While dystopian post-Apocalyptic literature, such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, has gained renewed popularity recently, William Faulkner approached those essential elements differently in his dark and comic As I Lay Dying.
We may be able to imagine now the Bundren family, as ancestors to Trump-supporters, suffering fire and flood as a metaphor for the human condition magnified by poverty and ignorance.
Faulkner offers a double dose of complications through his own garbled and tone-deaf ideology as well as his experimental and multi-layered prose.
As the coast of Texas and the greater Houston area continue to be battered and flooded by Harvey, a re-reading of the flood scene in As I Lay Dying, when the family loses control of Addie Bundren’s coffin and horse-drawn wagon in the flood waters of a river, suggests that Faulkner is not dealing merely with allegory—but with how Nature often intervenes with lessons that should caution humans about the maxims they live by.
Along with traditional commitments to rugged individualism and chastising those who struggle to simply pull themselves up by the bootstrap, “a rising tide lifts all boats” stands as a common refrain in our uncritical hymn to capitalism and the so-called free market.
The bootstrap and rising tide myths render invisible and willfully ignore those without boots and the boatless.
As Harvey has shown, the media and mainstream responses to the flood are blinded by privilege and assumptions about human agency: How do poor individuals and families evacuate who have no transportation, no emergency funds, nowhere to go?
For the poor in the path of Harvey, the storm and the flood are exponential versions of their daily lives already stressed by a calloused American faith in deforming myths; poverty is the fault of the poor rests just beneath the bootstrap and rising tide myths.
The able-bodied but lazy poor, however, is worse than a myth because it is a lie: “more than 80% of the officially poor are either children, elderly, disabled, students, or the involuntarily unemployed (while the majority of the remaining officially poor are carers or working people who didn’t face an unemployment spell)” [Who Are the Poor? (1987-2013)].
Between the election of Trump and the landfall of Harvey, pundits and the media have spent a great deal of time wrestling with the so-called Trump voter who is white and working class or poor, and often rural.
That debate and myopic focus teach an unintended lesson about how the only the things that matter in the U.S. are those that impact white people (“working class” has become code for “white” as if black and Latinx aren’t working class). This same pattern has developed lately about opioid addiction.
But there is much we can and should learn from the white working-class/poor voters who remain in Trump’s camp despite many having those commitments checked by, for example, realizing that Obamacare is the ACA—and its repeal would have cost them healthcare.
Like the Bundren family, they are self-defeating in their stubbornness and ignorance, but to observe them still raises questions about how much they deserve compassion.
And here is the irony: these “Make America Great Again” legions, driven by white nationalism and racism, deserve the exact compassion and community that they deny the poor because of their indoctrination into the deforming bootstrap and rising tide myths.
When there are rising tides, the boatless always suffer—but in the U.S. we have decided to live as if that is the fault of the boatless.
Harvey’s devastation of Houston exposes once again the fragility of humans against the enormity of Nature, but it also unmasks the emptiness of the American character, unwilling to put community first because the dollar matters more than any person, even a child.
The Great Deforming Myth is the Invisible Hand that may or may not provide for you—unless you hit the birth lottery.
Like the Bundren family—mostly a clan of deeply selfish and bitter humans—standing on the river bank and watching Addie’s coffin tumble and bob in the churn of the flooded river, Americans watch Houston drown on smart phones, tablets, and 24-hour news channels.
The ugly subtext of As I Lay Dying is that Addie’s family members are using her death and burial to cash in on something they have been otherwise denied. Their journey through fire and flood seeks the cover of a grieving family to mask their pettiness, their emptiness.
In the receding waters of Harvey, we should consider that Faulkner, not Fitzgerald, has crafted the Great American Novel, and the characterization is not pretty.
Bonus Pop Culture Scene Refuting of the Rising Tide Myth