It occurs to me on reading Light in August for the third time in twenty years, that if America were ever to try to come to terms with its legacy of slavery–unlikely now at this late date–but if it ever were to empanel some kind of Truth and Reconciliation Commission, like the one South Africa had after apartheid, and which seems especially needed now that we are mourning the shooting deaths of so many unarmed black men, then William Faulkner’s novels, certainly this one, should be part of the
Joe Christmas lives as a white man but believes he has a little African blood in him. He is left by persons unknown at a white orphanage one Christmas day, thus his name. At age five, when his African blood is “discovered” by the staff of the orphanage, he is quickly placed in the foster home of a white man named McEachern who lives in a kind of perpetual, self-dramatizing, Christian self-abasement, which he forces on his new stepson, and which Joe ultimately rejects. Perhaps if he had been luckier in his foster parents Joe would not have developed as he has, but his upbringing by McEachern is brutal, physically abusive, traumatic. When he escapes his room one night to go dancing with a local harlot, about whom he entertains romantic notions of love and marriage, he is followed by his step-father who accuses him of whoring. Joe kills the step-father on the dance floor and runs for his life.
For fifteen years he drifts. The unfortunate (and I would argue false) dichotomy of black and white seems to rip Joe Christmas apart before our eyes. Nowhere can he feel at home. His self-hatred becomes outsize, beyond reason. Some people broken by misfortune become psychotic, as Joe does, though there is probably some genetic predisposition to become so. Anyway, Joe starts to hears voices. Who is he? Can he truly be anyone? After he wanders much of the country, at one point living in a black community in Chicago where he is condemned for being white, he winds up back in the American south, in Jefferson Louisiana, where he gets a job shoveling sawdust in a planing mill. He has no friendships, no sense of humor, no apparent hopes, no dreams. He is bitter and angry, deprived of all loving human contact despite his efforts to secure it.
Joanna Burden lives alone in Jefferson and is the sole remaining representative of a family of northern abolitionists that moved south during Reconstruction to prevent the post-slavery degradation of African-Americans, which the zealous Burden patriarch was determined to stop. They were despised by the white community. When the patriarch accompanied by his grandson argued too vociferously for voting rights for blacks in Jefferson one day, they were gunned down by a single bullet from the gun of Colonel Sartoris. Joanna’s father buried them on the estate in unmarked graves, so they would not be disinterred and desecrated. Joanna’s family was one of means which maintained a dozen or more homes and schools for African-Americans in the south, the administration of which she is still involved.
When Joe Christmas stumbles on Joanna’s house five miles from Jefferson, he breaks into the kitchen pantry. Unperturbed by the intrusion, Joanna starts to leave food out for him every evening while allowing him to stay on the estate in what were once accommodations for black household servants. To the reader Joanna represents perhaps Joe’s last chance to find, if not love, then some kind of mutually supportive relationship. But he is too twisted by his misfortunes by this time and the only relationship with her he is capable of is one of unloving sex and disdain for her unattractive, manish ways. Besides, who could possibly love anyone so undeserving as himself? Her interest in him must therefore be misplaced.
When Joe Christmas then does a bad, bad thing, which precipitates his flight across bog and bramble and forest and marsh of Yoknapatawpha County, pursued by the Sheriff and his deputies and a pack of honking hounds, why, the reader is in for quite a thrilling chase. In this section you will find some of the finest descriptive writing in the book. (Faulkner is always so good with figures moving through landscape.) While we do not forgive Joe for what he has done, we understand him, and even feel for him in his travails. How Faulkner is able to do this, to evoke the reader’s sympathy for Joe Christmas despite his evil acts, is one reason this reader has returned repeatedly to this text. I do not think it going too far to say that here we find in Joe something of what Shakespeare was able to embue in Richard III, with Joe’s half-caste status standing in for Richard’s more apparent physical disfigurement.
The novel’s use of psychic distance is perfect. By that I mean the distance the reader feels between himself and the events of the story. Faulkner seems to stand off a bit and record everything from that seemingly objective remove, so the cascade of detail is neither overwhelming in its specificity nor too thin. It is in fact stunningly consistent throughout. The story is rich, emotionally complex, but rendered for the most part simply and cleanly. The mannerisms of the author’s late style (polysyllabic words, outlandishly tortuous locutions, etc) are apparent only fleetingly. This masterpiece flows mellifluously yet plainly, without needless clutter. Its story might be summarized in a paragraph or two, but its execution is so rich, so thorough, so vivid, that it takes the breath away.