The OF Blog: William Faulkner, "Red Leaves"

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

William Faulkner, "Red Leaves"

Last week’s discussion of Light in August (1932) explored some of the ways that identity and isolation can be byproducts of racism.  Here in “Red Leaves” (1930), Faulkner explored the problematic issue of American chattel slavery and racism by turning the focus away from blacks and whites toward the Native American tribes, particularly the Chickasaw and Choctaw, who themselves had a complex series of relationships with both groups before their forced removal during the 1930s.  As is often the case with the issues discussed here, Faulkner’s treatment is problematic yet stirring simultaneously.

“Red Leaves” is set sometime before the Civil War, likely in the 1820s or 1830s, before the land that was to become the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi had been completely settled by whites.  The story revolves around two natives, apparently Chickasaw, named Three Basket and Louis Berry, and their search for a slave of their late chief, Issetibbeha, who has run away to avoid the fate assigned to the horse, dog, and manservant of the chief.  Here, as in several other of his stories, Faulkner frequently shifts from the literary present back a generation or more to cover the events that have led to the seemingly inexorable doom that awaits this slave, who is known here only as the Negro.  Below is a key passage that illustrates the effects of this intersection of native culture, white trinkets, and the perniciousness of African chattel slavery, sometime prior to the literary present:
So they cleared the land with the Negroes and planted it in grain.  Up to that time the slaves had lived in a huge pen with a lean-to roof over one corner, like a pen for pigs. But now they began to build quarters, cabins, putting the young Negroes in the cabins in pairs to mate; five years later Issetibbeha sold forty head to a Memphis trader, and he took the money and went abroad upon it, his maternal uncle from New Orleans conducting the trip.  At that time the Chevalier Souer de Vitry was an old man in Paris, in a toupee and a corset, with a careful toothless old face fixed in a grimace quizzical and profoundly tragic.  He borrowed three hundred dollars from Issetibbeha and in return he introduced him into certain circles; a year later Issetibbeha returned home with a gilt bed, a pair of girandoles by whose light it was said that Pompadour arranged her hair while Louis smirked at his mirrored face across her powdered shoulder, and a pair of slippers with red heels.  They were too small for him, since he had not worn shoes at all until he reached New Orleans on his way abroad.
He brought the slippers home in tissue paper and kept them in the remaining pocket of a pair of saddlebags filled with cedar shavings, save when he took them out on occasion for his son, Moketubbe, to play with.  At three years of age Moketubbe had a broad, flat, Mongolian face that appeared to exist in a complete and unfathomable lethargy, until confronted by the slippers.
Before the arrival of whites and blacks into the region, there was no recorded history of Native American chattel slavery in this region.  But in a very short period of time between increased white settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains and the removal of most of the southeastern native nations in the 1830s, some tribes, often labelled as the Five Civilized Tribes of the Southeast (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole), adopted several cultural and social traits from the white settlers:  fashions of dress, ways of farming, the Christian faith, and the practice of chattel slavery.  In passages such as the one quoted above, Faulkner noted these changes (the ill-fitting red-heeled shoes of Issetibbeha is mentioned in several places throughout the story, for example) and the deleterious effects these had on native societies.

However, in telling this story of two natives attempting to carry out a supposed traditional burial practice by tracking down the runaway nameless slave, Faulkner’s language can be troubling to many readers.  From broadly hinting at cannibalistic (as far as can be told, never documented in any verifiable literature) practices among the Chickasaw (with the even more questionable comment that Negroes have “bitter skin”) to Three Basket and Louis Berry musing on the apparent love of Africans “to sweat,” it is very easy to read this as being as much a prejudicial text as it is a commentary on the corrupting influence that the new arrivals had on native culture.  Certainly those racist elements cannot be denied, as they are explicit within the text.  Yet despite this, the main theme of loss of cultural identity still manages to resonate in places.

What makes “Red Leaves” work despite its problematic treatment of race is the story’s tone.  There is an almost palpable sense that the reader, along with Three Basket and Louis Berry, is marching toward a predetermined yet vague conclusion.  As the narrative flows back and forth between its fictional past and present, the reader is presented with this conflict between maintaining traditionalism and accepting the compelling yet insidious corruptions of society induced by new elements introduced by the newly-arriving settlers.  Yet despite sensing that fate is inexorable, the slave at the heart of this tracking down makes a comment, that when placed in context with the paragraphs just prior to it, makes it memorable:
“It struck me here, raking me across this arm; once, twice, three times.  I said, ‘Olé, Grandfather.’”
There is beneath the curtness of his retelling of what had happened to him an undertone of defiance and dignity.  The societies which had led two to track him down and another to be a representative of descendents of captives forced to endure degradations to reach a place where they did not wish to travel come together in a single, poignant moment that is powerful simply because it is the final actions of the three characters and not their words that make the conclusion troubling to read.  Yes, the the narrative is full of racist depictions, but yet beneath that there is the sense that those terms, just like the red-heeled shoes that the recently-dead Issetibbeha wore despite the pain they caused him, are but further symbols of the great tragedy that has unfolded over the past four centuries.  Although this sense of a “curse” is stated explicitly in Light in August, there is a faint anticipation of it here in “Red Leaves.” These two stories, when read in close conjunction with each other, reveal a problematic yet complex portrayal of race relations that few whites were attempting during the early 20th century.  Faulkner’s failures to portray this are at least as important as his successes in showing how this “peculiar institution” and its descendents has had the power to affect individuals of all racial groups in the South (and by implication, elsewhere).  So despite the prejudicial language often used in “Red Leaves,” the story contains elements that are worth bearing in mind when reading more of Faulkner’s fiction.

Originally posted in February 2012 on Gogol's Overcoat as part of a weekly "Faulkner Friday."  Novels  reviewed from January-April will be reposted here on Fridays, while the short stories will appear on Wednesdays.

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