Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 420

The beautiful writing and themes of “Delta Autumn” remain intact when it is read alone, but the story’s larger significance and resonance can be understood only by situating it within the context of Go Down, Moses (1942), the novel for which it was written. Like much of the novel, the story centers on the character of Isaac McCaslin, a veteran hunter who reveres the wilderness, deplores the civilization that is destroying it, and refuses to own or to run the plantation that his forebears helped to build with slavery.

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Written on the verge of America’s entry into World War II, “Delta Autumn” explores in the context of a hunting story a country that has gone through momentous changes in the twentieth century and is uncertain of the extent to which its founders’ values remain relevant. Isaac and the hunters debate Roth’s fierce attack on the degradation of the times. Dictators will prevail in a country where men sing “God Bless America in bars at midnight” and wear dime-store flags in their lapels, Roth predicts. Unemployment, welfare, and the centralization of government are all deplored and debated.

This complicated political world is juxtaposed against the grandeur and purity of the wilderness. Very appealing images of nature make human corruption even more intolerable. However, the narrator make clear that to hold to a vanishing wilderness is to become caught in the rigidity that Isaac reveals at the end of the story.

In this respect, the “Negress” is a striking figure, for with her northern pronunciation and educated manner she ought to scorn Roth’s code and Isaac’s antique ethics. Although she does criticize both men, she feels great tenderness for them—after all, they are her kin even if they do not know enough to accept her. She is steadfastly loyal to her love for Roth and will not deny her roots in the very shame that led her father, James Beauchamp, to leave the McCaslin-Edmonds plantation.

The “Negress” is the best evidence in the story that times indeed have changed, changed more than Isaac or Roth have realized. She is the only character in the story to reconcile herself to the past and the present, to Roth’s “code” and to her own sense of family and of the love that a man and woman should have for each other. By failing to make the transition to the present, and to see no more than its corrupt aspects, Isaac has rejected his own family, a part of himself.

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