Short Story Month, Day 24: "Dry September"
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 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.
Looking Forward: The Top 10 Blogposts of 2013
Following the runaway success of Michael’s post detailing the top 10 TMR posts of 2012, we’ve decided to give you a look at what we predict will be the ten most popular blog posts of 2013. While Michael used something called “Google Analytics” we are depending on foresight, intuition, and guesswork.
1. An interview with William Faulkner:
Our doughty intern, K, will track down the elusive (and possibly deceased) Nobel laureate in his home of Yoknapatawpha county to get some illumination into the direction of American literature in the 21st century. From the interview:
“What? No. I don’t know what Benji is saying either. Something about a golf ball? Commentary on the Tiger Woods scandal?”
2. The 2013 Editor’s Prize:
In which we give you plentiful details on how/ why/ where/ when you should enter the next installment of the TMR Editor’s Prize.
“$5000. $5000. $5000.”
3. The Death of Literature:
As per official requirement of the CLMP’s constitution and by-laws, we will publish one blog post bemoaning the fact that nobody reads anymore, nobody respects literature anymore, and being a writer of any stripe is so goddamned difficult we might as well give up. This will most probably appear sometime around March-April, depending on how cold the rest of winter is. Our guess is that we will quote Eliot complaining about lilacs in this article.
“Because no one wants to read my writing, it logically follows that no one reads anything. Ever.”
4. Literature Lives
In which we discuss how everybody reads all the time because, hey now, you’re reading this, and aren’t we all on our computers constantly? Admittedly no one will ever confuse Politico with Shakespeare, but look at the return of long-form journalism, the plethora of online outlets discussing literature, the democratization of high art, and the various cats-doing-cute-things websites designed to stave off Writer’s Block. Clearly, literature has never been stronger.
“What sort of a name is Barthes anyway?”
5. Our Literary Crush
6. Favorite Overrated Writer/ Punching Bag
This is still a thing you can enter because the due date is only March 15th, 2013. The entry fee is at your discretion. Remember all the brilliant things co-Contest Editors Claire McQuerry and Mike Petrik said? They are in charge of this too. So it must be good. Plus, money.
“$1000. It’s still a lot of money, so quit complaining.”
8. A Book Everyone Likes But We Hate
Following the shocking admission that there are people in the world who don’t like The Princess Bride, we are going to do one annually contradictory and inflammatory post. We will most probably choose The Sound and the Fury for this, since Faulkner was so mean to doughty intern, K, but are open to all suggestions in our comments box that are (a) reasonably moderate-tempered, (b) not inviting us to a cheap 3-day beach weekend in Thailand, and (c) not something about a webcam.
9. A recap of our experiences at AWP
Again, as mandated by CLMP, we will compose roughly 1000 words on how much fun we had at AWP. We will talk about all the old friends we met and the new friends we made. We will not mention anything about that old Pulitzer-winning poet who keeled over drunk at the hotel bar (you know, that one).
“Reinvigorating. Special. Bitterly cold in Boston during the 10-month winter there. Warmed by high-quality literature and free copies of journals at the bookfair.”
10. Something very sincere that will make us feel bad about being cynical
Someone will write a very wonderful blog post sometime during the year (our guess is August) in which they remind us of why we took up this profession in the first place. They will point out how great small magazines, the CLMP, and AWP are. They will say something about wealth being found outside of meager stipends. They will convince us that the NEA’s grant applications are nonsensical for a reason and we should give it the benefit of the doubt. It’s possible they will force us to look deep into our hardened, blackened souls and admit that working for a wonderful literary magazine is pretty much better than what 7.3 billion other people get to do when they wake up every morning. We will probably punch this person in the snoot.
Happy New Year!
Brushing Up On Non-Writing Skills
Last week Sarah Handelman, a former intern who is in working as a freelance designer in London, emailed me a blog posting about an exhibit at Mayor Gallery of 44 of Sylvia Plath’s pen and ink drawings. Many of these detailed images of farm animals and house pets, ordinary objects such as women’s shoes, an umbrella and a Chianti bottle, and scenes of small town life have been included in biographies and the afterwards of her novel The Bell Jar but I have never seen them assembled as a collection. More than her poetry, her sketches show a love for the simple and homey. There’s nothing dark and disturbing here.
Like Plath, many artists are adept at more than one medium. This is true of the authors collected in The Writer’s Brush: Painting, Drawings, and Sculpture by Writers by Donald Freidman. The dust jacket features one of Plath’s cubist inspired paintings, “Two Reading Women,” which shows a sophisticated use of color, texture and perspective that’s not apparent in her quaint, rather straightforward sketches.
The coffee-table sized book is full of surprises. Faulkner’s artwork couldn’t be more at odds with his much-admired dark, lyric novels about the South. Influenced by the Art Nouveau style of popular illustrators such as Aubrey Beardsley and John Held, Faulkner produced handmade, illustrated books as gifts. He often took as his subjects the flappers and their beaus and set them against the backdrop of parties and social clubs. If Sherwood Anderson had not suggested that he write a novel, he might have tried to make a career of illustrating for fashion magazines.
Another favorite is E.E. Cummings, who studied art in Paris, hung out with Picasso, and published a collection of ninety-nine drawings and paintings. The pieces featured in The Writer’s Brush show a whimsical, gestural, colorful style. He never struggled to reconcile his desire to both write and paint, believing that the function of all the arts is “the expression of that supreme aliveness which is known as ‘beauty.’”
Kris Somerville is the marketing coordinator of The Missouri Review