'Windy McPherson's Son' and Silent McEachern's Son: Sherwood Anderson and 'Light in August.' (Special Issue: William Faulkner)

By Bidney, Martin | The Mississippi Quarterly, Summer 1993 | Go to article overview

'Windy McPherson's Son' and Silent McEachern's Son: Sherwood Anderson and 'Light in August.' (Special Issue: William Faulkner)


Bidney, Martin, The Mississippi Quarterly


William Faulkner repeatedly praised Sherwood Anderson with generosity and enthusiasm(1), but it is only in the context of Anderson's influential role as stimulus to Faulkner's own creativity that we can understand the full implications of the latter's appreciation and gratitude. In this essay I would like to show the surprising parallels in plot and characterization between Anderson's first novel, Windy McPherson's Son, and Faulkner's masterwork, Light in August -- or, as Faulkner might have titled his novel had he wished to make the Andersonian link still clearer -- Silent McEachern's Son. This seemingly whimsical but seriously intended title suggests that we keep in mind the differences as well as the points of likeness between the Anderson and Faulkner novels: for example, Windy McPherson is endlessly talkative, while McEachern is grimly quiet; Sam is Windy's biological son, while, Joe is McEachern's legally adopted son. Yet the hate of both sons for their similarly named fathers is similarly envenomed and has comparable consequences: both sons attack, their fathers and think they may well have killed them in the process. The differences, as this one example may suggest, need to be taken into account, but the likenesses are striking and revealing.

The shared theme of the two novels is the misery that society creates for itself through the denial of love and through the grotesque replacement of love by guilt. We see how, in both books, mental disturbance, notably including the pathology of misogyny, results from repeated emotional traumas that are in turn linked to pervasive mistrust of love. Relentless persecutorial gossip is a theme shared by the novels, as is the grotesque promotion of ego-status through hypocritical lies. Special emphasis is placed, by both Anderson and Faulkner, on the destructive dynamics of oedipal conflict and on the reciprocal psychological mirroring of a man and a woman who reflect back each other's fundamentally identical guilt complexes. Both books are somber, and their shared critiques are penetrating: at a deep level the two works are intimately interrelated.

Since both books are many-faceted, it is best to begin with a clear summary of the chief parallels: this will convey the scope of influence (or as I would prefer to call it, creative appropriation) at the outset, and it will afford an orienting framework for the more detailed points to be made later. In this way, there will be no risk of getting lost, even when we find that Faulkner has evidently distributed events or motifs from young McPherson's life among various characters in Light in August -- not only Joe Christmas and McEachern, but Hines and Joanna and Hightower too.

Unlike Joe Christmas, young Sam McPherson is not portrayed in mythic or archetypic terms as a Christ-figure; but Sam's early visionary mentor, Mike McCarthy, a mentally disturbed but often lyrically inspired prisoner whose ravings are overheard from his cell in the village jail, is indeed presented, though grotesquely and half-parodically, as Christlike -- loving but martyred. For although he shows aggressive urges and has been involved in violence, the mentally troubled McCarthy also preaches at intervals a message of cosmic love, just as Joe Christmas bears the name of a God of love. Sam's other early visionary mentor, Mr. Telfer, though saner than McCarthy, is nevertheless a misogynist who, if less horrifying than the arch-misogynist Hines in Faulkner's book, similarly skews the young protagonist's initial perceptions in all unhealthy direction.

After these introductory parallels, the ones that follow intensify the drama of both books. Windy McPherson, like Joe Christmas's foster father McEachern, so enrages his son that, as noted above, young Sam (like young Joe) reacts with violence: indeed, Sam has good reason to believe he may have killed Windy. When Sam goes to an older woman named Mary for counseling and sympathy, the town suddenly fills with prurient, rancorous gossip: the persecution-by-gossip theme is not transferred to Joe's life in Light in August, but rather attaches to the life of the social outcast and defrocked minister Hightower. …

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