Go Down, Moses Summary
In “Was,” set in the pre-Civil War South, Uncle Buck and Cass set off after Turl, who regularly flees the McCaslin plantation to court Tennie at the neighboring Beauchamp plantation. Uncle Buck wants to catch Turl before he reaches the Beauchamp plantation because Sophonsiba, who lives there, is husband hunting. Uncle Buck fails to do so but bets Hubert Beauchamp that he will be off the plantation before nightfall. Uncle Buck fails at this resolution, too, and at night mistakenly lies down in bed with Sophonsiba. Caught, Buck plays a card game with Hubert to get out of the marriage. Buck loses again and Cass rides home to get Uncle Buddy. In a poker game between Hubert and Buddy, with Turl dealing, Buddy wins Buck’s freedom. Cass, Buck, Buddy, Turl, and, by the complicated bet of the card game, Tennie, return to the McCaslin land.
In “The Fire and the Hearth,” Lucas Beauchamp, while hiding his still, discovers what he thinks is part of a fortune hidden on McCaslin land almost a century ago. Lucas tells Roth Edmonds that George Wilkins is making whiskey on McCaslin land. Roth alerts the police, but Wilkins and Lucas’s daughter Nat place the evidence on Lucas’s porch. Although Wilkins and Lucas are arrested, Lucas keeps them both out of jail by hurriedly marrying Nat and Wilkins so that, as relatives, none of the three can testify against another. A flashback presents Lucas’s memory of Roth’s mother dying in childbirth and Zack, Roth’s father, keeping Mollie, Lucas’s wife, at his house to care for the infant. After six months, Lucas demanded that Zack return Mollie and implied that Zack had been using her sexually as well as domestically. The morning after Mollie returned, Lucas went to Zack’s bedroom to kill him; the gun misfired. A few months after Lucas’s and Wilkins’s arrests, Lucas asks Roth for three hundred dollars to rent a gold-finding machine. When Roth refuses, Lucas talks a salesman into accepting Roth’s mule as collateral. After Roth discovers his mule has been used as collateral, Lucas tricks the salesman into returning the bill of sale for the mule and the machine. Lucas continues to search for gold, so Mollie asks Roth to arrange a divorce between her and Lucas. Another flashback reveals Lucas demanding his patrimony at age twenty-one and Roth’s repudiation of kinship with Lucas’s son Henry when they were seven. Just before Mollie’s divorce is finalized, Lucas gives up the machine and his search.
In “Pantaloon in Black,” Rider, a millworker who rents a house on McCaslin land, puts himself in a number of suicidal positions after burying his wife, Mannie, of only six months. His killing a night watchman who regularly cheats the mill workers at dice brings about his death: He is found hanging two miles from the mill. Before being killed by the lynch mob, Rider had been arrested. In prison, Rider tore the cot out of the floor and the bars out of his cell door. He said, “Hit look lack Ah just cant quit thinking.” The deputy, telling his wife about Rider’s last few days, asks what she thinks of such behavior. She replies that she wants him to finish dinner quickly so she can go to the movies.
In “The Old People,” Sam Fathers guides Isaac in the shooting of his first deer and marks him with the blood. When leaving the Big Bottom, Boon reports seeing a huge fourteen-point buck. The hunters wait while Boon, Walter Ewell, and Isaac, with Sam Fathers, try to corner the deer. Walter kills a young buck, but notes the huge footprints it left. Meanwhile, Isaac and Sam watch the huge buck walk near them and neither shoot it. That night, Isaac tells Cass about seeing the big buck and Cass treats it as if it were a phantom deer. Isaac insists, “But I saw it,” and Cass replies, “Steady. I know you did. So did I. Sam took me in there once after I killed my first deer.”
In “The Bear,” Isaac is at the Big Bottom, age sixteen. He narrates his memory of his first hunt and of the ritual of hunting the bear, Ben. Isaac remembers first seeing the bear tracks and leaving behind his gun to get a look at the bear. Eventually Lion, a wild dog, is trained to track Ben. When Isaac was sixteen, the ritual bear hunt left Lion, Ben, and Sam dead. The setting of part 4 of “The Bear” changes from the wilderness to the commissary of the McCaslin land. At twenty-one, arguing with Cass, Isaac relinquishes his patrimony. At sixteen, Isaac read the family ledgers that revealed the miscegenation, incest, and refusal to recognize black family members. Isaac wanted to be free of such an inheritance. He also feels no one should own land. Much of the McCaslin family history is revealed in this section, including Isaac’s inheritance of IOUs from Hubert and Isaac’s move to Jefferson and his unsuccessful marriage. In part 5 of “The Bear,” Isaac, still a teenager, goes back to hunt at the Big Bottom one last time before the lumber company moves in.
In “Delta Autumn,” Isaac, Roth, and Legate drives to the annual hunt. In the morning as the hunters are leaving camp and Isaac is still in his cot, Roth leaves an envelope with him saying a messenger will come. Isaac is to give her the money in the envelope and say, Roth indicates, “No.” A woman comes holding Roth’s infant son. Isaac gives her the money, and she reveals her relationship to Isaac—she is James Beauchamp’s granddaughter. Isaac gives her his hunting horn for her son and advises her to marry a man of her own race. She replies, “Old man . . . have you lived so long and forgotten so much that you don’t remember anything you even knew or felt or even heard about love?” Legate returns for a knife for a deer shot by Roth. Isaac surmises the deer is a doe.
In “Go Down, Moses,” Mollie Beauchamp comes to Jefferson to ask Gavin Stevens, a lawyer, to find her grandson, Samuel Worsham Beauchamp, whom she has not seen in five years. She feels he is in trouble and blames Roth for ordering him off the McCaslin land after he broke into the commissary. Stevens discovers Beauchamp is to be executed the next day in Illinois. With other members of the community, Stevens arranges for the body to be brought back for a proper burial and to keep the circumstances of his death from Mollie. Mollie asks the newspaper editor to print the news of the death.