The Southern Social Themes of Barn Burning
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Written as it was, at the ebb of the 1930s, a decade of social, economic, and cultural tumult, the decade of the Great Depression, William Faulkner's short story "Barn Burning" may be read and discussed in our classrooms as just that--a story of the '30s, for "Barn Burning" offers students insights into these years as they were lived by the nation and the South and captured by our artists. This story was first published in June of 1939 in Harper's Magazine and later awarded the 0. Henry Memorial Award for the best short story of the year. Whether read alone, as part of a thematic unit on the Depression era, or as an element of an interdisciplinary course of the Depression '30s, "Barn Burning" can be used to awaken students to the race, class, and economic turmoil of the decade.
During the 1930s, the Sartoris and Snopes families were overlapping entities in Faulkner's imagination. These families with their opposing social values spurred his imagination at a time when he wrote about the passing of a conservative, agricultural South and the opening up of the South to a new era of modernization. This depiction of the agrarian society of the Sartoris family connects Faulkner to the nostalgic yearnings for a past expressed in I'll Take My Stand, the Fugitives' manifesto of 1930, a book opening the decade yet echoing sentiments of past decades. At the start of our classroom discussion of "Barn Burning," we can explain the tenets of the Fugitives, their traditional, aristocratic attitudes, and their reverence for the landed gentry life style. We can focus on the description of the de Spain home and property, with its opulence and privilege, as representative of the Agrarians' version of "the good life." Early we need to emphasize and discuss the attraction of the young boy Colonel Sartoris Snopes to the security and comfort of this style, his attraction to his namesake's heritage.
In his rendition of the Sartoris-like agrarian society, Faulkner acknowledges its dichotomy: the injustice, the lack of fair play, the blacks' subservience, and the divisiveness within the community which empire builders like the Sartorises and the de Spains wrought. It is, of course, this very social inequity, the class distinction, and the economic inequality against which Sarty's father Ab Snopes' barn burning rails. We now can lead our students to the evidence of these social injustices within the story by identifying exemplary moments and scenes.
Specifically the concepts of sharecropper, poor white, and tenant farmer need to be fully defined and explored. Then the second courtroom scene in which de Spain exacts a payment of "twenty bushels of corn against your crop" for the ruined rug can be discussed in the context of de Spain's use of the words "contract" and "commissary." The economic and legal sovereignty exerted by the owner in this system of repressive, feudal privilege which creates the near impossibility of the tenant's ever "getting out from under" will then become more fathomable for students.
Foremost as such an example of social injustice is the encounter at the doorway of the de Spain mansion between the Snopes father and son and the de Spain black house servant. At this moment young Colonel Sartoris Snopes (whose very names pit the aristocratic, land-owning rich against the tenant farmer poor) is ushered into the reality of class differences, that being the cleavage within the local community. The boy Sarty responds to the big house with a "surge of peace and joy." Its bigness-"Hit's big as a courthouse"-to his fresh eyes seems to guarantee safety, dignity, and peace from the barn-burning menace of his father. But the old, neatly dressed black servant in his linen jacket bars the door with his body and commands the father, who has deliberately put his foot down in a pile of fresh horse droppings, to "wipe ya foot, white man." Saying "Get out of my way, nigger," the father enters the house and imprints his besmeared footprints on the rug. Sarty experiences the interior of the house as a swirl of glittering chandeliers, gleaming gold frames, and curving carpeted stairs. His image of Mrs. de Spain is one of a woman "wiping cake or biscuit dough from her hands." Young Sarty falls under the spell of the house, its possessions, its security.
While the son imagines the house as a citadel secure against momentary stings from his father, "the buzzing wasp," the father Abner Snopes sees the house as "pretty and white," built on "sweat, nigger sweat. Maybe it ain't white enough yet to suit him. Maybe he [de Spain] wants to mix some white sweat with it." Abner Snopes understands full well the hardships, deprivation, and ignorance that the Southern social system has exacted. At the heart of Abner's defiance is his awareness that the man in the big house "aims to begin owning me body and soul for the next eight months." This outrage at his plight as tenant farmer fuels the father's rebellion against the class structure. To attack the aristocratic class, Abner Snopes deliberately builds his fires to bum the property owned by the boss and twice destroys the rug. In our classroom discussion of the character of Abner Snopes, we should build an awareness of the oppression of the laborer, so common in the '30s, and an appreciation of the underclass of white workers who functioned then in a version of indentured servitude. These social and economic insights may help students comprehend the rage and violence of this underclass, typified by the barn-burning Abner.
The contrast between the de Spain mansion and the Snopes tenant farmer shack highlights the terrible divide between owner and tenant in the '30s. Here in "Barn Burning" the small, impoverished and illiterate ten-year-old boy, ill nourished on cold food and dressed in clean but faded, patched jeans, has experienced home as a succession of identical "unpainted two room houses, "tenant farmer hovels, for the Snopeses have moved a dozen times through poor country. Such migrations were a dominant social reality and theme of '30s artists. Now we can dwell a while on migration, as both the narrative structure and theme of the '30s classic novel, The Grapes of Wrath. In John Steinbeck's novel the Joads, also poor whites, are uprooted from their Midwestern farmland and journey west. In addition we can view the thirty some paintings of Jacob Lawrence's migration series, graphic depictions of the blacks' journey in the '30s from the rural poverty-stricken South to the urban tenements of the North.
On their repetitious migrations from house to house, Sarty's mother carries her one surviving treasured possession, a remnant of her dowry, a "clock inlaid with mother-of-pearl, which would not run." In their photographs and words in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Walker Evans and James Agee captured just such tenant farmer shacks with their meager possessions. Such cherished possessions of the tenant farm wife are highlighted in the ninth of Evans' photographs known as "The Altar" and are described by Agee in the "Altar" section of the text: on the altar are a green glass bowl in which sits a white china swan, two small twin vases, and a fluted saucer about which the wife "cares more dearly than for anything else she possesses." This is her last effort to make the house "pretty" (Agee 163).
Here we can introduce students to the stark, graphic photographic heritage of the Depression '30s. Besides the landmark photos of Walker Evans, students might view Dorothea Lange's photographs as well as Eudora Welty's Depression era "snapshot album," One Time, One Place, pictures of the Mississippi landscape Faulkner captures here in vivid, concrete, focused, detailed language. We need to emphasize these photographers' sensitivity to the common man, the impoverished, the oppressed in contrast with the Fugitives' alliance with the privileged. We can impress upon our students that these two Depression classics, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and I'll Take My Stand, articulate the very distinctions which Faulkner identifies with Sartoris and Snopes and which he presents in "Barn Burning."
This encounter at the door of the white aristocrat's mansion not only speaks to class distinctions within the white race but also underscores the superior position of the black house servant over the poor white tenant farmer. Here the finer quality of the black's attire, his position within the house, and his power to deny the white entrance heighten the racial tensions. Poor "white sweat" may mix with "nigger sweat." The quality of life of the poor whites and that of the blacks are too similar: whites may now claim a racial superiority but not a class superiority. Poor whites, too, can be "owned" as blacks were. The racial element in the doorway encounter only fuels the father's rage all the more. His supposed supremacy as a white man is challenged by the black servant who obviously holds a superior position in the doorway. The black's appearance and his authoritorial position over Snopes within the confines of the house mock the Snopeses' claims to racial superiority. At this point we might remind students of Mississippi's position as our poorest state in the 1930s, a state with an unmatched record of racial atrocities, a state where poor whites and blacks scraped at the bottom of the economic barrel, and where the racial tensions exploded in rage and violence. These historic facts can lead to a clearer understanding of why Abner Snopes acts as he does here.
Significantly in his complex characterization of Abner Snopes, Faulkner captures the conflict and split within the Snopeses' value system as well. Although the father is a destructive individual, abusive and violent within the family, slothful about work, a man to be feared, still he embodies many qualities Faulkner celebrates. Abner's very defiance of the humiliation at the white man's doorway, his courage, pride, and endurance (qualities which Faulkner would later extol in his Nobel Prize Speech) are admirable, and initially these qualities guarantee Sarty's loyalty against the "enemy." Moreover, the father's "wolflike independence and even courage" plus his "ferocious conviction in the rightness of his ways" have enabled him to forge an individual identity over years when he has been possessed as chattel by wealthy white men. He has coped, survived, and endured unmerited sufferings on his own tenacious terms. Often students experience difficulty in fathoming Faulkner's partial admiration for Abner. They see only the negative, violent, destructive Abner, so we might linger a while amidst the language of the Nobel Prize Speech and the complex mix of qualities attributed to Abner Snopes in hopes of establishing an appreciation of the fullness of Abner's character which includes his independence, courage, and struggle against impossible odds.
Yet conversely the cluster of words like "ruthless," "bloodless," "stiff," "cut from tin," and "ironlike" surrounding Abner Snopes suggests the metallic, inhuman, mechanical identity Faulkner also recognizes in Snopes. Any love, pity, and compassion are now gone from the father; only the "frozen ferocity" and the "cold, dead voice" remain. In Abner Snopes Faulkner captures the toll to the human spirit that the oppression, deprivation, and injustice of the Great Depression exacted. Furthermore, the relentless defiance by the underclass extracts an even greater human cost. The situation and system dehumanize the individual in ways that Abner Snopes graphically exemplifies. Faulkner, a man of the '30s, knew this well; our students, by our pointed attention to the truths of human suffering, can understand this, too.
When Sarty warns the de Spain household of his father's intention to bum the barn, he supports the Fugitive/agrarian South without fully comprehending his father's rage against the flip side of the Old South, people as chattel. It is people as chattel which Abner Snopes reviles even though his very methods dehumanize him. The son turns from the destructive defiance of his family as he still clings to an idealized image of his father. His moral growth brings Sarty to more humanitarian values beyond mere loyalty to the clan. He responds to the honor and integrity epitomized by the Sartoris Old South as he also is attracted to the material splendors of the aristocratic South.
While the conflict and tension are personal and moral for Sarty, they are also grounded in the socioeconomic realities of the '30s: the long-standing class distinctions between the white land owners and the white tenant farmers; the racial distinction between blacks and whites; the flawed presumption of racial superiority by the tenant farmer, the poor white trash class over the blacks.
Clearly in this tale of initiation, one of moral choices and their consequences, Faulkner recreates Southern class differences and racial distinctions at the close of the decade of the 1930s. At this time the Old South was withering away from its own decadence and sin; the old agricultural society was turning into a deathlike desert; the New Deal programs seemed unable to bring Mississippi back from the brink; the state seemed to self-destruct and turn backward socially. It was at this time that Faulkner wrote "Barn Burning," a story including all of these social themes.
Agee, James, and Walker Evans. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1941, reprinted 1960.
Faulkner, William. "Barn Burning."Harper's Magazine, June 1939, reprinted in Collected Stories, New York: Random House, 1950.