A Cautionary Tale: Reading William Faulkner’s ‘The Unvanquished’ in 2015

In Much Ado by Catherine Landisleave a COMMENT

Thirty years ago I heard someone argue that what makes the South different from the rest of the country is that it lost the Civil War, and I remember thinking: That’s insane. I was a Southerner, and if any war influenced my life it was Vietnam. For my parents and grandparents it was World War II. My great-grandmother’s father was a captain in the Confederate Army, so being on the losing side surely was a big deal for her generation but for mine, the catastrophe of Vietnam permeated the air we breathed, sorted us into opposing camps, and changed the way we thought about the world. It was seared into our brains as a tale of caution and horror and outrage and determination: We would not make that mistake again. The American Civil War? It had no more bearing on my life than the Trojan War.

I was wrong, of course, and looking back I’m amazed by how dismissive I was given that the civil rights movement was every bit as influential in shaping my developing consciousness as Vietnam. What was it about civil rights that I did not connect to the Civil War?

No doubt I was embarrassed enough by the behavior of my fellow Southerners during the fight for civil rights. How could I bear to add obsession with the Civil War to the brush we were already being painted with? But more than anything I sincerely believed that we had solved the problem of racism. Heeding the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice,” I paid no attention to the long part. To my mind, it was already bending. We were on the other side of bent. For proof I could point to my own family, where my grandfather freely and regularly used what we now call the “n” word, but my parents most certainly did not. My teachers did not. My friends did not. From what I could tell from television, movies, and the music of the time, nobody under the age of 30 ever would again. It was clear that when my grandfather’s generation died off, that would be the end of it. How on Earth could we go backward? And how could anybody still believe that same old, tired argument that the South, my South, my home, was different because we lost the war? Who would say such a thing?

Possibly Shelby Foote. But just as easily it could have been James Dickey, Clyde Edgerton, or a handful of other Southern writers. I actually don’t remember exactly who uttered the words, only where I was when I heard them: in Chattanooga at the Conference for Southern Literature. That conference featured panels of writers discussing particular topics, and one topic that used to pop up as regularly as flies to a fruit bowl was the nature, and implied specialness, of Southern writing. That alone drove me crazy. The way I saw it, Southern writing was Southern because it was set in the South, but it was no more special than fiction set in New York or Russia or England or Wyoming. You will find no Woody Allen in Birmingham, no Flannery O’Conner in France. This seemed obvious to me and yet the panelists deliberated for hours, year after year. That was the context in which I was hearing the argument that while we were down here sitting on our porches, eating our grits, drinking our sweet tea, and writing our hearts out, we were still smarting from The War. I rolled my eyes and shook my head and wondered what was wrong with these people. I was 29.

Last summer, at the age of 59, I read William Faulkner’s The Unvanquished, not for the first time—but this time, unexpectedly, it brought back the memory of sitting in that auditorium in Chattanooga and scoffing at the argument about the South and the Civil War. Now in the wake of the unhinged outrage unleashed by the sight of a black man in the White House, the killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, and nine people in a Charleston church, and the fact that there is even a speck of controversy whatsoever over whether the Confederate Flag ought to be flying anywhere, reading The Unvanquished felt like sitting down with Mr. Faulkner and hearing him say: This is what it’s going to be like, mark my words. Or in the words of his character Ringo, “This war ain’t over. Hit just started good.”

The Unvanquished is the story of Ringo, a black boy, and his companion Bayard, a white boy, who are otherwise and in every way equal except for the fact that Ringo happens to be the property of another human being. Did Faulkner place them so resolutely side by side to reveal the absurdity of such a social order? It’s tricky imposing a 21st century sensibility onto a book written nearly 80 years ago in the middle of Jim Crow-era Mississippi, but it’s hard to read it any other way, particularly when Faulkner makes a point of telling us that Bayard’s own father considers Ringo the smarter of the two. Smarter doesn’t count for much. Smarter doesn’t mean freer. Is this what Faulkner was trying to say? A more nuanced reading might reveal that Faulkner was simply writing what was true, that black and white children played together all the time despite the fact that only some of them risked being lynched for the crime of skin color, but I don’t care. Whatever Faulkner did or didn’t mean, the book cries out for equality as the least we can do. Basic humanity 101. The war was supposed to fix this. Faulkner, writing more than 60 years after it ended, would have noticed that it certainly did not.

The Unvanquished is the story of the Sartoris family led by Bayard’s father John Sartoris, as mythical a Southern Gentleman as you will find anywhere, witnessing the end of a way of life, the upending of everything they know to be true, a world turned upside down. Honestly, it’s impossible to read the book and not sympathize with people who are expected to emerge from chaos, their homes burned, their fortunes destroyed, and follow a new social order they do not understand.

But then they don’t, do they? They do not intend to follow any such thing. The Unvanquished is the story of extraordinary resistance to change. “Suppose they don’t never get done fighting?” Ringo says.

After the war, John Sartoris murders two men who have come to town registering black voters and even daring to place a black candidate on the ballot. After shooting them in the public square in front of everyone, he turns to the crowd and says, “Does any man here want a word with me about this?” They do not. He then proceeds to move the election to his house where he can make sure the votes add up the way he wants.

When I read this book in college, it seemed like a tale of those silly people back in Civil War times behaving in ways that we, in our more enlightened age, had outgrown. Last summer, reading even just this one scene, I could almost hear the applause from people clenching their Confederate flags, politicians passing their voter ID laws, righteous fans of Kim Davis screaming you aren’t the boss of me, puffed-up packers of heat who evidently imagine justice carried out by good guys with guns, the disgruntled who want to take their country back. To when? John Sartoris’s time?

While John Sartoris is shooting carpetbaggers and rigging votes, Faulkner observes that the women in town do not believe anything “can be right or wrong or even be very important that can be decided by a lot of little scraps of scribbled paper dropped into a box.” Some things go deeper than a political system, even one that calls itself a democracy. You can’t end racism by voting. You can’t even end it with a war.   

***

When Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008, my not so original observation was, rather than signaling a new era of tolerance, it blew the cover off racism, and not just in the South. Before then, you could be racist but you had to be quiet about it. After, there was no time for polite restraint: Where in heaven’s name was the John Sartoris who should be making sure this sort of thing never happened? I saw it in the crowds clamoring for Sarah Palin, not just for conservative fiscal and foreign policy, but for the idea of America: white, Christian, straight, proud but not too big for its britches! Now the swoons are for politicians who promise (threaten) to “take America back.”

Where is “back” but a time when whites still run everything and women stay in their place and blacks stay in their place and brown people stay in their place, which evidently doesn’t include this side of the border, and gay people stay in the closet, and the Bible lady still comes to the schools and our military can whoop ass and you can settle things with a gun. Maybe it’s the Wild West except with no Indians. 

Racism is not new and will never end but it can be inflamed by a climate of hate and fear, fueled by politicians seeking easy votes and a media bent on terrifying people that ISIS is coming to get them and Mexicans want to rape them and elites seek to humiliate them and religious white people in America are an endangered species. We should not be surprised to discover people walking around feeling aggrieved, victimized, angry, scared, confused, stubborn, tribal, revved up and righteous because they aren’t “free” to live in a country where they get to force everybody else to live by their rules.

Faulkner was writing at a time when actual Civil War veterans were still walking around Mississippi, telling their stories. When Bayard sees a man in a Confederate uniform at the end of the war, Faulkner reflects on how these uniforms will become “walking symbols of defeated men’s pride and indomitable unregret.” I am not suggesting that he wrote The Unvanquished with the intention of predicting the future, but there lies in the telling of a story set in 1865 the implication that the Civil War won’t be “over” by 1935 and maybe even beyond that. Nor am I suggesting that the racial climate today is as bad as it was in 1865 or 1935. But I suspect that Mr. Faulkner would not be shocked to learn that within our society there remain factions who aren’t happy about how that war ended.

Therein lies the mistake I made as a young woman inflating the legacy of Vietnam. Vietnam changed our country in many, well-documented ways. Vietnam broke my heart. But when it was over, it was over. No masses still screech for the cause of South Vietnam. No flags demand equal time. The Civil War was fought on our soil and between our own people but its legacy is entrenched because the ideas fueling it were not defeated when the Confederacy surrendered. Perhaps this is the way of all civil wars. The principles of white supremacy and states rights did not need a soldier’s uniform to live to fight another day. When I was younger, I did not grasp the power of that legacy nor accept that the struggle must be renewed with every generation. I did not understand that wounds don’t heal if allowed to fester. I’ve now come to believe that we as a country will never be free from a racial divide that destroys lives and opportunities until we acknowledge completely the crimes that have been done to our black people.

***

In The Unvanquished, the Yankees burn down the Sartoris house and take all the buried silver, which the slave, Loosh, has pointed them to. When Bayard’s grandmother, Miss Rosa, tries to stop him from leaving, Loosh says, “I going. I done been freed … I don’t belong to John Sartoris now; I belongs to me and God.”

“But the silver belongs to John Sartoris,” Granny said. “Who are you to give it away?”

“You ax me that?” Loosh said. “Where John Sartoris? Whyn’t he come and ax me that? Let God ax John Sartoris who the man name that give me to him. Let the man that buried me in the black dark ax that of the man what dug me free.”

How curious: The same people waving their Confederate flags, insisting that it’s just “Southern heritage,” and demanding that we respect them for it, dare turn around to our African American neighbors and insist that slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, systemic discrimination in every American institution: all that was a long, long time ago. Why can’t they just get over it?

Indomitable unregret. 

Catherine Landis

With Much Ado, Catherine Landis examines how political decisions and social trends affect the lives of the people around her. She is particularly interested in issues concerning feminism, civil rights, education, the environment, and immigration reform. A former newspaper reporter, she has published two novels, Some Days There’s Pie (St. Martin’s Press) and Harvest (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press). She lives in Knoxville.

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