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The Best from American Literature
By Louis J. Budd, Edwin H. Cady
Duke University PressCopyright © 1989 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
Otis B. Wheeler
ALMOST FROM THE FIRST CONTACT with the new world of North America white men have recognized in many ways that theirs was a unique kind of experience with the wilderness. Here was a primeval land, fresh from the hand of God, except for the puny and insignificant inroads made upon it by the aboriginal red man. The newcomers were of a relatively sophisticated race, grown up where the face of the land had for centuries been altered by man's tools and according to his desires. But in the primeval wilderness it was God's will, and none of man's, that was manifest.
Faulkner's is not the first reaction in American literature to this experience. Passing over the diarists and naturalists of the colonial period, we can see it beginning about the time of our national independence with Freneau and Bryant. But this reaction is in terms almost wholly derivative from the well-established tradition of primitivism in English literature. Specifically, wild nature is the manifestation and locus of a Divine Spirit to which man, jaded and corrupted by civilization, may turn for spiritual refreshment and instruction. This reaction is epitomized in Bryant's "Thanatopsis" and "To a Waterfowl."
Cooper's reaction is more significant and more original. For it is he who defines the terms of a paradox which Faulkner is still working at: if the wilderness is God's work, what is the meaning of man's destruction of it in the name of civilization and culture? And there is a corollary problem: if the wilderness is the locus and manifestation of Divine Spirit, where is man to turn for spiritual renewal when the wilderness is gone ?
In Faulkner's treatment, the wilderness has two roles, apparently discrete, but eventually harmonized in a pattern that transcends human experience. First, it is the teacher of moral and spiritual truth; second, it is the victim of the Anglo-Saxon's rapacity. Although Faulkner begins by approaching the two themes separately, he eventually comes to interweave them in the final versions of the Ike McCaslin stories. For instance, the separate stories "Lion" and "Delta Autumn" are primarily concerned with the theme of wilderness as victim. In contrast, "The Old People" and the brief Saturday Evening Post version of "The Bear" deal mainly with the theme of wilderness as teacher. But in the Go Down, Moses version of "The Bear" the two themes are fused, as they are also in the total effect of the stories and transitional commentaries in Big Woods.
The first theme is worked out on both dramatic and symbolic levels as the rites of puberty for young Ike McCaslin. At one point Faulkner calls the wilderness Ike's "college," and adds, "the old male bear itself was his alma mater." But more often the education is described in religious terms. Under the tutelage of Sam Fathers, his spiritual father and, in more ways than first appear, the priest of a primitive wilderness religion, Ike "entered his novitiate to the true wilderness.... It seemed to him that at the age of ten he was witnessing his own birth" (p. 195). In this novitiate he undergoes the tests which will mark his transition from boyhood to manhood. Or to put it in abstract terms, he comes step by step to an awareness of the spiritual and moral verities which, says Faulkner, underlie human existence. By watching the dogs who run Old Ben, but stop short of bringing him to bay, he begins to learn what fear is. But in the situation of the one dog who overcomes her fear sufficiently to get close enough to be raked by the bear's claws ("The wilderness had patted lightly once her temerity," p. 199) he begins to learn the meaning of bravery. He personally knows fear as he feels himself watched by the bear; and he learns a little more about bravery as Sam Fathers tells him, "Be scared.... But don't be afraid" (p. 207). After journeying alone into the wilderness without food and finally without the aid of watch or compass, stripped, so to speak, to his fundamental humanity, he is worthy to see the bear, the symbol of the essential wilderness, the apotheosis of the wilderness spirit. It is a moment of mystical unity: "They had looked at each other, they had emerged from the wilderness old as earth, synchronized to the instant by something more than the blood that moved the flesh and bones which bore them, and touched, pledged something, affirmed, something more lasting than the frail web of bones and flesh which any accident could obliterate."
But he is not yet a man. There is the test of taking life, how he conducts himself in the face of a death which he has engineered. This test is worked out in "The Old People" where Ike kills his first buck and Sam marks his forehead with the hot blood, and reports, "He done all right" (p. 165). The full meaning of the ceremony is something Ike is able to verbalize only much later. Part of it is a cleansing of futile and irrelevant emotions. He thinks to himself, Sam Fathers had "consecrated and absolved him of weakness and regret ... —not from love and pity for all which lived and ran and then ceased to live in a second in the very midst of splendor and speed, but from weakness and regret" (p. 182). But the final meaning is best expressed by Ike as an old man, over eighty, in "Delta Autumn," as he recalls again the sacramental first buck: "I slew you; my bearing must not shame your quitting life. My conduct forever onward must become your death" (p. 351).
What altogether has the wilderness taught? It might be summed up as the code of the hunter: bravery, strength, endurance, honor, pride, dignity, humility, pity, love of life, of justice, and of liberty. These are the qualities that Sam or Ike or Cass Edmonds or the unnamed father of the boy in the short version of "The Bear" talk about at one point or another. They are the virtues that the boy learns in a more or less empirical way. These virtues are enforced by three general insights: the knowledge of death, the sense of the sublime, and the sense of mystic unity. The last of these has already been pointed out in one way in young Ike's triumphant vision of the bear; that is unity on a spiritual level. Corresponding to this spiritual unity is the idea of physical unity stated when Ike comes back to the spot in the forest where Lion and Sam Fathers are buried, along with one of Old Ben's paws. He muses, "There was no death, not Lion and not Sam: not held fast in earth but free in earth and not in earth but of earth, myriad yet undiffused of every myriad part" (p. 328). Yet all life has an equally insistent aspect of mortality, a knowledge of which makes the aspect of immortality more precious. This knowledge of death is expressed in Ike's meeting with the rattlesnake only a few minutes after he has left the graves just mentioned. Calmly he hails the huge old rattler in the Indian language of Sam Fathers: "Chief ..., Grandfather." And through his mind runs the thought, "the old one, the ancient and accursed about the earth, fatal and solitary." The smell of the snake is for him "evocative of all knowledge and an old weariness and of pariah-hood and of death" (p. 329).
Enforcing all the lessons of the wilderness is the sense of sublimity which Ike feels in contact with it: "the unforgettable sense of the big woods—not a quality dangerous or particularly inimical, but profound, sentient, dynamic and brooding" (p. 175). If this is not precisely the traditional definition of the sublime, nevertheless it seems to be Faulkner's version of it, his attempt to define the emotional quality of a situation in which we traditionally find the emotion of the sublime.
The situation in which the wilderness teaches, that is, the chase, contains by implication the other role of the wilderness—the role of victim. Yet it is not a simple situation because, since the wilderness has a moral role, its destruction has a moral quality.
In order to understand the complexities of the situation we must begin by understanding that there are two kinds of people involved. Ike and Sam Fathers pre-eminently represent the initiated, though in addition Sam is, like Old Ben, a symbol of the wilderness itself. These people have learned fully what the wilderness has to teach and have thereby become in a sense priests of a wilderness religion. They may attain this status because they are free, either by birth or renunciation, of the taint which marks the other type of person—the Anglo-Saxon heritage of rapacity. Sam, the son of a Chickasaw chief and a Negro slave woman, has never had it. Ike, descended from Carothers McCaslin, one of the most rapacious men in the history of Yoknapatawpha, renounces his heritage, gives his lands to a cousin, McCaslin Edmonds, in whom the traits of Carothers McCaslin have bred truer and who in turn passes on these traits to his descendant— Carothers Edmonds of "Delta Autumn." Such men, and others of even less sophistication, are the uninitiated. They may joy in the wilderness, in "those fierce instants of heart and brain and courage and wiliness and speed," but they can never become initiates in the manner of Ike and Sam. Boon Hogganbeck is the nearest thing to the pure type. He has "the mind of a child, the heart of a horse and little hard shoe-button eyes without depth or meanness or generosity or viciousness or gentleness or anything else ..." (p. 227). But even he falls short of the generalized type which Faulkner characterizes in his introduction to Big Woods: "Then came the Anglo-Saxon, the pioneer, the tall man roaring with protestant scripture and boiled whiskey, ... turbulent because of his over-revved glands ..., innocent and gullible, without bowels for avarice or compassion or forethought either ... turning the earth into a howling waste from which he would be the first to vanish ... because ... only the wilderness could feed and nourish him."
Rapacity Faulkner finds a peculiarly American way. As he says in A Fable, horse-stealing is an American institution, illustrative of "an invincible way of life ..., the old fine strong American tradition of rapine...." To fall before this rapacity, whether expressed by the hunter's gun, the woodsman's axe, the sawmill, or the cotton farm financed by the money-hungry bankers in Jefferson, is the first and obvious way in which the wilderness is victim.
But we must remember that it is not one of the rapacious who engineers the death of the great bear. Although Boon Hogganbeck wields the knife that finds his heart, it is Sam Fathers, the initiated, who finds and trains the dog Lion and who directs the hunt; and he is abetted in all this by his acolyte, Ike. On the face of things it would seem inconsistent, even sacrilegious, for the true believer to destroy the source of his belief. But the motive behind the act gives it a sacramental quality. This motive is the reverent desire to save the wilderness from the worse fate that awaits it at the hands of the uninitiated. As Sam says, "Somebody is going to [shoot Old Ben] some day." And Ike replies, "I know it. That's why it must be one of us.... When even he don't want it to last any longer" (p. 212). Thus the other way in which the wilderness falls victim is through the sacrificial act of its devotees. The sacrificial quality is even further emphasized by the fact that the act is a self-immolation for one of the devotees: Sam is so much a part of the wilderness that at the moment of old Ben's death he too falls, to be carried home to his death bed, though he has no visible wound.
Now, are these devotees true believers if they take it upon themselves to determine the fate of the Great Mother? The answer lies in Ike's statement "... when even he don't want it to last any longer." They do not determine the fate; they act only as instruments to accomplish a design immanent in Nature. And who better than the true believers, the initiated, would know of this immanent design?
The allegations of such design are explicit in nearly all of the wilderness stories. The Big Woods is referred to as that "doomed wilderness." The hunters and dogs and bear are "ordered and compelled by and within the wilderness in ancient and unremitting contest according to the ancient and immitigable rules ..." (p. 192). As they enter the last stages of the hunt for Old Ben, Ike can play his part with undivided heart and mind because "it seemed to him that there was a fatality in it.... It was like the last act on a set stage. It was the beginning of the end of something, he didn't know what, except that he would not grieve" (p. 226). As an old man in "Delta Autumn" he is able to verbalize what he could only feel as a boy. "[God] said, 'I will give man his chance. I will give him warning and foreknowledge, too, along with the desire to follow and the power to slay. The woods and the fields he ravages and the game he devastates will be consequence and signature of his crime and guilt, and his punishment'" (p. 349). The result of man's rapacity, thinks Uncle Ike, is the moral and social chaos of the world on the brink of World War II: "No wonder the ruined woods I used to know don't cry for retribution! he thought. The people who destroyed it will accomplish its revenge" (p. 364).
These destructors and the fate they bring upon themselves are presented in three forms in Boon, Lion, and "Roth" Edmonds. At the end of "The Bear" Ike finds Boon sitting beneath a tree full of squirrels frenziedly beating the parts of an old gun together and shouting, "Get out of here! Don't touch them! Don't touch a one of them! They're mine!" (p. 331). He has senselessly played his part in the destruction of the wilderness, has slain the great bear with only a sheath knife, and without knowing it has led himself into the pathetic and ludicrous situation of trying to patch up an old gun to shoot a squirrel. And this is the last time Boon appears in any of the stories.
Lion is just a four-legged symbol of the same destructiveness. He embodies "courage and all else that went to make up the will and desire to pursue and kill.... endurance, the will and desire to endure beyond all imaginable limits of flesh in order to overtake and slay." And his eyes are in quality just like Boon's: "yellow eyes as depthless as Boon's, as free as Boon's of meanness or generosity or gentleness or viciousness" (pp. 237-238). His fate, of course, is to have his entrails raked out by the bear as he leaps to a death grip on the bear's throat. In a fundamental, physical sense, the end of the wilderness is the end of Boon and of Lion for, as Faulkner says, "only the wilderness could feed and nourish [them]." Moreover, neither has any spiritual dimension.
"Roth" Edmonds of "Delta Autumn" is both heir and perpetrator of this destruction on a more sophisticated level. His eclipse is moral rather than physical. Where Boon and Lion are simply amoral, Edmonds is immoral, devious, degenerate. Whereas his cousin Ike is initiated, Roth is never to be initiated because the wilderness that might have been his teacher is no longer a force in the land, is reduced to a pitiful remnant down in the bottom land where the Yazoo and Mississippi meet. The fundamental difference between Ike and Roth is on the question of whether the life of man is underlain by moral verities which make man essentially good or whether men are restrained from unlimited pursuit of anti-social aims only by external forces. Ike contends that "most men are better than their circumstances give them a chance to be" (p. 345). Roth believes that men behave only when someone with the authority and strength to punish is looking at them. So Roth carries on a secret liaison with a part-Negro girl and when she appears at the hunting camp with their child, will not face her to say he is casting her off, but leaves a bundle of money to speak, better than he realizes, his selfish devious materialism. Uncle Ike, as the bearer of the money, has hardly had time to compass entirely the moral horror of Roth's action before he learns of a corresponding enormity, perpetrated this time against the sad remnant of the wilderness: Roth has killed a doe with a shotgun. If Ike is unhappy to witness this moral chaos, Roth is even more unhappy to be involved in it. Ike has at least known happiness and serenity, and he still knows the security of convictions about enduring moral values. But Roth is a violent, confused, dissatisfied man, tasting always the bitterness of his decadence, but never comprehending the roots of it.
It is not too much to say, then, that Ike is the last priest of a dying cult, both doomed and avenged by an immanent principle in its source, the wilderness. As for the question of where man is to turn for spiritual renewal when the wilderness is gone, there seems to be no solution: we are apparently to be a race of Roth Edmondses. This is a negative philosophy of history, a prophecy of decline. There is no basis in the wilderness stories for the apparently optimistic belief reflected in Faulkner's Nobel Prize speech that man will "endure" and "prevail." This prophecy of decline will be more meaningful if we return for a moment to Cooper.
Excerpted from On Faulkner by Louis J. Budd, Edwin H. Cady. Copyright © 1989 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of ContentsSeries Introduction vii
Faulkner's Wilderness (1959) / Otis B. Wheeler 1
Colonel Thomas Sutpen as Existentialist Hero (1962) / William J. Sowder 11
Procrustean Revision in Go Down, Moses (1965) / Marvin Klotz 26
Absalom, Absalom!: The Discovery of Values (1965) / Donald M. Kartiganer 42
"Pantaloon": The Negro Anomaly as the Heart of Go Down, Moses (1972) / Walter Taylor 58
The Time of Myth and History in Absalom, Absalom! (1973) / Patricia Tobin 73
The Value and Limitations of Faulkner's Fictional Method (1975) / Brent Harold 92
Faulkner, Childhood, and the Making of The Sound and the Fury (1979) / David Minter 110
The Sound and the Fury: A Logic of Tragedy (1981) / Warwick Wadlington 128
Narrative Styles (1981) / J. E. Bunselmeyer 143
"The Whole Burden of Man's History of His Impossible Heart's Desire": The Early Life of Faulkner (1982) / Jay Martin 162
Embedded Story Structures in Absalom, Absalom! (1983) / Philip J. Egan 185
Centers, Openings, and Endings: Some Constants (1984) / Martin Kreiswirth 201
The Mirror, the Lamp, and the Bed: Faulkner and the Modernists (1985) / Virginia V. Hlavsa 214
The Illusion of Freedom in The Hamlet and Go Down, Moses (1985) / Margaret M. Dunn 235
Predestination and Freedom in As I Lay Dying (1989) / Charles Palliser 252
The Symbolist Connection (1987) / Alexander Marshall, III 269