I recently began reading Frederick R. Karl’s biography of Faulkner and was thus moved to revisit some short stories I hadn’t looked at in decades. The frontispiece of the Big Woods collection from my little neighborhood library appears above. The publishing date is 1955, and judging from the juvenile-style illustration–kindly bruin towering over gentle woods and ant-like humans–the book must have been marketed as adolescent fiction. It’s the kind of picture adults used to think would attract kids and that kids spotted as illustrations of things parents wanted them to read so generally stayed away from. I trust a good many young people got past all that in the last fifty years.
These stories are bound by theme, characters, geography, and chronology. The most famous of them is “The Bear,” though it’s not chronologically the first in the series of events. The story has been heavily anthologized because it’s a coming-of-age piece as well as a bridge between primitive and modern worlds. We’re in the company of a young boy (Isaac McCaslin) whose job is to shoot an animal and to love the animal he kills and to be bathed–or at least marked by–the blood of his prey as an initiation into the male adult world. But it’s a world that is disappearing as surely as the indigenous folks who previously did this sort of thing with stones and arrows. Much of Faulkner is, after all, about the destruction of Eden, and if he were writing today, you might find him writing Greenpeace ads. You don’t think so? Bet you never thought Bob Dylan would sell out to Victoria’s Secret either. Kidding aside, Greenpeace would be missing the point, for Faulkner’s Eden is not a place of innocence. Here are some of the boy’s words as an old man:
God created man and He created the world for him to live in. . .I reckon He foreknew man would follow and kill the game. . . I reckon he foresaw the end. But He said I will give him his chance. I will give him warning and foreknowledge too, along with the desire to follow and the power to slay. The woods and the fields he ravages and the game he devastates will be the consequence and signature of his crime and guilt and his punishment.
And still later:
No wonder the ruined woods I used to know don’t cry for retribution. The very people who destroyed them will accomplish their revenge.
It is our nature, not the natural world, that makes marauders of us.
This pantheistic version of original sin is a theme that’s always fascinated me. However, the element in this reading of “The Bear” which I hadn’t seen before was one of plot structure. Perhaps the result of the many writing workshops, classes, and authoring efforts I’ve participated in between.
We are set up to participate in the killing of Big Ben, a titanic bruin so elusive that he has evaded hunters for decades, even leaving two toes of one paw in a trap at one point in his long life. Each November, a group of men goes to Major de Spain’s hunting camp to kill and consume game of various sorts, but primarily to pursue Ben. We wait and hope for the boy to become the destroyer of this avatar of primal terror, and Faulkner strings out the suspense through years of unsuccessful hunts. We finally do to see the bear killed, but the boy is only a spectator like the rest of us. Ben’s conquerors are a huge dog called Lion–especially captured and trained for the purpose–and a redneck character named Boon, who rides the bear’s back and stabs him while the dog savages the ursine front, and the final hunt ends without a shot being fired. And this is only the first of several ways in which Faulkner deceives our expectations.
There is no scene depicting the bear’s skinning, stuffing, mounting, or any of the other victory ceremonies. Instead, we hear of the animal’s body being boated across a stream, then he virtually disappears from the story for a while. The focus instead is, first, on grief for Lion, who has been fatally clawed during the struggle and lives only short while with his guts hanging out. And grief as well over Sam Fathers, a Chickasaw/Black man who taught the boy all the woodcraft he knows and who has suffered what must be a stroke (though it’s never given that name) during the course of the hunt.
Much later–years in terms of the tale’s chronology–we learn that Sam and the dog have been buried uncoffined together in unmarked graves known only to the participants and that buried with them is a coal oil can (symbol of the destructive civilization) containing the three-toed paw of Big Ben. The boy-become-man visits the unmarked graves which he finds because of his superior woodcraft but of which there will soon be no history or trace whatever.
In many ways, outlined on paper, this story is a perfect rite-of-passage story, and it’s how I taught it in English classes decades back. I knew boys who looked on hunting in exactly the same way Isaac did. I participated to a certain extent myself, though I was never a good enough shot nor was I enthusiastic enough to pursue it. Nevertheless, the excursions were important bonding experiences. My father had given up deer hunting long before I existed, which meant we went after ducks and pheasants and trout, however many of my contemporaries were were deer hunters who filled their freezers with venison every year, although bear hunts were long done in California. I never knew anyone who was marked by the blood of his first kill, but we would not have regarded such a ceremony as outlandish. Modern teens, I suspect, would find the idea comical or disgusting, and the driver’s license and the R-rated movie are much more important symbols of adulthood than the downed beast. Which makes Faulkner and “The Bear” prophetic in ways that, like the unexpected plotlines, we don’t at first suspect.
The woodcraft that enables the boy to rediscover the multiple graves will die with the boy not because he is so inherently skillful at it, but because there is no longer any need for it. There will be a need for these stories both to preserve history and to satisfy our thirst for legend and myth, but it will no longer be necessary to hunt and track to survive and to support self and family. Driving skill is much more useful for that now. One isn’t born to the woods as the boy’s folks were, one has to seek them out. They, not the cities, are exotic now. So “The Bear” depicts a rite of passage, all right, but a rite of passage from a primitive to a civilized world, albeit the text offers plenty of evidence that civilization will prove at least as savage and primitive as the Big Woods. And it has come to pass as it was foretold: The very people who destroyed [the woods] will accomplish their revenge.