Teaching Faulkner's Go Down Moses

Charles A. Peek, University of Nebraska at Kearney

The most embarrassing question arises from time to time: "Which of Faulkner's works do you like best"? I used to be able to answer that question, but it has become increasingly impossible. Usually, I just say, "Whichever book I'm reading at the moment." But lately I've been drawn to the subtle arts of Go Down, Moses and finding myself choosing it more often for classes. Because I would like to hear how other Teaching Faulkner readers go about it, I thought to share with them a little of what I do and don't do in teaching the novel.

First, I should note that I do regard it as a novel, one using what had increasingly become Faulkner's narrative strategy, the intertwining of related stories. I teach Faulkner most often in undergraduate General Studies settings, where it's best to remember that Faulkner is formidable for most readers. My usual custom is to let students plunge right into a work; it is their experience of reading, their making of meaning, their contact with Faulkner's making of meaning, that excites me. But I bend that rule just a little for Go Down. Moses.

First, I sometimes hand out a little introductory statement. The one I used most recently went like this:

In Go Down, Moses, Faulkner confronts his own growing convictions about race as a definite mark of what is meant by "the South." Robert Penn Warren once summed up the growing recognition of some white Southerners that every white child is born crucified to a black cross. This, in itself, was a significant advance in thought. For Faulkner and others, it meant casting off attitudes ingrained by upbringing and reexamining all the stereotypes of race. This Faulkner had been doing for some time before writing Go Down, Moses. But I think that even this advance was not, to Faulkner's mind, enough. What about every black child? To what cross were they born? That is, we see Faulkner as beginning to see that race was a larger question than could be captured by asking only of its effects on whites.
To get at this larger context, Faulkner conceived of a reexamination of the history of the South, especially its history as recorded in common stories about the aftermath of the Civil War and kept alive in common prejudices and especially in the myths of "the old plantation." Let me suggest that this re-examination lies at the heart of the seven stories that make up the novel. Some of these are told with pathos, some with humor, some fairly straightforwardly (for Faulkner!). some in a fair-to-middlin' convolution. But their aim is to confront why the end of slavery did not end the system of color caste in America.
Let me suggest, then, that you ask-among your own questions-how each story reveals the roots of our national struggle with race, how it confronts stereotypes of race, how it depicts understanding and, more often, misunderstanding among the races, and what it suggests it would take for any real change to take place.

Then, I choose a short passage to read aloud, one that will have some stylistic and thematic bearing on future discussion, but will as a preview alert students to how to read. Most often I read the scene at Mannie's grave from "Pantaloon in Black" because it shows how you have to tuck passages away for future use and, thematically, raises the issue of how much of African American culture whites really don't understand. But this semester I read the fox and dogs chase from "Was." Stylistically, this gives them a chance to see how Faulkner plays off animals as reference points for humans, and thematically they see the first instance of the hunt/ chase/race motif recapitulated in Uncle Buck's and Buddy's tracking down Tomey's Turl, Sophonsiba Beauchamp's tracking down of Uncle Buck, and Tomey's Turls search for Tennie. This prepares them for later hunt scenes such as Lucas Beauchamp's search for gold, Ike's initiation into hunting in the wilderness, Ike's search through the commissary ledgers, and Mollie Beauchamp's search for justice. Either passage or others of your choice will work.

Finally, as preparation, I copy a chronology and a McCaslin/Edmonds/Beauchamp family tree that I distribute after we've finished discussing "Was," and I give them the words to the spiritual "Go Down, Moses" that I distribute when we get to the final story. All of these are available in Arthur F. Kinney's Go Down, Moses: The Miscegenation of Time (Twayne, 1996).

I spend the equivalent of 3 three-hour class periods on the novel. In most of my classes, and always in the short summer session, three or four students are assigned responsibility for leading 20-40 minute discussions of the novel the last two of the three days we spend on it. I usually comment on the discussion at its close, and find many aspects of the novel I might have planned to cover actually get covered this way. In addition, my students keep reading journals, and usually on the first day of discussion they share with one another excerpts from their journals. We also write in our journals at least once during each class period. These factors mean that my own planning has to be sufficient to go with the flow of where the student-led discussion and journal sharing are leading us. My general plan includes only a select number of aspects I want to address whether or not the student-led discussions give occasion for doing so. Here are some of them.

(1) I want to explore the myth of black male infidelity, e.g., ideas that black males do not form lasting marital attachments, that what black males experience is not love but lust, that black males have no loyalty to family. Hubert Beauchamp's inability to conceive of the true explanation for Tomey's Turl's annual "escapes" (he will not buy him from Buck and Buddy because he doesn't want the bother of a slave who always runs away), Edmonds' inability to predict the effect his use of Mollie as a wet nurse will have on Lucas, and the Deputy Sheriff's misrepresentation of Rider are all driven by some form of this myth. The fact that the only true love in "Was" is Tennie's and Tomey's Turl's, the issues of family devotion raised in the flashbacks in "The Fire and the Hearth," and the truth about Rider's grief explode it.

(2) I give some attention to what might tie these stories together into a novel; for example, the figure of Ike McCaslin who personalizes the "coming of age" theme that later we see applies to America and its treatment of race and its failure of its own democratic ideals. We note that "Was" is a story told to Ike (and later note the irony of this story of how his parents came to marry in the light of his own disastrous marriage), and we pick up on the formula, "uncle to half a county and father to no one" (3. 286).1 Lucas disavows Ike's relinquishing of the plantation in "The Fire and the Hearth." There is the obvious material in "The Old People" and "The Bear." "Delta Autumn" deconstructs Ike's relinquishment and sees him held responsible for Roth's immaturity, and by the final story Ike has passed from the scene and Faulkner has turned his attention to Gavin Stevens. In addition to Ike's role (and the hunt motif), we look at other links, such as the themes of love, initiation, death, and legacy.

(3) I like to play a little "What's wrong with this picture". Again, this can help tie the stories together. What's wrong with the comic tone of "Was," with Lucas searching for gold in "The Fire and the Hearth," with the glamorizing (in something of an idyll) in "The Old People" of both wilderness and hunting, with Boon's "Get out of here! Don't touch them! Don't touch a one of them! They're mine" (315) from "The Bear," with Gavin Stevens' noblesse oblige in "Go Down, Moses"'?

(4) We don't usually get to every issue debated by Cass and Ike in Part 4 of "The Bear," but I do like to at least get students to list the topics over which the two disagree and to get them to see that Ike by no means is all "right" and Cass all "wrong." I always look at those entries from the commissary ledgers through which Ike is led, like a detective, to put together the secrets of the family tree. We discuss here the ethics of relinquishment versus engagement. This discussion also affords the opportunity to ask why Faulkner constructs Part 4 as he does.

(5) References (in Part 4 of "The Bear") to "whose laborers it still held in thrall '65 or no" (244), and "that record which two hundred years had not been enough to complete and another hundred would not be enough to discharge; that chronicle which was a whole land in miniature, which multiplied and compounded was the entire South" (280) allow me to give some background into both the Delta plantation system and the sharecropper system that followed it. I rely heavily here on James C. Cobb's The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity (Oxford UP, 1992).

(6) I usually divide the novel 3-3-2, leaving "Delta Autumn" (the tragic bookend to the comic story "Was") and "Go Down, Moses" to be treated together at the close. I admit this is somewhat arbitrary. Despite looking at the book as a novel, there is also benefit in noting the disjuncture among the stories, in which case almost any order or pairing might work. My rationale for the final pairing is that both pick up on the Deputy Sheriff's misreading of Rider in the moral failures of Ike and Gavin Stevens and show, while they are "falling," the rise of African American women. "Go Down, Moses" pairs nicely with "Was," the obvious force of Mollie in the former helping to reveal the less obvious force of Tomey's Turl in the latter.

(7) With the final story, I bring in a recording of the spiritual from which the story and novel get their name. (Currently, I am using Call and Response, a CD that goes with The Riverside Anthology of the African American Literary Tradition. The recording of "Go Down, Moses" is by Bill McAdoo, taken from Bill McAdoo Sings, volume 2, for Folkways-FA2449.) There are several parallels with the spiritual. The issue of the fate of the first-born relates to the genealogy as a whole and to Ike's childlessness; "way down in Egypt land" easily suggests the Deep South; Moses' being raised in Pharaoh's own palace echoes in the white child/black child pairings; and the theme of liberation (the point of identification for African Americans for generations) helps us see why, in the novel, the hoped-for Moses will certainly not be white and possibly not be male. The singing (and it should be "heard" as singing) at Butch's wake, another cultural sign that Gavin Stevens misreads, gives me opportunity to discuss the "call and response" pattern of African American music and its cultural implications. Here I rely mostly on Houston Baker's Blues, Ideology, and African American Literature: A Vernacular Theory (Chicago UP, 1984); Samuel A. Floyd, Jr.'s The Power of Black Music (Oxford UP. 1995); and Sterling Stuckey's Slate Culture: Nationalist Theory arid the Foundations of Black America (Oxford UP, 1987).

(8) Finally, I use two photos, one of Faulkner's great-grandfather's monument, the other of Emaline Faulkner Lacy's little gravestone, to point out the discrepancy between white and "shadow" families, using Joel Williamson's account of the Falkner "back door" family in William Faulkner and Southern History (Oxford UP, 1993) to show the parallels between the Faulkner history and that of the McCaslin/Edmunds/Beauchamp family. Sometimes I introduce these photos as alternatives to the front and back covers of our text.

As you can imagine. I never get to this whole agenda. Obviously, what we are reading just before Faulkner (usually The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) and just after (usually James Baldwin's Blues for Mister Charlie) helps to determine how I pick and choose, as does the course of class discussion.2 It turns out, however, that when you are helping the class to read closely, many of these topics surface in their own discussions. My objective is not to tell them more about penguins than they ever wanted to know but to help them to find reading Faulkner both instructive and engaging. Any one of the items above can help do just that.


  1. References to Go Down, Moses are to the Vintage First International Edition,1990. 
  2. Each semester on the student evaluation I ask for a ranking of the works we have read. It allows me to see where I may need to focus more effort the following semester and where I might adjust the reading list. This summer session, fifteen students ranked Go Down, Moses among Huckleberry Finn, The Scarlet Letter, Blues for Mister Charlie, Woman Hollering Creek, and Tracks. In the previous term the Faulkner novel was nearly dead last, but I was learning better how to teach it. In the summer the rankings for Go Down, Moses were: first - 4; second - I ; third - 3; fourth - 1; fifth - 2; and sixth - 4.
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