Go Down, Moses
Check this out: it was March 1941, and the IRS was about to come knocking at William Faulkner's door. Faulkner, who by this time was developing the reputation of being one of the best American writers of the century, told his publisher, Robert Haas: "I am still writing short stories, to finish paying the back income tax." (Source) Despite his earlier successes and fame, sales of his books had tanked, some were already out of print, and he was struggling to support his family and pay the bills.
Right around this time, he came up with the brilliant idea of patching together some previously published stories and adding a few new ones to create a new book. This one was going to be about the African-American and white descendants of a plantation owner in the South. It would span one hundred years and tackle everything from slavery to miscegenation to lynching to the destruction of nature.
Totally brilliant, right?
Um, not quite. Remember, this was 1941. The South was still segregated, the Hollywood Production Code prohibited any depictions of interracial romance in films, interracial marriage was still illegal in a majority of states, and the Civil Rights Act was still almost 25 years in the future. A book about slavery and its legacy wasn't exactly going to sell like hotcakes.
So if we're talking in practical terms, Faulkner's idea turned out to be really foolish. He took a whole year to finish working on the book. It was published in May 1942 as Go Down, Moses and Other Stories (by the way, the "and Other Stories" part made Faulkner angry because he thought of it as a novel. It was deleted in the second edition). A month later, Faulkner, still in financial straits, wrote to a friend: "I am trying to raise $1,000.00 ... I have touched bottom ... The trouble is I cant sell stories. Wrote 6 since Jan., sold one." (Source) You know how much he made from it in all of 1942? Only $300. That's not even $5,000 in today's dollars.
Go Down, Moses wasn't the payday Faulkner hoped it would be. He had to go back to screenwriting to make a living, and he wasn't really financially secure until he won the Nobel Prize in 1950. But you know what? That financial crisis encouraged him to write what people now consider his last masterpiece. And although it didn't make him wealthy, we're all the richer for it.
Just a warning note: This novel can be pretty difficult to read. The "n" word appears frequently throughout the book and we'll be leaving it right there in all its nauseating offensiveness when quoting from the texts. Far be it from Shmoop to shield you from the ugliness of racism. So if you're shocked, well, that's the point. This is how things really were.
Why Should I Care?
During a visit to Connecticut in 1921, Faulkner wrote a letter to his father in Mississippi about life among the Yankees.
You cant tell me these niggers are as happy and contented as ours are, all this freedom does is make them miserable because they are not white, so that they hate white people more than ever, and the whites are afraid of them (Source).
Can this be the same guy who wrote Go Down, Moses, that courageous condemnation of slavery and racism? Can this be the same guy whose views on race were considered so progressive that he was ostracized by his friends and family?
It can, Shmoopers, it can.
Faulkner was a white male in the old South. He inherited its values and ideas about race, and many of his early writings contained racially stereotyped black characters and pretty disturbing views on race-mixing.
But, you protest, "That was then. This is now. We live in a post-racial society! We elected a biracial President! Twice! A film about slavery won the Academy Award for Best Picture! Some of my best friends are— ."
We know, we know. You've seen Twelve years a Slave and Django Unchained and Lincoln. Your parents watched Roots. We've all evolved.
But let's not kid ourselves—the social, psychological, and economic aftermath of slavery in America still echoes in our society just as it did through the generations of Faulkner's McCaslin family. That biracial President? When he was born, there were 22 states where it would have been illegal for his parents to marry. That Best Picture Award? It was the first time in history that a black director's film won. And you know what else? Most of us don't have best friends of another race or even live in diverse neighborhoods.
What we're saying is that, regardless of how much we think we embrace diversity, we all have a long way to go. Faulkner struggled his whole life to overcome the stereotypes he grew up with and to create a body of work that reflected that. Faulkner critics admit he had a "conflicted psyche" when it came to race (Source). He knew that as a white man, he had serious limits in understanding and portraying the African American experience. But he kept at it.
In 1921 he wrote that awful letter.
In 1941 he published Go Down, Moses. ISHO, that's a huge step forward.
So, dig into this novel with your eyes wide open for both sides of Faulkner's conflicted psyche. And more important, learn about your own.