May 11, 1942—At a low point in his life, William Faulkner produced one of the central achievements of his long career, as Random House published his Go Down, Moses. In typical fashion, what the master chronicler of the dark Deep South intended and what readers perceived diverged.
Only a few weeks away from returning to Hollywood for a much-needed stint as a screenwriter to stabilize his finances, the Mississippi-born writer was still three years away from the event that would secure him mainstream acceptance for keeps: Malcolm Cowley’s edition of the anthology The Portable Faulkner. The Nobel Prize for Literature lay four years beyond that. In the meantime, he was obliged to deal with indignities. On the scale of things, what his publisher did, on a book he had labored over assiduously these last couple of years, was relatively small.
Faulkner had noticed several common themes and characters in his recent short fiction. He had added a couple more to produce seven stories that were, in fact, heavily interrelated—so much so that they really constituted a whole. He did not like it, then, when he turned to the title page of his latest book and saw that Random House had appended the words “And Other Stories” to “Go Down, Moses.” The New York publisher had been in such a hurry to put the book into production that it had made minimal changes in Faulkner's retyped manuscript, not noticing, for instance, that he'd left out a crucial sentence that would have made the work more understandable--yet it wanted this large marketing change.
It would not be until 1949, when his editors proposed to reprint the title following his more successful Intruder in the Dust, that they accepted his argument that Go Down, Moses was actually a novel and that “And Other Stories” should be dropped from the title. Ever since then, a critical consensus has accepted Faulkner’s assessment of the work as one—particularly because all seven stories feature one character, Isaac “Ike” McCaslin, and his family over the course of a century in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County.
I had read some Faulkner—e.g., “A Rose for Emily”—before my major immersion in his work in college. Go Down, Moses, along with the earlier The Hamlet, served as my introduction at that point. In many ways, Moses is an ideal way to introduce neophytes to this demanding writer. It doesn’t contain the full-scale modernist experimentation of The Sound and the Fury, but it also includes enough idiosyncrasies (for instance, a parenthesis that goes on for two whole pages) to let you know that you are, indeed, not in Kansas anymore.
More important, many of the major obsessions of his work and life show up here: the hopelessly entangled destinies of the white, black and red races; incest; the inability of white masters to escape history, especially the legacy of slavery; the nearly primeval beauty of the land, the majesty of hunting—and the destruction this sport brings to the environment; and somehow, despite the overwhelming tragedy of history, instances when a sense of the ridiculousness of human beings also breaks through.
Two stories seem especially central in this book. First is “The Bear,” which is on the short list of great American novellas—at heart, a tale about attempts at purification that, tragically, produce no salvation. Ten-year-old Isaac McCaslin, at the start of the story, is introduced to the rituals of nature in much the same way that Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams is: carefully, through ritual, learning there is a right and wrong way to how things are done. The titular bear is a creature beyond the norm, commanding not merely respect but awe. Nature is restorative for those who might not always make their way in a confusing outside world—but that world, in the end, wins out, as the forest is destroyed following a lumber deal.
The adult Ike decides on a different kind of purification: recognition of his African-American siblings (born as the result of a slavemaking ancestor’s miscegenation) as he renounces his own land claims in their favor. But the gesture, for all its good intentions, offers no hope that Ike will effect any moral improvement in in their situation.
Violence, guilt and injustice are inescapable in Faulkner’s universe, but so is the need of many characters—including notably, a number of African-Americans—to maintain their dignity. Nothing escapes the novelist’s eyes, including the absurdities that can make readers laugh out lead. Such is the case with Isaac’s mother, Sophonsiba, who patterns servants' attire after English country estates.