William Faulkner, "The Tall Men"; "Adolescence"

December 12, 2012 § 2 Comments

Much has been made in previous Faulkner Friday entries on how Faulkner’s characters relate to their time and locale.  At times, this take risks suborning characterization too much to the demands of theme.  Yet whenever the individual characters are considered, from Addie to Emily to Joe to Quentin to Sam Fathers and so forth, there is a quality about them that makes them seem “real” outside of the constraints of the particular tale in which they appear.  A composite image forms of characters who have suffered, who have grieved, who have spat into the wind and dared to take another step when exhaustion threatened to end their existence right then and there.  Faulkner references this in his Nobel acceptance speech, where he said:

I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

Endurance in hope of fulfillment and justification drives many people to suffer not just the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but also the ebbs and flows of bounty.  Faulkner’s characters have known better times; they strive for their return, even if they know it may never happen again.  If this were all that Faulkner’s characters were about, however, they would be more archetypes or distortions than true dynamic representations of human people.  Sometimes, these qualities of hope and steadfastness are recognized within the characters (as that of McCallums in “The Tall Men” or the half-orphaned girl Juliet in “Adolescence”) or are seen in opposition through the views of their antagonists (such as the government official in “The Tall Men”).  Even when misunderstood or unrecognized by other characters, these qualities capture and hold our attention.

“The Tall Men” (1941) is set during the last years of the Great Depression, as the country readies itself for possible entry into World War II.  A government official, Pearson,  has been sent to Jefferson to arrest two of the McCallums for draft evasion.  As he travels into town, irked that a local marshal has already told the two men to expect to be arrested, this investigator muses about the local situation in language that might sound familiar to those who have ever heard someone rail against public welfare:

The investigator drew up behind the other car and switched off and blacked out his lights.  “These people,” he said.  Then he thought, But this doddering, tobacco-chewing old man is one of them, too, despite the honor and pride of his office, which should have made him different.  So he didn’t speak it aloud, removing the keys and getting out of the car, and then locking the car itself, rolling the windows up first, thinking, These people who lie about and conceal the ownership of land and property in order to hold relief jobs which they have no intention of performing, standing on their constitutional rights against having to work, who jeopardize the very job itself through petty and transparent subterfuge to acquire a free mattress which they intend to sell; who would relinquish even the job, if by so doing they could receive free food and a place, any rathole, in town to sleep in; who, as farmers, make false statements to get seed loans which they will later misuse, and then react in loud vituperative outrage and astonishment when caught at it.  And then, when at long last a suffering and threatened Government asks one thing of them in return, one thing simply, which is to put their names down on a selective-service list, they refuse to do it.

Over the course of “The Tall Men,” we see this presumptive opinion altered by Pearson’s encounter with the uncle and father of the two young McCallums.  Agricultural laborers and, in the case of the father, a World War I veteran, the elder McCallums talk of not taking anything from anyone but giving freely (in the form of service to land and country, whether it be that of their own father who walked across a thousand miles to join a Confederate regiment in Virginia or Buddy McCallum’s service in World War I) when asked.  Some of their attitudes, such as their refusal to accept crop subsidies and their circumvention of being rewarded for no service may seem quaint to modern readers, but it lies in direct opposition to the opinion expressed earlier by Pearson.  Pearson is forced to confront the truth that there are some who do not shirk duty as much as embrace it to such a degree that mere government directives pale in comparison.  As he prepares to leave the McCallum household, his preconceptions shattered, the local marshal who accompanied him drives this point home with this observation:

So the investigator put the bundle down on the brick coping and the marshal began to dig, skillfully and rapidly, still talking in that cheerful, interminable voice, “Yes, sir.  We done forgot about folks.  Life has done got cheap, and life ain’t cheap.  Life’s a pretty durn valuable thing.  I don’t mean just getting along from one WPA relief check to the next one, but honor and pride and discipline that make a man worth preserving, make him of any value.  That’s what we got to learn again.  Maybe it takes trouble, bad trouble, to teach it back to us; maybe it was the walking to Virginia because that’s where his ma come from, and losing a war and then walking back, that taught it to old Anse.  Anyway, he seems to learned it, and to learned it good enough to bequeath it to his boys.  Did you notice how all Buddy had to do was to tell them boys of his it was time to go, because the Government had sent them the word?  And how they told him good-by?  Growned men kissing one another without hiding and without shame.  Maybe that’s what I am trying to say.

Just as Pearson too readily judged the McCallums because of the letter of a law being broken, too quickly do we often look down upon those who fail to behave in the manner which we prescribe to them.  “The Tall Men” could have been set anywhere in the South (it has barely any connection beyond the Jefferson setting with the rest of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County stories) or any American rural area for that matter.  It is the character of the fictional personages that speak to us, reminding us of character traits that we too often dismiss from our fellow human beings.  There is a veracity to “The Tall Men” that makes it powerful without there being any great dramatic scene; the drama that unfolds is between humans who come to understand each other just a little bit more.
“Adolescence” is not on the par of “The Tall Men,” but this short tale, likely composed in the late 1920s or early 1930s, also is a character-driven tale.  Faulkner begins this tale by opening with the cruel fate of young Juliet Bunden’s mother, whose dreams and aspirations were slowly crushed by marriage to the shiftless Joe Bunden and the pains of childbirth in an age before modern prenatal treatment:

The first ten months of her married life – a time of unprecedented manual labor – failed to destroy her illusions; her mental life, projected forward about her expected child, supported her.  She had hoped for twins, to be called Romeo and Juliet, but she was forced to lavish her starved affections on Juliet alone.  Her husband condoned this choice of name with a tolerant guffaw.  Paternity rested but lightly upon him:  like the male of his kind, he regarded the inevitable arrival of children as one of the unavoidable inconveniences of marriage, like the risk of wetting the feet while fishing.

Juliet’s mother soon dies and when her father remarries, he sends her to live with his mother, who attempts to rear this headstrong girl, after she is sent away by her stepmother for open defiance and antipathy.   “Adolescence” traces the story of Juliet’s development, as she comes to fall in love with a boy, Lee, she meets one day, and whose changing body and moods come to reflect a deepening distrust of the patriarchal world in which she lives.  Her grandmother, and later her father, try to force her to accept the subordinate role that women had been forced into in Southern (and by extension, American) society.  When her grandmother dismisses Lee as a scion of a worthless local family, Juliet flies into a rage, screaming and cursing at her grandmother.  The two eventually come to blows over this years later, as Juliet turns fifteen, and she wants a cook to do the labor that her grandmother has enforced upon her.  As they argue, the core issue of Juliet’s refusal to accept societal conventions comes to the fore:

“Tech you!  Joe Bunden’ll do that a plenty when he comes, I promise ye.  And I bound ye the husband Joe’s picked for you’ll tech ye too; when he hears what folks say about you and that no ‘count Hollowell.”

“Husband?” repeated Juliet.  The other croaked into laughter.

“Husband, I tell ye.  But I hadn’t aimed to tell ye before every thing was ready, you’re so hard headed.  But I guess Joe’ll manage ye.  I sent word to Joe that I couldn’t manage you; and them folks of yourn dont want ye to home; so Joe’s went and found somebody to marry ye, though God knows where he found a feller’ll take ye.  But that’s Joe’s lookout, not mine:  I done what I could for ye.”

“Husband?” repeated Juliet idiotically.  “Do you think that you and Joe Bunden can both make me get married?  Much as I hate you, I’d rather be dead than go back home; and before I’d marry anybody I’ll kill you and Joe Bunden, too.  You cant make me!”

The story ends on an ambiguous note.  Her father turns up dead, shot by federal agents during a bootlegging run.  Juliet struggles to make sense of the world around her; she knows that she cannot continue as she is.  As the story closes, there is the hint of something momentous has happened, but with little resolution in sight.  “Adolescence” feels incomplete, as though there is more to Juliet’s young life to be explored, but perhaps that is part of the point that Faulkner makes, that of how all those storms and struggles of youth lead to something else, something that may or may not be for the better.  Yet even if this were the case, then perhaps Juliet Bunden’s struggles are worth considering all the more for their inconclusiveness than for what her fate might say?

There is much to consider (and perhaps, reconsider) in reading and re-reading this tale and that of “The Tall Men.”  Well-developed characters, just like people we have met in our lives, do not easily divulge their innermost secrets and motivations.  We change, we grow, we struggle to find a way to endure.  That lies at the heart of Faulkner’s Nobel speech and it certainly is an important part of his writings.  Empathy is a powerful force, if we could only grasp it fully, he seems to say in these tales.  It certainly is a quality that adds to these fictions.

Originally posted in March 2012 on Gogol’s Overcoat as part of a weekly “Faulkner Friday.”  Novels  reviewed from January-April will be reposted here on Fridays, while the short stories will appear on Wednesdays.

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