Thadious M. Davis
Games of Property: Law, Race, Gender, and Faulkner's Go Down, Moses

Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2003. xi + 339 pp.

Mary A. Knighton

     Produced in the context of war and tightened economic and political pressures in the wake of the Depression and New Deal shifts in the U.S., Faulkner's Go Down, Moses (1942) drew little attention. At the time, a southern white male writing about race relations in an elusive stylized manner was hardly progressive; rather, Richard Wright's Native Son (1940) spoke more cogently to the urgent issues of contemporary racism and Jim Crow segregation than did Faulkner's fiction, as Thadious M. Davis, Professor of English at Vanderbilt University and prominent Faulkner and African American literary scholar, astutely reminds us in Games of Property: Law, Race, Gender, and Faulkner's Go Down, Moses (2003). Mixed appraisal of this novel also has stemmed from its "loose" composition: chapters were published first as stories and in variant forms; the book's original title suggested it was conceived as a story collection; its subject matter and organization defy cohesiveness; and, finally, its generic classification -- a novel ("unified")? short stories ("discrete" tales)? a story sequence ("fragmented whole")? -- remains contentious. Davis's Introduction, entitled "The Game of Genre," confronts head on this "law of genre" (in Derrida's words), deliberately breaking that law to transgress into the "extratextual" domain of legal discourse. For Davis, an African American woman, literary critic, and feminist scholar, what might be her "investment" in crossing such boundaries and writing a critical study of law, race, gender and property in Go Down, Moses?
     Fortunately, we need not speculate about this as Davis herself acutely probes these questions throughout her study. After an Introduction and four chapters alternating between games and property as titular foci of analysis, she concludes her book with "The Game of Compensation," a moving and formidable testimony of her personal commitment to critical race methodologies. She argues for reading legal, moral, and social "codes" in Faulkner in order to rethink "whiteness" and "blackness" as legal and cultural constructs in the U.S that shape in turn gender, privilege, disenfranchisement, and reparations politics. Davis chooses Faulkner's Go Down, Moses because the novel emphasizes property in persons and things and also spans 19th and 20th century contexts before and after slavery when key legal decisions such as Dred Scott (1857) and Plessy (1896) engaged with, or contradicted, individual state laws and Black Codes that strikingly defined race and property in terms of one another. For instance, not repealed until 1975, "The Mississippi Plan" of 1890 erected a caste system in place of slavery in defiance of federal law in Plessy v. Ferguson, refusing to recognize the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution as well (33-34). Precisely because Go Down, Moses is a troublesome "hybrid" and "miscegenated" (11) text self-reflexive in content of its structural qualities -- it demonstrates Faulkner's white, masculine, and authorial "will" vested with the power of "naming" and "property" exercised over a text about "miscegenation" -- does Go Down, Moses tell a story as much historical and biographical as fictional; that is, in Davis's formulation, the novel is as much about Faulkner's Mississippi, his family, life, and times, as that of the fiction's characters from the 1830s to 1940s.
     Davis analyzes legal cases (usually in Mississippi, but often in North Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia as well) involving, for instance, white owners' legal wills, tracking how they treated their slaves and shadow family members in terms of rights, succession, and inheritance. She draws upon critical race theory by Cheryl Harris, Patricia J. Williams, and Ian Haney-Lopez to expose rhetorical manipulations of "property" relations to create citizenship, rights, and individualism itself as "possessions" of whiteness. Although Davis intends to read the legal will (old Carothers's ledgers) in Faulkner's novel as illuminated by the real history of slavery and property relations evident in U.S. legal texts, at times, Faulkner's fictional text appears rather to animate history for Davis. While the lines between fiction and history or fiction and biography are occasionally blurred, Davis does so intentionally if not always unproblematically: The stories behind the legal cases Davis researches reveal that not even Faulkner's fiction is stranger than fact; in a sense, Davis de-gothicizes Faulkner in the process of reading his fiction literally as history, against history. The commissary ledgers that inscribe old Carothers's "will" as legacy and as directive to his white descendents, a text that records black-white relations in the economic language of debits/credits, expenses/income, property in persons and in things, culminate in the interpolated story of old Carother's purchase and rape of the slave woman Eunice, and Eunice's suicide upon Carother's subsequent rape and incest of their own daughter, Tomasina. Tomasina gives birth to Tomey's Terrel, the son who begins Go Down, Moses in "Was" as the object of a slapstick foxhunt. In Davis's creative and persuasive interpretation, however, Tomey's Terrel reverses the terms of the hunt by asserting his own "rightedness" to freedom, mobility, and marriage. That Tomey's Terrel serves as the dealer in the card game for the marriage of Sophonsiba Beauchamp to Uncle Buck, the union that will result in Ike McCaslin, is also no accident: it is a representation of Tomey's Terrel's manipulation of the game, the one who deals the cards from the shadows and exercises his agency in subversive trickster ways throughout the novel. For Davis, Tomey's Terrel inaugurates a "trickster" trope and spectral presence developed and played in and out of the novel by his black family and even by "horizontal kin" (in Hortense Spillers's sense) such as Rider in "Pantaloon in Black."
     Even Ike McCaslin's renunciation of his patrimony and property as a result of shame at the sins of his fathers does not rid him of his responsibility to his black family nor atone for his grandfather's actions; on the contrary, he merely carries on, despite himself, the ideological legacy of white supremacy held by his grandfather Carothers McCaslin because he is unable to see blacks as fully human and equal to whites. By the end of Games of Property, Davis has reminded us of Joel Williamson's revelations of Colonel Falkner's black shadow family; noted Faulkner's maternal grandfather Charles E. Butler's having run away with an octoroon in an incident she parallels with Hubert Beauchamp's black mistress; and turned to Judith Sensibar's scholarship to explore further Faulkner's proprietary grief and racial shame towards his "Mammy," Caroline Barr, to whom Go Down, Moses is dedicated and who had died in 1940 as Faulkner was arranging and revising the stories into the final novel. These examples from Faulkner's family, together with evidence of Faulkner's increasing financial debts and struggle in the late 1930s and 1940s to live a "propertied" life in accordance with his estimation of his race and status as a white southern male, bolster Davis's argument of Faulkner's psychological projection into Go Down, Moses of his own ideological preoccupations with property as a matter of race relations. Concluding her book with pessimism for the success of reparations movements in the U.S., Davis nonetheless embraces the direction in which legal, cultural, and literary scholars are moving to bring legal texts, oral stories, and creative expression together better to compensate for the failed education of Americans about the complexities of slavery and its continuing legacy today. The Jefferson-Hemings "controversy" demonstrates the failures of disciplinary historiography and education (256).
     Davis eschews "close reading" or thematic analysis of passages and instead uses the novel as a kind of heuristic tool for, ironically, more coherently reading legal history as well as Faulkner's aims and ideology in writing this particular novel when he did. Theories and legal history of property dominate Davis's analysis overall, despite chapter titles that give equal weight to "games"; after Chapter 1, she less vigorously examines masculine rituals of gaming, sports, and gambling. Still, Davis insightfully establishes "play" as something done "for keeps" while locating the trickster trope of Tomey's Terrel and his African American family at the center of a novel usually read as the white McCaslin-Edmonds's story. In effect, Davis's critical move in Faulkner studies is analogous to that of Toni Morrison in American literary studies with Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992); indeed, Davis self-consciously calls for, and demonstrates, a new critical race theory approach to Faulkner's work, a reading of "whiteness" marked, dependent upon, and relative to blackness, rather than the other way round. The degree to which Faulkner read and understood as wide array of historical case law regarding property and race relations as Davis presents is difficult to assess but few would claim Faulkner knew or cared nothing about the law after Jay Watson's Forensic Fictions (1993). The question then becomes to what extent Faulkner "absorbed" the white ideology of possessive individualism and property in whiteness in order so accurately to "reflect" Davis's research in his fiction. While some readers will resist Davis's methods of putting the briefly appearing character of Tomey's Terrel at the center of Faulkner's novel or her interpreting his fictional text by "extratextual" means, few will deny her work as a fascinating methodological case study of interdisciplinary work in literature and law, one serving as a useful index to critical issues in American and Faulkner studies as well.

Copyright (c)2005 Mary A. Knighton