The OF Blog: William Faulkner, The Unvanquished

Friday, November 30, 2012

William Faulkner, The Unvanquished

For most of the thirteen years leading up to the publication of The Unvanquished (1938), most of Faulkner’s short fiction and novels kept circling around the Ground Zero of Yoknapatawpha County:  the Civil War.  In “A Rose for Emily,” passing mention was made of Colonel Sartoris and his form of charity toward Emily.  Flags in the Dust (1929) follows the Sartoris family in its decline after the Civil War.  In Absalom, Absalom! we learn a bit more about the Compsons and their connection to the settlement of the county and their involvement in the Civil War.  “Barn Burning” introduced us to Ab Snopes, whose muddled role in the Civil War was, incidentally enough, first explored in The Unvanquished.  There are further ripple effects, forwards and backwards in Yoknapatawphan time, as the complex, tragic mix of pride, stubbornness, racism and classism, and the struggle of the everyperson to make his/her way through an often unforgiving environment all center around the real and fictional events of 1861-1865.

The Unvanquished, through seven episodes, tells the story of the Sartoris family during the second half of the Civil War, July 1863-April 1865, and into the Reconstruction years, ending in 1872.  Six of these seven episodes originally were short stories published between 1934-1936, with the seventh, “An Odor of Verbena,” appearing only with the complete novel.  It is told through the young twelve year-old eyes of Bayard Sartoris, Colonel John Sartoris’ eldest son, as he remains at home on the Sartoris plantation while his father and the other Yoknapatawpha men join the Confederate Army of the Mississippi in battles north and east of Jefferson.  The story begins with Bayard and the young slave Ringo playing a mock battle of Vicksburg when an older servant, Loosh, comes in and informs the boys that Vicksburg has fallen and that the Yankees are advancing through northeastern Mississippi toward Jefferson.  Soon enough, the two spot an advance Yankee patrol and Bayard pulls down a musket from the wall and shoots at him, killing a horse.  This opening episode, “Ambuscade,” reveals not just young Bayard’s naivety (he does not yet understand that there is an element of fear as well as respect in how Ringo and the other slaves treat him and his family), but also that turning point in the war where the advancing Union forces have begun liberating the slaves in the captured territories following the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863.    Faulkner later reveals the depth to which the slaves knew of Lincoln’s proclamation in the third section, “Raid,” through this eloquent passage:
We never did overtake them, just as you do not overtake a tide. You just keep moving, then suddenly you know that the set is about you, beneath you, overtaking you, as if the slow and ruthless power, become aware of your presence at last, had dropped back a tentacle, a feeler, to gather you in and sweep you remorselessly on. Singly, in couples, in groups and families they began to appear from the woods, ahead of us, alongside of us and behind…men and women carrying babies and dragging older children by the hand, old men and women on improvised sticks and crutches, and very old ones sitting beside the road and even calling to us when we passed; there was one old woman who even walked along beside the wagon, holding to the bed and begging Granny to at least let her see the river before she died.
The path of human migration was not limited to the slaves moving toward the Mississippi River (where the Union Army was stationed) but also to the movement of refugees driven from their homes by the fighting.  During the last full year of the war, Bayard’s family leaves the Sartoris plantation behind, as the Colonel has ridden into town and urges his mother, the Granny, to take the family silver to Memphis for safekeeping from looters from both sides of the conflict.  As Granny, Bayard, and Ringo travel toward their destination, they are waylaid, saved only by the fortuitous arrival of the Colonel’s cavalry as they try to chase down the thieves, who manage to escape but without the silver they had taken.  There are several funny events in the middle episodes, such as when Granny later goes to the Union forces and petitions for the return of the silver that the soldiers had later taken from the plantation after another patrol came upon it while searching for the Colonel’s troop.  Through a series of shrewd negotiations, abetted by the shady Ab Snopes, they have engaged in a mule smuggling/selling operation that allows the family to make back the money lost.  In this episode, there are shades of actual events late in the war where soldiers on both sides and civilians would sometimes engage in a series of complex and perhaps illicit trades in order for the latter to survive as their crops were devastated by the fighting and lack of labor for harvest time.

Dearth of supplies and food, while featured at times in these stories, takes a secondary role to Bayard’s personal development.  Near the end of the fighting, Granny is killed by the sinister ex-Confederate bandit, Grumby, as she tries to ply on him her mule-trading scam.  Betrayed by Snopes, Grumby has her killed.  Bayard and others in the household begin tracking down Grumby’s men, when they stumble upon Snopes, who had been tied up and left for dead by Grumby.  Eventually, Grumby is cornered, killed, and one of his hands is chopped off in retribution for the treatment Granny received.  In this, we see Bayard progressing from a callow youth to a young adolescent who is fierce in his defense of family honor.  Later, in the final episode, set in 1872, we see this sense of honor tested, with Bayard learning that sometimes there is a time and place for fighting and another for peacemaking for a good greater than that of the family.

The Unvanquished is difficult to discuss without laying out the events that occur.  Faulkner skips ahead months, if not years, between the seven episodes and at times the narrative is comic and at others very somber.  This likely is due to the episodes originally being six short stories that were later edited together to form a mosaic novel.  In places, such as the shift from the plantation to the family engaging in the mule-trading business, the transitions are very abrupt and feel rough and underdeveloped.  Yet on occasion this sense of disjointedness actually serves to accentuate the confusion and calamities of the final years of the Civil War and the massive disruptions and displacements that took place.  While Bayard’s growth into the future leader of the Sartoris family is a key unifying thread, there is much here about how the Jefferson blacks viewed the war, how there were unscrupulous individuals like Snopes and Grumby who profited from the war, as well as how chaste love, such as that shared between Bayard and Drusilla, serves as a thematic counterpoint to the fighting and hatreds that spilled out.  By itself, The Unvanquished is not one of Faulkner’s best written or developed story sequences.  But as a sort of quasi-prequel that ties together the references made in his earlier fiction, it serves to unify the disparate threads found elsewhere and to give a sense of loss, privation, and pride even in defeat that became the hallmark of so many of his post-Civil War-set characters and stories.  For that, it is an invaluable part of the larger tapestry of Faulkner’s fiction, even if by itself it is a weaker work.

Originally posted in March 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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