Written as it was, at the ebb of the 1930s, a decade of social, economic, and cultural tumult, the decade of the Great Depression, William Faulkner's short story "Barn Burning" may be read and discussed in our classrooms as just that--a story of the '30s, for "Barn Burning" offers students insights into these years as they were lived by the nation and the South and captured by our artists. This story was first published in June of 1939 in Harper's Magazine and later awarded the 0. Henry Memorial Award for the best short story of the year. Whether read alone, as part of a thematic unit on the Depression era, or as an element of an interdisciplinary course of the Depression '30s, "Barn Burning" can be used to awaken students to the race, class, and economic turmoil of the decade.
During the 1930s, the Sartoris and Snopes families were overlapping entities in Faulkner's imagination. These families with their opposing social values spurred his imagination at a time when he wrote about the passing of a conservative, agricultural South and the opening up of the South to a new era of modernization. This depiction of the agrarian society of the Sartoris family connects Faulkner to the nostalgic yearnings for a past expressed in I'll Take My Stand, the Fugitives' manifesto of 1930, a book opening the decade yet echoing sentiments of past decades. At the start of our classroom discussion of "Barn Burning," we can explain the tenets of the Fugitives, their traditional, aristocratic attitudes, and their reverence for the landed gentry life style. We can focus on the description of the de Spain home and property, with its opulence and privilege, as representative of the Agrarians' version of "the good life." Early we need to emphasize and discuss the attraction of the young boy Colonel Sartoris Snopes to the security and comfort of this style, his attraction to his namesake's heritage.
In his rendition of the Sartoris-like agrarian society, Faulkner acknowledges its dichotomy: the injustice, the lack of fair play, the blacks' subservience, and the divisiveness within the community which empire builders like the Sartorises and the de Spains wrought. It is, of course, this very social inequity, the class distinction, and the economic inequality against which Sarty's father Ab Snopes' barn burning rails. We now can lead our students to the evidence of these social injustices within the story by identifying exemplary moments and scenes. Specifically the concepts of sharecropper, poor white, and tenant farmer need to be fully defined and explored. Then the second courtroom scene in which de Spain exacts a payment of "twenty bushels of corn against your crop" for the ruined rug can be discussed in the context of de Spain's use of the words "contract" and "commissary." The economic and legal sovereignty exerted by the owner in this system of repressive, feudal privilege which creates the near impossibility of the tenant's ever "getting out from under" will then become more fathomable for students.
Foremost as such an example of social injustice is the encounter at the doorway of the de Spain mansion between the Snopes father and son and the de Spain black house servant. At this moment young Colonel Sartoris Snopes (whose very names pit the aristocratic, land-owning rich against the tenant farmer poor) is ushered into the reality of class differences, that being the cleavage within the local community. The boy Sarty responds to the big house with a "surge of peace and joy." Its bigness-"Hit's big as a courthouse"-to his fresh eyes seems to guarantee safety, dignity, and peace from the barn-burning menace of his father. But the old, neatly dressed black servant in his linen jacket bars the door with his body and commands the father, who has deliberately put his foot down in a pile of fresh horse droppings, to "wipe ya foot, white man." Saying "Get out of my way, nigger," the father enters the house and imprints his besmeared footprints...
Cited: Agee, James, and Walker Evans. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1941, reprinted 1960.
Faulkner, William. "Barn Burning."Harper 's Magazine, June 1939, reprinted in Collected Stories, New York: Random House, 1950.
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