Games of Property: Law, Race, Gender, and Faulkner's Go Down, Moses

Games of Property: Law, Race, Gender, and Faulkner's Go Down, Moses

by Thadious M. Davis

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In Games of Property, distinguished critic Thadious M. Davis provides a dazzling new interpretation of William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses. Davis argues that in its unrelenting attention to issues related to the ownership of land and people, Go Down, Moses ranks among Faulkner’s finest and most accomplished works. Bringing together law, social history, game theory, and feminist critiques, she shows that the book is unified by games—fox hunting, gambling with cards and dice, racing—and, like the law, games are rule-dependent forms of social control and commentary. She illuminates the dual focus in Go Down, Moses on property and ownership on the one hand and on masculine sport and social ritual on the other. Games of Property is a masterful contribution to understandings of Faulkner’s fiction and the power and scope of property law.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822384458
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 07/07/2003
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Thadious M. Davis is Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of English at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of Nella Larsen, Novelist of the Harlem Renaissance: A Woman’s Life Unveiled and Faulkner’s “Negro”: Art and the Southern Context. She is the coeditor of Satire or Evasion?: Black Perspectives on Huckleberry Finn, published by Duke University Press.

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Law, Race, Gender, and Faulkner's Go Down, Moses

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2003 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3103-2

Chapter One

The Game of Challenge

Deregulating Race

Tomey's Turl's position in Go Down, Moses as represented contest and contested site is crucial to reading the narrative richness as well as the interconnected tropes of games, sport, property, and law. As one of the most self-conscious game players in the text, Tomey's Turl bears closer analysis, even though his position in relation to any of the games is almost undetectable. "A game is a description of strategic interaction that includes the constraints on the actions that the players can take and the players' interests, but does not specify the actions that the players do take." Locating Turl's subjectivity within the actual and symbolic representations of games allows for a more nuanced access to characterization and to theme within a text so vexed by buffoonery and slapstick humor in its initial chapters that the pre-Emancipation South and enslaved people come across as poorly narrated, offensive jokes.

The narrative strategy and the kinship connections are complex and masked within humor in "Was," the opening chapter of Go Down, Moses. Begun as a third-person narrativecentered on an old man born in 1867-"Isaac McCaslin, 'Uncle Ike,' past seventy and nearer eighty than he ever corroborated any more"-"Was" quickly shifts to a story Isaac remembers. He narrates the story told to him many years before by his cousin, McCaslin "Cass" Edmonds. Sixteen years older than Ike, Cass had witnessed as a boy the events in 1859 that led not only to the marriage of Ike's parents, Theophilus "Buck" McCaslin and Sophonsiba "Sibbey" Beauchamp, but also to the marriage of the enslaved couple, Terrel ("Tomey's Turl"), owned by Buck McCaslin and his twin brother Amodeus ("Buddy"), and Tennie, owned by Sophonsiba and her brother, Hubert. The interconnected narrative of memory, hearing, history, and telling functions both as an origins myth for Ike and as a familial history that introduces Tomey's Turl and his relationship to the McCaslin-Edmonds family. Tomey's Turl is the half-brother to the McCaslin twins, the son of their father, Carothers McCaslin, the founder of the Mississippi McCaslin family. The narrative embodiment of Tomey's Turl as a substantive figure is twofold: within the kinship bonds of the white family that owns him; and within Ike's understanding of his own social history.

In "Was" Tomey's Turl is initially constructed in the ambiguity of relational identity and in the context of an unclarified species of runaway: "'Damn the fox,' Uncle Buck said. 'Tomey's Turl has broke out again'" (5). However, Tomey's Turl is also constituted as a game player who uses games as a site of resistance to power and, importantly, as a means of deregulating claims of ownership. The dialectic between his social condition (as a slave who has run) and his individual autonomy (as the instigator of a game in which he is a major and decisive player) produces his identity. That identity is thus based on the political economy of slavery and the market value of slaves. He is represented as a rational decision-maker who pursues a defined objective and who strategizes on the basis of his knowledge of how the other players will behave. In Cass's recollection, Turl "went there every time he could slip off, which was about twice a year. He was heading for Mr Hubert Beauchamp's place.... Tomey's Turl would go there to hang around Mr Hubert's girl, Tennie, until sombody came and got him" (5). Tomey's Turl is represented in motion, in action, and thus as an agent, even though his agency is constrained by two sets of circumstances: the racist ideology informing the conceptions of "nigger" and enslaved property; and the game strategy of silence that disallows his voicing either the motive or desire in his behavior.

Beginning with Tomey's Turl's running, Go Down, Moses deploys games (fox-hunting with dogs, gambling with cards and dice, racing) as constructions both of chance and of strategy that represent the arbitrariness and the boundedness of forms of identity and of economic and social interaction as these forms intersect with the regularity, protection, and compensation of law. "Social interaction appears to reproduce unceasingly an interplay of differing preferences within which individuals run the risk of upsetting society by following their egotistical impulses. Rational understanding of this conflict of interest leads to what game theory terms a game of strategy." Games of strategy are different from games of skill and chance, because they require the player to assume a role, which he conceives and acts out. The assumption of the role of player within the game becomes a form of social empowerment, even though it may conflict with accepted social beliefs or codes. Laws are, like games, manifestations of social practices. "Law represents both a discourse and a process of power. Norms created by and enshrined in law are manifestations of power relations. These norms are coercively applied and justified in part by the perception that they are 'neutral' and 'objective.'"

The legal codes constricting Tomey's Turl to a nonrelational positionality in regard to the McCaslin twins, Theophilus and Amodeus, are those that define a slave as property and as labor, not as human or as brother. Slave law rests on the motivating principle of "undifferentiated communalism," which reduces all slaves to labor under the total social control of masters who own labor. This principle of slave law is not merely a matter of economic exploitation of labor; instead it is an ultimate formulation of dehumanization, of negating the human being and treating that negated "thing" as an abstraction termed "labor." That Tomey's Turl is constructed visually as "that damn white half-McCaslin" (6), positions him on the boundary of race and slave law. While it is possible to read Turl from the social perspective and expressive culture of the white McCaslins and Beauchamps as a representation of disorder and unreason, as Cass Edmonds suggests in his telling of the events to his cousin Ike, Tomey's Turl may also be read as a racialized person who deregulates the power of law and paternity over his movement and his expression. His very existence constitutes a challenge to the claims of integrity in the slaveholding society, and his conscious violation of the rules and controls instituted to maintain the rigid social order is more than insubordination or withholding of labor. It is resistance not only threatening insurrection but also what Ira Berlin terms "direct assault on order itself."

Because the laws of society are suspended in play, sport, and games, and replaced by a new order of rules and regulations, games provide freedom from the normal social order and its dehumanizing boundaries in Go Down, Moses. In this context Tomey's Turl attains freedom within the "free space" games represent. Despite the imposition of another formulaic set of boundaries within the duration of a game, games are attractive precisely because of their freedom from the restrictions of society and from the power hierarchy that controls racial interaction. Games clear a neutral space for the reformation of the possibilities of interaction based on the terms and conditions of the game. The game allows for the creation of order within play. Just as Christian Messenger has suggested, "Faulkner did not see play standing outside ordinary or real life; he saw it rising organically from the conditions of everyday life" with the resultant shifts in the very nature of play in Faulkner's texts-"a bursting of restrictive forms in ritual." In Tomey's Turl's case the sadly ordinary condition of enslavement gives rise to his free play in games. He resists confinement within the ideologies of race by reordering his world and reconstituting himself as empowered to act and to be a subject. He intervenes in the legal practice of dehumanization, destabilizes the impact of law, and reclassifies himself against the hegemonic ideology and structure of a slave culture.

Within his game of "runaway," Tomey's Turl assumes subjectivity. He is active, he is intentional, and he is inquiring. He can negotiate the alternative strategizing of his would-be captors, Buck McCaslin and his nephew Cass Edmonds, who are also his opponent game players and convinced that he is beatable in the race to the Beauchamp place, because "nobody had ever known Tomey's Turl to go faster than his natural walk, even riding a mule" (8). No matter his speed, Turl commits the offense that according to plantation codes was the most punishable, because "the runaway slave epitomized alienation from bondage." That alienation then disrupts the social order and eclipses the slave owner's authority. The "comic and romanticized gamesmanship" that Michael Oriard links specifically to Buck and Buddy is not merely their "comic sportiveness culminating in the brilliantly tortured prose of 'The Bear,'" it is also the vehicle for what is invisible to Oriard: the agency of the enslaved Tomey's Turl.

The game Tomey's Turl initiates is variously labeled a run (race), a hunt, a chase, a contest, and a courtship. It can also be defined, however, as a game of challenge and a stratagem for exercising will. It functions within the formal characteristics of play as "a free activity standing quite consciously outside 'ordinary' life" and "proceed[ing] within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner." As a "stepping out of 'real' life into a temporary sphere of activity with a disposition of its own," Tomey's Turl's game "is 'played out' within certain limits of time and place" and "contains its own course and meaning." In general, his moves challenge the power and authority of whites and subvert their expectations of superiority. In particular, his moves challenge one key aspect of his containment in slavery: his right to sexual expression, which has been excluded from the eccentric world of the McCaslin place. As such, Tomey's Turl's challenge is to the right of his McCaslin owners to restrict his will to court Tennie, deny his desire for a wife, or essentially to enforce his conformity to their refusal of sexuality.

Read from the perspective of Tomey's Turl as a race for full expression of a mature, sexual self within society, the game of runaway is a periodic reminder (played out twice a year) that despite attempts to reduce slaves to children without will, enslavement did not necessarily produce simplistic objects of property. Tomey's Turl's game of challenge, then, takes on the cultural logic and hegemony based on the legal conception of "black antiwill" that would determine his total subjugation in a social, economic, and political order. Master-slave relations, so often based on "a vision of blacks as simple-minded, strong-bodied economic 'actants,'" function unlike market theory which "always takes attention away from the full range of human potential in its pursuit of a divinely willed, rationally inspired, invisibly handed economic actor." In the game of runaway Tomey's Turl becomes a complex thinker, a strategist with a clear objective, and his "athletic energy" to execute his game marks him as physically and sexually mature. By means of his creation and play of the game, Turl defines a black masculinity within a space that otherwise, given the cultural conditions of enslavement, would deny not only his manhood but also his very personhood.

Unlike Buck and, in particular, Buddy, Tomey's Turl is not content to remain in an unattached social condition. He desires and wills. In desiring a mate and in specifying the mate he desires, he separates himself from the undifferentiated middle-aged "boys" at the McCaslin place. Buck and Buddy are, in Daniel Hoffman's view, "superannuated boys," who "turn all of life into games." Buck and Buddy are constructed within the social roles designated as masculine and feminine, but they play off the expectations for gender formation within their society. Buck drinks, wears a tie, farms the land, and socializes outside the confines of his property; Buddy cooks, does not drink, and remains at home in an unconventional domestic space, even though he is the expert poker player. Buck resists courting Sophonsiba Beauchamp because the twins exist within a space where "ladies were so damn seldom thank God that a man could ride for days in a straight line without having to dodge a single one" (Go Down, Moses, 7), and within that space they can behave without acknowledging their sexuality or the misogyny implicated in their descriptions of women.

Aversion and avoidance, Buck and Buddy's responses to sexuality, to masculinity, and to women, may also be read as a rebellion against their father, old Carothers, and his aggressive heterosexuality, particularly in his old age. The twins clearly reject completing and living in a monument to their father and his way of life: "as soon as their father was buried [the two brothers] moved out of the tremendously-conceived, the almost barn-like edifice which he had not even completed, into a one-room log cabin which the two of them built themselves and added other rooms to while they lived in it, refusing to allow any slave to touch any timber of it other than the actual raising into place the logs which two men alone could not handle, and domiciled all the slaves in the big house" (250-51). In reconfiguring the space in which they would reside and removing it from the model of the "big house" begun by their father, they resist his influence and vitiate his legacy. They bury the father, but rather than replacing him and his authority in a Freudian move, they dismantle and deny his way of life; however, like model oedipal sons, they also render themselves "dead" to the society they inhabit. In refusing slave labor on their cabin, they bypass direct involvement in the expected, "beneficial" by-products of forced slave labor. They engage in various "mechanisms of separation" to deflect their knowledge of what James Snead terms the "false signification of human beings as commodities."

Although Buck and Buddy do not free their slaves, they reject the conventional nineteenth-century relationship of containment and virtual imprisonment for slaves on the plantation:

each sundown the brother who superintended the farming would parade the negroes as a first sergeant dismisses a company, and herd them willynilly, man woman and child, without question protest or recourse, into the tremendous abortive edifice scarcely yet out of embryo, as if even old Carothers McCaslin had paused aghast at the concrete indication of his own vanity's boundless conceiving: he would call his mental roll and herd them in and with a hand-wrought nail as long as a flenching-knife and suspended from a short deer-hide thong attached to the door-jamb for that purpose, he would nail the door of that house which lacked half its windows and had no hinged back door at all, so that presently and for fifty years afterward, when the boy himself was [too] big to hear and remember it, there was in the land a sort of folk-tale: of the countryside all night long full of skulking McCaslin slaves dodging the moonlit roads and the Patrol-riders to visit other plantations, and of the unspoken gentlemen's agreement between the two white men and the two dozen black ones that, after the white man had counted them and driven the home-made nail into the front door at sundown, neither of the white men would go around behind the house and look at the back door, provided that all the negroes were behind the front one when the brother who drove it drew out the nail again at daybreak (251)

Buck and Buddy thus allow the McCaslin slaves to escape, at least temporarily at night, the boundaries delimiting their freedom of movement, and the twins themselves escape from the expected patterns of bonds and control initiated by their father.


Excerpted from GAMES OF PROPERTY by THADIOUS M. DAVIS Copyright © 2003 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Illustrations viii

Acknowledgments x

Introduction: The Game of Genre 1

1. The Game of Challenge

2. The Object of Property 77

3. The Game of Boundaries

4. The Subject of Property 174

5. Conclusion: The Game of Compensation 223

Notes 263

Bibliography 309

Index 330

What People are Saying About This

Linda K. Kerber

From the opening lines, we are in the presence of an original and powerful voice that expands the boundaries of the field of 'law and literature' and offers a fresh way of understanding one of William Faulkner's most elliptical texts.
May Brodbeck Professor of History, University of Iowa


It may sound hyperbolic to claim that nothing like this exists in Faulkner scholarship, but that's my claim. Games of Property contributes to a new understanding of not only Go Down, Moses, but of much of Faulkner's work.
Frank Borden Hanes Professor of English and Comparative Literature, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

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