Peripatetic Modernism, or, Joe Christmas's Father

By Duck, Leigh Anne | Philological Quarterly, Spring-Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Peripatetic Modernism, or, Joe Christmas's Father

Duck, Leigh Anne, Philological Quarterly

IN SCHOLARLY INTERPRETATIONS of William Faulkner's Light in August (1932), as at the hands of the homicidal Doc Hines, Joe Christmas's father has been quickly dispatched. This lack of commentary corresponds to the novel's narrative focus, since Joe's father does not appear except in the brief report of his murder, which is conveyed more than thirty years after it occurs. Also, this short segment aligns closely with tropes and themes found elsewhere in the novel, such that when critics discuss the effort to resolve an ambiguous racial identity or the spectacular violence surrounding suspicions of interracial sex, they tend to focus on the exponentially more prominent and complex examples provided in the account of Joe's life. But the tale of Joe's father nonetheless constitutes the central enigma of the novel. Although Milly, Joe's mother, tells Doc that her lover "was a Mexican," Doc scoffs that he could "see in his face the black curse of God Almighty," and the novel never confirms either of these views, such that, ultimately, readers know little more than the tormented Joe about his racial ancestry. (1) Faulkner's technique of secreting "inferences of a tale that is not being told," as Richard Godden describes it, is well known, such that one might expect this minor character to signify something. (2) Accordingly, in this essay, I treat critical neglect of this character as a problem to be explored alongside those raised by the novel itself. What interpretive practices have impeded recognition of this self-proclaimed Mexican? What promise might a change in such hermeneutics hold for scholarship on modernism and Southern literature more broadly?

Though Light in August presents, as John T. Matthews has recently argued, a world that "whirls in perpetual motion," it has long been understood to depict the fate of a few exceptional characters in an otherwise stable and bounded locale. (3) Such readings, as I explain in the first section of this essay, have been supported by complementary paradigms in Southern and modernist studies. If, however, we seek not only to situate Joe and other new arrivals to Yoknapatawpha County in relation to its norms, but also to understand how these individual wanderers, who often proceed by horse and buggy or even foot, excite these small-town and rural locales, the social space of Light in August begins to look more chaotic. Although far smaller inscale than the migrations shaping the cities of the early twentieth century, these movements nonetheless create conceptual or social crisis, forcing residents to reassess their beliefs, plans, or forms of behavior--or, of course, to try to eradicate the disruption through violence.

The interpretive practice proposed in this essay is hardly revolutionary, as I merely argue for attending to travel--a theme long important in modernist studies, and increasingly so in Southern Studies--in its most modest manifestations. But it may be that attention to this peripatetic modernism helps to articulate aesthetic connections among diverse kinds of geographic locales, adding nuance to our understanding of urban and rural differences. More importantly, to recognize movement across rural locales is to see how their conventions were challenged not only by modernization but also by the necessity of translation, a process through which an erstwhile norm can be revealed as contingent and even insufficient. In the case of Light in August, attending to the characters' travels reveals that the novel does not only--as is often attested--critique the consuming illogic of Jim Crow's racial dyad as constructed in closed local spaces, but it also reveals how encounter with a broader world confronts that system with racial and ethnic arrays that cannot be located within its binary.


When theorists of modernism focus on Europe and North America--an approach that might now, by point of contrast, be termed "the old modernist studies"--they often describe this aesthetic movement as an urban phenomenon, stimulated by new technologies and proliferating commerce and also responding to the great influx of new residents from rural areas and colonies. …

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