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William Faulkner: Go Down, Moses

This is actually a collection of seven short stories but they are all linked as they all relate to the McCaslin family. As with his other novels, they do not always make for easy reading, as Faulkner jumps around in time and uses the stream of consciousness technique. The first story Was is an example, as it starts in the present time and quickly goes back to the pre-Civil War era. A slave – Tomey’s Turl – has run away but his owner – Theophilus McCaslin, known to all as Uncle Buck – knows where he has gone – to visit his girlfriend, Tennie, at Hubert Beauchamp’s plantation. They have difficulty in catching him, as he is too smart for them. It ends with Uncle Buck tricked into marrying Beauchamp’s sister, Sophonsiba, but Tomey’s Turl getting to marry Tennie.

The next story The Fire and the Hearth introduces us to Lucas Beauchamp, who will be a key character in Intruder in the Dust. Beauchamp is the son of Tomey’s Turl, whom we have already met in the previous story. Tomey’s Turl is, in turn, an illegitimate son of Carothers McCaslin and McCaslin’s slave Tomey. There are two major plot elements in this story. Firstly, George Wilkens wants to marry Lucas’ daughter, Nat, but Lucas does not want this and tries to have Wilkens arrested for illegal whisky making but Wilkens cleverly tricks Lucas. Secondly, Lucas finds a gold coin and thinks it is part of the hoard left by Uncle Buck (from the previous story) and his brother and goes hunting for it.

The third story Pantaloon in Black is about a black man, Rider, whose wife dies. He goes berserk and kills a security guard during a crooked dice game. He is arrested and escapes but is found hanging two days later. The fourth story The Old People is about hunting and the introduction of Isaac McCaslin (later to be known as Uncle Ike) to hunting by a Choctaw, who shows him a huge stag, which may be a real animal or may be a spirit.

The fifth story The Bear is the best-known of the stories and has been widely anthologised. It follows on from The Old People, with an older Isaac hunting an old bear, known as Old Ben. Though he sees the bear, he cannot catch it as there is no dog not afraid of the animal. When they get a dog who is not afraid, they finally catch the bear but the dog is killed. Isaac then reaches the age of 21 and stands to inherit the plantation but declines to do so as he is against material possessions, becoming a carpenter and hunter (as we saw him at the very beginning of the first story). The sixth story Delta Autumn sees an older Isaac and a man who is saddened at the state of the world (World War II, the decline of the wilderness and the lack of what he sees as the decline of morals). The final story is the title story Go Down, Moses and is about the execution of Samuel Beauchamp for killing a police officer and how his grandmother, Mollie, gets help from lawyer Gavin Stevens (a key figure in Intruder in the Dust) to have the body shipped home. The fact that this relatively slight story is the one that gives its title to the whole work indicates Faulkner’s concern for the black population of the South and how the whites do not understand their way of living and concerns. We will see this theme taken up again in Intruder in the Dust.

Publishing history

First published 1942 by Random House