A Certain Slant of Light: Teaching Light in August Through Hightower’s Epiphany
Charles R. Baker
Most criticism concerning the novel Light in August, usually considers the troubling and problematic character of Joe Christmas. Christmas certainly deserves the attention paid to him, but too often this attention not only misrepresents the issues surrounding him but also obscures other noteworthy elements of Faulkner’s complex novel.
Often lost in the shuffle is another character, the Reverend Gail Hightower, who deserves greater scrutiny than peripheral characters like him usually receive. A closer examination of Hightower reveals Faulkner's deep concern for the South and the collective suffering of its people. Hightower, through his own personal epiphany, transcends the curse under which the South has suffered for so long.
Of course, the central character of Joe Christmas has dominated criticism of the novel, primarily because he represents the problematic and touchy issue of racism. Those who wish to prove that Faulkner either was or was not a racist often turn to Christmas--who is abandoned as a baby outside an orphanage and found on Christmas day (hence his name); called a "nigger bastard" (LIA 135) by the dietitian at the orphanage when he catches her with a young doctor; and ever after suspects that he might possess some Negro blood. All this prompts many readers to see in Christmas a symbol of racial tensions and conflict. For instance, in his italicized amendments to the excerpt from the novel he used for The Portable Faulkner, Malcolm Cowley refers to the character as "Joe Christmas, the mulatto" (51).
Unfortunately, such readings assume facts not in evidence. Cowley’s additions do more than provide a necessary context; they resolve a question about which Faulkner was definitely non-committal. He said of Christmas’ background, or lack of one:
I think that was his tragedy--he didn’t know what he was and so he was nothing . . . that he didn’t know what he was and there was no possible way in life for him to find out. Which to me is the worst possible condition a man could find himself in--not knowing what he is and to know that he will never know. (FIU 72)
According to Faulkner, then, even Christmas does not know his heritage for sure, and that lack of knowledge apparently condemns him to a racial limbo from which there is no escape.
Actually, Christmas is free to define himself as he sees fit. Even if he does possess Negro blood, it is not enough to prevent him from passing as a white man, and most characters who know him believe only that perhaps his father was a Mexican. Christmas passes as a white man by posing as a black one. James Snead remarks, "Joe Christmas hides his ‘blackness’ behind the screen of a ‘negro’s job’: He pretends to ‘slave like a negro’ so no one will think he is one" (84). By accepting a menial labor job at a planing mill and living in a shack, he plays the role of a white man playing the role of a black man. Only when he confesses his suspicions do people see him as black: "I think I got some nigger blood in me. . . . I don’t know. I believe I have" (LIA 216). But this confession hardly amounts to a definitive statement.
By failing to provide an ultimate answer to the question of Christmas’ blood, Faulkner achieves what John L. Longley, Jr. considers to be "one of [his] clearest strokes of genius" (166). We all must confront our own racial feelings when we try to force Christmas into a category, and his resistance to categorization makes even many modern readers uneasy: "The novel poses a challenge to our own self-reading: do we comply with or resist the signification of Joe Christmas as ‘nigger’?" (Snead 88) Many readers, like Cowley above, simply accept that Christmas is indeed a mulatto and, therefore, a metaphor for racism--a premature conclusion in no way verified by either the text or Faulkner’s comments on the subject. By such an unsubstantiated signification, we actually comply with those who insist upon classifying others according to race.
Such a line of inquiry, then, leads to dead ends and self-incriminating conclusions. Perhaps we need to approach Light in August from a different angle today. One would do well to consider the secondary, puzzling, but ultimately seminal figure of Gail Hightower, who offers what might be Faulkner’s own prescription for the woes of his region.
It should be noted that Faulkner leaves one generation out of his Yoknapatawpha saga, saying very little about the time immediately after the Civil War. Harry Runyan observes, "We know far more about the Civil War generation and the generation born in the 1890s than we do of the generation between the two" (290). Hence, Faulkner skips the generation between Old Bayard Sartoris (who appears as a youth during the Civil War in The Unvanquished) and Young Bayard, his grandson (who returns from World War I in Flags in the Dust); Old Bayard’s son, John, who died in 1901, never directly appears in either chronicle of the Sartorises. Similarly, we know little of the Compsons and the Snopeses during this time.
Faulkner feebly explains this omission: "From ’70 on to 1912-14, nothing happened to Americans to speak of " (FIU 251). Obviously, very much happened, especially in Faulkner’s South during the painful time of Reconstruction, but he says practically nothing about the period between 1866 and 1902, when he resumes the Yoknapatawpha narrative with the introduction of Flem Snopes in The Hamlet.
This lapse of an entire generation does not affect only Faulkner. Many grandsons of Civil War veterans felt themselves drawn more to their grandfathers than to their fathers, whose lackluster acceptance of Reconstruction and the penalties imposed by the North added to the humiliation of defeat. Richard B. King notes: "as [these veterans] faded from the scene, the grandsons in the early years of the century idealized the great hero of the romance even more. Measured against the heroic generation of the grandfathers, the fathers seemed rather unheroic and prosaic to their sons" (34-35). Like Faulkner, Donald Davidson and Allen Tate had ancestors who fought in the Civil War, and this heritage had a similar effect on each of them.
Faulkner dramatizes this fixation on grandfathers with two characters whose Civil War exploits attain the level of myth. One could cite for a class how, in Flags in the Dust, Carolina Bayard Sartoris, the uncle of Old Bayard, is killed while attempting with a friend to steal anchovies from a Union bivouac, a foolish act that is later rhapsodized into legend by those who remained:
. . . the tale itself grew richer and richer, taking on a mellow splendor like wine; until what had been a hair-brained prank of two heedless and reckless boys wild with their own youth, was become a gallant and finely tragical focal-point to which the history of the race had been raised from out the old miasmic swamps of spiritual sloth by two angels valiantly and glamorously fallen and strayed, altering the course of human events and purging the souls of men. (Flags 14)
The point to be made is that myth has the power to raise to profound levels the trivial and mundane; otherwise, we would be forced to face the petty, painful truth. As Faulkner well knew, the past is not what was, but what we need to believe it was. Those in the South whose relatives fought and died in the Civil War needed to construct a mythology that ennobled their sacrifices and justified their cause.
The above example serves well to introduce the Reverend Gail Hightower, who suffers from a similar malady. He, like Faulkner himself, seems to have skipped a generation, returning to the glorious days of his heroic grandfather. Concerning Light in August, King offers, "As in Flags in the Dust, Faulkner suggests that Hightower’s memory has transformed his grandfather’s absurd death in a useless Civil War episode into the very stuff of which epics are made" (84).
Hightower’s grandfather, a cavalry officer shot from his horse, dominates the imagination of the young minister, who somehow works the daring exploit into his sermons: "It was as if he couldn’t get religion and that galloping cavalry and his dead grandfather shot from the galloping horse untangled from each other, even in the pulpit" (LIA 66). Symbolic of many post-bellum Southerners, Hightower dwells on the glories of the past during his grandfather’s generation, which are, apparently, the only things that interest him. He cannot live in his own time, the post-war tedium of which holds no interest for him; so he retreats into a false glamorization of the Confederacy, as many Southerners did and do. He conveniently overlooks the cause of the War, as well as the painful result of it. Hightower lives "as though the seed which his grandfather had transmitted to him had been on the horse too that night and had been killed too and time had stopped there and then for that seed and nothing had happened in time since, not even him" (LIA 69).
By showing how this reverential attitude toward the War and its heroes has a detrimental effect on Hightower, Faulkner seems to suggest that something similar affects many Southerners. By obsessing on the past, Hightower loses touch with the present, which costs him his wife, his vocation, and his reputation. The class can recall at this point how Mrs. Hightower becomes embroiled in a scandalous affair and eventually kills herself by jumping from a Memphis hotel window. Consequently, Hightower becomes the object of speculation and rumor, and he eventually loses his congregation. He then withdraws into his reveries, having no connection with anybody in the community, save Byron Bunch.
After Joe Christmas murders Joanna Burden (a pivotal event for Hightower as well as for Christmas), Bunch pleads with Hightower to provide an alibi for the hunted killer. Wishing to take no part in the petty affairs of mankind, Hightower declines. Later, when the mob led by Percy Grimm finds Christmas at Hightower’s house, the previously detached minister re-enters the world of the living. He lies about Christmas’ whereabouts during the time of the murder: "Listen to me. He was here that night. He was with me the night of the murder. I swear to God--" (512). Nevertheless, Grimm kills Christmas in a brutal display of racism and anti-miscegenation.
This horror provides a cathartic epiphany for Hightower. After his active but futile attempt to help another human being, he questions his own obsession with his grandfather: "'So it is no wonder,' he thinks, 'that I skipped a generation. It’s no wonder that I had no father and that I already died one night twenty years before I saw light. . . . My life died there, was shot from the saddle of a galloping horse in a Jefferson street one night twenty years before it was ever born.'" (LIA 527)
Hightower had lived through his grandfather’s heroic exploits to an extent that prevented him from experiencing his own life. Significantly, one could point out, the generation he skipped--the generation of his father and Reconstruction and the pain of loss--is also skipped by Faulkner in the rest of his oeuvre. The events of this generation proved simply too painful to recall, so Hightower cast himself into the time before the fall of the Confederacy, when glory was still possible. But now he realizes that he has forfeited his own life in favor of one that seemed more magnificent.
Most important to note: Hightower finally sees his grandfather’s grand gesture for what it truly was, an act of extreme ignominy. Similar to the actions of Carolina Bayard, Hightower’s grandfather, accompanied by other Rebels, died under less than noble circumstances while "performing with the grim levity of schoolboys a prank so foolhardy that the troops who had opposed them for four years did not believe that even they would have attempted it" (LIA 533). In fact, this hero of the Confederacy died in a hen house, shot while stealing chickens.
At this point Hightower experiences an awakening, finally realizing that he has wasted his life by revering an ancestor whose reckless act doomed not only himself but two generations of his descendents. By deconstructing his own fabricated myths of the Confederacy, Hightower frees himself from the past and, through his own positive actions, may now try to build tomorrow. The result is his heroic attempt to save Christmas.
In the words of Walter Taylor, Faulkner "was going to have to live in the South and live in the twentieth century, and he was going to have to do both at once" (35). Through Hightower’s epiphany, students may be led to see how Faulkner believes this to be possible. No apologist for the Confederacy, as were a number of the Agrarians, Faulkner presents the South in all its beauty and terror. His characters confront, succumb to, and occasionally transcend their tragic legacy. First, though, they must recognize this legacy for what it truly is, as Hightower eventually does.
Students should see that Faulkner uses Hightower's grandfather to construct a typical mythology of the Southern past--the heroic struggles of those noble youth who desperately fought against all odds, only to have the Fates conspire against them. Then he deconstructs this fabrication to reveal the worm inside the rose: how these myths of past heroism ensnare those who hold them most dear. When Hightower finally sees his grandfather for what he truly was, not a glamorous hero but a reckless youth, he takes a step that liberates him from the legacy that has cursed much of Faulkner’s South. Thus liberated from the past, he may now create his own future.
Perhaps our modern sensitivity to issues of race necessarily compels us to concentrate on the plight of Joe Christmas. Certainly, racism is a primary issue in Light in August. This remarkable character is usually seen as a victim of horrible oppression because of his race, which obviously makes him a sympathetic, even Christlike figure. As compelling as Christmas is, though, our continued attention to him should not blind us to other characters and issues in the novel, especially those concerning the Reverend Gail Hightower. While certainly not the focus of Light in August, Hightower nevertheless deserves much more scrutiny than he has been allotted heretofore. He represents all of those who cling to false beliefs of past glories. Many of Faulkner’s characters must confront the problematic legacy of the South, but few do it so successfully. Far from being a peripheral figure, Hightower is a seminal character in the Faulknerian canon. With his epiphany, he embodies what may be Faulkner’s prescription for the modern South: awareness, transcendence, and hope.
Cowley, Malcolm. The Faulkner-Cowley File: Letters and Memories 1944-1962. New York: Viking, 1967.
Faulkner, William. Flags in the Dust. Ed. Douglas Day. New York: Vintage, 1973.
------. Light in August. 1932. New York: Vintage, 1987.
------. The Unvanquished. 1938. New York: Vintage, 1959.
Gwynn, Frederick L., and Joseph Blotner, eds. Faulkner in the University. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1995.
King, Richard B. A Southern Renaissance: The Cultural Awakening of the American South, 1930-1955. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.
Longley, John L., Jr. "Joe Christmas: The Hero in the Modern World." Faulkner: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Robert Penn Warren. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1966: 163-174.
Runyan, Harry. A Faulkner Glossary. New York: Citadel, 1964.
Snead, James. Figures of Division. New York: Methuen, 1986.
Taylor, Walter. Faulkner’s Search for a South. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983.