William Faulkner organizes the plot of “Dry September” around a single incident: the murder of an innocent black man. An aging and sexually frustrated white spinster starts the rumor that the black man has attacked her. A group of men, led by a former war hero, murder him before they substantiate his guilt.
After two months without rain, the small southern town of Jefferson has an explosive atmosphere. A rumor spreads through Jefferson that the black man, Will Mayes, has “attacked, insulted, frightened” Miss Minnie Cooper. No one knows exactly what has occurred, but the rumor of an attack by a black man on a white woman spreads “like a fire in dry grass.”
The first section of “Dry September” takes place in the town barbershop on Saturday evening. Whether Will Mayes has actually molested Miss Minnie Cooper does not seem important to most of the men in the barbershop. Because a white woman has accused a black man of attacking her, the accusation alone requires that these men demonstrate their white superiority. Hawkshaw, the barber, stubbornly refuses to believe that Will Mayes has attacked Miss Cooper. His rational demand for facts provokes the hostility of the other men.
The smoldering tension flares into violence when John McLendon crashes through the screen door. McLendon leads the party of men who set out to murder Will Mayes. When one member of the group gathered in the barber shop questions what really happened, McLendon whirls on the speaker and asks: “Happen? What the hell difference does it make? Are you going to let the black sons get away with it until one really does it?” Enraged by the heat as well as the rumor, the heavyset McLendon wants to kill. The honor of an aging white spinster gives him an excuse.
The second part of the story describes Miss Minnie Cooper. Her life seems as stale as the “vitiated air” in the barbershop. Despite a short period of youthful popularity, she did not marry. Her gaunt aunt, a “thin, sallow, unflagging” woman, runs the house, and her invalid mother stays in her room. Miss Minnie’s only romantic experience was with a widower in the town bank. The town “relegated” her “into adultery” twelve years ago, and eight years ago the cashier went to a Memphis...
(The entire section is 932 words.)