I’ve written about the image of dust in William Faulkner’s “Dry September” (1931) on this blog before, and today I would like to look at another aspect of Faulkner’s story that struck me as I reread it recently. Faulkner never shows McClendon and the mob lynch Will Mayes; however, we know that is exactly what happens because as they return in the car, Hawkshaw comments that “Butch was not on the running board” as he had been when Will Mayes occupied a seat in the car (445).
Writing about the “blank spots” in “Dry September”–interrupted sentences, indeterminate action offstage, and other instances where we do not see what occurs– Thomas Claivez argues that these “blank spots” affect us as readers, causing an uncanny feeling and actually calling us out on the absurdity and violence of the actions of McClendon and those who follow him.
[P]art of the horror is created through the blank spots of the story itself; the uncanniness evoked in the reader is partly due to the fact that what really happens is never unveiled. These literary “gaps of indeterminacy” or “blank spots” (Leerstellen) in the sense of Wolfgang Iser (cf. Iser 10), engage the fantasy of the reader even more than “graphic” illustrations of specific acts of violence. (25)
Ernest J. Gaines does creates these “blank spots” in his novels as well. I’ve
written about this before elsewhere, but I want to reintroduce a couple of couple of examples here to show how the “blank spots” and “gaps of indeterminacy” create within the reader a space where he or she must question the action, thus more compellingly bringing his or her past and presuppositions into play when reading. Texts like Ralph Ellison’s “A Party Down at the Square” or James Baldwin’s “Blues for Mister Charlie” present the grotesque image of lynchings on the page in visceral detail, and these require the reader to come face to face with the brutality of the act whereas Faulkner and Gaines, in the examples presented, show the reader the psychological effects of such actions not just the victims but on the perpetrators as well without showing the actual event.
In The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), Jane and Ned come across a hunter in the woods as they attempt to head towards Ohio after the Civil War. The hunter feeds the weary travelers, and Jane says, “He told me he had seen some of the Secesh handywork, too. Earlier that same day he had cut a man down and buried him that the Sesch had hung. After hanging him they had gashed out his entrails” (46). We do not see the man strung up, and, in fact, we get the information third hand from Jane.
Earlier, when a patrollers come across the group of emancipated slaves traveling, the mob murders the entire group except for Jane and Ned. They hide and do not see the massacre occur. Here, Jane and Ned only hear the screams and the bludgeoning as the patrollers massacre the group: “Now, you heard screaming, begging; screaming, begging; screaming, begging–till it was quiet again” (22). While they do not see the events, Jane and Ned hear them, thus providing some form of sensory perception to the massacre. After the events, Jane and Ned remove themselves from their hiding spot and see the results of the attack: dead bodies everywhere.
While Gaines provides auditory perception to the events, we do not visually see what occurs; instead, we follow Jane’s encounter with the aftermath of the carnage as she looks over the dead bodies trying to find Big Laura. She finally finds Big Laura with her baby in her arms, and Jane removes the baby. When she looks back, she realizes how lonely the woman looks and places the baby back. Through this framing, we experience Jane’s psychological reaction to the massacre rather than having our own visceral experience to visually seeing the violence take place, even though Jane would be narrating the events.The focus, rather than becoming the event itself, centers on the psychological effects of that event on Jane and Ned as they discover that they must now travel alone without any help.
Gaines does this as well in events that involve what I would term “legal lynchings” where the government executes innocent individuals in the electric chair. Of course, the most pertinent example of this occurs with Jefferson in A Lesson Before Dying (1993). We do not see Jefferson’s execution, and Grant, the narrator doesn’t either. However, we experience his psychological reactions to the event through his narration throughout the novel. Another instance of this “legal lynching” occurs in A Gathering of Old Men (1983) when Gable tells Mapes and those gathered in the quarters about his son.
Gable’s son, who remains unnamed, faced a “legal lynching” because a white gal said that he raped her. We do not see the “supposed” rape, the arrest, or the execution, even through Gable’s narration. Instead, we see his response to the accusations and the execution. Like Jefferson, we do not see Gable’s son in the electric chair, but we do see the affects of the “legal lynching” on Gable and those in the community. Gable talks about not being there, saying that the courthouse,
[c]alled us and told us we could have him at ‘leven, ’cause they was go’n kill him at ten. Told us we could have a undertaker waiting at the back door if we wanted him soon as it was over with. Is that something to say to a mother? Something to say to a father? ‘Come get him at ‘leven, ’cause we ‘go’n kill him at ten’–that’s something to say to– (101)
Gable gets choked up and cannot continue. When he begins again, he talks about the electric chair failing the first time and his son returning to his cell. During the initial execution, Gable describes how his son reacted in the chair; however, on the subsequent attempt, all he says is, “Then they brought the boy out, strapped him in, and pulled the switch” (102). When he died, the whites just walked out of the room. Gable gives us minimal information to paint the scene, and we, as readers, must fill in the “blank spaces.”
Ultimately, each of these examples, while different, call upon us as readers to fill in the missing pieces and to question our role in the action. If we see the action completely, our reading becomes mediated through the visuals that the narrator/author paints for us. By leaving the visual senses out, we become more attuned to the psychological effects of what occurs. I can’t help but think about Reginald Marsh’s “This is her fist lynching. . . ” here because while we do see the girl and the mob, we do not see the lynching. Stopping here, I want to pick up in the next post on the ways that Faulkner, Baldwin, and Gaines delve into the psychological effects of such acts upon the perpetrators in much the same way that Marsh does in his image.
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
Claviez, Thomas. “The Southern Demiurge At Work: Modernism, Literary Theory And William Faulkner’s “Dry September.” Journal Of Modern Literature 32.4 (2009): 22-33.
Faulkner, William. “Dry September.” The Literature of the American South. Ed. William L. Andrews. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998. 439-447.
Gaines, Ernest J. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. New York: Bantam Books, 1972.
Gaines, Ernest J. A Gathering of Old Men. New York: Vintage Books, 1984.