Light in August by William Faulkner: A review
“. . .in August in Mississippi there’s a few days somewhere about the middle of the month when suddenly there’s a foretaste of fall, it’s cool, there’s a lambence, a soft, a luminous quality to the light, as though it came not from just today but from back in the old classic times. It might have fauns and satyrs and the gods and---from Greece, from Olympus in it somewhere. It lasts just for a day or two, then it’s gone. . .the title reminded me of that time, of a luminosity older than our Christian civilization.” - William Faulkner writing of Light in August
I try to read at least one Faulkner book every year if only to remind myself of where I come from. Light in August certainly accomplishes that.
I have read a number of Faulkner's books, some of them multiple times, but I had never read this one before. Most of his books deal in some way with the racism that was pervasive in the Mississippi that he knew, but often the references are oblique or are buried in the narrative and not highlighted in any way. That isn't the case with Light in August. In this book, he dives explicitly headfirst into the dominant role that racist attitudes play in the everyday life and conversation of the White characters in his story and those attitudes become a major part of the story. He writes honestly about those attitudes and he uses language that is offensive and sometimes hard to read. It is meant to be. Racism is offensive. This book was published in 1932, but in the 1960s and 1970s at the height of the Civil Rights Movement when I was growing up there the language had not changed and attitudes had not softened.
Light in August certainly features some of Faulkner's most memorable characters. The first one that we meet is Lena Grove, a young unmarried White woman from Alabama. When her family finds out that she is pregnant, they throw her out and she takes to the road, headed to Jefferson, Mississippi, where she has reason to believe that the father of her child, a man she knows as Lucas Burch, may be working. Lena walks and sometimes people on the road in mule-drawn wagons give her lifts and occasionally other people along the way give her help, a place to sleep, and food. But she is indefatigable in her pursuit of the man who she believes will marry her and remove the stigma of unmarried pregnancy. She does finally make it to Jefferson and goes to the planing mill where she thinks Burch works but she finds the man working there is actually Byron Bunch.
Disappointed though Lena is, she should have thanked her lucky stars. Byron Bunch is a much better and more honorable man and he is determined to help this unfortunate woman. As they talk, Bunch mentions a man who had worked at the mill, and in his description of him, Lena recognizes her Lucas Burch. Only this man is known as Joe Brown.
Joe Brown no longer works at the mill. He is living in a cabin with a man named Joe Christmas and the two Joes are bootleggers. The cabin where they live belongs to a woman named Joanna Burden. She lives in the big house next door. She and Joe Christmas are involved in a sexual relationship.
Joe Christmas is a mixed-race person. He is actually one-eighth Black but that is enough to make him Black in the eyes of those who know his heritage. He has been called hateful names since childhood, a childhood that was spent in orphanages and foster homes. He was first placed in a White orphanage, but as soon as his racial heritage was discovered at age five he was hurriedly placed in a foster family named McEachern. His foster father is a brutal man who whips and beats Joe for no reason. He manages to survive that upbringing but he is a twisted, self-loathing individual who can't seem to find a place in the world. For the most part, he passes as White except for a short stint in Chicago in a Black community, but he is not at home anywhere.
The adult Christmas, in addition to his relationship with Joanna Burden, is friends with the Reverend Gail Hightower, a defrocked Presbyterian minister who lives on the edges of Jefferson society. Joanna Burden herself is also at the edges of that society because of her background. Her family is from the eastern U.S. and has a history of being abolitionists and supporters of rights for Black people. Joanna carries on that tradition by befriending and aiding her Black neighbors and by supporting Black colleges with her financial contributions. Her legal affairs are handled by a Black lawyer in Memphis. All of these facts are marks against her as far as her White neighbors are concerned. They essentially ostracize her.
Faulkner renders all of these disparate characters in such striking and compelling detail. We understand and empathize with each of them - except maybe Lucas Burch/Joe Brown who had no redeeming characteristics as far as I can tell. Moreover, the unique stories of each of the characters are presented in such a way as to reveal the tragic, lonely, and sometimes violent lives they have lived. We are able to contrast, for example, the lives of Lena Grove and Joe Christmas, both of whom in their own way have been treated badly and outcast by society. Lena Grove represents the triumph of hope and optimism over harsh reality. She never loses faith that her Lucas is going to save her and her child from lives of shame and degradation, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. Joe Christmas, on the other hand, has lost all faith of any kind. He sees all the world, with the possible exception of Gail Hightower, as his enemy, even Joanna Burden who had fed him and welcomed him into her bed. They must be overcome, with violence if necessary. Or maybe even if not necessary. When Joanna Burden is murdered and her house burned and Joe Brown is found at the scene, he has the presence of mind to denounce his housemate, Joe Christmas, with the only word that is sure to confirm his guilt for the White residents of Jefferson and is likely to send a lynch mob of angry White men to kill him.
Faulkner's impressive prose here delineates a society that is rife not only with racism but also misogyny. Witness the treatment by that society of a Lena Grove and a Joanna Burden. But in contrast to all the truly awful men characters, we also have the example of the honorable Byron Bunch, who against all reason, fell in love with Lena Grove and dedicated himself to helping and protecting her and her child, even as she sought the unworthy man who had abandoned her. Perhaps he, too, represents the triumph of hope over reality. And perhaps that is the soulful message that the writer intends to convey to us in the end: There is a possibility of renewal among the degeneration. There is a light, a lambence that comes with a foretaste of coolness amid the heat of life. It doesn't last long and we mustn't miss it when it happens.
As I Lay Dying remains my favorite Faulkner novel, but this one might run a close second.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars