Re-reading Faulkner in Trumplandia: “[H]is ferocious conviction in the rightness of his own actions”

Season 2 of Mindhunter focuses on the Atlanta child murders; in one scene investigators interrogate a local KKK member.

As a lifelong white Southern male, I found the characterization of that man—what many would call a Georgia cracker—to be unsettling. He is arrogant, self-assured, and able, as he declares, to wrangle his way out of any trouble.

What is off, I think, is that in real life this type of poor Southern white man is an odd but distinct combination of embarrassed arrogance. They are stubbornly self-assured—and completely un-self-aware. But they are also painfully laconic, and if you look carefully, they often become flushed, the blood rising in their necks and faces as they swell with both anger and embarrassment.

In the audio of the wiretap that leads to this KKK member being interrogated, there are hints that Mindhunter is softening the characterizations (that dialogue, and the verb usage, is far too formal) so the scene that bothers me seems to be a reasonable cinematic decision—although it fits into a current narrative about white men now who seem to be afraid of losing status that they never deserved in the first place.

Within a couple days of watching that scene, I happened to finally view Burning, a celebrated Korean film based on Haruki Murakami’s “Barn Burning,” which is the Japanese author’s take on William Faulkner’s story of the same name.

After seeing the film, I decided to re-read both Faulkner’s and Murakami’s stories.

My experiences with Faulkner began flatly in high school, “The Bear,” and then more seriously in a Southern literature course where I found myself deeply embarrassed and suddenly aware of how much I did not know as a junior English education major. Immediately after I graduated college at the end of the first semester of my fifth year, I set out to read everything by Faulkner as I spent several month substitute teaching and doing a long-term sub—all while applying for what I hoped would be my first teaching job that coming fall.

Faulkner then provided for me, still deeply uncritical, an influential combination of modernism filtered through a deeply familiar Southern voice; there was much there that was technically and verbally dazzling (or so it seemed to me as a twenty-something want-to-be writer and teacher).

In 2019 Trumplandia, however, as I rapidly approach 60, I found a much different Faulkner in my re-reading of “Barn Burning”—one now informed by, for example, James Baldwin’s confrontation of Faulkner and the uncomfortable reality that even my well-educated friends now lament that times are really hard for white men in this #MeToo era.

If you are not from the South and you want to understand my opening concerns about the absence of the embarrassed arrogance in the KKK member being interrogated, or if you can’t quite grasp yet who Trump voters are, I suggest you wade into Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” to witness Abner Snopes. A few pages in, readers have the central character of Snopes detailed:

There was something about his wolf-like independence and even courage when the advantage was at least neutral which impressed strangers, as if they got from his latent ravening ferocity not so much a sense of dependability as a feeling that his ferocious conviction in the rightness of his own actions would be of advantage to all whose interest lay with his.

And later in the story, once the family has been once again relocated because of the father’s serial criminality, Abner Snopes chastises is young son Sarty (the eyes of the story) for nearly betraying his father in court:

“You’re getting to be a man. You got to learn. You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to you. Do you think either of them, any man there this morning, would? Don’t you know all they wanted was a chance to get at me because they knew I had them beat?”

You will witness Snopes go before the Justice of the Peace twice, quite guilty both time and quite determined that he should not be punished because his actions, to him, are entirely justified—both the burning of a barn and tracking horse manure across the rug when he arrives at Major de Spain’s farm. Snopes is all rugged individual (“wolf-like independence”) and white nationalism/tribalism (“‘your own blood'”) bundled into Southern embarrassed arrogance.

Few things anger many poor white males in the South more than questioning or challenging their honor code, a code wrapped in white nationalism; Snopes rations out his justice and expects everyone else to step aside, recognize its authority.

Re-reading the story also revealed to me how Faulkner incorporates a distinct element of materialism to the theme of individual versus communal justice. Snopes destroys the property of those wealthier than him to assert his dominance in the same way Snopes uses racial slurs about and at black characters in the story.

Snopes is just as domineering with his family, the women and children subject to his verbal and physical wrath, his expected but unpredictable lashing out. Snopes desperately clings to the mythical fiefdom he has manufactured thoughtlessly in his mind.

Faulkner’s story ends with the boy’s sense of “‘truth, justice'” finally coming to a deadly climax with his father’s barn burning, but even as the boy feels compelled to betray his father, his blood, Sarty cannot rise above the engrained but distorted myth of his father:

Father. My father, he thought. “He was brave!” he cried suddenly, aloud but not loud, no more than a whisper: “He was! He was in the war! He was in Colonel Sartoris’ cav’ry!” not knowing that his father had gone to that war a private in the fine old European sense, wearing no uniform, admitting authority of and giving fidelity to no man or army or flag, going to war as Malbrouck himself did: for booty—it meant nothing and less than nothing to him if it were enemy booty or his own.

As Faulkner is apt to do often, the story reveals itself as one of the self-defeating South, where pride in tradition fails any reasonable effort to ground that pride in an ethical unpacking of the past.

Today the laconic embarrassed arrogance has shifted to rants on social media defending the Confederate Flag and arguing that the South fought the Civil War for state’s rights or wildly claiming many blacks fought in Confederate uniforms in that sacred war.

Especially in 2019, both Murakami’s story and the film adaptation help put Faulkner’s story and today’s angry white men in a sharp relief.

Murakami tends to traffic in disassociated men, what can be misinterpreted as sympathetic narratives about the male condition. His “Barn Burning” is steeped in the naive narrator (the film directly mentions The Great Gatsby, but those familiar with Murakami’s work can feel a sort of Nick narrator in this story, fascinated with the mysterious and wealthy boyfriend who appears with the younger woman at the center of the story).

Barn burning is the surprising confession by that mysterious new boyfriend, who decides to confide in the narrator and give the story both an air of mystery and a much more ambiguous (although still detached) moral center than Faulkner’s stark display of Southern honor:

“I’m not judging anything. They’re waiting to be burned. I’m simply obliging. You get it? I’m just taking on what’s there. Just like the rain….Well, all right, does this make me immoral? In my own way, I’d like to believe I’ve got my own morals. And that’s an extremely important force in human existence. A person can’t exist without morals.”

This self-identified barn burner, then, is a more expressive Abner Snopes, and Murakami’s version is far more ambiguous about the barn burnings and how the reader is supposed to judge, or not, the three main characters—the married narrator, the twenty-year-old woman involved with both men (and who falls asleep easily), and the new boyfriend who flatly states he burns barns.

Another twist added by Murakami is when the narrator confronts the barn burner about not being able to find the most recently burned barn: “‘All I can say is, you must have missed it. Does happen you know. Things so close up, they don’t even register.'”

A brief exchange but, I think, a valuable commentary on anyone’s lack of self-awareness—the inability see the things so close up but that still drive who we are, what we do, and how we navigate the world as if our morals are the right ones.

Murakami leaves the reader with more unanswered, however, capturing some of the indirect and ambiguous also lingering at the end of Faulkner’s story.

[Spoiler alert for the film Burning.]

And this brings me to the film adaptation that moves beyond Faulkner’s modernist and Murakami’s post-modernist tendencies.

In the film, the barn burning mystery (transposed to burning greenhouses) becomes a frame for the new boyfriend being a serial murderer and the central character being pushed himself into asserting violently his own moral code.

The movie adaptation steers the viewer into a psychological mystery. As we watch along with the central character, Lee Jong-su, a disturbing picture develop. Ben declares to his new girlfriend, after Shin Hae-mi has disappeared, that burning greenhouses is merely a metaphor (that the viewers and Jong-su recognize as a metaphor for his being a serial murderer of young women).

To work through Faulkner to Murakami to Burning is more than a journey through literary/film theory and genre/medium. This an exercise is coming to recognize the very real and violent consequences of the anger that rises in men of a certain type (maybe, as the film suggests, all men) who cling to their individualistic moral codes to the exclusion of everyone else.

These are not just the men of a short story or movie; these are the agents of mass shootings and the daily terrors of domestic violence and sexual aggression and assault.

As a white man from the South, I struggle with the sharp awareness that the tension in Sarty between some larger communal ethics and the myth of this father remains a reality for young men in 2019. I also fear that the new narrative that the world is becoming too hard for men is very fertile ground for the sort of unbridled arrogance and violence that pervades the U.S.

Faulkner’s story ends in allusion. The barn burning blazes behind Sarty, who understands what the gun fire he hears confirms. Yet, he walks away, and “[h]e did not look back.”

If Faulkner is being hopeful here, I cannot muster that same optimism today.

See Also

Cormac McCarthy’s Mostly White, Male Mythology: Rethinking the Canon

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Cormac McCarthy’s Mostly White, Male Mythology: Rethinking the Canon

Ryan Boyd focuses his response to the new book by Ta-Nehisi Coates on “the bookworm’s Between the World and Me” in order to “speculate briefly on what that says about Coates’s writing mind.”

Boyd agrees with John Warner that Coates is more student than James Baldwin’s preacher. And in his roles as student, writer, public intellectual, Coates presents as well a nuanced (and I think, important) perspective on what literature matters:

Coates is a canonist. Not in the normative way that, say, Harold Bloom or Matthew Arnold are, because they see canon-formation and maintenance as primarily an Anglo project; but rather in terms of a basic belief that some texts really are better than almost all others and thus worth passing along to younger generations first. To be sure, he envisions a democratic canon which is constantly interrogated and supplemented, but he’s still a Great Books man. Canonicity is a principle, not a specific roster of content.

Many teachers, writers, and readers have fought a long and seemingly endless battle against the normative canon, which has existed as a prescriptive list of dead white men’s books—myself among that cause.

Yet, I have always struggled with loving many of the works that fall into that traditional canon, like Coates, and also felt self-conscious about having standards myself for “good” versus “bad” literature.

This schizophrenia manifests itself for me in my response to young adult (YA) literature: I strongly advocate for YA literature because it encourages children to read, often a great deal, but I often add that for me most YA literature falls short of what I expect from literature (and I think too many YA works ask too little of teens who are more capable than writers and publishers seem to believe).

I have made that same case about comic books and graphic novels.

This Coates-inspired rethinking about the canon, then, has coincided with my finishing Cormac McCarthy’s The Border Trilogy: All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain.

McCarthy as a white male writer and then his mostly white, male mythology represent the essential tension faced by those of us calling for the expanded canon, including the voices of women and black/brown authors.

The Racist Imperative: White as Mythological and Universal

Scott Esposito acknowledges in McCarthy “the allegorical nature of The Border Trilogy“:

McCarthy seems to be at pains to paint these books in black and white because he knows he is writing allegories, and thus they require broad strokes in order to function properly.

The Border Trilogy is certainly not nearly as realist as McCarthy’s first four novels, or even as realist as Blood Meridian. It has been previously commented that John Grady and Billy are far too able as cowboys to be believable. Whether breaking a horse, muzzling a wolf, or shooting game, they never struggle to do anything; they just do it, much like an epic hero might.

I find the trilogy compelling because of McCarthy’s Faulknerian tendency to drop into poetry (frequently, the prose is beautiful above and beyond the obligation a writer has to move along a story) and because the works are mythology charged with confronting readers with universal questions about justice and coming to grips with the human condition.

And therein lies the problem, but not one we must lay at McCarthy’s feet alone since the white and misogynistic template for mythology is literally Greek and Roman mythology.

The white male hero was not created by McCarthy (see Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces), but John Grady Cole and Billy Parham maintain a tradition among the normative canon of casting whiteness and maleness as the universal Truth, one that has moved away from description and toward prescription.

As well, McCarthy slips uncritically into the template of the female-as-prize for the male-as-savior—notably Magdalena (Cities of the Plain), a mere child cast as epileptic prostitute and, as always, beautiful. (See the same strengths and weaknesses in True Detective, season 1.)

However, if McCarthy’s works are simply endorsed by the normative cannon edict or dismissed by a similar but inverse multi-cultural mandate, I believe that we fail Coates’s canon-as-principle, as Boyd suggests.

The Border Trilogy is allegory, mythology rich in considerations of the nature of justice as well as the elusive nature of any human seeking to bring about justice.

More nuanced, I think, is the Mexico/U.S. duality posed by McCarthy—much as Margaret Atwood does with Canada/U.S. and Roxane Gay does with Haiti/U.S.

Nested within the larger themes of justice, Mexico becomes an allegory of the communal while the U.S. represents a people trapped in the market. Billy Parham’s sense of justice is enhanced by the kindness he experiences while criss-crossing into Mexico. The border crossing is itself a mythological passage in which coins signal the transition from Mexico—where my house/food is your house/food—to the U.S.—where everything is a matter of money.

This Mexico/U.S. contrast does raise themes about race and culture, to McCarthy’s credit, but that remains within the white gaze of the author and the dominant white male central characters.

Yes, there is a veiled racial/racist tradition in McCarthy’s allegory/mythology that frames white and male as universal, but those qualities are part of a larger fabric offered in the work—a fabric that may and should be judged in the complex canon-as-principle that seeks to discover “some texts really are better than almost all others and thus worth passing along to younger generations first,” per Boyd from Coates.

In my early and rare scholarly publications while I was teaching high school English (see below), I wrote several times about how to merge the traditional canon with multicultural works. Then, I was struggling against the normative canon, but I had no lens for addressing the either/or trap of calling for multicultural literature at the expense of so-called classic works.

Today, as I sit with McCarthy’s Border Trilogy before me—and I think about Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy as both fundamentally like McCarthy’s and in very significant ways unlike McCarthy’s (for example, Lisbeth Salander)—I have begun to reconsider the notion of the canon personified by Coates as not a compromise but a richer mechanism for confronting all texts in order to reimagine what works to celebrate, to teach, and to embrace in our never ending journey as students.

In his Between the World and Me, Coates champions the power of literature and confirms Walter Dean Myers’s recognition about the normative canon: “there was something missing.”

Coates (Malcolm X and Baldwin) and Myers (Baldwin) share the importance of seeing yourself in the fictions that make you who you are; in short, the universal—particularly the universal as a thin veil for white/male privilege—is not enough, even when the universal is compelling, as Myers reveals:

I needed more than the characters in the Bible to identify with, or even the characters in Arthur Miller’s plays or my beloved Balzac. As I discovered who I was, a black teenager in a white-dominated world, I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine. I didn’t want to become the “black” representative, or some shining example of diversity. What I wanted, needed really, was to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic that I saw around me.

See Also

Ta-Nehisi Coates and Cormac McCarthy Walk Into a Bar, T. Elijah Hawkes

Thomas, P.L. (1996). When Wordsworth is too tame: Merging minority literature with the classics in the secondary language arts curriculum. In L. Cooke & H. C. Lodge (Eds.), Voices in English Classrooms: Honoring Diversity and Change, 28 (pp. 177-185). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Thomas, P.L. (1991, Spring). Exposing the universal through the diverse: The role of minority literature in the language arts curriculum. Western Ohio Journal, 12 (1), 58-61.

Reading Out of Context: “But there was something missing,” Walter Dean Myers