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By William Faulkner
New York: The Modern Library, 1968
479 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
July 2013

After reading this novel it is hard for me to imagine how much I’ve deprived myself in the past 60 years. I’ve read thousands of books and never before William Faulkner. Why? I’m not sure. I had developed some notion that he was this southern writer and focused on the south of the U.S. an area and culture which hasn’t interested me very much at all.

Finally, however, and fortunately, I have “discovered” Faulkner and will soon be reading more. What an awesome writer.

Having said all that, this novel has a very strange structure. Ostensibly it is the story of Joe Christmas, with side bar stories of Lena Grove, Lucas Burch and the fascinating Gail Hightower. At a deeper level it is an allegory of the South from the Civil War to the mid to late 1920s. It is too long and the fascinating, but secondary characters seem, at times, not to fit into the main line of the story at all. Yet I still come away thinking I have read an awesome book.

Joe Christmas is . . . that is the question -- what race is he? He clearly passes for white, and would have until he died if HE, himself, had not told a few people that he had Negro blood. However, he doesn’t really know this, nor does anyone else in the story. Joe’s mother, a white woman, had sex with a travelling circus fellow and got pregnant. One of the workers in the circus THOUGHT that this fellow, who was said to be Mexican, had some “colored” blood in him. But no one ever knew more.

Joe Christmas did. That is, he internalized this black blood into his person and happened to tell a very few people. Moreover, while he lived the life of a white man, inwardly he lived as a white man who knew he was only masquerading as white and did have black blood, which, in the American south of the time made him Negro.

Thus the story plays itself out and in the process we readers come to feel very deeply the nature of the racial divide and power of the history of slavery, the “disaster” of the Civil War, and the south, and the whites trying desperately to cope with the modern world and yet keep the Negroes “in their place.”

The time is between the two great 20th century wars, set in the U.S. south. While it doesn’t seem to be the Depression yet, most of the people in the novel are very poor, wages are low and in the main the main characters are desperately poor people living from day to day.

Joe Christmas works as a day laborer, but earns a bit more money selling bootleg booze on the side. He is having a very strange affair with a white woman whom he has told that he has Negro blood in him. She seems not to care at all, but Joe cares tremendously that he has told her, and that creates the conditions for the complications of the novel.

The whole life of Joe Christmas, who seems to have internalized the white Southern view of the world, is overlain with the burden he feels of this black blood. He can’t explicate it and can’t deal with it. In the main he not only hides it, but hides himself away from the rest of the white community.

Tied very closely to the Southern view of race, as Faulkner sees it, is the Southern view of religion as well. The author rails against a form of Protestant Christianity which emphasizes the angry and even capricious God of the Old Testament. Little is seen of the loving, caring Jesus who accepts all people from the leper and prostitutes and encourages all people to embrace and love all others. Rather, this Southern religion is one of anger, hatred, worshiping a God who took care of His own and condemned all others to live as outsiders.

I grew up in St. Louis during World War Two. The relationships between whites and blacks were what I would have described as typical pre-Civil Rights Movement racial relationships. They were not good or decent for sure. But, I was shocked to read the full nature of those same relationships within the South just 20 years earlier. I just never fully appreciated the differences, and St. Louis was, in those days, even seen as something of a “southern” town. It certainly wasn’t, at least in the manner that Faulkner sees the South.

In 1953 my high school integrated in my freshman year and it was a fairly smooth transition. To this day when my high school class meets every other month for a lunch, the white and black guys come together and color has just never really been much of an issue. It was with my parents’ generation, but not with ours.

Faulkner’s portrait is powerful, touching, sad and instructive. Joe Christmas’ self-hatred and embarrassment of who he is touched me deeply. At times I had to almost chuckle and the rambling, seemingly unintelligible structure of the story, but was very happy to accept those puzzles in order to get the power and beauty of the main line of the tale.

I am looking forward to very very soon reading another Faulkner novel.

Bob Corbett


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