Sunday, January 16, 2011

# 54 Light in August – William Faulkner

At a convention years ago the centathlete met a bunch of folks from Mississippi, specifically Crystal Springs, once known as “Tomatopolis of the world.” Looking to connect via his Southern schooling, the centathlete informed one hot tomato he went to college in North Carolina. “Oh, that’s not the South,” she promptly said.

Today one wonders if her radius of Southern quintessence extended as far as the college town of Oxford, nearly 200 miles to the north. Known lately for both its southern lifestyle and “cosmopolitan flair,” Oxford was home to William Faulkner most of his life and it served as the model for Jefferson, MS, the setting for his 1932 novel, Light in August.

Most people outside of Crystal Springs consider Faulkner a representative, if not an apotheosis, of a “Southern writer,” as evidenced partly by his influence on contemporary artists such as the guitarist Doug Wamble, a native Tennessean. Here is an excerpt from an interview with Adam Levy:

Q. What dead artist…would you like to have collaborated with?

A. …For other arts (besides music), it'd be William Faulkner. I'd love to have found a way to work with him, because he's in my favorite subset of humanity — the Southern Intellectual.

Chamber Music America awarded Wamble a grant to explore, in his words, “the dichotomy of being an intellectual who is rooted in the down home elements of the South.”

In embracing and wrestling with the “dichotomy” between folksiness and erudition, Wamble created a “sound portrait of the fictional world of William Faulkner.” Its track “Christmas’ Burden,” a superb bit of banjo blues seen in this live performance here, gives voice to Joe Christmas of Light in August. By playing on the notion of “the white man’s burden,” Wamble considers Joe’s mixed heritage and its impact on his body and soul. On the run, Christmas sings:

And I know that it’s true

something’s gonna happen to me

And I know God loves me too

What does happen is horrifying. His fate stems from Faulkner’s own scarring memory of the public justice enacted on a man named Nelse Patton, according to a website devoted to Faulkner Triva. In Faulkner’s County, the historian Don Doyle examines such atrocities, the concept of a collective “burden,” and the relationship between the legacy of Oxford’s Lafayette County and the lore of Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha:

"[Faulkner] saw the southern past as a burden on his people, carrying with it sins so profound that the past constituted a curse that hung over the land, inherited by one generation after another."
As the past cursed Faulkner’s county, change plagued it. Let’s start with the very population of that “postage stamp.” Faulkner himself provided the following demographics:

Yoknapatawpha Population (ca. 1936): Whites, 6,298, Negroes, 9,313

This yields a proportion of 40% to 59%. The eminent historian and novelist Shelby Foote disputed the depiction as follows: “…[Faulkner] makes it about half black and half white. That’s absurd. No county in the hills here would be half black.” We presume Foote means that the black population is much too large and therefore the statistic is apocryphal when compared to Lafayette. Do we infer that Faulkner was placing his county in the old-line cotton-growing area, and accentuating the perceived threat of unrest to the whites of Yoknapatawpha?

As the population in Lafayette has almost tripled from the 1930’s, the demographics have more than flip-flopped from the Faulknerian portrayal. According to the 2009 census, in Lafayette County there were:

White persons 31,925, Black persons 10,817, 72.6% white, 24.6% black

We undertake such rudimentary analysis because race matters crucially in Light in August on a societal and individual level. Joe Christmas is tortured, perhaps cursed, by his mixed ancestry. With slavery a century and half behind Americans, we continue to inquire about, if not obsess over, this issue. “Ethnic background is important to many,” writes “Since so many of you have asked—here is what we know,” above its Multiracial Celebrities gallery.

Indeed, the identity of “Joe Christmas” evokes the character’s name source and evergreen argument over the race of Jesus Christ. Try a Google search to see the latest permutations of what Jesus might have looked like.

With a Christian namesake, a Madonna in the character of Lena Grove (played in this video by Mallisa Rainey), a reverend and two preachers, Light in August presents an abundance of religious fervor, inquiry and doubt. The troubled figures invite us on our own epistemological examination of identity and belief. In delving into Joe Christmas’s early childhood, the narrator tells us, “Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders. Knows remembers believes…”

Richard Guilfoyle called this passage a koan, and wrote:

"As such, Light in August is an anamnetic text, the remembrance of things past and the recollection of the a priori and phenomenal known in the tradition of The Confessions of St. Augustine, Dante’s Vita Nuova, and Plato. Augustinian, Dantean, and Platonic contemplation of memory is a divine reuniting; it is the educing of the godlike, godly, and for some, even god. The quest is intensely personal, particular, pointed, wavelike, and revelatory of the universal."
Whoa, that's heavy lifting, Richard—but we’re not getting quizzed on it! Good ol’ Mark Twain broke down this process with more succinctness and cynicism:
“In religion and politics people's beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners…”
Hey, it was Twain, not the centathlete, who brought up Politics, the topic other than religion that has no place in polite discussion. With our Faulkner in hand, we see that in the 2008 presidential election, voters in Lafayette County were 56% for McCain and 43% for Obama, in line with the state of Mississippi.

An analysis of other Mississippi counties’ results argued for a correlation between the vote for Obama and the historical demographics of cotton-growing areas. Comparing and overlaying maps from three centuries, the blogger concluded, The electoral map indicates very clearly that there there is a strong national consciousness in the Black Belt that was expressed in the election of the first Black president.”

McCain won the other Southern states except Florida, Virginia and North Carolina, suggesting that the Crystal Springs tomato was on to something about who is Southern and who isn’t. Incidentally, the centathlete met her at a convention in Hawaii, the birthplace of President Obama, though that is disputed by the Birther Movement, which questions the president’s legitimacy without the production of the “vault copy of the long firm birth certificate.”

The “Mama Birther,” an interesting title, is Orly Taitz, who writes to President Obama on her website as follows: “…your white half is as corrupt as your black half. The issue is not in race, but in the massive Social Security and elections fraud, that you are perpetrating.” This invective refers in part to the branches of the Obama family tree.

On the Daily Show, Jon Stewart mocked Taitz, whom he called “the lost Gabor sister,” as well as a Delaware woman who shouted that the president “…is not an American citizen. He is a citizen of Kenya.” Stewart’s segment was titled “The Born Identity,” punning on the Matt Damon cycle that the centathlete watches over and over again on cable, and again calling attention to the compelling issue of identity.

Another website more seriously rebutted the birthers’ allegation that President Obama’s certificate of live birth was a forgery. calls itself “the definitive Internet reference source for urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors, and misinformation.” The founders and primary fact-checkers, David and Barbara Mikkelson, were interviewed by David Pogue, a technology blogger for The New York Times.

David Pogue: Where does the name Snopes come from?

David Mikkelson: Snopes come from a family of characters who recur in the works of William Faulkner. He typically had different families that represented different strata of Southern society. And the Snopes were on the bottom rung of the social ladder. But none of that has anything to do with the site. It just — I knew the name Snopes from having read William Faulkner. It was my nom de net. And then when we started the site, it turned out to be sort of fortuitous. Because it is so short and catchy and distinctive.

The Snopes clan does not appear in Light in August, but we like to bump into the novelist’s influence in a very contemporary platform. We kept reading:

David Pogue: Does it ever make you cynical about human nature? All this [misinformation], day in and day out?

David Mikkelson: Well sometimes. You know, it gets a little disheartening to see the same kinds of things going around time after time.

Take heart, David, those same things—legends, family histories, imperfect remembrances, avatars, apotheoses (loving the plural), sermons, war stories—will always keep going around. On Faulkner Time.