By CHLOË HAWKEY.
THE U.S. CHANGED quickly during the first half of the twentieth century, as railroads, family farms, and Victorian codes of morality finally gave way to airplanes and automobiles, massive war industry, and more relaxed cultural norms. Slowly, the ways of life that had developed around these institutions began to shift, affecting not some abstract “American Man,” but rather the daily interactions between husbands and wives, fathers and children, lovers and friends and strangers on the street.
In seeking to understand this change, it is tempting to turn to sociologists and social historians who themselves turn to census data and big computers. But to do that is to lose track, in an important sense, of the way that this change fundamentally took shape in the lives of individuals—lives better reflected, it seems to me, through the small scale and artistic rendering of literature than through the mass-generalizations of the social sciences.
In 1932, when the Great Depression was swinging into high gear and economic and political conditions and allegiances were beginning to shift, William Faulkner’s Light in August was published. The story features the mysterious Joe Christmas, who is something of a drifter: he spent most of his thirty years being shuffled around by other people and outside happenstance, without plan or goal. The question that hangs over the whole story, however, is not one of actions or intentions but rather the absurd question of ancestry: is Christmas black?
The sensitive reader knows this to be an irrational question. It is lost, as Barbara Fields would say, within the haze of Racecraft, the process that confuses one person’s act of racism with another person’s “race,” or ancestry. Racecraft turns what Person A does into who Person B is, thus placing the blame for violence or intolerance on the victim. But Faulkner creates a structure in which even the most well-intentioned reader cannot help but search for clues to Christmas’s ancestry, because it so often seems to be the determining factor in the course of his life. Again and again, characters in the book vary their treatment of this quiet man based on what they perceive to be his race. In his wanderings, he is rejected from black communities and excluded from white ones, with a degree of arbitrariness that renders logic and justice irrelevant. With every page, the forces of racism feel more inevitable and less within any individual’s control. Even the distant, all-knowing narrator adds to the overwhelming sense that there is an external force at work that shapes the course of each man’s life.
Meanwhile, Faulkner’s last novel, The Reivers, published in 1962, offers a noticeably different image of life in the South and of the forces at work on it. It follows three men from the fictional Yoknapatawpha County who steal a car and escape to Memphis, where one of them, a black man named Ned, trades the car for a mediocre racehorse. Not until the end of the book do we learn that Ned concocted this scheme in order to help a friend, and only then do we understand that the seemingly ill-informed decisions were in fact part of an intricate plan, featuring Ned’s wide-ranging networks of friends and his remarkable ability to make each part of the plan cohere. In the face of considerable skepticism from his friends (and his readers), he creates his own destiny. At no moment does he seem to be at the mercy of others. In contrast to the omniscient narrator of Light in August, The Reivers is narrated by the casual, first-person voice of Lucius Priest, one of Ned’s collaborators, a known character and one under the influence of Ned’s considerable power.
It would be easy enough to look at these books as timeless works of literary genius, at the differences between them as the inevitable shifts in literary sensibility and the maturity of the author, and thus to write off their ability to help us understand the political and social changes occurring. It seems to me, though, that to view these novels in that way is to miss a chance to understand the human effects of that change.
Writing from mid-twentieth-century Oxford, Mississippi, Faulkner was surrounded by a region in the midst of intense modernization and industrialization. As such, he stood witness to how these historic changes affected the lives and relationships of people on the ground, as they say. Light in August and The Reivers were written on opposite ends of this period of rapid development, in which WWII brought industrialization and urbanization to the formerly agrarian region and Southern cities increasingly attracted people of African descent from the countryside. As this change became more apparent, the old Southern order, long held to be natural, even divinely ordained, began to break down. For how could it not? The old categories—poor, submissive African-Americans, wealthy white planters, hard-scrabble yeoman farmers—no longer existed in so orderly a manner. Black people had the legal and logistical means to relocate, earn their own wages, and create a stable home life. Lower-class white people, long since protected from poverty by land ownership, common rights, and local bargaining, now faced lives as impoverished tenant farmers. Suddenly nothing seemed certain: in just four decades, a centuries-old social and political order had toppled, and a greater degree of self-determination—like that demonstrated by Ned—was one of the results.
Through portrayals such as Faulkner’s, Southerners came to see their world as one in which individuals can influence the course of events, can act with reason rather than be acted upon. They may not have been able to make sense of the changes in terms of relocation or employment numbers, but they could understand and relate to characters like Christmas and Ned. The contemporary novels helped readers at the time—as they help us today—to understand why people spoke to each other as they did, why they treated one another as they did; they help us to feel what it is to exist in the world as someone other than ourselves.
Now, at a time in which, yet again, a turbulent series of events have shaken the American sense of who we are and what we think, we are turning quickly to the sociological and the economic; we seek representative samples and ever more data. In offering here an example of the way that books can offer a humane and individual appreciation of change, I simply wish to cast my vote in favor of a more literary approach. Understanding this human world in human terms is no small or frivolous task, and the role played by literature in that effort is not one to be taken lightly.
Associate editor Chloë Hawkey studied American History and Latin at Columbia University. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area and works as a whitewater river guide on the Rogue river in the summer months. Her previous notes are indexed here.