William Faulkner’s story “Barn Burning,” first published in Harper’s Magazine in 1939 (and winner of an O. Henry story award for that year) is widely anthologized. It and “A Rose for Emily” are the most common introductions to Faulkner in high-school and college American literature courses. Though I first read Faulkner when I was 14-15, I wonder about members of the twitter-generation making it through the second sentence. The first sentence is a mere thirteen words, but the second runs 117 (a lot, except in comparison to the 1300+ one in Absalom, Absalom!:
“The boy, crouched on his nail keg at the back of the crowded room, knew he smelled cheese, and more: from where he sat he could see the ranked shelves close-packed with the cold, squat dynamic shapes of tin cans whose labels his stomach read, not from the lettering which meant nothing to his mind but from the scarlet devils and the silver curve of fish-this, the cheese which he knew he smelled and the hermetic meat which his intestines definitely believed he smelled coming in intermittent gusts momentary and brief between the other constant one, the small and sense just a little of fear because mostly of despair and grief, the old fierce pull of blood.”
Even at my advanced age in rereading the story it took a moment for me to decode “nail keg” (never having seen so large a supply of nails) and I balked at “hermetic meat” even knowing what” hermetic means.” And I would content that “momentary” is redundant (with “intermittent”). I’m not convinced that it matters to readers that the general store where a justice of peace is holding court smells of cheese, but this sentence that could easily have been broken up conveys quite that the boy is not well-fed, that he is illiterate, and announces the major conflict of the story, which is one between mindless subordination to the father who is on trial (amoral familialism) and natural law (afamilial morality?)
A question that I think Faulkner begs is where an alternative to the oafish self-interest of Abner Snopes (the barn-burning father) comes from for “Sarty” (the ten-year-old boy). Having moved a dozen times, Sarty has not been to school and Ab is unlikely to take his children to church. So, a valuation of honesty is innate and/or stimulate by the boy being named for a pillar of rectitude. The boy’s astonishing name is “Colonel Sartoris Snopes.” I rered “Barn Burning” just after rereading The Unvanquished, which was not published in book form until 1940 (though the stories with Col. Sartoris had appearned in The Saturday Evening Post in 1935-36.) A first-time Faulkner reader would not know who Col. (John) Sartoris was, though the story eventually mentions that Ab was a private in Col. Sartoris’s regiment, in the Confederate army solely for the chance of spoils of battle.
Faulkner himself said that his theme (the only one worth writing about) was ”the human heart in conflict with itself.” Sarty is uncomfortable that his father expects him (Sarty) to lie in his father’s defense. Sarty does not testify, but his father intuits that the boy might have told the truth had he testified and chides him: “You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to you.” (Ain’t + going to? Not “ain’t gonna”?)
The case makes obvious that Ab is an ornery fellow: he burned down the barn of a man who objected to Ab refusing to pen in his pig (even giving him a bale of wire).
At the next stop, the grandest house (mansion) Sarty has ever seen, Ab deliberately steps in manure and tracks it across a fancy rug despite the house n____ trying to stop him at the door.
This leads to a second court action (brought by Ab against the owner’s charge against future harvest for ruining the rug), which leads to a second barn burning. A stray question is where Ab gets the money for five gallons of kerosene… and why anyone, let alone twelve someones, take this varmit onto their land. Can Ab’s reputation for incivility in general and barn-burning in particular not have spread through the land of cotton? And while I’m at it, why was the de Spain mansion still standing, when plantation mansions had systematically been torched during the Civil War?
Sarty chooses to warn the class enemy, the owner de Spain, cutting loose from his father. The story ends with Sarty cold, hungry, and alone and without any applause from the author for choosing abstract virtue over palpable family. Since Faulkner does not go beyond Sarty’s point of view (even though the story is told in the third person), the reader does not know more than that Sarty heard two shots in the direction of the blaze, does not know if Ab or de Spain or both are dead (so how could I spoil the plot!).
Faulkner could catch readers up in stories, but often left us wondering “What happened?” Who shot whom is another question Faulkner to which provided no answer in his story. I find this frustrating and wonder if young readers will feel betrayed after investing the work to get through some sentences much thornier than the one I quoted above.
Moreover, as an adolescent reader, I’m pretty sure that I did not consider Ab as a rebel against an unjust social system (sharecropping after slavery was abolished by the victors of the Civil War), even with the explicit resentment Ab expresses about the aristocrat who “aims to begin owning me body and soul for the next eight months.” Ab is such a nasty piece of work – not least in frequently beating his son – that I would not have questioned (or even noticed probably) Sarty’s “class betrayal.” Not that I think Faulkner, who modeled Col. Sartoris on Col. Falkner, identified with the sharecroppers or was any less besotted with the white-pillared mansions of the gentry than the dazzled youth Sarty…
There is a lot of context underlying the story that young readers, even young Southern readers I’m sure, lack. Plus the drumbeat of the n-word makes assigning the text problematic. Moreover, the use of the word is gratuitous in contrast to in Huckleberry Finn in which its use has been a basis for banning what Hemingway rightly called “the great American novel.”
Although the story is about the rough growing up of a boy, it seems to me that it is fiction about a juvenile, not fiction easily (or at all?) comprehensible to juveniles, especially with so one-dimentional a representative of underclass rebelliousness as Abner Snopes.