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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. XI, No. 2
Summer-Fall, 1987



In his University of Virginia interviews. William Faulkner responded to a variety of questions about the sources of and influences upon his works. When asked about the correspondence of Joe Christmas to Oedipus. Faulkner replied,

That's another matter of the writer reaching into the lumber room of his memory for whatever he needs to create the character or the situation, and the similarity is there but not by deliberate intent. It was coincidence--not accident but by coincidence. (72)

To another question about Joe Christmas as a Christ figure, Faulkner repeated his "lumber room" metaphor:

That's a matter of reaching into the lumber room to get something which seems to the writer the most effective way to tell what he is trying to tell. And comes back to the notion that there are so few plots to use that sooner or later any writer is going to use something that has been used. (117)

In Faulkner's "lumber room" of building materials lay the plays of Eugene O'Neill, whose works he admired and praised in the early 1920's. While writing short essays for The Mississippian at the University of Mississippi, Faulkner published two pieces on the current state of American drama, one of which, "American Drama: Eugene O'Neill," evaluated O'Neill's early achievements. He noted several relationships between O'Neill's early sea plays and the works of Joseph Conrad and commented on the influence which one writer may have upon another: "It is not especially difficult--after a man has written and passed on--to trace the threads which were drawn together by him and put on paper in the form of his own work." (86-87)

The threads of O'Neill's works in Faulkner have rarely been examined, despite his open admission of familiarity with a number of them. In the O'Neill essay, Faulkner demonstrates his knowledge of the sea plays, The Emperor Jones, The Straw, Anna Christie, Gold, and Diff'rent. His intimate acquaintance with The Emperor Jones is revealed in his slightly misquoting the opening line of Brutus .Jones: "Who dat dare whistle in the Emperor's palace?" (88) Faulkner also reveals his insight into the character of Jones and his understanding of the fundamental problem which made him "rise up and swagger in his egoism and cruelty, and die at last through his hereditary fears" (88).

In 1980, Judith Bryant Wittenberg, in a substantial but speculative essay, "Faulkner and Eugene O'Neill," addressed the novelist's indebtedness to the dramatist. She established clearly that Faulkner was aware of O'Neill's plays, evidenced in the short essays to which I previously referred, and in his library, which included O'Neill texts. She calculated that by the beginning of the 1930's, when Faulkner was writing his greatest works, he was probably familiar with at least twenty O'Neill plays. She noted similarities in stream-of-consciousness technique between Strange Interlude and The Sound and the Fury and parallels in the representation of families in Mourning Becomes Electra and Absalom, Absalom! (In both instances, the O'Neill play preceded Faulkner's novel in creation and in print.) She further called attention to possible personal relationships between the two authors--they travelled through the same circles in New York; shared the same editor, Saxe Commins, and the same publishers, Boni and Liveright and Random House. "Thus," she concludes, "Faulkner's life, both personal and professional, gave him access to the work and ideas of the playwright" (329).

Ben Wasson, in his "flashbacks" as he called them, provides further evidence that Faulkner knew O'Neill's work. He recounts a meeting between Faulkner and Norman Bel Geddes in which the latter brought forth the masks he had designed for a production of Dante's Inferno. As Faulkner fingered the masks, he remarked, "O'Neill had the right idea in The Great God Brown.... Those masks he used for his characters made a small play into a big one" (113).

We cannot know how carefully Faulkner read the O'Neill texts, but his early essay affirms close familiarity with The Emperor Jones, and I suggest that that play became a significant plank in his lumber room of building materials--that its "threads," to use his other metaphor, can be traced in several works. Though I shall limit my discussion in this essay primarily to one of Faulkner's novels, I must at least note three other short works which echo The Emperor Jones, especially in the ritualistic flight and pursuit of the Negro by those who would destroy him.

In "Sunset," one of Faulkner's New Orleans Sketches, a Negro, escaping from the plantation, tries to return to his native Africa; but through his racial innocence and ignorance in his flight, he is destroyed in New Orleans, believing in his superstitious fear that he is in the jungle and is threatened by wild animals and savages. At one point in this story, the Negro even counts the bullets that he has left to protect himself from hostile forces. "Red Leaves," an Indian/Negro parody of White/Negro relationships in the South, presents the flight of a Negro slave to avoid the ritualistic destiny which the Indians have planned for him--that of being buried alive with his master. This story is fully equipped with echoes of O'Neill, including the beating of drums while the Negro attempts escape. "Dry September" offers a third thematic parallel. In this story, a white mob pursues and kills the Negro, Will Mayes, for his alleged violation of an eccentric and paranoid white woman. Will Mayes is given no opportunity to flee; his pursuers destroy him ritualistically as a scapegoat example to other "niggers" in the community.

It is in Light in August, however, that O'Neill's contributions to Faulkner's lumber room reached their greatest maturity.

In O'Neill's extravagantly innovative play, Brutus Jones, a murderer and ex-convict, has taken refuge on an island populated by primitive and superstitious savages. A stranger and foreigner among them, he has invaded their community and preyed upon their superstitions, making them believe he is a god who can be destroyed only by a silver bullet. He has hoarded their priceless possessions, knowing that they will one day rise up and revolt. When the moment of rebellion arrives, Jones enters the forest and undertakes a flight during which hallucinatory scenes represent not only episodes from his own past life but also a symbolic regression through racial memory to his primal origins in Africa. In his frenzied attempt at escape, Jones loses his way in the forest and runs, full-circle, back to his point of origin to die by the silver bullets which the natives have fashioned to destroy him.

The final scene in the play--in its dialogue, action and stage directions--contains a number of interesting and significant details. It introduces Lem, the leader of the rebellion, who is described as "imperturbable" (33), completely self-assured that his magic spells and his preparations will be successful in destroying Jones. When the Cockney, Smithers, asks, "Well, ain't yer goin' in an' unt 'im in the woods? What the 'ell's the good of waitin'?" (33), Lem imperturbably states, "We cotch him" (33). The natives, reflecting Lem's assurance, have waited patiently throughout the night for the seemingly destined meeting with Jones. Significantly, three times during this scene, O'Neill labels them "soldiers": "Lem enters from the left, followed by a small squad of soldiers"; "His soldiers are in different degrees of rag-concealed nakedness.... Each one carries a rifle" (33); "The soldiers come out of the forest, carrying Jones' limp body" (34).

The flight of Brutus Jones in the forest, his return through racial memory, the nature of his pursuers. the determination of Lem and his "soldiers": all evoke suggestive parallels to the Joe Christmas story in Light in August and highlight several comments which Faulkner would later make about Joe's fundamental problem.

We first see Joe Christmas through the eyes of Byron Bunch, who labels him "a stranger" (27) whose co-workers "just thought that he was a foreigner" (29). Byron's impression of Joe is tellingly descriptive:

He looked like a tramp. yet not like a tramp either. His shoes were dusty and his trousers were soiled too. But they were decent serge, sharply creased, and his shirt was soiled but it was a white shirt, and he wore a tie and stiff-brim hat that was quite new, cocked at an angle arrogant and baleful above his still face. He did not look like a professional hobo in his professional rags, but there was something definitely rootless about him; ... he carried his knowledge with him always as though it were a banner, with a quality ruthless, lonely, almost proud ... with his dark, insufferable face and his whole air of cold and quiet contempt. (27-28)

Joe's attire and appearance are totally inappropriate for work in a sawmill and incongruous in the context of his co-workers.

Compare this description of Joe on his first appearance with the introduction of Brutus Jones:

There is something decidedly distinctive about his face--an underlying strength of will, a hardy, self-reliant confidence in himself that inspires respect. His eyes are alive with a keen, cunning intelligence. In manner he is shrewd, suspicious, evasive. He wears a light blue uniform coat, sprayed with brass buttons, heavy gold chevrons on his shoulders, gold braid on the collar, cuffs, etc. His pants are bright red with a light blue stripe down the side. Patent leather laced boots with brass spurs, and a belt with a long-barreled, pearl-handled revolver in a holster complete his make up. (5-6)

Immediately follows his first line, misquoted by Faulkner: "Who dare whistle dat way in my palace?"

Is it mere coincidence that, on their initial appearances, each's strange and incongruous costume is detailed; each's face is described as revealing arrogance and self-assurance; each's manner, which exposes his separation through loneliness or evasiveness, is commented upon; and each's self-pride is noted?

Joe appears in his own person in the fifth chapter of the novel, where we learn that Joe carries a razor in his pocket and that some mysterious "it" may already have happened or a "something is going to happen" (103). From Chapters 6 through 12, Faulkner employs a narrative technique as daringly innovative as O'Neill's in The Emperor Jones--both authors reconstruct the lives of their protagonists through memory: "Memory believes before knowing remembers," as Faulkner phrases it (104).

Brutus Jones enters the forest in his flight and undertakes a journey which is regressive. His memories take him back through scenes from his life--his killing of Jeff with a razor in a crap game, his killing of a prison guard with a shovel, his sale on the block during the slavery period, his galley slave days, his primitive origins in Africa in which he was to be the sacrificial scapegoat of the witch doctor. All of these memories are directly related to his racial identity and the consequences of his black blood.

Joe's memories are historically progressive, and his flight in life is marked by his confused racial identity. Faulkner suspends the ongoing action of the novel for Joe to remember and reconstruct his life in the orphanage, his childhood confusion about the dietician, his experience with the McEacherns, his confused sexual relationships, his entrance into Mississippi, his relationship with Joanna Burden--all of which are marked by the uncertainty of his white or black blood and all of which lead to the "something" that "is going to happen" to him--the killing of Joanna.

Brutus Jones enters a haunted forest in his flight. Joe Christmas enters the endless "street," just as haunted with racial phantoms which will torment him to the end of his life:

He entered the street which was to run for fifteen years.... From that night the thousand streets ran as one street, with imperceptible corners and changes of scene, broken by intervals of begged and stolen rides, on trains and trucks, and on country wagons.... It was fifteen years long.... He thought it was loneliness which he was trying to escape and not himself. But the street ran on.... One afternoon the street had become a Mississippi country road (195-197).

Both structurally and thematically, Faulkner has presented Joe's life based upon a circle image as he remembers his life and approaches his destiny. Like Brutus Jones, he has travelled "full-circle" and is trapped within that circularity:

He is entering it again, the street which ran for thirty years. It had been a paved street, where going should be fast. It had made a circle and he is still inside it. Though during the last seven days he has had no paved street, yet he has travelled farther than in all the thirty years before. And yet he is still inside the circle. "And yet I have been farther in these seven days than in all the thirty years," he thinks. "But I have never got outside that circle. I have never broken out of what I have already done and cannot ever undo," he thinks quietly (296).

After he has killed Joanna Burden, Joe's circular routs brings him to Mottstown, where he is captured and remeets Hines, his grandfather, whom he has not seen in thirty years. Joe does not know that Hines is his blood-relative--the man who let his daughter die in childbirth, who placed Joe in the orphanage, who janitored in the orphanage to watch Joe, who spread the first rumors that Joe had Negro blood. Hines strikes at Joe with a stick and must be restrained as he cries out, "Kill the bastard!" (302), recalling Joe's biological origin. Joe's undefined racial identity, which has haunted him from birth, is redefined by one local citizen who labels him, "Christmas! That white nigger that did the killing in Jefferson" (302). In his flight through life, Joe has, indeed, come full-circle. And his destiny lies in the hands of Percy Grimm, the imperturbable and determined avenger in the White/Negro ritual of the modern South.

Percy Grimm bears several resemblances to Lem in The Emperor Jones. Both are implacable in their assurance that justice will be done. Legalities notwithstanding, Grimm fulfills his fantasies of military leadership by insisting that his white supporters first arm themselves with guns, then appear in uniform. He organizes his "soldiers" in his own and their patient vigil. Lem believes that the inevitable will happen--"We cotch him"--and there is as much inevitability and determinism in Grimm's involvement with Joe Christmas. Grimm is like a pawn in a game of chess, waiting for "the Player" to move him.

When Joe escapes from jail and runs to Hightower's house, Grimm moves with determination and joy in pursuit. He enters Hightower's house, and Faulkner writes,

It was as though he had been merely waiting for the Player to move him again, because with that unfailing certitude he ran straight to the kitchen and into the doorway, already firing, almost before he could have seen the table overturned and standing on its edge across the corner of the room, and the bright glittering hands upon the upper edge. Grimm emptied the automatic's magazine into the table.... But the Player was not done yet. (406)

Grimm is to be moved yet once more, when, with a butcher knife, he castrates Joe and pronounces ritualistically, "Now you'll let white women alone, even in hell" (407). Joe has become the sacrificial scapegoat of racial superstition and fear. And his death involves the same inevitability as does that of Brutus Jones.

In Light in August, Faulkner allows Gavin Stevens a eulogistic statement about Joe's flight and his racial confusion:

But there was too much running with him, stride for stride with him. Not pursuers: but himself: years, acts, deeds omitted and committed, keeping pace with him, stride for stride, breath for breath, thud for thud of the heart, using a single heart. (393)

Assuming Joe's black blood, Stevens explains Joe's destiny:

It was the black blood which swept him by his own desire beyond the aid of any man, swept him up into that ecstasy out of a black jungle where life has already ceased before the heart stops and death is desire and fulfillment. (393)

At Virginia, Faulkner, commenting on Joe's quest for racial identity, noted that Joe

didn't know what he was. He knew that he would never know what he was, and his only salvation in order to live with himself was to repudiate mankind, to live outside the human race. And he tried to do that but nobody would let him, the human race itself wouldn't let him. And I don't think he was bad, I think he was tragic. And his tragedy was that he didn't know what he was and would never know, and that to me is the most tragic condition that an individual can have--to not know what he was. (118)

Do not the fictional pronouncement of Gavin Stevens and Faulkner's statement about Joe's confused racial identity echo Faulkner's analysis, in his O'Neill essay, of Brutus Jones?--of the conditions "that made [him] rise up and swagger in his egoism and cruelty, and die at last from his own hereditary fears"? Both protagonists have isolated themselves and have been isolated primarily because of their racial identity, or lack thereof. And both must be sacrificed--Brutus, because of his tyranny; Joe, because he killed a white woman.

Certainly, there are many differences between the works of Eugene O'Neill and William Faulkner, between The Emperor Jones and Light in August. But let me recall what Faulkner said in his O'Neill essay: "It is not especially difficult--after a man has written and passed on--to trace the threads which were drawn together by him and put on paper in the form of his own work." Without Faulkner here to defend or refute his indebtedness to O'Neill, I have tried to note a few threads of possible influence of one literary giant upon another, of one major work upon another. Is Joe Christmas Oedipus? Christ? Brutus Jones? The answers lie in William Faulkner's lumber room.

--Donald P. Duclos


Faulkner in the University, ed. Frederick L. Gwynn and Joseph L. Blotner, New York: Vintage Books, 1959.

Faulkner, William. "American Drama: Eugene O'Neill." Reprinted in William Faulkner: Early Prose and Poetry, ed. Carvel Collins. Boston, Little, Brown, 1962.

Faulkner, William. Light in August. New York: Modern Library College Editions, 1959.

O'Neill, Eugene. The Emperor Jones, in Nine Plays (New York: Modern Library, 1954), pp. 1-35.

Wasson, Ben. Count No'Count: Flashbacks to Faulkner. Jackson: Univ. of Mississippi Press, 1983.

Wittenberg, Judith Bryant. "Faulkner and O'Neill," Mississippi Quarterly (Summer 1980), pp. 327-341.

*A paper delivered at. the Faulkner session of the Northeast Modern Language Association Convention in Boston on April 3, 1987.



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