How is the myth of "the Old South" shown in William Faulkner's stories A Rose for Emily, Barn Burning, and Dry September?
Each of William Faulkner’s short stories – A Rose for Emily, Barn Burning, and Dry September – reflect the author’s Southern roots and the culture in which he lived his life. Whether it’s reasonable to apply the word “myth” to Faulkner’s southern orientation and his depiction of the American South, however, is open to debate. His short stories are just that: stories. They are works of fiction inspired by his deeply-felt Southern heritage. There is nothing particularly “mythical” about them.
Each of the three stories takes place in the American South. Of them, A Rose for Emily, while macabre in the protagonist’s obsession with, murder of, and retention of the rotting corpse of the visiting Northerner with whom she has fallen in love, is nevertheless perhaps the most quaint depiction of the South represented in these stories. Faulkner’s narrative is replete with instances of Southern gentility and with references to the heritage unique to this milieu, as in the following sentence from the story’s opening passages regarding the now-deceased woman at the center of the plot:
“And now Miss Emily had gone to join the representatives of those august names where they lay in the cedarbemused cemetery among the ranked and anonymous graves of Union and Confederate soldiers who fell at the battle of Jefferson.”
Faulkner’s Southern heritage is inextricably, obviously, linked to the conduct and outcome of the American Civil War, and ‘Southern Pride’ remains a strong motivating force. The war may have eliminated the institution of slavery, and replaced it with the experiment in nation-building then known as “Reconstruction,” but the underlying sentiments have not changed. The shadow of the Civil War, then still fresh in the minds of the region’s entire population, looms overhead. But, more to the point, Faulkner’s narrative in A Rose for Emily embodies the culture of the white, elitist Southerner, as when he writes:
“Alive, Emily had been a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town, dating from that day in 1894, when Colonel Sartoris, the mayor – he who fathered the edict that no Negro woman should appear upon the streets without an apron . . .”
The racism endemic in that passage serves, unwittingly probably, as a bit of irony. The mayor wants to ensure that proper etiquette is practiced at all times, while simultaneously further denigrating the status of the town’s African American community. Even the references to the town’s mayor, “Colonel Sartoris,” evokes near-mythological images of the American South – the genteel Southern gentleman who prefers to be addressed by his former rank in the army of the Confederacy. And, that is only appropriate given that “Sartoris” was the name Faulkner used for his early novel of that name, the main character modeled on the author’s great-grandfather, who had served as a colonel in the Confederate army. A Rose for Emily is Southern through-and-through.
The second story, Barn Burning, is interesting in that its main character is a young, poor white boy named Colonel Sartoris Snopes. Barn Burning was published in 1939, nine years after A Rose for Emily, but Faulkner so associated that moniker with the American South that he reused it, although in vastly different perspectives. As noted, “Colonel Sartoris” dates back to Faulkner’s 1929 novel Sartoris, which deals with the decline of the American South and the culture that had been celebrated and preserved in the face of Northern aggression. In Barn Burning, the refined gentleman whose spirit is felt in A Rose for Emily is now reborn as an economically-destitute child. Barn Burning, however, is about a vastly different topic. Specifically, as the title suggests, it deals with the mystery who burned down the barn owned by landlord who rented land to the boy’s father, Abner Snopes. In the Old South, there are few forms of humanity held in lower esteem than “barn burners” (a theme repeated in other of Faulkner’s stories). Abner is accused of and convicted, in the minds of those present, of the evil deed, resulting in the Snopes family’s banishment from the town. As Abner rises to leave, his reputation and livelihood in ruins, Faulkner describes the scene as follows:
“His father turned, and he followed the stiff black coat, the wiry figure walking a little stiffly from where a Confederate provost's man's musket ball had taken him in the heel on a stolen horse thirty years ago, followed the two backs now, since between the two lines of grim-faced men and out of the store and across the worn gallery and down the sagging steps and among the dogs and half-grown boys in the mild May dust, where as he passed a voice hissed: "Barn burner!"
Again, references to the Civil War appear. The reader of Faulkner’s literature is never far from the next reminder of his Southern heritage and of the legacy of the War Between the States. It is the third of these three stories, however, that most malignant of the region’s heritage is prominently displayed. Dry September is about the quintessential Southern crime, the lynching of the innocent black. The story begins ignominiously enough, with a heated discussion about an alleged attack on a white woman, Miss Minnie Cooper, by a black man, Will Hayes:
"Except it wasn't Will Mayes," a barber said. He was a man of middle age; a thin, sand-colored man with a mild face, who was shaving a client. "I know Will Mayes. He's a good nigger. And I know Miss Minnie Cooper, too."
"What do you know about her?" a second barber said.
"Who is she?" the client said. "A young girl?"
"No," the barber said. "She's about forty, I reckon. She ain't married. That's why I don't believe..."
"Believe, hell!" a hulking youth in a sweat-stained silk shirt said. "Wont you take a white woman's word before a nigger's?"
There’s nothing mythological about this story. In fact, if anything, it’s the antithesis of the idealized image of the American South that the word “myth” suggests. Take, for instance, the following exchange in the lead-up to the formation of the ubiquitous lynching party:
“Do you mean to tell me you are a white man and you'll stand for it? You better go back North where you came from. The South don't want your kind here."
"North what?" the second said. "I was born and raised in this town."
"Well, by God!" the youth said. He looked about with a strained, baffled gaze, as if he was trying to remember what it was he wanted to say or to do.
If there’s any imagery evocative of the more positive elements of the region’s heritage in this story, it is in the brief section on Minnie Cooper, something of a tragic figure with an unenviable reputation for promiscuity. Minnie’s life has been ruined by the small-town culture that has condemned her to the life of spinster evocative of Miss Emily:
“She lived in a small frame house with her invalid mother and a thin, sallow, unflagging aunt, where each morning between ten and eleven she would appear on the porch in a lace-trimmed boudoir cap, to sit swinging in the porch swing until noon. After dinner she lay down for a while, until the afternoon began to cool. Then, in one of the three or four new voile dresses which she had each summer, she would go downtown to spend the afternoon in the stores with the other ladies, where they would handle the goods and haggle over the prices in cold, immediate voices, without any intention of buying.”
Miss Minnie may enjoy the company of others from time to time, but she will die alone, damaged goods, as they say. Again, if “myth” is intended to conjure up idyllic imagery, then Dry September, as with Barn Burning, comes up real short.