Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

FAULKNER: Barn Burning

There’s a story about an old woman having a cup of coffee and reading the morning paper in a small town in Mississippi. When she finishes reading she slowly puts the newspaper away and says to herself: “I don’t care how many books he writes or how much money he makes; that Faulkner boy’s still just white trash.” That’s probably not good literary criticism but it’s one way to get a handle on Southern literature. William Faulkner’s Barn Burning is an echo of both the glory and the squalor of life in the old South. Literature doesn’t develop in a vacuum and neither does Faulkner’s fiction. This story takes place in a particular environment (Mississippi) with a particular set of people (the Snopes family). Meet Mr. Snopes: the wiry figure walked a little stiffly because a Confederate musket ball had taken him in the heel on a stolen horse thirty years ago. Not that the father of the Snopes clan ever fought on the Union side, or any other side for that matter. Mr. Snopes was just out for Mr. Snopes. During the Civil War he mostly spent four years in the woods hiding from all men, blue or gray, with his strings of horses (captured horses, he called them…) Horse thief is what other men called it, both blue and gray. Nowadays we would say that Mr. Snopes had an “antisocial personality disorder.” The idea of a stable social order has long been the goal of political philosophers. In one of our earlier readings Thomas Hobbes wonders: Bees and ants live sociably with one another… some man may perhaps desire to know why mankind cannot do that same. The obvious answer of course is that people aren’t bees or ants, and thank goodness for that. People think and act for themselves. Sometimes this puts them in conflict with their neighbors. But most folks do, in fact, come to terms and learn to live sociably and peaceably with one another. In today’s terms they play well with others. Then there’s Mr. Snopes. He’s the kind of guy who lets his hog get out and ruin the neighbor’s garden; more than once it’s been rumored that if you cross him Mr. Snopes will sneak out at night and burn down your barn. Aristotle said that man, when perfected, is the best of animals. But when separated from law and justice he is the worst of all. Mr. Snopes lives in his own private world without law and justice. Men like Mr. Snopes are the main reason we have police departments and court systems and jails. In the Federalist Papers we read that if men were angels, no government would be necessary. But men aren’t angels. And since there are people like Mr. Snopes the rest of society has to come to terms with criminals living in their midst. One way is to kick them out of the community. Here’s how Faulkner writes about it in his story: "This case is closed. I can't find against you, Snopes, but I can give you advice. Leave this country and don't come back to it." His father (Mr. Snopes) spoke for the first time, his voice cold and harsh, level, without emphasis: "I aim to. I don't figure to stay in a country among people who…" he said something unprintable and vile, addressed to no one. "That'll do," the Justice said. "Take your wagon and get out of this country before dark. Case dismissed.” Or we can establish social norms that discourage antisocial behavior. Here’s a selection from another Southern writer, Flannery O’Connor: “What gets my goat is all those boys from good families stealing automobile tires,” the woman with the protruding teeth said. “I told my boy, I said you may not be rich but you been raised right and if I ever catch you in any such mess, they can send you on to the reformatory. Be exactly where you belong.” Mr. Snopes wasn’t raised right. But we know how he intends on raising his own kids: to be just like him. At one point he tells his son "You're getting to be a man. You got to learn. You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain't going to have any blood to stick to you.” For Mr. Snopes “sticking to your own blood” is a badge of honor. The important thing is the preservation of your own tribe, not the best interests of the community. Look out for number one. It took Faulkner a whole story to create a character like Mr. Snopes. It only took the old Southern lady two words: “white trash.”


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