The picture above was used on the first edition dust jacket published in 1936 by Random House. It is the image I had in my mind, while reading this book, of the plantation built by Thomas Sutpen called Sutpen's Hundred. The hundred stands for a 100 square miles, the geographic size of the plantation. 100 square miles of land is equivalent to 64,000 acres. In other words it is a BIG PLACE
. The gist of all this is that Thomas Sutpen built himself an empire. These plantations were so large that it required an unbelievable amount of human labor to keep them productive. Mechanical invention had not advanced enough to provide the machines that the plantation owners needed to work such a large tract of land. When you own more land than you can work and there is not a labor pool available to sustain your industry what do you do?
Well we know what they did, but what should they have done? Around 1800 when cotton became king is when the demand for slaves really escalated. Unfortunately the potato famine in Ireland happened in 1845 which brought a lot of displaced Irish to the United States too late to keep slavery from growing exponentially. Now i'm not advocating turning the Irish immigrants or the wave that followed of Chinese immigrants into slaves, but wouldn't it have been a better solution for our history if those plantation owners had adopted the flawed, but still better than slavery, system of tenement farmers? Eventually technology would have caught up with the needs of large land owners which would have freed up the tenement farmers for industrial work that made the North so strong. Maybe the availability of that labor pool would have encouraged manufacturing in the South. Some of the better tenement farmers would have become land owners themselves as plantations fell out of the hands of families due to the untimely death of a patriarch or mismanagement. Not a perfect world, but a better world and maybe, just maybe we would have avoided a costly Civil War that the South to this day has never fully recovered.
But then would Southern literature be the same?
I have a grudging respect for Thomas Sutpen. As a boy he was asked to deliver a message to a wealthy plantation owner in Virginia. He watched the plantation owner lying in a hammock with his shoes off while a slaves fanned him. Thomas was asked to go to the backdoor to deliver his message. He feels the slight. He lays awake at night thinking about what he can do about it. He does a stint in the West Indies and comes back to the United States, specifically Mississippi, with blacks speaking a strange language. "He wasn't even a gentleman. He came here with a horse and two pistols and a name which nobody ever heard before, knew for certain was his own anymore than the horse was his own or even the pistols, seeking some place to hide himself.
Quentin Compson is the thread that sews the plot together. As Rosie Coldfield and his father and a host of other people tell him stories about Yoknapatawpha County his head becomes filled with a convoluted history of his birthplace. "Quentin had grown up with that; the mere names were interchangeable and almost myriad. His childhood was full of them; his very body was an empty hall echoing with sonorous defeated names; he was a being, an entity, he was a commonwealth."
Quentin spends more time with Rosie Coldfield than he really wants to, but she has memories that he needs to fill the gaps in the story in his head. "Quentin....sitting in the buggy beside the implacable doll-sized old woman clutching her cotton umbrella, smelling the heat-distilled old woman=flesh, the heat-distilled camphor in the old fold-creases of the shawl, feeling exactly like an electric bulb blood and skin since the buggy disturbed not enough air to cool him with motion, created not enough motion within him to make his skin sweat."
I can see the native people, the families that have lived in this county in Mississippi for generations that watched this new comer, Thomas Sutpen, with bemusement. When he successfully rooked a drunken Indian out of some land they clucked about that, but then as he continued to gain influence and wealth, building a comfortable living out of nothing; they started to worry. This opportunity had been there for them their whole lives, but it took a man with daring from outside the county to see the potential (or have the immorality to make it happen). He took a wife descended from a good family and the community showed their disapproval by not showing up to the wedding. Undaunted, barely noticing that the community had turned against him Thomas Sutpen forged forward siring a son and a daughter and building the life for himself he had coveted as a boy in Virginia.
The Civil War happens. About every man that can walk a straight line is called up to serve. Thomas's son Henry is away from school and has become friends with Charles Bon who through the machinations of his mother has at the advanced age of 28 decided to go back to school. He meets up with Henry and as the plot advances we find out that Charles Bon is Henry's half brother. Charles becomes engaged to Henry's sister Judith and of course she is also his half sister. This causes, of course, much consternation in the family.
I really didn't think that Charles loved Judith. "It was not Judith who was the object of Bon's love or of Henry's solicitude. She was just the blank shape, the empty vessel in which each of them strove to preserve, not the illusion of himself nor his illusion of the other but what each conceived the other to believe him to be-the man and the youth, seducer and seduced who had known one another, seduced and been seduced, victimised in turn each by the other, conquerer vanquished by his own strength, vanquished conquering by his own weakness."
I think he saw Judith as the only way of achieving his own birthright. Henry kills Charles to keep him from marrying Judith even though he really loved him...well...like a brother.
The story is much larger than what I've touched on here. The book is riddled with incredible passages that would balloon this review up to megalithic proportions if I were to share them all with you. The layers of the story are frustrating and magnificent. I equate this book to going to a family reunion and you spend time with a great aunt, an uncle, and a grandparent and ask them the same question. The story is told to you heavy with repetition because the narrators know a lot of the same information, and yet from each storyteller you glean a few more nuggets because each person that you solicit for the story has a unique perspective and is in possession of different pieces of the life puzzle.
I had moments where I wanted to deconstruct this story, strain out all the repetitious information and write this story out in a linear fashion, but then it wouldn't be a masterpiece. It would just be another book telling a story about a slice of Southern history. By writing this book, this way, Faulkner not only preserved a piece of Southern history, but also preserved the tradition of Southern oral storytelling.
I found that this book read best late at night after my family was in bed and the only sound that I could hear were goldfish coming up for air in our fish tank. I would always intend just to read a chapter, but once I landed in Jefferson, Mississippi I was caught in the intricacies of the writer's web. I found myself reading chapter after chapter as if Faulkner's hand was giving me a gentle push to continue. "Well, Kernel, they kilt us but they aint whupped us yit air they?"
I know this book is difficult, but find a quiet place, while you are reading this book, to let yourself be focused and relaxed enough to be sitting on the porch with Quentin and the people narrating the tale, and fall into the cadence of their voices, and let yourself be told a story.
Bonus points to those that can actually smell the "wistaria".