- Reviewed by
In this compelling, frustrating, often remarkable follow-up to Faulkner's "Negro": Art and the Southern Context (1983), Thadious M. Davis returns to the question of Faulkner's conflicted attitude toward race by focusing her keen critical eye on the collection of short stories usually considered a novel-Go Down, Moses. Accused by some critics of being overly formalist in her attention to Faulkner and race in her last book, Davis folds into her reading of the novel an exhaustive consideration of legal history, historical racial events in Mississippi and other southern states, biographical details, and current gender and game theories. The book should be of interest to Faulkner scholars as well as those interested in the legal history of slavery and African-American rights.
What is so compelling about Davis's take on Go Down, Moses is the central role she claims in her reading for Tomey's Turl—the half-black half brother of Ike McCaslin's uncles Buck and Buddy. This seemingly marginal character actually appears as a character only in "Was," the first section of Go Down, Moses, but Davis sees direct and indirect references to Tomey's Turl throughout the novel and argues that an understanding of this character's centrality opens up interesting avenues of interpretation that have been heretofore ignored or underappreciated.
This reading of the novel, which Davis rehearsed in an earlier article in New Essays on Go Down, Moses (1996), is clever and ultimately [End Page 748] convincing, allowing an understanding of Tomey's Turl as both black and white, within and removed from familial structures, and thus a "figure of transgression and hybridity closely linked to the problems inherent in property in persons." Davis asks us to question readings of the novel that either downplay any sense of "unity" among the stories or argue for the centrality of Ike McCaslin, Carothers McCaslin, or even Lucas Beauchamp. Locating Tomey's Turl at the center of her reading "allows for an interpretation of the text as miscegenated and hybrid—miscegenated in its mixture of materials from the traditions of comic black-faced minstrelsy and tragic southern plantation romance."
Davis brings in other materials as well, including maps, newspaper illustrations, photographs, and sketches, and while these cultural artifacts are provocative, she often neglects to specify how they relate to her interpretation of the novel. Indeed, ultimately, Games of Property's use of a cultural studies approach, and Davis's emphasis on legal history, is incomplete. Davis seems to be suggesting that consideration of newspapers, legal documents, case studies, etc. opens gaps within Faulkner's texts, ones that allow us to rethink what it is we know about Faulkner more generally and Go Down, Moses in particular. But too often, she forces her reader to make the connections, burying her best arguments in all of this extratextual evidence. She also seems conflicted at times about whether to argue for some sort of authorial intentionality or to concentrate more exclusively on Faulkner's readers and the kind of cultural immersion that might bring certain issues and ideas into relief. For example, in her discussion of the comic fox hunt that begins "Was," Davis argues that "with its reverberant issues of possession and property surrounding Tomey's Turl, [the fox chase] is a parody of an early-nineteenth-century legal dispute involving the right to property in regard to a wild fox." Whether the parody is conscious or unconscious remains unclear, leaving the reader increasingly uncertain of the import of the thorough history of the legal case Davis subsequently provides. The crucial explanation of how precisely the material opens up gaps within the text remains unarticulated.
Such confusions mar an otherwise compelling reading of Go Down, Moses and the Faulkner we have come to know. The long summaries of court cases, seemingly obvious claims about the treatment of slaves as property, and the failure to fully articulate the connections between the cultural artifacts and the readings of the novel prevent Games of Property from becoming the kind...