Boyhood and the Coming of Age Narrative (Part Two)

William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning”

(yoknapatawpha county)

If you wanted to know everything there is to know about William Faulkner , congratulations, you came to the right university. SEMO is home to The Center for Faulkner Studies (located in the Kent Library) where you can find old photos and letters, manuscripts, and memorabilia.


William Faulkner’s Biography (By Noel Polk)


(Notable Quotes)

William Faulkner, (1897-1962), ranks among the leading authors in American literature. He gained fame for his novels about the fictional “Yoknapatawpha County” and its county seat of Jefferson. Faulkner patterned the county after the area around his hometown, Oxford, Miss. He explored the county’s geography, history, economy, and social and moral life. Faulkner received the 1949 Nobel Prize for literature. He won Pulitzer Prizes in 1955 for A FABLE and in 1963 for THE REIVERS. 

Faulkner’s work is characterized by a remarkable range of technique, theme, and tone. In THE SOUND AND THE FURY (1929) and AS I LAY DYING (1930), he used stream-of-consciousness, in which the story is told through the seemingly chaotic thoughts of a character. In REQUIEM FOR A NUN (1951), Faulkner alternated sections of prose fiction with sections of a play. In A FABLE (1954), he created a World War I soldier whose experiences parallel the Passion of Jesus Christ. Faulkner was skillful in creating complicated situations that involve a variety of characters, each with a different reaction to the situation. He used this technique to dramatize the complexity of life and the difficulty of arriving at truth.

The traditions and history of the South were a favorite Faulkner theme. SARTORIS (1929) and THE UNVANQUISHED (1938) tell the story of several generations of the Sartoris family. THE REIVERS (1962) is a humorous story of a young boy’s adventures during a trip from Mississippi to Memphis. Faulkner examined the relationship between blacks and whites in several works, including LIGHT IN AUGUST (1932); ABSALOM, ABSALOM! (1936); and GO DOWN, MOSES (1942). Here, he was especially concerned with people of mixed racial background and their problems in establishing an identity.

Most of Faulkner’s novels have a serious, even tragic, tone. But in nearly all of them, tragedy is profoundly mixed with comedy. Faulkner’s comic sense was the legacy of Mark Twain and other earlier writers. Twain was a direct influence on him. THE HAMLET (1940), THE TOWN (1957), and THE MANSION (1959) make up the Snopes Trilogy. These novels form a tragicomic chronicle of the Snopes family and their impact on Yoknapatawpha County. Faulkner’s short stories have the same range of technique, theme, and tone as his novels. His stories appear in THE COLLECTED STORIES OF WILLIAM FAULKNER (1950) and THE UNCOLLECTED STORIES OF WILLIAM FAULKNER (published in 1979, after his death).

Faulkner was born on Sept. 25, 1897, in New Albany, Mississippi. He spent most of his life in Oxford. Faulkner worked occasionally in Hollywood as a motion-picture scriptwriter from 1932 to 1954. He died on July 6, 1962.

Many early critics of Faulkner denounced his books for their emphasis on violence and abnormality. SANCTUARY (1931), a story involving rape and murder, was most severely criticized. Later, many critics recognized that Faulkner had been criticizing the faults in society by showing them in contrast to what he called the “eternal verities.” These verities are universal values such as love, honor, pity, pride, compassion, and sacrifice. Faulkner said it is the writer’s duty to remind readers of these values.

Along with being known as one of the great literary innovators of the 20th century, William Faulkner is also one of the most widely read and influential Southern writers.  Faulkner lived in Oxford Mississippi (home of Ole Miss) and nearly all of his fiction is set in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County. Thus, his work is deeply concerned about southern culture and history and the issues the South has encountered since the antebellum period, including slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, racism, poverty, and (often the lack) of modernization. Faulkner believed that history played a big part in how his fellow southerners think and behave and thus he often used historical events as metaphors and explanations for human behaviors. Consider the historical era in which “Barn Burning” takes place and think about how life in 19th century Mississippi guides the plot and the characters’ actions.

When you read “Barn Burning” think about how Faulkner depicts the South. What impression do you get from the land and its people? Consider the use of dialect in the text. Faulkner’s dialogue uses slang, misspellings, and slurs that Southerners of that era would have used. What effect does it have on characterizing the people in the story and what does it say about the society around them?


Historical Context: Reconstruction


(An illustration in the July 25, 1868, Harper’s Weekly shows a man representing the Freedmen’s Bureau standing between armed groups of whites and blacks. From The Library of Congress)

The period after the Civil War, 1865 – 1877, was called the Reconstruction period. Abraham Lincoln started planning for the reconstruction of the South during the Civil War as Union soldiers occupied huge areas of the South.  He wanted to bring the Nation back together as quickly as possible and in December 1863 he offered his plan for Reconstruction which required that the States new constitutions prohibit slavery.

In January 1865, Congress proposed an amendment to the Constitution which would abolish slavery in the United States. On December 18, 1865, Congress ratified the Thirteenth Amendment formally abolishing slavery. 

The Civil War ended on April 9, 1865.  Abraham Lincoln was assassinated less than one week later. Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s Vice President,  briefly continued Lincoln’s policies after Lincoln’s assassination and in May 1865 announced his own plans for Reconstruction which included a vow of loyalty to the Nation and the abolition of slavery that Southern states were required to take before they could be readmitted to the Nation.

Black codes were adopted by midwestern states to regulate or inhibit the migration of free African-Americans to the midwest. Cruel and severe black code laws were adopted by southern states after the Civil War to control or reimpose the old social structure.  Southern legislatures passed laws that restricted the civil rights of the emancipated former slaves. Mississippi was the first state to institute laws that abolished the full civil rights of African-Americans.  “An Act to Confer Civil Rights on Freedmen, and for Other Purposes,”  a very misleading title, was passed in 1865.  Other states quickly adopted their own versions of the codes, some of which were so restrictive that they resembled the old system of slavery such as forced labor for various offenses.

The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands (or the Freedmen’s Bureau) was organized to provide relief and assistance to the former slaves, including health services, educational services, and abandoned land services. Congress passed an act on March 3, 1865 to establish the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands.  The program was administered by the Department of War and was first headed by General Oliver Otis Howard who was appointed to the position on May 13, 1865 by President Abraham Lincoln.

Although Congress responded with legislation that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1866, States kept on the books laws that continued the legacy of the black codes and, therefore, second-class citizenship for the newly freed slaves. In 1866, the Civil Rights Act was passed by Congress which outlined a number of civil liberties including the right to make contracts, own and sell property and receive equal treatment under
the law.

Congress passed the Fourteenth Amendment in 1867. The amendment was designed to provide citizenship and civil liberties to the recently freed slaves. 

The first Reconstruction Act was passed by Congress on March 2, 1867.  Five military districts each under the leadership of a prominent military general were carved out in the south and new elections were held which allowed the vote to black males. 

Carpetbagger was the name given to Northerners who came south for political and economic reasons.  They were considered corrupt individuals who were using Reconstruction as a means to advance their own personal interests.  Many of the Northerners were middle-class individuals who were professional people who decided to move to the South to make their mark. Others were soldiers of the Union army who stayed in the south at the conclusion of the war.  During the period of Reconstruction, fifty-two of the sixty individuals who served in the Congress were ex-Union soldiers.  Some of these people were asked to run for office by former slaves.

Black Northerners also ventured south.  Some of them were veterans of the Civil War, others were teachers, ministers and returning children of free blacks who had been educated in the north including “Black carpetbaggers” born in Great Britain and Dutch Guiana and had been elected members of Congress.  More than 100 blacks held public office after the Civil War. (Howard University)

As you read the story consider how this specific context of Reconstruction plays a role. As a region, the South has gone through a defeat for its own independence at the hands of the North during the Civil War. Many cities have been destroyed, lives have been lost, and an entire way of living has been changed. Think about how this sense of defeat, bitterness, and frustration that the South felt is mirrored in Abner Snopes. How might his attitudes and actions reflect other Southerners after the Civil War?


Race and Class After the Civil War


(A Sharecropper in Georgia by Dorthea Lange)


Another issue to pay close attention to is race. Consider the use of racial slurs in this text. Why do you think Faulkner uses these terms? Take a close look at the scene in which Abner Snopes arrives at the home of his new boss and purposefully tracks in manure all over the rug even after the black servant told him not to. How does racism factor into this part of the plot?

To consider the role racism plays in this text, we need to also look at economics and social class. Snopes and his family are extremely poor and of low social class. He is a share cropper, which means that he made his living by working the crops on someone else’s land, either renting it or paying a part of his crop to the land owner. This is reminiscent of the feudal system from the middle ages, and practically a form of economic slavery since this system guarantees he will never make enough money to socially advance.

With this in mind, think about how poverty plays a role in the story. Does his low social status impact the way Abner Snopes thinks, including his racism and his anger? Faulkner’s stories often explored how some people exhibit irrationally abusive and self-destructive behavior. Does Faulkner’s story give us enough information to understand Snopes’ abusive and self destructive behaviors?

Coming of Age

Colonel Sartoris Snopes also experiences a coming of age moment in “Barn Burning.” The coming of age theme in “Barn Burning” comes from the theme of loyalty to family. Many of Faulkner’s stories focus on the legacy of a family and how generations inherit traits and behaviors from previous generations. How does that issue impact the story and the decisions Sarty makes?  Think about the relationship between Sarty and his father. How would you characterize the father/son relationship and how does it lead to Sarty’s coming of age moment at the end of the story?

To think of this in terms of ethics, is Sarty’s decision to turn against his father justified? What is the limit of the father/son relationship and one’s obligations to one’s family? If the father represents the South’s period of history from the Antebellum to Reconstruction, then what might the symbolism of Sarty’s actions at the end of the story suggest?


My Papa’s Waltz By Theodore Roethke


The whiskey on your breath

Could make a small boy dizzy;

But I hung on like death:

Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans

Slid from the kitchen shelf;

My mother’s countenance

Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist

Was battered on one knuckle;

At every step you missed

My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head

With a palm caked hard by dirt,

Then waltzed me off to bed

Still clinging to your shirt.

As you read this poem, I want you to compare the relationship of the speaker of this poem and his father to the relationship between Sarty and his father. How do both Faulkner and Roethke illustrate the unease of the young boy in the presence of an unpredictable father that he still looks up to and wants to please? How might Abner’s racism compare to Roethke’s father’s alcohol use?

There has been a long debate among scholars as to whether or not this is a poem about child abuse. Many see the “waltz” in the poem as being a metaphor for physical abuse or a literal depiction of a father indifferent to his son’s discomfort in his presence. Others do not read it as abuse, but as a depiction of the difficulty for a father to express tenderness and affection for his children in a way that maintains his masculinity. Do you see this as a poem about abuse? Why or why not? How does this compare to what Sarty experiences at the hands of Abner Snopes?

About drdimock

Dr. Chase Dimock teaches Literature and Composition at Broward College
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