- Avoiding Adjudication in William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses and Intruder in the Dust
William Faulkner was ten years old when a black man named Nelse Patton was lynched in Oxford, Mississippi. In a single day, Patton had been accused of slitting the throat of a white woman with a razor, arrested, and jailed under guard. During the night a mob of two thousand whites gathered outside the jail while local authorities, including the sheriff, a judge, and a minister, tried to prevent the lynching. Their efforts finally failed when a prominent Oxford lawyer who had served in the United States Senate exhorted the crowd to lynch Patton in the name of justice.1 The young Faulkner may well have heard, if he did not in fact see, the lynching—his childhood home was only a few blocks from the Oxford jail.2
The “New South” into which Faulkner was born in 1897 had its roots in the South’s political and ideological reaction to Reconstruction.3 Not only had the South been forced to capitulate to the passage of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments as a condition of reentry into the federal government after the Civil War4—legally sanctioning what felt to Southerners like the destruction of their economy—but loyalty oaths prevented many antebellum and Confederate white leaders from participating in state and local government, effectively divorcing Reconstruction rule of law from the existing social and political order.5 White Northerners and freedmen filled the official positions of Southern state and local governments during Reconstruction, writing and ratifying the constitutions of the restored states and overturning the Black Codes with which Southerners had rein-scribed racial hierarchy and black economic dependence after emancipation. In response, vigilante organizations intent on the return of their states to “home rule” quickly sprang up in Mississippi and across the South, justifying their recourse to “intimidation, violence and murder” as resistance to an “unjust and tyrannical power [that] had filled their state with mourning, beggared them, freed their slaves and as a last insult and injury made the ex-slave a political equal.”6 [End Page 183]
In 1875 Mississippi Democrats “resolved to use as much force as was necessary” to regain control of their state government through elections, and their campaign of intimidation, which included the overt killing of blacks, succeeded.7 Over the next two years, the rest of the South was “redeemed,” or returned to local white rule, unleashing a wave of racial violence. This violence was fueled in part by anxiety about the maintenance of racial hierarchy, but also by frustration with the blight of the Southern economy, which the Redeemers blamed largely on emancipation.8 The violence was justified, however, in terms of an imagined threat to law and order: “a ‘new’ Negro, freed from the necessarily very tight bonds of slavery and retrogressing rapidly toward his natural state of savagery and bestiality.”9 And for racial radicals, “the single most significant and awful manifestation of black retrogression was an increasing frequency of sexual assaults on white women . . . by black men.”10 By 1903, when James K. Vardaman was elected governor of Mississippi, racial radicalism had become mainstream and the lynching of black men by mobs of white Southerners was a regular, and many argued necessary, occurrence.11 Between 1889 and 1909 there were nearly three hundred documented lynchings of black men in Mississippi alone.12
Not surprisingly, the logic of the Nelse Patton lynching—the ritualized reassertion of racial hierarchy through violence—permeates Faulkner’s early fiction. This is not to say that Faulkner accepted the radical account. On the contrary, the details and victims of Faulkner’s early fictional lynchings belie its facile stereotypes. In “Dry September” (1931), for example, we suspect not only that Will Mayes, the black man lynched for attacking a white woman, is innocent, but that the attack never in fact occurred. Joe Christmas is lynched for killing a white woman in Light in August (1932), but he has himself passed for white, and his victim was his willing sexual partner. Still, Faulkner’s characters in these early texts clearly do think and live in a...