Barn Burning, Civil War, Essay, Flannery O'Conner, generational trauma, Grotesque, Literature, Sense of Self, Southern Gothic, Southern Pride/Self Loathing, The Sound and the Fury, To Kill a Mockingbird, William Faulkner, Willie Morris
I see fire
Burning the trees
And I see fire
I see fire
Blood in the breeze
And I hope that you remember me
Sooner or later everyone has to kiss Faulkner’s ass and it appears that it is my turn (I can only hope he showered first the drunken old rep). My sarcasm aside, there is a
reason Faulkner has remained an established persona within the literary world; the man is a damned great writer. And note the diction of the last sentence for despite what anyone attempts to proselytize you with, there is a significant difference between what is good and what is great (What about Bob? is a good movie, Caddyshack and Ghostbusters are great ones). Now when I suggest that the name Faulkner inspires envy and wonder in the minds and hearts of literature scholars such as myself, I do not jest. The name Faulkner summons the idea of power in prose for the man was able to work magic with a few lines and craft, not simply wonderful arrangements of words, but an actual reality of the world he inhabited.
Allow me the indulgence of a long quote from the short story Barn Burning and you may see my point:
“The store in which the justice of the Peace’s court was sitting smelled of cheese. The boy, crouched on his nail keg at the back of the crowded room, knew he smelled cheese, and more: from where he sat he could see the ranked shelves close-packed with the solid, squat, dynamic shapes of tin cans whose labels his stomach read, not from the lettering which meant nothing to his mind but from the scarlet devils and the silver curve of fish – this, the cheese which he knew he smelled and the hermetic meat which his intestines believed he smelled coming in intermittent gusts momentary and brief between the other constant one, the smell and sense just a little of fear because mostly of despair and grief, the old fierce pull of blood. He could not see the table where the Justice sat and before which his father and his father’s enemy (our enemy he thought in that despair; ours! mine and his both! He’s my father!) stood, but he could hear them, the two of them that is, because his father had said no word yet”
Faulkner’s ability shines like the Lighthouse of Alexandria. (I told you I had to kiss ass, get used to it.) The easily overlooked line that demonstrates Faulkner’s ability as a creative writer is so subtle it can be passed without notice. The boy’s “stomach” read. Now this move may seem obvious upon first glance, for any who have had to suffer a creative writing course have been forced to receive a writer’s discovery of their own such cleverness. But the ability of great writers is the effort to take an object or experience of human life and present it in a way that makes the experience or object seem fresh. Take what is old and make it new, for therein lies truth. With this idea in hand let me observe the rest of the text above and appreciate the scene in a new light. Many writers would be content to simply describe a scene and imply that there was tension through words and drama and action. Faulkner calls bullshit and throws down a Full House (two cheeses and three hungers, still beats a straight every time). The hunger of the boy is crafted through the hard odor of cheese and canned meat, one immediately summons the frigid aroma of tin, while all the while we are delivered this wonderful tension that grows from the description of the food. We gain a sense that the boy is wanting in more than just the physical pangs of starvation and once this achieved we are given the conflict of the plot. His weakened state is further emphasized by the confusion of action on his own part. “Our enemy” as opposed to his “father’s enemy” I believe is the final play to the introduction and, to say it best by today’s standard, nails it.
I read the short story Barn Burning last year while taking a twentieth century American Literature course and was thrilled to finally be reading Faulkner in a Upper Level English setting. There was a real excitement that I would be observing a master at work and that I would be able to communicate with my peers about the power of the Southern Giant outside of the pathetic realm of high school literary analysis. I was disappointed. For one I did not respond much to the text. Second my peers were less than exemplary. My professor was exceptional and helped make the text come to life as a real “modern” work, however the failure of my own initiative as well as that of my literary compatriots disappointed me to the work, and thus Faulkner passed me by.
I’m waiting for this to matter. Or in other words, why should I care about some story about cheese and tin cans?
Very well, allow me to resume. Barn Burning is a short work but captures the idea of the Southern Grotesque, in that there is a decay occurring in the culture of the south. While the culture and people may not necessarily be suffering physically, there is a sense of something lost; a former slight has worked its way into the consciousness of all the players involved and shown them to be fools. Barn Burning is the effort to show this in the form of a young boy whose father burns the barns of every man who he happens to work for. The boy remains nameless to us and in this way I believe he could in some way be meant to be the putty character in fiction that allows us to imprint ourselves onto the character. The Boy seems Faulkner’s effort to show some goodness of the south and what is left of it. The potential for rebirth and dignity to a people with a history stained with travesty. As for the father, Abner, Faulkner is clear:
“That night they camped in a grove of oaks and beeches where a spring ran. The nights were still cool and they had a fire against it, of a rail lifted from a nearby fence and cut into lengths – a small fire, neat, niggard almost, a shrewd fire; such fires were his father’s habit and custom always, even in freezing weather. Older, the boy might have remarked this and wondered why not a big one; why should not a man who had not only seen the waste and extravagance of war, but who had in his blood an inherent voracious prodigality with material not his own, have burned everything in sight? Then he might have gone a step farther and thought that that was the reason: that niggard blaze was the living fruit of nights passed during those four years in the woods hiding from all men, blue or gray, with his strings of horses (captured horses, he called them). And older still, he might have divined the true reason: that the element of fire spoke to some deep mainspring of his father’s being, as the element of steel or of powder spoke to other men, as the one weapon for the preservation of integrity, else breath were not worth the breathing, and hence to be regarded with respect and used with discretion.”
Abner is later revealed to the reader, not to the boy, as a war profiteer. A cowardly bigot pursuing only his own self interest who looted and pillaged during the war (Civil of course, it is southern literature) rather than fight for his homeland. Faulkner allows the fire to define Abner, letting it totally manifest his character so that there is no hope for redemption. For nothing that burns with malice can hope to be redeemed. I do not want to sit and examine the individual symbolism of each component of the piece, but rather to understand why this sense of malice is a staple of the Southern Gothic. Why must we be so grotesque in the south?
One would immediately respond that perhaps we’re still pissed off about losing the Civil War. That the loss was our opportunity to craft ourselves, as losers are wont to do, as the real victors and employ the damaged ego as a shield and crutch for future generations. I cannot speak for all southerners, but living in Texas as long as I have, and being forced to bear witness to, time and time again, confederate flags on the back of pick-up trucks I gain a sense that being southern is a sense of pride and dissatisfaction. Recently I discovered at my In-law’s house a collection of National Geographic’s and one of them bore the title Faulkner’s Mississippi. Reading the article again I found one passage that says it best:
“Here was a man, the writer Elizabeth Spencer says, “one of us right over here at Oxford, shocking us and exposing us to people elsewhere with story after story , drawn for the south’s own private skeleton closet…the hushed up family secret, the nice girl who wound up in the Memphis whore-house, the suicides, the idiot brother kept at home, the miserable poverty and ignorance of the poor whites…the revenge shootings, the occasional lynching’s, the real life of the blacks. What was the man trying to do?”
This article, written by Willie Morris in 1989, Willie not William, only adds to my question. What is so grotesque about the south? Faulkner’s Barn Burning is not the only instance of a sense of loss and attempting to hide it. Consider the other great southern trends. The work of Flannery O’Conner is the embodiment of Southern repugnance’s. The Sound And the Fury, a novel I have read and endured as best I can, reveals a broken family attempting to maintain its sense of dignity in the face of its “embarrassments.” Many have read To Kill a Mocking and remember the instance of Boo Radley, hushed up and hidden for fear of embarrassment. I work with these examples because they are the best known, as well as the most distinct examples of the southern tradition to be bombastic and secretive all at once. While it may be a mistake to place all of the blame upon the Civil War, I do believe that the influence of if upon Southern consciousness has created this wounded sense of self, or at least it has for upper class whites.
Faulkner’s efforts as a writer are to me an effort to treat the south as it was in his time, and, in some ways, remains to this day. Barn Burning follows the emotional upheaval of loss. It is about losing your past and finding yourself in a present you didn’t choose. The Barn is not simply a place where young men lost their virginity in the hay loft and cows munched on cod while dropping turds. The barn stood as a sign of privilege and wealth for many southern land owners, in that it could indicate that you possessed enough capital to invest in further enterprise. Abner burns that enterprise to the horror of his son.
“Father. My father, he thought. “He was brave!” he cried suddenly, aloud but not loud, no more than a whisper: “He was! He was in the war! He was in Colonel Sartoris’ cav’ry!” not knowing that his father had gone to that war a private in the fine old European sense, wearing no uniform, admitting the authority of and giving fidelity to no man or army or flag, going to war as Malbrouck himself did: for booty – it meant nothing and less than nothing to him if it were enemy booty or his own. “
So we see once again a grotesque perversion of the self. I began this essay saying that everyone at some point or another will have to kiss Faulkner’s ass. Allow me to revise that position. Anyone from the south will have to, because he was the first to drop his drawers and show the world his own. This pathetic metaphor aside Faulkner loved his Mississippi but was intelligent enough to know it for what it was, a place of magic power and malevolent potential. By showing his ass he directly confronted the grotesque in his beloved country, and allowed future writers the chance to do the same. But I do not want to end with the image of Faulkner bent over with his pants around his ankles and still puffing away on his pipe.
“His breathing was easier now and he decided to get up and go on, and then he found that he had been asleep because he knew it was almost dawn, the night almost over. He could tell that from the whippoorwills. They were everywhere now among the dark trees below him, constant and inflectioned and ceaseless, so that, as the instant for giving over to the day birds drew nearer and nearer, there was no interval at all between them. He got up. He was a little stiff, but walking would cure that too as it would the cold, and soon there would be the sun. He went on down the hill, toward the dark woods within which the liquid silver voices of the birds called unceasing – the rapid and urgent beating of the urgent and quiring heart of the late spring night. He did not look back.”
Despite the fire that may have burned him and his fellow southerners, Faulkner I believe was an optimist in some form. The potential greatness of the south would rest, not in political achievement, but in artistic brilliance that has yet to be copied in such magnitude of will.