Friday, January 13, 2006

Some comments on The Fathers

As part of my reading for my book project, I recently finished reading The Fathers, the only novel by the Fugitive writer Allen Tate, published in 1938 (the Wikipedia article contains a link to the article on the Fugitives, for those curious about them and their views). The Fathers is not exactly canonical literature these days, even among scholars of Southern literature--the last online reference I found to an article on it was from the early '90s. As to its quality, it's not Faulkner, though it treats, with startling and intriguing similarity, the same themes Faulkner raised in Absalom, Absalom! (1936) and would raise in Go Down, Moses (1940). But it's not a badly-written novel, either--just emotionally distant in a way that Faulkner, in those novels, never is.

First, a quick summary of the plot: The Fathers is set in Alexandria, Virginia, in the months immediately preceding and up to the first Battle of Bull Run. Its narrator, Lacy Buchan, relates the story of two families. The Buchan family is, to use an anachronistic term, "old money." They proudly trace their roots back to the founding of the nation and thus, though they own slaves, the family patriarch, Lewis Buchan, is anti-secession. The family code of honor as exhibited by its loyalty to principle is such that, when Lacy's brother Semmes announces he is in favor of secession and will join the Confederate army, Lewis disowns him. The other family is the (again borrowing a phrase) "nouveau riche" Posey family, embodied most prominently in the novel by George Posey. Posey is a landed slaveholder as well, but he is much more pragmatic in his way of thinking about the world. He (rightly) sees the coming war as a war about something even larger than slavery, large as that matter is--it is about the way Southerners live their lives. Thus, he raises money and acquires equipment and munitions for a Virginia brigade. The emotional force of the plot lies in Posey's marrying Lacy's sister and Lacy's own conflicted feelings for both George and his own father. George, in fact, becomes a kind of father figure to Lacy; hence the novel's title.

Below the fold, I want to talk for a bit about why I'm saying anything at all about this novel on my blog: the treatment of the Poseys' mulatto slave, Yellow Jim. Yellow Jim, it happens, is also George Posey's half-brother.

It also happens that that George and Jim's father isn't alive, and so this novel doesn't have quite the sort of dynamic of Absalom, Absalom!, whose central plot also revolves around a father with two sons, one of mixed race and one white. But Tate's novel does preserve, though in a convoluted way, Faulkner's novel's tensions between the two brothers, up to and including the killing of Yellow Jim.

That murder scene is too complicated a moment to work through in a single blog post, but here I wanted to talk about something a critic says with regard to the cause of the Buchan and Posey families' respective collapses into what Lacy calls "the abyss." In his 1980 book A Southern Renaissance, Richard H. King writes,
George's sale of his half-brother, "Yellow Jim," illuminates Tate's version of the family romance. What is "wrong" in the transaction is not the enslavement and sale of a human being. Rather the violation lies in the separation of the slave from his black family and friends and, behind that, his separation from his white family. All of this is arranged by George, his brother. Family relationships should take precedence over commercial or abstract moral concerns. It is this one deed which brings on the destruction of the entire Buchan family. (108)

Note: As revenge for his being sold, Jim rapes Susan Buchan, who is George's wife. It's this act that causes Semmes to shoot and kill Jim; George, in retaliation, kills Semmes. I told you it was complicated.

Tate's novel is obsessed with familial titles: when he names them, Lacy prefaces their names with their relationship to him. Once he marries Susan, George becomes "Brother George." Even "Yellow" as Jim's title indicates his mixed-race origin, if not precisely his relation to George. That relationship, by the way, gets stated only obliquely in the novel; but the reason for that apparent avoidance of the matter could be that it was common knowledge in the area and, as Lacy says on another matter, his job is to relate to us some things without being able to explain them. Significantly, it is Jim who will say, by way of explaining why he has returned to the area after running off from his new owners, "Blood is thicker than water."

At the conclusion of his reading of The Fathers, King picks up on the idea of family being at the center of antebellum Southern culture, at least in this novel:
The Fathers finally firmly in the tradition of the family romance. Culture and civilization are seen as literally and symbolically of the father. Without an actual father--as is the case with George Posey--or the symbolically present culture of the fathers, society collapses into privatized anarchy, and the aberrant becomes the rule. The disruption of the family, most importantly the loss of the father, signals the destruction of an ordered world. Unlike some of the other Agrarians, Tate never blamed the loss of the world of the fathers on the North per se. The fatal flaw was there from the beginning, one which a Southerner such as George Posey could exploit. The Fathers, like Absalom, Absalom!, achieves the status of dialectic, not rhetoric.
Perhaps then The Fathers was a fitting climax to the Agrarian enterprise. The Southern past had proven much more complex and more divided against itself than Tate or the others had initially thought. [It was c]aught between the static image of the Virginia ideal . . ., the unchanneled energies of the expansionist energies of the lower South; and beyond that yearning for the fully traditional and ordered synthesis of medieval Europe, but never finding what . . . was plausible[.] (110-111)

I don't want to go on and on here, but I will conclude by saying that it is to Tate's credit that he understood the South's downfall to be in large measure its own doing, but that the problem for Tate, as King notes was more philosophical in nature thasn anything else (Tate once noted elsewhere that Robert E. Lee's one weakness was that he went to war for a land and not an idea). What will be of interest to me for my project is how Faulkner will take this same material and reveal such philosophizing as nonsense when the very foundations of that system rest on the enslavement of human beings even as that same system both symbolically and literally makes those beings "family."

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