After writing about Ellen Glasgow’s “Jordan’s End,” I picked up William Faulkner’s “Dry September” (1931). While not necessarily in the exact same narrative vein, Faulkner’s story, as with his other works, highlight the ideas of the Southern Gothic, specifically a place of suffocating oppression that does not resemble the idyllic region that authors sought to “recapture” after Reconstruction during the latter part of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. Today, I want to focus on one specific aspect of Faulkner’s story that creates an ominous feeling, and I want to show, briefly, how that feeling manifests itself again in Ernest J. Gaines’s Of Love and Dust (1967).
The narrative of “Dry September” is one that has been provided numerous times in literature, in varying ways. A white woman, Minnie Cooper, proclaimed that Will Mayes, an African American, attacked her. What ensues is varied sections where we see men discuss the incident and what should be done to Willie, Minnie’s psychological struggles, the men’s decision to lynch Willie (which they do), and the mob’s ringleader, McLendon’s reaction to his own wife after the incident. The story works to show that the myth of Southern, white womanhood and its purity exists as nothing more than a facade. The myth perpetuates to recall an “idyllic” past and to serve as a means of maintaining control over the African American men in the region.
While the overall theme of the story is important, I want to focus on one section, section III. Here, the mob takes Willie Mays to the outskirts of town and lynches him. We do not see the lynching because the section follows Henry, an objector to the act, who jumps out of the car on the way to the lynching site. As readers, we follow his path back to town rather than following McLendon and the men with Willie.
Throughout the section, “dust” serves as an image of suffocation and death. Having not rained for sixty-two days, the dust lay heavy on the road and in the air in September, kicking up as the mob races to their spot of execution. The narrator states, as the cars turn down a dirt road, “Dust hung above it too, and above all the land” (443). The dust encompasses not just the characters but the land as well, creating a suffocating effect that stifles any progress that may occur or any reason that may be within the mob members’ heads. As the section proceeds, the image of dust recurs again and again. In the final two paragraphs, it shows up eight times, highlighting the overall effect of the image.
The conclusion of the section shows Henry walking back to town after jumping out of the car. When he jumps out, he tumbles into “dust-sheathed weeds” and a puff of “dust” arises around him as “he lay choking and retching” (445). On his way back to town, the town appears out of the dust, and the mob returns in their cars, done with their deed. As they approach, Henry sees the dust rise behind their approach, and after they pass, “the dust swallowed them” (445). Eventually, “the eternal dust absorbed [the car] again” (445). Here, the dust engulfs the town and the perpetrators of the lynching. This simultaneous connection highlights the suffocating power of racism and prejudice that encompasses the lynch mob even though they do not have any evidence that Willie did anything to Minnie except for the woman’s word.
At some points, the impression that Minnie and Willie had a relationship comes to mind. She is in her late thirties, none of the men appear interested in her, and she lives with her mother. After she claims that Willie “touched” her, friends want to hear all of the salacious details and men start to pay attention to her. For me, this set-up makes me think of Marcus and Louise in Of Love and Dust. Aunt Margart keeps asking Louise when she is going to claim that Marcus raped her, and Louise never does. Minnie does claim an interaction, though. I am not saying that Minnie and Willie had a relationship definitively, but I think it is a possibility. If they did have a relationship, was it one of love, revenge, or convenience? Marcus definitely started seeing Louise out of revenge, but I would argue they eventually fall in love.
Along with this discussion, we need to think about the continued use of “dust” in both texts. As Gaines abs said, dust suffocates love, hence the title. I have written about the numerous appearances of dust in the first couple of paragraphs of Gaines’s novel. After looking at that post, and this one, what are you thoughts about the use of dust in both texts? As usual, let me know in the comments below.
Faulkner, William. “Dry September.” The Literature of the American South. Ed. William L. Andrews. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998. 439-447.
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