Reading Faulkner’s “Raid”
Stephen Hahn, William Paterson University
We can read Faulkner’s short story “Raid” with a number of different concerns relevant to defining, articulating, and sharing our experience of engagement with itᾰwhich is to say the experience of how the story shapes meaning and how our interaction further shapes those meanings in our acts of description and interpretation. The story was first published in The Saturday Evening Post, on November 3, 1934, some weeks after two other stories by Faulkner had been published in the same magazine (“Ambuscade,” September 29, and “Retreat,” October 13). The Saturday Evening Post was a magazine of wide circulation to middle-class and what some would call “middle-brow” readers (perhaps proudly so, since one of the long-running columns of the time, Susan Donaldson points out, was called in exaggeration “The Literary Lowbrow”). Later the story appeared in a collection of stories often classified as a novel, The Unvanquished, as one of seven related stories, perhaps chapters, that have in common the settingᾰnorthern Mississippi and Alabama from the time of the Battle of Shiloh to well after the war had ended in the defeat of the Confederacyᾰand the presence of two characters, Bayard Sartoris and Ringo [Marengo] Strother, as they grow from boys to men. (Bayard is the retrospective narrator from an unspecified later time.) That book was published in 1938, and it has been reprinted in various editions to this day. (For a fuller synopsis of the narrative encompassed by the whole book and a discussion of its composition and publication, see Meeter; for a brilliant exposition, in light of what is called “reception theory,” of how this publishing history is significant, see Donaldson.) Some material, such as dates, was edited to make the stories conform as they were incorporated into a form that can be considered one text, but other verbal time markers were not; nor were all the elements in this book reconciled to overlapping stories about the Sartorises in the Faulkner canon.
The story can be, and has been, read in a number of different contexts that affect the reader’s shaping of meaning, even though in each context the actual printed words of the story as of 1938, the date of last revision, remain the same. What we make of them does not remain the same, nor does it remain the same as we focus on different aspects of the story. In brief, the making of meaning as we read this story depends on context, and our contextualizing activities in the process of reading depend on what features we attend to and how. Finally, what we attend to is often informed by what we expect to find, unless or until those expectations are resisted or revised by what we do find.
For instance, aware that “Raid” was first published in a mass-market magazine, we might expect the story to provide the reader with a steady flow of information about “who, what, and where,” and a clear narrative line with some fairly predictable ironic turns, culminating in a neat ending. Partly, these features are there: The story is most simply about a quest to recuperate stolen or commandeered silver and mules, and there are ironies such as the U.S. Army’s reversal of its pillage in response to one of its own memosᾰnot to mention the sadder irony of the Army’s seeking to escape the slaves who the war ostensibly sought to liberate. One might also expect, because of the historical setting, that the story is realistic or naturalistic in tenor.
Instead, the story opens more like a play. We are in the middle of an action; as often happens at the beginning of a play, we don’t know where the action may lead. Granny writes a letter, the contents of which we are unaware, and sends it by Ringo to Mrs. Compson, whom we do not know. In the process, Granny and Ringo discuss borrowed horses, although we do not know from whom they have been borrowed. We may infer from the articles Ringo brings back from the trek to Jefferson that the letter requested just these articles as properties a lady of her time and place, having had her home burned, would need to travel beyond her household (now reduced to half of the house servant’s cabin). But already much is happening the meaning of which is not apparent.
A deferral of meaning is evident, too, in the way Ringo talks when he says, “I reckon you calls starting out to be gone you dont know where and you don’t know how long taking care ofᾰ”. The syntax of the sentence is complicated as we first try to make sense of “starting out to be gone [/] you don’t know where” as a single semantic unit, only to realize that such a unit doesn’t close until the phrase “taking care of,” defying the normal expectation of four-to-six beat stress units of meaning in most Americanspeech. (Nice to see you. How do you do? Have a nice day. Like the inflections of dialogue in many of Faulkner’s stories, these echo the rhythm of the Blues [Peek; Gartner].) It is the first sign of Ringo’s verbal extravagance and acuity in breaking out of and against habitual patterns of expression, and therefore of knowing. It is also a sign of his ambivalent posture or placement in the story: He is able to challenge Granny, currently the highest authority figure in this semi-feudal domain, but perhaps he is able to do so only because, being those of a Black man, his words do not have the force of those uttered by one to whom the courtesy of actually listening to and responding to is required. His extravagance, contrasted to the stolid but perhaps uncomprehending self-awareness of the narrator, is a clue that the story itself may be exceeding our expectations.
Unless we have followed these characters from the beginning of the bookᾰand even then we will lack some informationᾰwe do not know fully how they are related. The first-person narration allows what the narrator would take for granted to be taken for granted, not made explicit. Arguably, this is not just a stylistic trick or accident of narrative point of view, because to specify too much about these relationships would perhaps be to reveal too much about what is hidden from theirᾰperhaps even the narrator’sᾰconsciousness. Indeed, reading The Unvanquished in the context of other stories about the Sartoris family, especially “There Was a Queen,” Walter Taylor finds an inter-textual instability in Faulkner’s oeuvre. In “There Was a Queen,” Simon Strother (Ringo’s father) has a daughter, Elnora, who is explicitly revealed to be Bayard’s sister, the biological daughter of John Sartoris (Bayard’s father). “If Ringo was Elnora’s brother,” Taylors writes, “he could have been Bayard’s, too” (Taylor 97). Of course he does not mean that quite literally this is the case in “Raid” and The Unvanquished, since there is no necessity for an author to maintain identities rigorously from work to workᾰonly that it is a possibility that remains unmarked and unexploited. Yet, if activated by an explicit reference, it would make “Raid” a different and more complexly inflected story.
As in much of Faulkner’s fiction, and in a manner many critics have noted, the deferral of meaning is important to the effects of this story in a way that distinguishes it from most genres of middle-brow fiction (except perhaps detective fiction; see Parker). At the same time, in contrast to the colloquial and vernacular idiom of much of the story (as when Ringo presages the coming of the migrating Blacks by saying, “Cant you seem um coming?” ), there is an equally uncharacteristic useᾰfor middle-brow fiction but not for Faulkner--of a very high and formal diction. For instance, marking the passage of time, the narrator uses the biblically inflected expression “That was the morning of the sixth day” (e.g., see Genesis 1: 31). And later, in Drusilla’s discourses or in the passages contemplating the meaning of war, explicitly literary and philosophical language nearly floods the page.
So, despite its having been first published in a popular magazine (and one, in the spirit of its time, that was dedicated to quelling questions in the minds of inquiring readers rather that inciting them), “Raid” exhibits many features characteristic of Faulkner’s major work, as commented upon by significant critics. In a book that raises expectations of telling a straightforward story, we encounter some resistance to our ready interpretation and evidence of what one plain-spoken commentary says:
Not telling what a reader needs to know at the time it would make it easy to understand, perhaps even obvious, is a hallmark of Faulkner’s style. He tells you what you need to know when it will do the most good, have the greatest impact, provided you have been paying attention. (Hinkle 89)
While many critics have seen “Raid” and other stories in The Unvanquished as lesser productions in Faulkner’s career because of the history of their production and publication, one might say that they are only somewhat different from the fictions that were produced as longer narratives or, like The Sound and the Fury, in avowed reaction against any public, publisher, or hope of publication.
David Minter, to cite a recent example, says of Faulkner’s major fiction that it:
can be seen as engaging problems that initially might appear to have limited potential for compelling fiction…, problems having to do with how we come to know, what we can know, how and what we create, and how our knowing, remembering, believing and desiring enter into and shape our lives as well as our thinking, writing, and reading. (Minter 4)
Minter draws from Emerson when speaks of creative writing requiring the response of creative reading. Drawing from Emerson’s later essay “Poetry and Imagination,” we could also hear Emerson contend that “it is the use of life to learn metonymy”ᾰthat is, to learn to infer the action from the consequence, whole from the part, disease from the symptom, andᾰeven more pertinent to reading “Raid”ᾰthe noun from the pronoun (the enunciated from the mere place marker for it)ᾰin short, to have the knowledge to interpret signs. “The endless passing of one element into new forms,” writes Emerson,
the incessant metamorphosis, explains the rank which the imagination holds in our catalogue of mental powers. The imagination is the reader of these forms. (Letters and Social Aims 15)
“Raid” subtly dramatizes such acts of reading, and attendant acts of misreading, both at the level of the representation of characters and at the level of the reflective consciousness of the readerᾰyou or meᾰengaging with the story. On one hand, it emphasizes the role of an informed imaginationᾰRingo is able to read signs where for others (Granny, Bayard) there are no observable signs, as of the migrating Blacks in the “bottom” (85). On the other, it gives due respect, and brings into play in the dramatization, the frequently determining role of context to the production of meaningᾰas when the cavalry officer misunderstands the names of the mules “Hundred” and “Tinny” and writes the scrip that orders, determines, the release of “one hundred and ten” head (along with other items, based on other acts of misreading) to Granny and the boys because he has no point of reference or context for interpreting their accents or lexicon (the mules being named, arbitrarily but poetically after the anthems “Old Hundred” and “Tennessee” [Hinkle 109-116]).
Neither “Raid” nor The Unvanquished is likely to displace Faulkner’s fictions of the highest magnitudeᾰsuch as Absalom, Absalom! (published in 1936) in critical estimation. Yet both represent fundamentally Faulknerian themes of “how we come to know, what we can know, how and what we create” and how “knowing, remembering, believing, desiring enter into and shape” the lives of the characters and, create what amounts to an allegory of our own knowing, remembering, believing, and desiringᾰour own reading, then, of signs.
Works Cited/Further Reading
Donaldson, Susan V. “Dismantling the Saturday Evening Post Reader: The
Unvanquished and Changing ‘Horizons of Expectation.’” In Fowler, Doreen, Ann J. Abadie, eds. Faulkner and Popular Culture: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha, 1988. Jackson, MS: UP of Mississippi, 1990: 179-195.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Poetry and Imagination.” In Letters and Social Aims.
Centenary Edition. Houghton, Mifflin, 1904: 1-75.
Faulkner, William. “Raid.” In Uncollected Stories of William Faulkner. Ed. Joseph
Blotner. New York: Vintage, 1981: 37-57.
_____. The Unvanquished . New York: Vintage International, 1991.
Gartner, Carol B. “Faulkner in Context: Seeing ‘That Evening Sun’ Through the Blues,”
Southern Quarterly 34.2 (1996): 50-58.
Hinkle, James, and Robert McCoy. Reading Faulkner: The Unvanquished. Jackson: UP
of Mississippi, 1995.
Meeter, Gleen. “The Unvanquished.” In A William Faulkner Encyclopedia. Ed.
Hamblin, Robert W. and Charles A. Peek. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1999.
Minter, David. Faulkner’s Questioning Narratives: Fiction of His Major Phase, 1929
42. Chicago: U of Illinois P, 2001.
Parker, Robert Dale, Faulkner and the Novelistic Imagination. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois
Peek, Charles. “‘Handy’ Ways to Teach ‘That Evening Sun.’” In Hahn, Stephen, and
Robert W. Hamblin, eds. Teaching Faulker: Approaches and Methods.
Westport, CT: Greenwood P, 2001: 53-57.
Taylor, Walter. Faulkner’s Search for a South. Chicago: Univ. of Illinois P, 1983.