Yesterday I wrote about the positive side of the American dream, its openness to diversity. So that I don’t appear wide-eyed and naïve, I focus today on its dark side, its tribal hatred of racial Otherness. I was pointed in this direction by the introduction to a new Modern Library edition of Faulkner’s Absolon, Absolon, excerpted in the New York Times. Essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan says that the novel is “the most serious attempt by any white writer to confront the problem of race in America,” especially the South’s obsession with miscegenation.
Sullivan commends Faulkner’s bravery since he says that the author “knew that the effort would involve the exposure of his own mind, dark as it often was.” As I have a son who recently married a woman of color—this would have been illegal in the Tennessee of my childhood—I am particularly interested in what relevant insights Faulkner can provide into America’s current state of mind.
In the novel, Quentin Compson is doing research on one Thomas Sutpen, a friend of his grandfather, who in the early 19th century has a megalomaniacal ambition to establish a plantation and found a dynasty. Before Sutpen does so, however, he abandons his Haitian wife and son (Eulalia and Charles Bon) when he learns that she has black blood. He has a second family, which results in a son (Henry) and a daughter (Judith), but Charles and Henry do not know they are half brothers when they meet at the University of Mississippi. They become friends, Henry brings Charles home, and Charles and Judith fall in love. Their marriage would be incestuous and, what is even worse in Thomas Sutpen’s eyes, it would cross color lines. Thomas therefore turns his son against the marriage and Henry kills Charles.
In Sutpen’s ambition, Sullivan says, we see America’s murderous drive westward, a drive that claims white racial superiority even though whites and people of color are all bound up together:
As the Southern frontier murders its way west over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries — a phase absent to the point of amnesia from our national memory, but which re-emerges here like a wriggling worm — the region keeps generating Sutpens, repeating its themes: Indian removal, class resentment and land hunger, as well as a stubborn race hatred that coexists with intense racial intimacy.
The intimacy is important. Faulkner’s South is obsessed with miscegenation not because whites and blacks are so separate but because they are not. To establish his dynasty, Thomas Sutpen must renounce his black son. Henry, meanwhile, chooses not to reach out his hand to his half-brother and best friend but instead continues on with the prejudices of his father.
In a key scene where the brothers come together, Sullivan says that the novel invites us to imagine a different ending: Henry and Charles could acknowledge their kinship and build a society together. That, however, would not be a true account of what was happening in Faulkner’s world. Sullivan quotes a scene that raises our hopes, only to quash them:
“ — You shall not,” [Henry tells Bon, meaning, you shall not marry my sister.]
— Who will stop me, Henry?
— No, Henry says. — No. No. No.
Now it is Bon who watches Henry; he can see the whites of Henry’s eyes again as he sits looking at Henry with that expression which might be called smiling. His hand vanishes beneath the blanket and reappears, holding his pistol by the barrel, the butt extended toward Henry.
— Then do it now, he says.
Henry looks at the pistol; now he is not only panting, he is trembling [. . .]
— You are my brother.
— No I’m not. I’m the nigger that’s going to sleep with your sister. Unless you stop me, Henry.
Sullivan calls this “one of the most extraordinary moments in Southern literature. A white man and a black man look at each other and call each other brother. One does, anyway.” For a moment, the underpinnings of racism are brought into question:
Suddenly, thrillingly, the whole social edifice on which the novel is erected starts to teeter. All Henry has to do is repeat himself. Say it again, the reader thinks. Say, “No, you are my brother.” And all would be well, or could be well, the gothic farce of Sutpen’s dream redeemed with those words, remade into a hopeful or at least not-hope-denying human story. Charles Bon would live, and Judith would be his wife, and Sutpen would have descendants, and together they might begin rebuilding the South along new lines. Granted Bon would still be marrying his half-sister, but that doesn’t bother Henry very much (the book tells us so), and life is rarely perfect. There is nothing to keep Henry from saying it, to keep him from reaching out his hand to his black brother, nothing except the weight of the past, the fear of ridicule, his own weakness. Instead of his hand, Henry brings forth the pistol.
And this brings us, fittingly, to the current state of our nation, where some have embraced this intermingling of the races and others, like Henry, have turned their backs on it. Sullivan makes the connections:
I found it fascinating to read the book with a president sitting in the White House who comes from a mixed-race marriage, and with the statistic having just been announced that for the first time in U.S. history, nonwhite births have surpassed white ones. Some of the myths out of which the novel weaves its upsetting dreams appear quite different, like walking by a familiar painting and finding that someone has altered it. This is a strange time to be alive in America, in that regard. Close one eye, and we can seem to be moving toward a one-race society; close the other and we seem as racially conflicted and stratified as ever. Racism is still our madness. The longer that remains the case, the more vital this book grows, for Faulkner is one of the great explorers of that madness.
Incidentally, Sullivan went to school in Sewanee, where I grew up, and was a student of my father. The world he describes, therefore, is familiar to me. It is less familiar—indeed, it appears somewhat exotic—to my son, who often lives with one eye closed. And it is good that he doesn’t see what Sullivan and I see. We want our children to grow up in a one-race society.
But as I don’t expect racism to have disappeared from America in the next 20 years, the challenge of my granddaughter’s parents will be to give her resources for dealing with America’s madness. Otherwise, she will be blindsided by it. Raising her to become aware of racism but not embittered or twisted by it will be hard. Luckily we have Faulkner. Steering Esmé towards books like Absolon, Absolon, and reading the books ourselves, is one way of raising the necessary awareness.