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ERIN SWEENEY University of California, Irvine Landless Whites, Dual-Class Identification, and Sutpen’s Sub-Design INWILLIAMFAULKNER’SABSALOM,ABSALOM!,THOMASSUTPEN,A SETTLER of poor Appalachian stock, arrives in Jefferson, Mississippi, in 1833 with a “design” to acquire a plantation and to create a dynasty (194). He organizes his life around achieving the power possessed by the planter class, but his identification with that class is complicated by its association with respectability. Sutpen, whose famous design was initiated by his own traumatic recognition of plantocratic injustice stemming from his status as the child of a poor white tenant farmer, both desires that respectability and enjoys flouting it to the bafflement and eventual outrage of the local townspeople. Sutpen’s double attitude can best be explained by examining the novel’s class structure. Jefferson’s white population consists of three classes: the planter class, the respectable middle class, and an itinerant working class. For Sutpen to jump from itinerancy to land ownership, he needs respectability. He plots to gain this social recognition through marriage to Ellen Coldfield, the daughter of a leading town citizen. But Faulkner dramatizes the planter’s continued identification with the itinerant working class at the very wedding ceremony that will grant Sutpen the necessary “patent of respectability” (11) via a cross-class garbage-throwing protest. Sutpen’s early, combative interactions with the middle-class townspeople briefly make visible a largely unnoticed underclass of landless whites existing at the town’s social and geographical fringes, and point to Sutpen’s lingering identification with the local incarnations of the newly minted planter’s poor white childhood, an identification which is seemingly at odds with his long-term goal of using “land and niggers and a fine house” to achieve a plantation dynasty (192).1 1 For recent approaches to class in Faulkner’s works, see the articles in the special issue of Mississippi Quarterly on “Faulkner, Labor, and the Critique of Capitalism” (Summer 2008, vol. 62.3), especially Gretchen Martin’s nuanced discussion of class complexity in Absalom, Absalom!. For an account of Sutpen’s class mobility and the “self-made man” concerning reproduction, see Cunningham. 102 Erin Sweeney Except for episodes that directly involve dynastic design, such as the huntfortheFrencharchitectandthebloodywrestlingmatches,Sutpen’s unconventional early interactions with the town—the “pistol demonstration” on the third day after he arrives (25), the avoidance of the Holston House’s common areas, the wild carriage rides to church, and the Sutpen-Coldfield wedding—have not garnered significant critical attention. This oversight arises in part because the often comic episodes are difficult to reconcile with the grand aims of Sutpen’s primary design to create a dynasty, and partly because they occur long before Henry Sutpen’s murder of Charles Bon, the dynastic design’s climacticevent.2 Yet,theearlyinteractionsbetweenJefferson’sresidents and the new planter to the northwest of town merit attention for the way they expose the methods by which the townspeople construct a seemingly stable middle-class town identity, not only against a narratively visible enslaved black population, but also against a landless white population faintly perceptible through narrative gaps. These early episodes spatially delineate Jefferson’s class structure with the middle class in the town center and an underclass of itinerant white workers such as “coon-hunter Akers,” “traders and drovers and teamsters,” and “scum and riffraff who could not have approached the house . . . even from the rear” located on “the town’s purlieus” (27, 44, 20, 41).3 The frequency with which Sutpen’s presence as a problematic planter on the town’s outskirts disrupts naturalized socio-geographic markers invites a reconsideration of Sutpen’s design as it unfolds during his first few years in Jefferson. Critical consensus has been that Sutpen’s design is imitative in nature and intended, in Elizabeth Kerr’s words, “to establish an estate and a dynasty” modeled on “the Tidewater pattern of inheritance through the eldest legitimate son” (38). Dirk Kuyk, in contrast, argues that Sutpen 2 A representative example occurs in Myra Jehlen’s Class and Character in Faulkner’s South. Jehlen recognizes a duality in Sutpen’s class affiliation in her account of “Sutpen as lord and peasant both” as an “embod[iment...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2689-517X
Print ISSN
0026-637X
Pages
pp. 101-119
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-27
Open Access
No
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