As writers mature, they often become less experimental. They’ve learned what works, and they stick to it. Faulkner’s no different. His early books—such as Soldier’s Pay and The Sound and the Fury—would suddenly switch voices, tones, and styles. They generally gave the reader the sense that Faulkner was playing around with words–a lot.
As I get into the books he wrote later in his career, I’ve noticed significantly less experimentation. There are fewer and fewer three page italic sentences or sudden jumps backward in time. The later novels like The Unvanquished, The Wild Palms, or The Hamlet have all been pretty straight forward in regard to their storytelling techniques. (Absalom, Absalom! is the notable exception).
And that’s why Go Down, Moses was such a surprise to me. Go Down, Moses is a novel, at least that’s what Faulkner claimed it to be. It’s usually (and perhaps more accurately) called a collection of short stories. But I’m willing to take it as a novel. The stories—although wildly different from one another in time period, point of view, and style—tell one cohesive story. After reading several straight-forward books (and a couple I didn’t particularly enjoy) this was a nice change.
Go Down Moses tells the story of both the black and white branches of the McCaslin family. It explores the relationships of whites and blacks, and specifically interracial relationships. It clearly should be regarded as one of Faulkner’s masterpieces.
It’s impossible to talk about this book without addressing race. This book is essentially about race. The first story, Was, is about a white family trying to recapture an escaped slave named Tomey’s Turl. We learn later in the story, Turl frequently escapes because he wants to visit the woman he loves, who is owned by a neighbor.
The book contains seven short-stories, the longest and most famous is The Bear. Although Faulkner often keeps the mood as light as one could, with a bit of humor here and there, the rest of the book is just as heartbreaking as Was.
A particularly poignant and painful scene takes place in The Bear; a young man reads through an old ledger. The ledger notes the purchases and sales and brief genealogies of slaves his family has owned. This scene also reveals the nature of who Tomey’s Turl is… but I won’t spoil it here. Suffice it to say, that this little scene alone could act as a damning critique of the evil institution of slavery and equally evil American South for allowing it to happen.
The scene is near the end of the novel, and its placement in this part of the book is brilliant. You’ve already read 200 odd pages and you’ve gotten to know characters. You’ve seen the characters interact and seen the struggles they’ve had through different eras and told through different points of view. And after all this, you read their names in a ledger book, being bought and sold. It’s brilliant writing and devastating to read.
I’m not going to go in to detail about all the plot lines and how each story seems to stand on its own, yet they are all clearly part of a whole. I’ll simply ponder this: Faulkner could not have written this book earlier in his career. I don’t think he had the chops yet. This is Faulkner at the top of his game, having learned from some stumbles. And knowing when to experiment, and knowing when to unveil things.