Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Violence and the Hearth: Lynching and Resistance in Go Down, Moses

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Violence and the Hearth: Lynching and Resistance in Go Down, Moses

Article excerpt

I

THROUGHOUT HIS MID-CAREER WORKS, FAULKNER REPEATEDLY RETURNED to the same scene: a black child and a white child, raised together, come to sense their racial, and so social, difference. Their intimacy is broken, and with it their innocence, and the two become irrevocably estranged. This discovery of racial difference marks the end of childhood, and its loss haunts Faulkner's white protagonists, much as it clearly haunted his own mind. Again and again--in The Unvanquished (1938), Intruder in the Dust (1948), or his semi-fictional article "Mississippi" (1954)--Faulkner reenacted this primal rupture, as though compelled by some nostalgic impulse toward some lost childhood innocence, some lost security of home. Yet he directly depicted this as a single, definable moment of rupture only once, in the Go Down, Moses (1942) story "The Fire and the Hearth," where it resonates with particular poignancy amid the novel's larger themes of possession and loss.

Roth Edmonds, the son of white planter Zack Edmonds, and Henry Beauchamp, the son of black tenant-farmer Lucas Beauchamp, have been raised together as "foster-brothers," nursed together at Henry's mother's breast following the death of Roth's mother in childbirth; they are also, as a result of their mutual ancestor Carothers McCaslin's rape of his slaves, distant kinsmen. The two boys hunt together, share food at the same table, sleep in the same beds, treat one another's homes as "interchangeable" (GDM 85). In particular, Roth loves the hearth in Henry's home, an open fire that Henry's father, Lucas, has kept burning constantly since his wedding-night, and in which Roth finds a source of "centering" order, a source of life.

One day, at the age of seven, Roth suddenly becomes aware of their racial difference; he takes the bed, and makes Henry sleep on a pallet on the floor. When Roth awakes the next morning, still wracked with grief and a "shame he would not admit," he finds the pallet empty and Henry wordlessly departed. "They never slept in the same room again and never again ate at the same table," Faulkner writes, "because he admitted to himself it was shame now" (87). This is Roth's moment of irreversible action, then--but significantly, it is not his moment of actual loss. For a month Roth distances himself from Henry until eventually, wracked with guilt and shame that he cannot adequately articulate, he finally goes to Henry's home. In a clumsy attempt to undo his past actions, Roth tells Henry's family that he is staying for dinner, and for a brief, blissful few moments, he is able to believe that his relationship with Henry has been restored, that "it was as if it had never happened at all" (87). But when he is called for dinner, he finds that Henry's family has already eaten separately, and the table has been laid for him alone. "Are you ashamed to eat when I eat?" Roth tearfully confronts Henry. "I aint shamed of nobody," is Henry's mild, devastating reply. "Not even me" (88).

The episode's power arises through its depiction of the collision of two worlds: the formative, resonant spaces of childhood and the structured spaces of Southern adult society. The loss of innocence and stability is at the same time the creation of order, and the intimate and seemingly neutral spaces of domesticity--the bed, the meal-table, the hearth--become reconstituted not simply as scenes of instruction, but as the highly political divisions between private and social that they have always been. By forcing Henry to sleep alone on the pallet below, Roth vertically asserts his new hierarchical consciousness. Yet by eating the same food at the same table as Roth, but at different times, Henry's family horizontally undermines this same hierarchy--quite literally turning the tables on him. Through what Thadious Davis calls their "unanticipated sleight of hand" (204), the Beauchamps instead assert (in the terminology of Michel de Certeau) gestures and spaces of racially-differentiated domestic privacy, self-identity, and dignity, which even social hierarchy is powerless to penetrate. …

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