A few months ago I took one of those Facebook quizzes–which Southern writer are you? I came up as William Faulkner. Faulkner was typical of the Southern men I grew up with–hard-drinking, hard-working, philandering, and overwhelmingly brilliant. In each of his works I’ve read, I’ve found a piece of my Southern heritage, sometimes a snippet I don’t particularly want to acknowledge. Faulkner, at least, forces me to examine it.
“Barn Burning” was a story I read both in a high school American Lit class and a college one as well. During the discussion period in the college course, a student who had no rural roots posed the question, “What’s the big deal about a barn burning anyway? It’s just a building. It wasn’t the person’s house.” The professor opened it up to the class, and there were several of us who grew up on farms who were happy to explain that the barn is the heart of a farm. You store animals, equipment, feed there. My Dad’s main “barn” was a complex of buildings, all interconnected, which was the farm’s nerve center. The loss of a barn brings physical damage in the loss of tangible assets, but it is also a symbolic loss as well. If you’re a subsistence farmer, and you lose your barn, you’re out of business.
This was why armies burned barns when they went through a country, this is why the Soviets scorched the earth and a lot of barns in Ukraine in World War II to leave nothing for the Germans to use, and this is why Abner Snopes burns barns to address insults he feels he’s been dealt in Faulkner’s short story.
The story opens in a store where the justice of the peace is hearing an accusation from a Mr. Harris, whose barn has been burned. Mr. Harris describes a dispute with Snopes over a pig getting loose and coming onto Mr. Harris’ land and rooting in his corn. The first time, Harris sends it back. The second time, Harris sends fencing so Snopes can build a better enclosure for the pig. The third time Mr. Harris sends Snopes a message that it will cost a dollar for him to get the pig back. Snopes sends a black man who works for him with the dollar and a message for Harris:
“He say to tell you wood and hay kin burn.”
“That whut he say to tell you. Wood and hay kin burn.”
Harris sends the black man away with the pig, and that night, his barn burns to the ground. Harris then brings Snopes before the JP to have him charged. The Justice of the Peace, however, sees that Mr. Harris has no real proof that it was Snopes who burned his barn. Harris tries to compel Snopes’ younger son–the story is really from his point of view–to speak up the boy stays quiet. The Justice has no choice but to dismiss any complaint against Snopes.
As Snopes and his son leave the store and walk down the street someone calls Snopes a barn burner, and his son, named Colonel Sartoris after Snopes’ Civil War commanding officer, launches himself at the man and gets roughed up in the process. Snopes pulls the boy away and takes him home. When they arrive, Snopes’ wife has their wagon packed. This is when you realize this is not the first time Snopes has been accused of barn burning. In fact, Sartoris’ entire life has been a constant journey from town to town, farm to farm, where they live and work briefly then pack up and move on. Yet, you can see this is a boy who adores and worships his father despite his father’s obvious flaws. Sartoris is conflicted far beyond a young boy’s ability to rationalize. He hopes no one will upset his father and release the nasty, vengeful man Snopes really is. You can also see Sartoris is getting tired of the life he’s living. Cracks are beginning to appear in the armor of fatherhood Snopes surrounds himself with.
Snopes reminds me of an uncle of mine, my father’s brother John Marshall, who got the Scots-Irish temper. He never burned a barn, but he found other ways to get back at people who he felt had offended him–turning another farmer’s cows out so they wandered off and took weeks to round up, putting sugar in the gas tank of yet another farmer’s tractor. There are lots of examples, none of which are as serious as barn burning, but costly in their way. All this got my Uncle John the same reputation that Snopes in Faulkner’s story had–be careful what you do or say to this man.
Snopes and his family go their next sharecropping gig. The owner of this farm sends a black man to tell Snopes to come see him and to make sure he comes to the back door. Snopes dresses in his best clothes and brings Sartoris along as he goes to meet his new boss. However, Snopes not only goes to the front door, he deliberately walks through a pile of horse droppings and tracks horseshit through the house and on an expensive French rug. Snopes has also deliberately come at a time when “The Major,” the farm owner, isn’t at home. With The Major’s wife near to faint from the ruination of her rug, Snopes and Sartoris leave, Snopes’ boots still tracking horseshit.
A few hours later, The Major sends the rug to the house the Snopes family have moved into on the farm, with the instructions that the rug be cleaned and sent back up to the main house. Snopes’ wife offers to do it, but Snopes tells her he’ll take care of it. Snopes spreads the rug in the dust, cooks up a pot of lye, and has Sartoris’ sisters “clean” the rug. Now, pure lye will burn, so the rug is now clean of horseshit, but a ghost of itself.
Needless to say, The Major is not happy with the result and informs Snopes that the cost of the rug will come out of his share of the corn crop. In a twist, Snopes brings The Major before this town’s Justice, claiming the redress is too much. Snopes–you can see him, hat in hand, deferring to the Justice, playing innocent–asserts that he’d never cleaned such a rug before, so he shouldn’t be held accountable for cleaning it the wrong way. He did, he claims, exactly what The Major told him to do.
“He brought the rug to me and said he wanted the tracks washed out of it. I washed the tracks out and took it back to him.”
When the Justice reminds him he didn’t take the rug back in the same condition it was before he dirtied it, Snopes has nothing to say. The Justice finds against Snopes but reduces the amount of corn Snopes has to forfeit to pay for the rug. When the corn is harvested, Snopes will have to give 10 barrels, or $5, from his share to The Major.
Sartoris hopes that’s the end of it, but by the time they reach the wagon, Snopes is muttering that The Major won’t get the 10 barrels, or even five barrels. They get home and Sartoris stays outside, listening to the birds and other sounds of nature as night falls. Then, he hears his mother begging and pleading with his father. Sartoris dashes into the house to see his father emptying all the lamp oil into a kerosene can. Snopes orders Sartoris to get “that can of oil we were oiling the wagon with.” Sartoris protests, but Snopes orders him again.
“Then he was moving, running, outside the house, toward the stable: this the old habit, the old blood which he had not been permitted to choose for himself, which had been bequeathed him willy nilly and which had run for so long (and who knew where, battening on what of outrage and savagery and lust) before it came to him. I could keep on, he thought. I could run on and on and never look back, never need to see his face again. Only I can’t. I can’t…”
Sartoris does what he was told but begs his father to send the black man to warn The Major, as he had done all the previous times, so ardently Snopes makes his wife hold the boy while he goes off to make The Major pay. However, Sartoris breaks away, but he doesn’t run after his father. He runs to The Major’s house and without knocking bursts in and breathlessly shouts, “Barn! Barn!” Even though Sartoris is put out of the house, The Major has figured out what he means.
The ending of this story is frenetic. Sartoris’ screaming, The Major shouting for his horse. Sartoris then runs toward his father when he sees The Major gallop off with a gun. As he warned The Major, he tries to warn his father, but smoke is already rising and whatever action The Major now takes, he is well within his rights. Sartoris runs to his father, screaming for him even as he sees the glare of the fire, stumbling in the forest, and stops only when he hears the shots. For hours he sits in the dark sobbing, knowing what has happened and his part in it. “My father,” he says, “he was brave.” Then you realize he spoke of the father as a soldier who fought bravely and well before his descent to barn burner.
Sartoris ran to The Major with the intent of stopping his father, so his father could be in reality the way Sartoris thought of him, but what Sartoris really did was cleanse that “old blood.” There are many Southerners, myself among them, who would give almost anything for the same.