“Barn Burning” by William Faulkner. I was going to assign it. Somehow, the time just slipped away.
And it hurts down deep knowing that we haven’t walked through this story. We were not there with a scared young Colonel Sartoris Snopes, called to the witness chair, interrogated by the men of the community at the country store with those shelves “close-packed with the solid, squat, dynamic shapes of tin cans whose labels his stomach read.” Just a boy, knowing the guilt and ways of his father, carrying in his veins the blood and in his person the name. Rather it was the names, both rooting him deep in the Southern soil, in the history, in the primeval fight that’s been goin’ on since the first man got something more, something better, and the second just watched, seething, longing, but not for whatever it was, a cow, a woman, a piece of bottom land, but surging with anger and wanting to destroy. And it all was swirling around and around until it spilled out in a fire, or a killing, or fight started by the one who watched the other get what he didn’t and maybe couldn’t have. That was there, lodged in the very center core of the boy. Snopes, yes Snopes, that was his name. But the other part of his name, Colonel Sartoris, bestowed after the colonel who got voted out of his own regiment, came back, raised another troop, fought Yankees, carpetbaggers, friends, neighbors, and life itself until Redmond kilt him. Ab Snopes, the father, knew the colonel, worked for him or at least near him. The boy carried the name. Both names weighing on just a boy.
I didn’t assign it. And some will think “We don’t have to read it. It won’t be on the test.” But Faulkner is there on every test. He is there reminding us of “the old verities,” and of “man not only enduring, but prevailing,” and of “grandaddy said,” and of “that fierce pull of blood” that is so deeply intwined in this story, and a thousand other little rocks jutting out on the cold embankment we climb, trying to get out of this.
Faulkner is layered, rambling, repetitive, wordy, obtuse, obscure. Hemingway sneered, “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. but there are older and simpler and better words, and those the ones I use.” Ernest always lashed out when he was jealous. His characters were without family, roots, land, faith, and real love. Vermouth, even by the barrel, could not substitute for truth. Hemingway wrote adventure stories mostly. Faulkner wrote literature.
Faulkner is assigned. “Barn Burning” and the rest of the stories, and the novels, and Oxford, Mississippi itself are all assigned. I’ve been working on that same assignment since 1973, failing, but returning.
The young boy, Colonel Sartoris Snopes, disappears at the end of the story, and unlike so many Faulkner characters, he disappears from Yoknapatawpha County, and that whole postage stamp of a world forever. Faulkner didn’t create characters. They were already there, and he just tried to catch up with them and hear what they were saying. But the boy escaped. I wonder whatever became of him.