31 Days of Stories, Day 11: “Dry September” by William Faulkner

May 11, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From Collected Stories of William Faulkner

“The presence alone of Faulkner in our midst makes a great difference in what the writer can and cannot permit himself to do. Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.” – Flannery O’Connor

Faulkner is most often remembered for his rococo stream-of-consciousness modernist novels, such as The Sound and the Fury or As I Lay Dying. But Faulkner was capable of writing straightforwardly enough when he wanted to, and his story “Dry September” is a small masterpiece of controlled tension that carries all the force of that Dixie Limited train barrelling down the tracks.

“Dry September” is the story of a lynching. A black man named Will Mayes is rumoured to have raped a white woman named Minnie Cooper in the town of Jefferson, Mississippi. There is no proof that Mayes did what he is being accused of, but for ex-soldier John McLendon, proof is unnecessary. Over the protests of the town barber, Hawkshaw, who believes Mayes to be innoncent, McLendon rounds up a posse and they head out to the ice plant where Mayes works as the night watchman. One member of the group has a pair of handcuffs, and McLendon is armed with an automatic pistol.

In addition to being one of Faulkner’s shortest stories, “Dry September” is remarkable for being a story in which the two key incidents are withheld from the reader. The townspeople rush to judgment about Mayes’s guilt in the absence of any hard evidence, and the assault on Minnie, if indeed it occurred, is not dramatized. Instead, we are presented with a heated argument in Hawkshaw’s barber shop about the reasonableness of exacting retribution without clear knowledge of whether a crime was even committed. When Hawkshaw comes to Mayes’s defence, he is shot down in the most anti-intellectual manner imaginable:

The barber said in his mild, stubborn tone: “I aint accusing nobody of nothing. I just know and you fellows know how a woman that never –”

“You damn niggerlover!” the youth said.

In the eyes of the white townspeople, there is no need for proof of Mayes’s guilt and they are appalled that Hawkshaw would take the side of a black man over that of a white woman.

Faulkner deliberately muddies the waters by making Minnie Cooper a homely spinster in her late thirties. There is every indication that she is a virgin, and even one of the white men in the barber shop admits that Minnie is prone to flights of fancy: “This aint the first man scare she ever had, like Hawkshaw says. Wasn’t there something about a man on the kitchen roof, watching her undress, about a year ago?” Of course, for McLendon, the question of Mayes’s guilt is not at issue; he even suggests that it doesn’t matter whether anything happened to Minnie: “Happen? What the hell difference does it make? Are you going to let the black sons get away with it until one really does it?”

There is an undeniable strain of sexual excitement that accrues to Millie in the eyes of the other townspeople; when Millie’s friends take her out on a Saturday evening to try to distract her, they are almost ravenous in their desire to hear the salacious details of Millie’s story: “When you have had time to get over the shock, you must tell us what happened. What he said and did; everything.” The titillation of Millie’s friends is reflected in McLendon’s fear of miscegenation; where the women feel a frisson of sexual energy at the thought of Mayes, the white men of Jefferson are infuriated by the notion that a black man might come along and befoul one of the town’s white women, and they intend to send a message that such activity will not go unpunished. If Will Mayes isn’t guilty, McLendon suggests, his fate will stand as a warning to other town blacks to keep away from Jefferson’s forbidden fruit.

The matter of Mayes’s precise fate is the second major incident in the story that is withheld from us. The lynch mob is seen from Hawkshaw’s perspective; when he decides that he can’t be a party to whatever they are planning to do with Mayes, he jumps out of McLendon’s moving vehicle and is last seen limping back into town. What the other men do to Mayes is unknown, although the story ends with McLendon returning home to his wife, a scene that includes a second mention of the soldier’s pistol: “He took the pistol from his hip and laid it on the table beside the bed, and sat on the bed and removed his shoes, and rose and slipped his trousers off.” There is a stark incongruity here between the quotidian matter of McLendon undressing for bed and the foreboding implications of the pistol lying on the bedside table. It is impossible to know whether McLendon used the pistol on Mayes; in any event, there are any number of ways the black man might have come to harm that don’t involve gunfire. But Faulkner refuses to provide the information about what exactly happened after Hawkshaw abandoned the lynch mob.

One thing that is abundantly clear is that McLendon is capable of great violence. A decorated soldier from the First World War, he lives in a house that is “fresh as a birdcage.” The notion that the house keeps its inhabitants caged inside it is underlined when McLendon returns to discover his wife waiting up for him:

“Haven’t I told you about sitting up like this, waiting to see when I come in?”

“John,” she said. She laid the magazine down. Poised on the balls of his feet, he glared at her with his hot eyes, his sweating face.

“Didn’t I tell you?” He went toward her. She looked up then. He caught her shoulder. She stood passive, looking at him.

“Don’t, John. I couldn’t sleep … The heat; something. Please, John. You’re hurting me.”

“Didn’t I tell you?” He released her and half struck, half flung her across the chair, and she lay there and watched him quietly as he left the room.

The wife’s protest about the heat is significant: the tempers in the town are on edge after a summer that consisted of “sixty-two rainless days” and the heat is a contributing factor in the incitement of violence. Like the sweltering Brooklynites in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, the townspeople in Faulkner’s story suffer in a pressure cooker, and it is only a matter of time before it explodes. It is no accident that Mayes works at an ice plant, and ice is repeatedly used as a symbol of succor in the story. When Millie becomes hysterical, her friends provide “cracked ice for her temples” before calling the doctor.

The story’s final image is not one of heat, but of cold: the “cold moon and the lidless stars,” beneath which the “dark world seemed to lie stricken.” This is a progression from “the bloody September twilight” that opened the story – an image that carries within it an explicit recognition of incipient violence. By the story’s close, twilight has given way to full dark, and the experience of the town – whatever that experience may have been – has afflicted it irreparably.