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  • Making Camp:Go Down, Moses
  • Catherine Gunther Kodat (bio)

In Camp there is often something démesuré in the quality of the ambition, not only in the style of the work itself. Gaudí's lurid and beautiful buildings in Barcelona are Camp not only because of their style but because they reveal—most notably in the Cathedral of Sagrada Família—the ambition on the part of one man to do what it takes a generation, a whole culture to accomplish.

Susan Sontag, "Notes on Camp"1

I'm trying to say it all in one sentence, between one Cap and one period. I'm still trying to put it all, if possible, on one pinhead. I don't know how to do it. All I know to do is to keep on trying in a new way.

William Faulkner2

When Isaac McCaslin opens the plantation ledgers and begins his research into the entwined genealogies of the white McCaslin and black Beauchamp families, his glance first falls on a citation registering his father's 1856 purchase of a slave, an "anomaly calling itself Percival Brownlee" (252). In the ensuing 14 entries spread out over nine months, Ike reads how Brownlee proves himself so unsuited to slavery that his owners—Ike's father, Theophilus McCaslin (Uncle Buck), and his father's twin brother, Amodeus (Uncle Buddy)—decide to free him and then, when he refuses to leave the plantation, attempt to rename him. The entries list a series of mishaps, any one of which could provide the pretext [End Page 997] for an owner looking to "get shut of" Brownlee (purchased as a book-keeper, Brownlee cannot read; physically unsuited to any kind of field work, he provokes an accident that ends in the death of a mule [253]), but the ledgers posit his renaming as key to the "truth" of his "anomaly," a truth deployed in the text as an open secret: Uncle Buddy gives Brownlee a Latinish name, Spintrius, that goes unglossed in the ledgers even as the novel elsewhere drops large hints of its meaning. Said to be "tragic and miscast," Brownlee finds his "true niche . . . conducting impromptu revival meetings among the negroes, preaching and leading the singing also in his high sweet true soprano voice" (279); run off the plantation a second time, he reappears in the Jefferson town square four years later "in the entourage of a traveling Army paymaster," the two of them together creating the impression of "a man on an excursion during his wife's absence and with his wife's personal maid" (280). Catching sight of Uncle Buck, Brownlee gives his former owner "one defiant female glance" before leaving Yoknapatawpha forever; 20 years later (in 1888, the same year Ike McCaslin turns 21 and repudiates his heritage), McCaslin Edmonds, nephew of the McCaslin twins and now master of their plantation, hears that Brownlee has become "the well-to-do proprietor of a select New Orleans brothel" (280).

Long regarded as a kind of textual anomaly unassimilable to the tragic themes of racial injustice and environmental exploitation central to Go Down, Moses (1942), the Percival Brownlee episode has drawn attention in two recent analyses of Faulkner's novel. Thadious Davis sees Brownlee's "feminization" and "homosexuality" as Faulkner's "attempt at humor" that "fails rather miserably . . . to satirize ownership and property rights" (218, 219). Although she notes Brownlee's Bartlebyesque "passive resistance to being enslaved," she finally considers him too "sketchy" to be of serious interpretive use (218). As a mirror of attributes "implicit in the story of Amodeus, Ike's Uncle Buddy"—who, the novel tells us, "should have been a woman to begin with" (260)—Brownlee "suggests a second story . . . that Ike cannot tell and that Faulkner does not explore. The silences" in Brownlee's narrative, Davis concludes, "are more pronounced than those in the narrative of Carothers's violation of his daughter," and so signal Faulkner's unwillingness to interrogate the consequences of projecting "whiteness, race, and sexuality . . . onto a black male body" (219). Where Davis sees silences and lacunae indicative of Faulkner's inability (or refusal) to engage the full implications of his material, Richard Godden and Noel...


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