Southeast Missouri State University

Black vs. White and New vs. Old in Go Down, Moses

Supurna Banerjee

Note: As a senior at John Burroughs School in St. Louis, Supurna Bannerjee took an independent study with Bob Henningsen, the English department chair. She wrote the following paper as a response to the question:  "What does Lucas Beauchamp represent in Faulkner's pictorial of whites and blacks, the old and the new?"

In the novel Go Down, Moses, William Faulkner examines the relationship between blacks and whites in the South. His attempt to trace the evolution of the roles and mentalities of whites and blacks from the emancipation to the 1940s focuses on several key transitional figures. In "The Fire and the Hearth," Lucas Beauchamp specifically represents two extremes of pride: in the old people, who were proud of their land and their traditions; and in the new generation, whose pride forced them to break away from the traditions of the South. Lucas’ background uniquely shapes him for this role. He represents the general sentiments of both blacks and whites because of his mixed heritage, and he represents the old and the new through his simultaneous pride in and rebellion against his blood relation to Lucius Quintus Carothers McCaslin. The new generation, both whites and blacks, rebelled against the respect older Southerners held for the land and tradition, although each rebelled for different reasons.

As a sharecropper on Zack Edmonds’ farm, Lucas displays his pride in his connection to Carothers McCaslin in a subtle, often unspoken manner. Yet this pride always exists parallel to his defensive pride in the black blood mixed with that white blood. Lucas credits the blood of Carothers in him as the source of the courage he needed to confront, and attempt to shoot, Zack Edmonds. But at the same time, the action that that courage initiated was an act of rebellion against what Lucas perceived as white oppression of his rights:

Then, not rising yet, he took the cartridge from his pocket and looked at it again, musing--the live cartridge, not even stained, not corroded, the mark of the firing- pin dented sharp and deep into the unexploded cap--the dull little brass cylinder less long than a match, not much larger than a pencil, not much heavier, yet large enough to contain two lives. Have contained, that is. Because I wouldn’t have used the second one, he thought. I would have paid. I would have waited for the rope, even the coal oil. I would have paid. So I reckon I ain't got old Carother’s blood for nothing, after all. Old Carothers, he thought. I needed him and he come and spoke for me. (57)

Lucas feels a sense of integrity, almost nobility in himself because of the fact that had the gun not misfired, he would have faced the consequences of having killed Zack Edmonds, rather than killing himself with the second bullet. He believes that restraint would have come from Carothers, who "spoke" for him, by enabling him to try to kill Edmonds. This represents the pride that the whites of the old generation felt in their ancestry, especially in such prominent families as the McCaslins, with glorified patriarchs such as Carothers. Yet Lucas’ intent to kill Edmonds, also a descendent of Carothers McCaslin, represents the proud rebellion of the new generation of blacks. Because Edmonds is white and, Lucas believes he has wronged him, Lucas takes action, instead of resigning himself to his situation, as black slaves might have been compelled to do. Lucas takes pride in "old Carothers’ blood," yet at the same time he rebels against the control that Carothers and his white descendants have had, and continue to have, over the black people living on their land. The misfired bullet represents this conflict in Lucas. Although it bears "the mark of the firing-pin," or Carothers’ blood, Lucas does not let that element consume him, as the "unexploded cap" fails to go off. Lucas is one common man, one "dull little brass cylinder" that "contains two lives." There are two strong racial strains in his blood that direct his actions, and those actions are typical of any man with either strain of blood in him. These traits in Lucas are not merely internal, but others around him take notice of his particular duality.

When Roth Edmonds deals with the problems arising from Lucas’ money-hunting, he recognizes characteristics in Lucas that belie his heritage. Roth realizes that although Lucas acknowledges his mixed blood, he chooses which tendencies, of those two backgrounds, will govern him. In that respect, Lucas has a source of power and self-control greater than those who blindly accept their ancestors, because he shapes his own character as he pleases, allowing certain aspects of his blood lines to manifest themselves, while at the same time suppressing others. In the same way, the new generation rebelled against the traditions they were brought up amongst, denying them as old and worthless:

...and he [Roth] thought with amazement and something very like horror: He’s more like old Carothers than all the rest of us put together, including old Carothers. He is both heir and prototype simultaneously of all the geography and climate and biology which sired old Carothers and all the rest of us and our kind, myriad, countless, faceless, even nameless now except himself who fathered himself, intact and complete, contemptuous, as old Carothers must have been, of all blood black white yellow or red, including his own. (114-15)

Roth realizes that Lucas has the best of two worlds. "He is both heir and prototype simultaneously" because all the qualities unique to old Carothers’ descendants exist in him; yet at the same time, he has formed for himself a character which distinguishes him from the "myriad, countless, faceless, [and] nameless." Thus, Lucas represents the old generation of tradition, in his relation to the patriarch Carothers, yet he also represents the new generation "contemptuous . . . of all blood . . . including his own," contemptuous of the culture that formed them. Lucas remains "intact and complete" because of his ability to separate pride in his white blood from recognition of the new ideal of freedom as an advantage. After the emancipation many blacks eventually left the South, because they did not harbor the same respect for it, or familiarity with it, as did their parents or grandparents. For them, the South held no opportunity. Lucas represents both generational mentalities.

When Molly asks for a divorce from Lucas, more of the old tradition becomes evident in him through his stubborn refusal to give up his search for the money. He emphasizes the point that he is the man, and that he, not Molly, is sole governor of himself. This male egotism obviously comes straight from Carothers McCaslin. Yet in his refusal to be obedient to Roth, Lucas remains fiercely proud of himself as a whole, including his black blood. Even after he concedes his money search, when faced with the alternative possibility of divorce, he continues to disregard Roth’s insistent opposition to his actions:

"Wait a minute?" Edmonds said. "Hah!" he said. "You’ve bankrupted your waiting. You’ve already spent--" But Lucas had gone on. And Edmonds waited. He stood beside the car and watched Lucas cross the Square, toward the stores, erect beneath the old, fine, well-cared-for hat, walking with that unswerving and dignified deliberation which every now and then, with something sharp at the heart, Edmonds recognized as having come from his own ancestry too as the hat had come. (125)

Lucas obviously retains his pride in his white blood as he grows older. He takes pride in the hat that was Carothers’, and walks "erect" underneath it. Yet his "unswerving and dignified deliberation," which comes form the "ancestry" Lucas shares with Roth, characterizes the determination Lucas has when openly defying the white authority in his life, and asserting himself as the black man Roth sees him as. Edmonds must wait for Lucas. Whatever Lucas chooses to do, Edmonds will not challenge him. Lucas has the stronger edge in their relationship, because of what Roth earlier realized about his volatile, yet simultaneously steady and strong, character. Thus, Lucas keeps the "old fine hat," and at the same time he himself, with all of his mixed blood, uses that influence to walk "erect with unswerving and dignified deliberation." The paradox of Lucas’ character again represents the new and the old generations. The basic changes were the same for blacks and whites, as represented by Roth’s deference to Lucas, whereas his ancestors might have dealt harshly with Lucas. The old generation held on to tradition, while the new generation let those traditions die out, as they were no longer relevant to their world.

All in all, Lucas Beauchamp’s mixed heritage leads to opposing extremes of pride. Faulkner uses this duality to represent both blacks and whites in their transition from the old to the new generation. Lucas lives in the time after the emancipation, yet he has strong ties to the old traditions of the South because of the connections he has to Lucius Quintus Carothers McCaslin. Lucas’ character thus represents the new, the old, the black, and the white. It covers the broad spectrum of mentalities of the South in the period which Faulkner treated in Go Down, Moses. Faulkner created a complex, viable character in Lucas to reveal the complexity and intertwining of all the different aspects of the South: racial and generational.