to rebuild the South and reintegrate the former Confederate states into the Union. Southerners saw some of these programs as punishment for their rebellion, causing them to cling more tightly to their old social order, which involved openly racist behavior and violence. This trend is most evident in Go Down, Moses with the fate of the sawmill worker Rider, who is lynched after inconsolable grief for his wife drives him to kill a white man.

Jim Crow Laws

Faulkner was born too late to see the Civil War and Reconstruction firsthand, though he heard stories from those who did. Faulkner's life and experience coincided with the period known as the "Jim Crow Era," which lasted until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s–60s. After Reconstruction officially ended in 1877, Southern states passed a series of laws designed to restrict the rights of black citizens. These became known as "Jim Crow" laws, named for a popular character in a minstrel show, a type of entertainment based on caricature and exaggeration of racial stereotypes. These laws sought primarily to segregate black and white populations from one another, creating separate schools, separate spaces in public transportation, separate neighborhoods, and even separate bathrooms and drinking fountains. These laws also sought to limit voting rights for black citizens and keep them at an economic disadvantage compared to whites. In Go Down, Moses, black characters and white characters live separately, for the most part. Social mixing and friendship is discouraged, as seen when young Roth Edmonds rejects his close relationship with the Beauchamp family, even though Mollie Beauchamp has raised him from infancy.

The Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras were also marked by the emergence of groups such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), which operated outside the law to preserve their version of traditional Southern social order. These groups kept African-Americans economically and socially disadvantaged through intimidation and violence. Under these circumstances even a casual friendship between a black person and a white person could endanger lives.

The foundation of segregation lay in an opposition to miscegenation, the sexual mixing of racial groups. Some states passed explicit laws against interracial marriage, which would remain in effect until the U.S. Supreme Court declared these laws unconstitutional in 1967. Interracial relationships outside of marriage were rejected and met with violence. However, reproductive mixing between races occurred frequently and led to laws designed to include mixed-race citizens under the umbrella of segregation from whites.

In an attempt to fight miscegenation the United States even instituted the "one-drop rule," a law that stated any person with a black ancestor, however distant, should be considered legally black, regardless of the person's appearance. A vocabulary emerged to characterize different types of mixed-race people: a mulatto was a person with one black parent; a quadroon had one black grandparent; an octoroon had one black great-grandparent. Much of conflict in Go Down, Moses is driven by the legacy of Carothers McCaslin's affairs with two of his slaves, which produces a line of mixed descendants, who struggle with their intertwined ancestry.

The American South in Popular Culture

As of 1942, the date of publication for Go Down, Moses, two of the highest-grossing films in United States history were D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation (1915) and Victor Fleming's adaptation of Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind (1939). The popularity of these films indicates the appeal to mainstream American audiences of a mythical presentation of the Old South. In the modern age both films are seen as problematic for their racist portrayals of both enslaved and free black people. In Birth of a Nation African-Americans are presented as savages meant to be subdued through brutal means. In Gone with the Wind slaves are presented as happy and obliging family members, grateful for the chance to serve their white masters.

Both these films and other works created a mythical version of the South in the American consciousness. It was a land of white-columned manor houses, filled with well-dressed, attractive women to be treated like precious dolls by the chivalrous men around them. Whether Faulkner ever saw these films is open to speculation, although he once said of Mitchell's novel, "no story takes 1,037 pages to tell." However, Faulkner's work as a screenwriter placed him close enough to the Hollywood machine to understand their impact. He even hoped to sell the film rights to his novel Absalom, Absalom! for a comparable price to Mitchell's sale of Gone with the Wind. Faulkner the screenwriter even appears on a short list of candidates to adapt the screenplay of Gone with the Wind. However, Faulkner's work never enjoyed the same commercial success of novels that promoted more glorified versions of the Old South.

In contrast to its more profitable cinematic contemporaries, Faulkner's work largely destroys the mythic and chivalrous notions of the Old South promoted by Southerners to justify clinging to their old ways. The "big houses" of the McCaslin and Beauchamp plantations are presented in various states of disrepair. Sophonsiba Beauchamp has a visible dead tooth, and her efforts to christen her family's plantation with the grand name "Warwick" are treated as a joke. Women are often treated as disposable beings, not revered, and few of Faulkner's characters, black or white, behave honorably. His presentation of the South is realistic in its treatment of mutual resentment and hostility between races and a pervading sense of decay as his white characters scramble desperately to maintain their way of life.

This realism extends to Faulkner's language. Go Down, Moses takes place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the South was in a turbulent post-Civil War period of transition. Some white characters do not view black people as equals, and ingrained attitudes of entitlement and superiority continue. Thus, Faulkner includes language now understood as offensive in the novel. Black characters are repeatedly and consistently referred to using the commonplace thoughtless, vulgar, and now-offensive vernacular of the time, including the term nigger.

McCaslin Family Tree

The McCaslin family tree reflects the miscegenation common through much of the South. Because many names are repetitive, and because the stories in Go Down, Moses operate both as individual tales as well as part of a larger framework, an understanding of the characters' relationships to one another is essential to comprehend the overall structure of the collection of stories.

Carothers McCaslin is a patriarch long dead for most of the events in the stories. He has two sons, Theophilus and Amodeus, known respectively as Uncle Buck and Uncle Buddy. Late in life Uncle Buck marries Sophonsiba Beauchamp, the female heiress of a neighboring plantation. Their son, Isaac, is the last white male heir of Carothers McCaslin.

At age 21 Isaac renounces his claim to the McCaslin plantation, giving control of the property to his cousin Cass (McCaslin) Edmonds, the son of Uncle Buck and Uncle Buddy's unnamed sister and therefore not descended from the male side. Uncle Buck is in his 70s when Isaac is born, so Cass, who is closer in age, becomes like a combined older brother and father to Isaac. Cass also has a son of his own, Zachary (Zack), who inherits the plantation from his father. Zack's son, and the last documented heir to the plantation, is Carothers (also called "Roth") Edmonds.

Patriarch Carothers McCaslin also has children with two of his slaves. His first liaison with Eunice, an enslaved woman, produces Tomasina, better known as Tomey. When Tomey grows up, Carothers McCaslin takes her as a mistress, either not knowing or not caring she is his daughter. This union produces a son, Terrel, known to all as Tomey's Turl.

Tomey's Turl falls in love with Tennie, a slave from the neighboring Beauchamp plantation. Their marriage produces three children who adopt Beauchamp as their surname: James (also known as Tennie's Jim), Sophonsiba (known as Fonsiba and not to be confused with Isaac's white mother, Sophonsiba "Sibbey" Beauchamp) and Lucius (who goes by Lucas). James has a granddaughter who later has an affair with Roth Edmonds and produces a male child, but neither the granddaughter's nor the baby's name is given in the text. Lucas marries Molly (also spelled Mollie) Worsham. His oldest daughter dies giving birth to a son Samuel, who is executed for murder in Chicago. Another daughter, Nat, marries George Wilkins.

Yoknapatawpha County

Go Down, Moses is set in Yoknapatawpha (pronounced "yok-na-pa-TAW-PHA") County, which is based on Faulkner's own hometown of Oxford, Mississippi. Fifteen of Faulkner's novels and more than 50 short stories—almost his entire body of work—are set in Yoknapatawpha County. According to Faulkner's description the county covers 2,400 square miles and has a population of 15,611 individuals, 9,313 of whom are black. Jefferson is its only city. Many of Faulkner's other works take place within the city of Jefferson itself, but with the exception of the title story, Go Down, Moses is set in the rural environs surrounding Jefferson. Readers of Faulkner's other works will notice Yoknapatawpha County residents and locations from Faulkner's other works appear in Go Down, Moses, and characters from Go Down, Moses appear in other works.

For example, General Compson is the patriarch of the Compson family, whose saga is recounted in Absalom, Absalom! and The Sound and the Fury. He appears as a member of Cass Edmond's annual hunting party in Go Down, Moses. Another member of the hunting party, Major de Spain, appears in more than 20 of Faulkner's other stories. Isaac McCaslin, the focal character for much of Go Down, Moses, has a minor role in Intruders in the Dust. Lucas Beauchamp appears in a few other stories, but his family members appear in several other works. Likewise, Cass Edmonds appears only in Go Down, Moses, but other members of the Edmonds family appear in other texts. The appearance and reappearance of characters in Yoknapatawpha County is so extensive that a scholar at the University of Virginia set up a database to track them all. But these examples provide a realistic portrayal of small-town and rural communities in the South, which are often dominated by a few prominent families and where everyone knows everyone else.

Faulkner once said that Yoknapatawpha County is both actual and apocryphal, or of doubtful authenticity. By this he meant it isn't a real place one can visit, but its people and events are rooted in reality. Literary critics and scholars have debated whether Yoknapatawpha represents the South as a whole or just a small part of it. Many have concluded it represents the Lowland South, where the economy revolved around the agricultural system. Also known as the Deep South, this area encompasses Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas.

Faulkner's Style

Faulkner is considered among the greatest American writers of the 20th century, particularly for his masterful use of language and modernist techniques in examining eternal truths, exploring the connections between past and present, and creating characters and landscapes that reflect the mixed and impenetrable beauty and ugliness of life. Modernism emerged as a writing style in the early 20th century, largely in response to the horrors of the two world wars. As civilization appeared to be on the decline, writers began to focus on the effects of such modern phenomena as technology, competition, and capitalism (economic system based on the private ownership of goods) on individuals' inner lives. Modernist American writers such as Faulkner, John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway explored themes such as anxiety, loneliness, and alienation, as well as psychology and the subconscious within the framework of modern life. Faulkner and other Southern writers added themes such as poverty, religion, and family duty to the mix. As they explored characters, modernist writers experimented with style.

The most notable modernist technique in Go Down, Moses stems from the book's unusual structure. While Go Down, Moses has generally been classified and marketed as a collection of short stories, Faulkner's goal was to unite these stories into a single novel. As a result, Go Down, Moses is both short story collection and novel, representing an experiment with the basic form and classification of literature.

This experiment with form works primarily because of Faulkner's use of another modernist technique, using varying points of view to tell a larger story. In Go Down, Moses, that variation runs through a third-person narrator whose perspective is limited to one major character in each story, providing a sense of continuity. Each segment of Go Down, Moses can stand on its own as short fiction, but the connections between the main characters in most of the stories weave their relationships to present the more epic narrative of the history of the McCaslin and Beauchamp families. The first segment shows history through Cass Edmonds' perspective, then the narrative shifts to Lucas Beauchamp's perspective in the second story, then to Isaac McCaslin in the third, and so on.

Faulkner is also well known for his use of stream-of-consciousness narration, a staple of modernist style that presents words and thoughts without interruption—or traditional punctuation—to mimic the actual experience of thought and conversation. Most notably in Go Down, Moses, Faulkner presents a lengthy conversation between Cass Edmonds and Isaac McCaslin in "The Bear" using this technique, running both men's words into long paragraphs with only a few markers to denote the speaker. These conversational segments are interspersed with entries from the McCaslin plantation's ledgers and Isaac's reflections on the information contained in those entries. The resulting text reflects the avalanche of information Isaac must process in a comparatively short time.

Because of the complicated constructions found in all his works, as well as the depth of his exploration of themes and concerns in United States' cultural history, the amount of critical writing on Faulkner's works and his style is immense. As critics have said in comparing the process of reading Faulkner to hacking your way through a jungle, "A character in a story at a moment of action is not just himself as he is then, he is all that made him, and the long sentence is an attempt to get his past and possibly his future into the instant in which he does something."

Faulkner spoke of his very limited formal education and his compulsion to write in an original, particular, and overly dense style, "To have made the things I made, I don't know where it came from ... I never went to school enough to save myself the shortcuts of learning English."

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