Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

"That Evening Sun(g)": Blues Inscribing Black Space in White Stories

Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

"That Evening Sun(g)": Blues Inscribing Black Space in White Stories

Article excerpt

FAULKNER'S "THAT EVENING SUN" seems a simple enough story: Drawing on the Compson family from The Sound and the Fury and telling his story through a nostalgic reflection by Quentin fifteen years after the events the story recalls, Faulkner focuses on a moment in the younger Compsons' childhoods when they became intensely interested in the circumstances of their sometime laundry-woman, Nancy Mannigoe. Nancy's prostitution and addiction serve as the opportunity for Faulkner to turn his satire on a Baptist Deacon (who has used Nancy but not paid for her services) and a law officer (who, holding Nancy in jail, bemoans her lack of sensitivity even as she attempts suicide). Nancy lives in no little terror occasioned by the wrath of her absent husband, Jesus, who she is sure is lurking nearby to kill her. Despite Mr. Compson's glib assurances that Jesus is far away in Memphis or St. Louis, the reader senses that, while Nancy's fears may be ill-founded, the real horror is the lack of any real feeling for her on the part of the Compson family. Indeed, by the story's end, Compson family life is back to what they consider normal, with the children taunting one another.

Known now for over a half-century, the facts surrounding the publication of Faulkner's "That Evening Sun" are instructive. After being refused at Scribner's, the story appeared in H. L. Mencken's American Mercury in March 1931. The title once ended with the words "go down," and Faulkner at one point named the story "Never done no weeping when you wanted to laugh." Mencken objected to some of the handling of the then delicate subject of Nancy's pregnancy and to the use of the name Jesus for her husband. Faulkner elided some use of his "vine" metaphor (although he left the reference to cutting it down), changed "Jesus" to "Jubah" ("Judah" in his letter to Mencken), and omitted from the jail scene the description of Nancy's belly swelling. If the guiding principle here was delicacy, sexual and religion, then of particular interest among the textual variants, included in some (the variant that appears in Collected Stories1) and omitted from others, is Nancy's expression of what she would do if, as Mr. Compson suggests, Jesus was sleeping with another woman: "Ara hand that touched her, I'd cut it off" (295). Even in the earliest published version, however, the discrepancy concerningjesus's supposed whereabouts is suggestive of larger patterns of difference that the narrator sees only as exotic. Understanding of those patterns of difference and their significance eludes Quentin; to understand them, Quentin would need, in Erskine Peters's words, to realize "himself to be fundamentally treacherous to human dignity and existence." Such realization, not expected in Quentin, the child within his own story, would not be impossible for Quentin, the story's narrator. By then, Peters's formulation would be apt: "Those white Yoknapatawphans who have the least awareness of themselves and of their peculiar identity in time and space, must experience horrible self-revelation when they finally see that they have been nurtured to act as agents of evil" (80).

The story line itself is of no help in coming to grips with these deeper issues of difference and identity, or with the distance between Quentin as child and Quentin as unenlightened narrator. The title's connection to blues music, however, is. Once readers recognize the extent to which blues music and its cultural contexts inform the style, structure, and subjects of "That Evening Sun," an application of blues music traditions becomes an effective way of negotiating Faulkner's text, and most especially its issues of racial difference. It will be useful, therefore, to come to grips with blues and their cultural significance, before launching into an examination of the story itself.

Historical context and perspective rest on the idea that, as Houston Baker puts it, the blues "are the multiplex, enabling script in which Afro-American cultural discourse is inscribed" (4). …

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