"Jeremiad" in William Faulkner's Big Woods


    In William Faulkner's Big Woods (1955), is there a sense of lamentation over the destruction of earth and nature, and a desire to return to times past, as is found in other "Jeremiads" of American literature?
    It might be more common to examine Go Down, Moses when considering themes such as human beings' ownership and exploitation of the land in Faulkner's works. However, this paper deals with Big Woods because it contains a variety of works, including short stories and a novella written between the 1930s and the 1950s. By considering the "Jeremiad" of Big Woods, it is possible to compare Faulkner's consciousness in the '30s and '40s with that of the mid-'50s. The former is his "private" period, during which he wrote a number of masterpieces. The latter period actually began in 1949, when Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Thereafter, he was a public figure and his remarks received a great deal of mainstream notoriety.
    "Jeremiad" is derived from Jeremiah's lament in the Old Testament. This prophet deplored people's lack of innocence and morality and advocated a return to the devout lifestyle of the past. In American history, a "Jeremiad" was originally a protest against the social and literary movement of New England Puritanism in the 17th century. It relates to Manifest Destiny in North America, the concept that it is God's Will that the settlers move west and tame and populate the wilderness. The "Jeremiad" is also a concept that repeatedly appears in American literature,1 and it is no doubt that Big Woods is a case in point.
    This paper considers Big Woods as a Jeremiad, its component stories unified in their criticism of man's treatment of nature. In addition, most of the short stories, the novella, and interchapters in it were modified from their first published versions. As Ragan points out, this modification is an attempt to unify the whole book. (301-3) Therefore, hereafter we will regard this hunting book as an integrated, unified work despite its characteristics as an anthology.2


    In Big Woods, stories of hunting have been arranged alternately with those of the birth of the land and society of Yoknapatawpha. It is as if a storyteller were telling some sacred tales about the birth and development of a local community or nation through stories of the annual hunt. For example, in the prologue, three interchapters, and the epilogue are some remarkable mythical atmosphere, partly because they are printed in Italics. In addition, the narrative in each of them has the same "Jeremian" characteristics. Since it contains factors we will discuss later, let us begin by considering the prologue.
    In the beginning part of Big Woods, a history of Mississippi is told, and the process of exploitation and problems of land-ownership are addressed. Men, animals, and even the land have been "obsolete" (BW 5)3 on the "[t]he rich deep black alluvial soil"(BW 4). What is worse, "those days were gone, the old brave innocent tumultuous eupeptic tomorrowless days" (BW 6); namely, according to the narrator, nowadays money stimulates land transactions, and law and order rule the land and societies. In this way, as early as the prologue, we discover the narrator's Jeremian lament toward human beings' exploitation and ownership of the land. All the more, this lamentation expands widely in the latter half of the work, namely in the third interchapter, "Race at Morning," and the epilogue.
    Big Woods was published in 1955, and most of the short stories and novella in it were originally published in the '30s-'40s.4 On the other hand, the third interchapter is based on "Mississippi," an essay published in '54; and "Race at Morning" first appeared in '55. Comparing Faulkner's views on destroying the woods, the land, and the whole of nature5 in "The Old People"/"The Bear" with the third interchapter/"Race at Morning" illustrates the subtle differences between the author's views in the 1930s-'40s and the middle of the '50s. These views express his anger toward human beings for neglecting living things and destroying the land and nature as a whole. Although each of them is considered the same from the Jeremian point of view, the lamentation shown in each period denotes different significance.
    Then, before moving on to the main task, we should take a look at the short stories and novella originally published in the '30s and '40s. "A Bear Hunt" is the story of revenge by an African American named Ash; however, the plot is about the inability to stop the hiccups and is for the most part narrated in a humorous tone.
    In "The Old People" and "The Bear," Ike McCaslin's growth as a man is told through the hunting ritual. At the same time, the deforestation of big woods is also described.6 Recounting how an uncivilized land is gradually lost, the narrator shows that Old Ben and the deer are equal to the wilderness and should be treated with respect and compassion. The significance of these animals brings into focus the problems of exploitation and destruction. Moreover, according to the author, Old Ben is a symbol of the untamed land. (Faulkner, LG 115). Therefore, as Evans points out on "The Bear" in Go Down, Moses (189-90), even if the fourth section of "The Bear" was omitted in Big Woods, those two stories still contain "Jeremian" elements in relation to the land and the whole of nature.


    The third and last interchapter of Big Woods discusses an industrial civilization, the market economy, and the land (a grand river). In this interchapter all the other component chapters of the work become unified.
    In this interchapter, many years have passed since the previous chapter, the time is nearly "the present," and Ike has become an old man. Like a storyteller flowingly speaks of mythical tales, referring to the stream of a big river, the narrator tells how the boundary between the woods and plain fields has receded. "The Big Woods, the Big Bottom, the wilderness, vanished now from where he [Ike] had first known it" (BW 170). Previously unexploited woods have been deforested and "themselves being shoved, pushed just as inexorably further and further on" (BW 170). The boundary is retreating deeper and deeper.
    As in the prologue, the "Jeremiad" elements in this interchapter are readily apparent, criticizing the exploitation and "civilization" of the land. The narrator, however, talks about an industrial civilization, the market economy, and the land in a quiet tone except for Ike's soliloquy in the last two pages. Furthermore, the flood of the grand river surpassing and expelling the modern civilization symbolizes the indomitable force of life. It is "hope, renewal, and regeneration" (Willingham 44) of the land and nature as a whole. At the end of his soliloquy, the narrator says, "Oh yes, he [Ike] would think; me too. I've been too busy all my life trying not to waste any living, to have time left to die" (BW 171). From the context of this interchapter, it is difficult to say that he grieves and gets enraged at the present situation. He is expressing his hope, and his feeling of hope allows us to recognize Faulkner's changes of consciousness as we will discuss in the next section.


    "Race at Morning" was published in '55, and the following epilogue was originally from "Delta Autumn," which was partly rewritten in '54-'55 when Big Woods was published. The time when they were re/written and the place where they were arranged in the text clearly reveal the consequence of the author's changes of consciousness from the '30s to the '50s.
    In the prologue of Big Woods, the process of the birth and development of Mississippi is recounted. "Race at Morning" is a story on the same land in the present day. As a scholar pointed out, an uneducated boy, who is the narrator, and the aged Ike, who was an offspring of a Southern aristocrat, are juxtaposed (Koyama 334-35). This juxtaposition and contrast of these two characters is considered to represent that of "Race at Morning" and "The Bear"/"The Old People." A good example of this fact is that the discussion on "school" for the boy in "Race at Morning" parallels Ike in "The Bear."
    Ike, who was a boy years ago, has already become an old man in the third interchapter. Although the spirit of hunters has declined as years have passed, the hunting itself is the same sacred ritual as in the old days. For instance, in "Race at Morning" Mister Ernest removes the bullets from his rifle when chasing a buck; accordingly, he cannot shoot the buck even if it is in front of him, thus allowing it to escape. The boy explains this in his own view as follows:
. . . [W]hat we had all three spent this morning doing was no play-acting jest for fun, but was serious, and all three of us was still what we was--that old buck that had to run . . . because running was what he done the best and was proudest at; and Eagle and the dogs that chased him c because that was the thing they done the best and was proudest at; and me and Mister Ernest and Dan, they run him . . . because now we could go back and work hard for eleven months making a crop . . . all three of us going back home now, peaceful and separate . . . until next year, next time. (BW 188)
    It is evident that hunting was an important and common ritual when Ike was a boy. Although half a century has passed since then, and although the big woods are no longer profound and magnificent, some hunters have not lost the spirit of sympathizing and sacralizing animals they hunt.
    Still, comparing "school" with the woods, the author inserts the following dialogue between the boy and Mister Ernest. It suggests the importance of school education; in other words, now it is tough to live only with the knowledge learned from hunting.
"Now just to belong to the farming business and the hunting business ain't enough. You [the boy] got to belong to the business of mankind."
"Mankind?" I said.
"Yes," Mister Ernest said. "So you're going to school. . . . You got to know why it's right and why it's wrong, and be able to tell the folks that never had no chance to learn it; teach them how to do what's right . . ." (BW 196).
    In "The Bear" in Go Down, Moses, by repudiating his expectations and the land, Ike tries to compensate for, or to escape from, his ancestors' and human beings' guilt. In "Race at Morning," however, instead of repudiating, the author alludes to the significance of teaching and directing people who are lacking in morality and conscience.
    Moreover, it is noteworthy that Faulkner wrote a short story like "Race at Morning" in 1955. The narrator tells the story happily and optimistically, referring frequently to the fair weather before and on the morning of the hunting day. As in the third interchapter, in this short story the narrator is obviously talking in a different tone from the others in Big Woods. From this interchapter on, the idea of "Jeremiad" flowing at the base of this work changes from lamenting the present situation to positively accepting it.


    Then, does Faulkner affirmatively grasp the relationship between the land, human beings, and the whole of nature? To answer this question, let us examine the epilogue, the last part of Big Woods.
    As mentioned before, the epilogue was re/written from "Delta Autumn," which was published in '42. When he published Big Woods, the author changed "[t]he people" to "[t]he very people" at the end of the epilogue in order to clarify that human beings are to be punished. The new sentence is "[t]his land, said the old hunter [Ike]. No wonder the ruined woods I used to know don't cry for retribution. The very people who destroyed them will accomplish the revenge" (BW 112; emphasis added). There is no doubt that Faulkner had a stronger critical mind toward human beings' sin for destroying the woods, the land, and nature, when publishing Big Woods.
    Nevertheless, partly because of the influence of the narrative in "Race at Morning," when considering the epilogue in the context of the whole book, we cannot say the narrative in the epilogue is as painful as in "Delta Autumn" in Go Down, Moses. Ike is afflicted by the idea that he did not raise Roth to be with a heart having compassion for the games of hunting. In the context of a grand story as Big Woods, however, Ike's grief in the epilogue is different from the incurable regret and lament being told in "Delta Autumn."
    The story of "Race at Morning" being placed just before the epilogue is told by the boy's uncultured but cheerful narrative. The existence of Mister Ernest shows the boy and us a woodsman's new consciousness and new attitude toward life. Some leading hunters in "Race at Morning" still carry out Ike's resolution as "I slew you; my bearing must not shame your quitting life. My conduct forever afterward must become your death" (BW 207).
    The epilogue is a section indicating sin and punishment for what human beings have done to the land and nature as a whole. When examining this section within the context of Big Woods, nevertheless, we also perceive a hope and salvation toward a coming age in the text. In the epilogue, the Jeremian idea flowing under Big Woods has just changed from one of anguish to one of salvation including hope.


    So far, noticing "Jeremiah," we have observed the evolution of Faulkner's consciousness from the '30s to the middle of the '50s. Then what is it that underlies Ike's and/or the author's mind?
    In Big Woods, Faulkner has indicated the significance of returning to nature and reviving, or creating, a community that involves the land, human beings, animals, plants, and all other things. Moreover, from a Christian point of view, the idea of coexistence with nature and the revival, or the creation, of a community imply God's punishments. That is, if we violate a contract, we should suffer from an intolerable burden. The "Jeremiad" being discussed in this paper is in accordance with this way of thinking. Ike exclaims his anguish over the destruction of nature in the epilogue. His cry, which also denotes hope, specifies human beings' sin and punishment that are to be suffered. This is the Jeremian lament itself.7
    According to Bercovitch, the idea of salvation was added to the concept of "Jeremiad" in New England in the late seventeenth century. The "salvation" being noted here means as follows: A person not observing his/her contract with God must suffer a strict punishment, but if enduring a life of diligence, he/she will be ultimately led to a righteous life. In other words, we would prevail if we lived everyday diligently enduring the present situation God has given to us. This "Jeremiad" includes purification and appreciation and it is on the people's side. (Bercovitch 85-92)
    Big Woods is a work which involves Faulkner's views toward nature and human beings as contrasted from the '30s/'40s to the '50s/& later. So far as this work is concerned, his stories have a factor of salvation, especially in the '50s. Ike's and the narrators' affiliation in all these works is the same as "Jeremiad"; nonetheless, their affiliation or lamentation also denotes an idea of salvation particularly in stories written in the middle of the '50s.
    Hence, the basis of Big Woods is the Jeremian idea of salvation and the hope of reviving, or creating, a community. These characteristics have a tight linkage with Faulkner's literary style in the '50s.

Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949 and the National Book Award for Fiction in 1955. At speeches he liked to say that we will prevail someday if we will endure, and if we are not afraid of failure. (Faulkner, "NBA" 143-45; "NP" 119-21) It is obvious this thought reflects on Big Woods published in '55, and, as we have seen, it is represented as hope and salvation in the work.
Considered through the concept of "Jeremiad," Faulkner's fear and regret toward the land and nature are distinctly presented in Big Woods. They consequently give birth to humility and compassion. Stories are enfolded with mythical narratives, and some of them are tightly linked with a factor of salvation. Although it is often treated as an anthology to earn money, Big Woods is a significant work to scrutinize Faulkner's views and style from the '30s to the '50s and later.


1On "Jeremiad" I have referred to Emory Elliott's opinion in The Cambridge History of American Literature, Vol. One: 1590-1820, as can be seen in following quotations:
Taking their texts from Jeremiah and Isaiah, these orations [now called Puritan jeremiads] followed--and reinscribed--a rhetorical formula that included recalling the courage and piety of the founders, lamenting recent and present ills, and crying out for a return to the original conduct and zeal. (CHAL 1: 257)

[I]dealism and dreams of success followed years later by feelings of disillusionment, loss, and disappointment, especially with complacent children--thereby keeping the jeremiad resonant within the American imagination. (CHAL 1: 263)

Moby-Dick, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Life in the Iron Mills, Walden, The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, Gravity's Rainbow--these works and many others have all been called jeremiads because they seem to call for a return to a former innocence and moral strength that has been lost. (CHAL 1: 263)

2Short stories and a novella included in Big Woods are "The Bear," "The Old People," "A Bear Hunt," and "Race at Morning" in the order printed. Before and after them, the prologue, three interchapters, and the epilogue are arranged and were originally published as different materials. That is: the prologue (from Requiem for a Nun) / "The Bear" 1942 / the first interchapter (from "Red Leaves") / "The Old People" 1940 / the second interchapter (from "Justice") / "A Bear Hunt" 1934 / the third interchapter (from "Mississippi") / "Race at Morning" 1955 / the epilogue (from "Delta Autumn").
3 All further references to this work appear with an abbreviation of the title in parentheses in the text.
4 "A Bear Hunt" 1934; "The Old People" 1940; "The Bear" 1942.
5 The phrases "the whole of nature" and "nature as a whole" is used to include all the things on the earth such as human beings, plants, animals, rocks, water, air, and so on.
6 In "The Bear" in Go Down, Moses, problems as miscegenation, incest, and landownership are also involved.
7 However, we should be careful interpreting Ike as Jesus in "The Bear" in Big Woods. As I have pointed out, the fourth section of "The Bear" in Go Down, Moses is omitted in Big Woods; accordingly, it is difficult to compare Ike to Jesus Christ as in Go Down, Moses. Moreover, as for Jeremian lament, there remains a principal question as "Who laments?" It never is Ike in Big Woods. Other narrators and the external, third-person narrator tell stories in most of the work. Thus it is likely that a person who laments is not Ike but the external, third-person narrator and the author who narrated the whole work.


Bercovitch, Sacvan. The American Jeremiad. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1978.
Elliott, Emory. "The Jeremiad." The Cambridge History of American Literature, Vol. One: 1590-1820. Ed. Sacvan Bercovitch. Cambridge UP, 1994.
Evans, David H. "Taking the Place of Nature: 'The Bear' and the Incarnation of America." Faulkner and the Natural World: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha, 1996. Ed. Donald M. Kartiganer and Ann J. Abadie. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1999.
Faulkner, William. "Address upon Receiving the National Book Award for Fiction, 1955." Essays, Speeches and Public Letters. Ed. James B. Meriwether. 1965. 143-45.
-----. Big Woods. New York: Random House, 1955.
-----. Go Down, Moses. New York: Random House, 1942.
-----. Lion in the Garden: Interviews with William Faulkner, 1926-1962. Ed. James B. Meriwether and Michael Millgate. New York: Random House, 1968. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1980.
-----. "Upon Receiving the Novel Prize for Literature, 1950." Essays, Speeches and Public Letters. 119-21.
Koyama, Toshio. Uiriamu Fohkunah no tanpen no sekai. Kyoto: Yamaguchi, 1988.
Ragan, David Paul. "'Belonging to the Business of Mankind': The Achievement of Faulkner's Big Woods." Mississippi Quarterly 36 (1983): 301-17.
Willingham, Cathy G. "Big Woods." A William Faulkner Encyclopedia. Ed. Robert W. Hamblin and Charles A. Peek. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1999.

Copyright (c)2001 Morioka Takashi