As is the case with a number of Faulkner’s stories (including the other sections of Go Down, Moses), “The Old People” was published multiple times and in multiple forms. It originally appeared in Harper’s (1940) and was reprinted in that form in Uncollected Stories. The version that appears in Go Down, Moses (1942) shows significant revision, including a change in narrative perspective, new and different characters, and a thousand word expansion.
The story is divided into three parts, all of which dramatize events that transpire on or pertain to the day Isaac McCaslin kills his first deer under the guidance of his mentor, Sam Fathers. Part one begins with Isaac (referred to as “the boy”) shooting the deer; Sam paints Isaac’s face with the deer’s blood, a ritual that signifies the boy’s initiation into the society of hunters who go every year to a hunting camp owned by Major De Spain in what they call the “Big Woods” in the Mississippi Delta. These hunters include De Spain, General Compson, Tennie’s Jim, Boon Hogganbeck, Walter Ewell, and Isaac’s cousin, McCaslin Edmonds, who is several years older than Isaac and something of a brother-father figure to him. Although Isaac has successfully hunted small game, killing a deer makes him one of the “true hunters” (158).
The rest of section one is spent explaining Sam Fathers’s heritage and past. Sam is part Native American, part African American, and part European American, the son of a Chickasaw chief named Ikkemotubbe by a quadroon (one-fourth black) slave woman. Ikkemotubbe did not marry Sam’s mother, however; instead, he arranged to have her married to an African American slave man while she was still pregnant. The child was therefore named Sam Had-Two-Fathers in Chickasaw (Sam Fathers in English). Sam is thus born in slavery and then sold with his family to Carothers McCaslin (Isaac’s grandfather) on whose plantation he lives, working as a blacksmith but not in the forced manner generally associated with slavery: being a descendant of Native American royalty, even his masters treat Sam with deference, where they do not with the story’s other Native Americans, Jobaker and Boon Hogganbeck.
Part one also establishes the teacher-student/father-son relationship between Sam and Isaac. Sam retains the knowledge of the woods he learned from his Native ancestry; he calls the Chickasaws “The People,” and they are the “old people” to whom the title of the story refers. When his friend Jobaker (Joe Baker), a full-blooded Chickasaw about the same age as Sam himself, dies, Sam buries him according to the traditions of their ancestry, burning Jobaker’s home and possessions and burying him in a secret location. Sam then goes to live at the hunting camp in the Big Woods permanently, presumably because of the loss of his friend but also because he has taught Isaac, whom he has adopted as a son as well as a student, everything about the forest around the McCaslin plantation and so is no longer needed. Sam feels more at home in the Big Woods, the homeland of his ancestors, and even after the annual hunt ends each year, he remains there when the hunters return home.
With the first section of the story having established Sam’s ancestry and past as well as his relationship with Isaac in a series of flashbacks, part two returns to a point later on in the same day that Isaac killed his first deer. As the hunters make their way out of the Big Woods, Boon Hogganbeck claims that he has seen a massive prize buck, which Boon, Walter, Sam, and Isaac go return to the woods to kill. Sam guides them to the place where the buck will reappear at which point the group splits up, Boon and Walter taking one position and Sam and Isaac picking another spot to enhance the chances of killing the prize. After much waiting, Sam and Isaac hear Walter fire his rifle and blow his hunting horn to announce that he has killed something. Isaac is disappointed because he thinks he did not get a shot at the deer, but Sam tells him to continue to watch, and soon the buck appears. As it trots by them, Sam speaks to it, saying “Oleh, Chief [. . .].
Grandfather” (177). Sam and Isaac then go to Walter and Boon, only to find that Walter had killed a small buck, hardly worth shooting. Walter is surprised and confused at his quarry because the tracks he had followed were much larger than the ones the tiny buck could have made; he says, “just look at the track [the buck] was making. It’s pretty near as big as a cow’s. If there were any more tracks here besides the ones he is laying in, I would swear there was another buck here that I never even saw” (177-78).
Walter’s not seeing the big buck introduces a mystery in the text: was the big buck a ghost? Part three takes up this question. Walter claims that the buck never existed in the first place, that Boon “probably jumped somebody’s stray cow” (178). But later that night, when Isaac tells McCaslin about his seeing the animal, McCaslin concedes that ghosts might indeed exist, explaining that
the earth dont want to just keep things [. . .]. Besides, what would it [a ghost] want, itself, knocking around out there [among the stars], when it never had enough time about the earth as it was, when there is plenty of room about the earth, plenty of places still unchanged from what they were when the blood used and pleasured in them while it was still blood? (179)
Listening to his cousin, Isaac thinks not just of the ghost of the buck; remembering that Sam had called the buck “Chief” and “Grandfather,” Isaac thinks of the ghosts of The People as well as his own ancestors and all the dead. Because he values the heritage of these ghosts, Isaac exclaims, “But we want them. [. . .] There is plenty of room for us and them too” (180). McCaslin reminds him that ghosts “dont have substance, cant cast a shadow,” prompting his younger cousin to exclaim “I saw it! [. . .] I saw him!” (180). McCaslin then reveals that “Sam took me in there once after I killed my first deer,” confirming the boy’s experience (180).
This story might be approached by first noting its Freudian overtones: in a story strikingly bereft of women, the narrative primarily focuses on fatherhood. Isaac, the orphan, passes from one father figure to another, beginning with McCaslin and then Sam. The apex of this progressionᾰthe ultimate ancestorᾰis the buck, whose totemic value casts it as the grandfather and representative of the old people; as scholar John T. Irwin has noted, drawing on the work of Sigmund Freud, the grandson (in this case, Isaac) through psychological familial doubling comes to occupy the role of the grandfather (the buck). Thus, just as Abraham does not sacrifice Isaac in the Biblical story, so the big buck/Isaac is spared Walter’s flawless aim in “The Old People.” Not killing the big buck obviously contrasts with the very clearly ritualistic sacrifice of the buck that Isaac kills. Georges Bataille’s discussion of sacrifice as an act that releases the inner radiance of something is particularly helpful in reading Isaac’s first kill, as Sam’s painting the boy’s face with the deer’s steaming blood (a vivid image of released radiance) bestows that life-essence on Isaac, making him one of the race of deerᾰone of the old people.
Any reading of the story must also, however, take into account the epistemological
problem of the big buck’s existence. At the same time that the animal seems to be
a catalyst of consolidation whose totemic value signifies Isaac’s installation in
the heritage of the old people, the buck also emerges as an agent of disruptionᾰa
figure that causes severe slippage in the signifier and signified and therefore acts
to deconstruct the text in a manner described by Jacques Derridaᾰbecause it may be
a ghost. The tracks that the hunters follow seem to signify a massive deer, and yet
Walter kills a very small one. What seems to be at stake, then, is the way to read
the signifiers (the tracks), or, more specifically, the way the buck/Sam Fathers/The
People control and disrupt them. The story, in fact, depicts a moment of disruption
in the postcolonial situation of Faulkner’s Mississippi in which the tongue of the
Natives “speaks” (using Gyatri Chakravorti Spivak’s term) through the ability of the
big buck/ghost buck to deceive the white hunters (even though Boon has Native American
ancestry, he is clearly not connected to his heritage the way Sam is). Isaac’s seeing
the deer, on the other hand, further confirms his adoption into the language, culture,
and heritage of the old people, rendering him also a young man of multiple fathers
and placing him within a heterogeneous lineage characterized by racial and cultural
Taylor Hagood is Assistant Professor of American Literature at Florida Atlantic University and holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Mississippi, where he was the Frances Bell McCool Dissertation Fellow in Faulkner Studies.
List of Helpful Scholarly Articles and Book Chapters
Cambon, Glauco. “Faulkner’s ‘The Old People’: The Numen-Engendering Style.” Southern Review 1.1 (1965): 94-107.
Dabney, Lewis M. “Sam Fathers and Go Down, Moses.” The Indians of Yoknapatwpha: A Study in Literature and History. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1974. 118-57.
Duvall, John N. “Using Greimas’ Narrative Semiotics: Signification in Faulkner’s ‘The Old People.’” College Literature 9 (1982): 192-206.
Early, James. “Stories of Negroes and Stories of Hunting.” The Making of Go Down, Moses. Dallas: Southern Methodist UP, 1972. 11-21.
Kinney, Arthur F. “Was.” Go Down, Moses: The Miscegenation of Time. New York: Twayne, 1996. 51-72.
Kuyk, Dirk, Jr. “The Old People.” Threads Cable-strong: William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1983. 79-92.
Stewart, Jack F. “Structure, Language, and Vision in Faulkner’s ‘The Old People.’” Ball State University Forum 22.3 (1981): 51-57.
Taylor, Nancy Dew. “The Old People.” Go Down, Moses. William Faulkner: Annotations to the Novels Series. Ed. James B. Meriwether. New York: Garland, 1994. 03-108.