With Go Down, Moses and Other Stories, published 75 years ago this month, William Faulkner tested his publisher’s promotional department and readers alike. Like much of the rest of his fiction, the book was set in the fictional county of Yoknapatawpha, Mississippi, with an unorthodox style and plotting that sometimes made extraordinary demands.
Readers are thrown into the middle of this world with no prior hints; all the information they need to know is present but scrambled, often in sentences that never seem to end. Faulkner intended readers to be confused, much like his characters who are forced to negotiate the moral ambiguities of today from long-ago incidents of racism, violence, and violations against nature.
But above all, how was a reader to regard this fiction? Its title at the time of its publication provided one answer: as a group of short stories that could be read in or out of sequence. But, with many of the same characters reappearing throughout—and with the whole constituting a kind of fictional, century-spanning history of one southern family and its significant offshoots—it could also be seen as a unified novel.
Faulkner himself felt this way. In a 1949 letter, he offered marketing advice to his editor, Robert Haas: “Moses is indeed a novel. I would not eliminate the story or section titles. Do you think it necessary to number these stories like chapters? Why not reprint exactly, but change the title from Go Down, Moses and Other Stories, to simply: Go Down, Moses, with whatever change is necessary in the jacket description.” Random House followed that advice in subsequent editions.
Whether considered as a series of stories or as the novel Faulkner intended, Go Down, Moses finds the writer amply demonstrating his gifts as a versatile, experimental and even brilliantly pyrotechnical craftsman. To start with, readers familiar with the tragic events of novels like The Sound and the Fury, Light in August and Absalom, Absalom are likely to be astonished by the comic spirit of the first section of Go Down, Moses, “Was,” featuring Miss Sophonsiba Beauchamp, an aging spinster looking to catch the confirmed bachelor Uncle Buck. As if her aristocratic pretensions aren’t off-putting enough (she calls the family plantation “Warwick” because she is convinced her brother Hubert is actually the Earl of that English estate), the initial sight of her is not edifying:
“Presently there was a jangling and swishing noise and they began to smell the perfume, and Miss Sophonsiba came down the stairs. Her hair was roached under a lace cap; she had on her Sunday dress and beads and a red ribbon around her throat and a little nigger girl carrying her fan and he stood quietly a little behind Uncle Buck, watching her lips until they opened and he could see the roan tooth.”
Sophonsiba’s “hunt” for a husband is a comic counterpart to other, more serious hunts, both in “Was” and Go Down, Moses as a whole. Uncle Buck and his twin brother, Uncle Buddy, are supposedly hunting an escaped slave, Tomey’s Turl, but their heart is not really in it; they leave slaves run free at night. Later, the central consciousness of Go Down, Moses, Isaac (Ike) McCaslin, will engage a magnificent if dangerous animal close-up—and consider how much of nature has been lost through the encroachment of white settlers—in “The Bear.”
That novella may, in fact, be regarded as Ike's initiation into an almost religious order of hunters (Ike even puts a dab of deer blood on his forehead), adulthood, and the all-engulfing morass of racism.
When he becomes an adult, Ike discovers commissary ledgers regarding how the McCaslins secured their property and exploited their slaves. The horrors perpetrated by his grandfather (impregnating one slave, then committing incest with the child of that union, producing another baby) leads Ike to reject his inheritance.
But one of the animating beliefs behind that renunciation (“the earth was no man’s but all men’s, as light and air and weather were”) becomes an act of futility amid the monstrously complicated history of his family and region: “that record which two hundred years had not been enough to complete and another hundred would not be enough to discharge; that chronicle which was a whole land in miniature, which multiplied and compounded was the entire South."
For all his righteousness and decency, Ike has also given up any attempt to create a new life for future generations. True, he has abandoned any opportunity to profit from the land, but he has also forsaken any chance to improve the land and those who might otherwise benefit from it. Moreover, his wife becomes angry over his refusal to claim the inheritance, leaving him in an unhappy, childless marriage.