Dispatches | May 24, 2013

During the month of May, The Missouri Review will highlight a single short story to help celebrate National Short Story Month. We’ve asked a diverse group of readers and writers to participate by sharing a short story that demands to be read. Today’s blog post comes from writer Lawrence Coates. 

“Dry September” depicts a lynching.  The very act, a means to terrorize a subjugated people, is reprehensible on its face, and a story that presented this kind of violence in order to condemn it would be a fine undertaking.  However, Faulkner’s particular genius in this story is to use the lynching to reveal all the ugly aspects of the white social order that not only condone the act but call it forth, indeed demand it, and revel in it once it is done.

“Dry September” begins in a barber shop, and those gathered are discussing “the rumor, the story” about Miss Minnie Cooper and a black man named Will Mayes.  The lynch mob forms when John McClendon, a decorated veteran of the First World War, bursts into the shop and asks “Are you going to sit there and let a black son rape a white woman on the streets of Jefferson?”  He lays down a challenge.  “All that are with me get up from there.  The ones that ain’t –”  And one by one, the men gathered in the shop join him, some reluctantly, and pile into the car.  None of them is willing to be marked as one of the group not with him.

Faulkner then moves to Minnie Cooper’s story, and he reveals what a stunted and partial existence she has in Jefferson.  Minnie is in her late thirties, passed over for marriage, and while her former schoolmates were beginning to have children, she had one scandalous liaison with a widower ten years older than her.  When that breaks off and the widower moves to Memphis, her face takes on a “bright, haggard look,” the look of desperation.  The women of her acquaintance always visit her after the widower has been back in town and make it a point to tell her how well he looks, and how he is prospering.  The townswomen as a group are bitter and vicious, and Minnie’s place within their social pecking order is to be seen as an object of pity.  Her own frustration at the “furious unreality” of her life seems to search out an object upon which to project itself, and in this time and place, that could only be a black man.

After the mob leaves the barber shop, one man, a barber named Henry Hankshaw, rushes after them and attempts to be a voice of reason.  He joins the drive to where Will Mayes works as a night watchman, thinking he can talk them into realizing that they are after an innocent man.  But Faulkner has made it clear that there was never any evidence of any crime.  The mob has never been pursuing an act of justice or revenge.  It seems rather that they are acting to affirm an identity.  The men can only know themselves in an act of violence against an Other.

After they capture and handcuff Will Mayes, Hankshaw realizes he will not be able to talk them out of murdering him, so he asks to be let out of the car as it is driving to a dark and secret place.  He is sitting in the car next to Will, who speaks his name as though it is his last chance.  When McClendon refuses to slow down, Hankshaw jumps from the moving car.  He watches as it drives away, then watches again, some time later, as it returns on the same road.  As in a Greek tragedy, Faulkner chose to have the actual act of violence occur offstage.

In the town, after the lynching, Minnie is catered to by the townswomen, who are avid to know the details of the story.  “When you have had time to get over the shock, you must tell us what happened.  What he said and did; everything.”  The town glories in the lynching, exchanging versions of what happened to Will Mayes and proudly noting “There’s not a Negro on the square.  Not one.”  Yet the women also have frustrations that are projected upon the Other, and as they care for Minnie after an attack of hysteria, they whisper to each other, and their eyes are “darkly aglitter, secret and passionate.”

The life of the black populace of the town is seen mainly through what is not depicted, and the absence of blacks from the town square in the aftermath of the lynching is telling.  Still, one of the most chilling moments of the story comes when Will Mayes has been captured and handcuffed, but not yet been beaten.  He knows the men who have captured him, he knows them and calls them by name, he calls them “captains,” he calls McClendon “Mr John,” and Hankshaw “Mr Henry.”  Faulkner makes clear that blacks and whites know each other, live together in a kind of intimacy that makes the lynching even more horrific.  When Mayes understands that he is facing death, he does fight back, but it is too late.  He is shackled and outnumbered, and he is beaten and thrown in the car.

In the brief space of a story, Faulkner has portrayed the blank and baffled anger of men who can only understand themselves by doing violence to a nonexistent threat to their social order, and portrayed equally well the constrained lives of women whose stunted passion searches out someone or something upon which to project itself.  The brilliance of the story is to dramatize a single incident, yet reveal an entire world.

lawrence coatesLawrence Coates is the author of three novels, most recently The Garden of the World (2013). His short fiction has appeared in The Greensboro Review, The Missouri Review, Ascent, and elsewhere. He currently directs the Creative Writing Program at Bowling Green State University. See his work online at www.lawrencecoates.com.

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