Monday, July 31, 2006

Images of Property in Faulkner's The Bear

Al's discussion of Images of Property in American and Hawaiian Landscape Art a while back reminded me of one of my favorite images of property in American literature, the conversation between Ike and McCaslin that begins Chapter IV of William Faulkner's The Bear.  The entire novella is full of property images and issues, but in this passage the characters are discussing the legitimacy of their family's ownership of its land and the legitimacy of the concept of ownership itself:

He [Ike] could say it, himself and his cousin [McCaslin] juxtaposed not against the wilderness but against the tamed land which was to have been his heritage, the land which old Carothers McCaslin, his grandfather, had bought with white man's money from the wild men whose grandfathers without guns hunted it, and tamed and ordered, or believed he had tamed and ordered it, for the reason that the human beings he held in bondage and in the power of life and death had removed the forest from it and in their sweat scratched the surface of it to a depth of perhaps fourteen inches in order to grow something out of it which had not been there before, and which could be translated back into the money he who believed he had bought it had had to pay to get it and hold it, and a reasonable profit too: and for which reason old Carothers McCaslin, knowing better, could raise his children, his descendants and heirs, to believe the land was his to hold and bequeath, since the strong ruthless man has a foreknowledge of his own vanity and pride and strength and contempt for all his get:  just as, knowing better, Major de Spain had his fragment of that wilderness which was bigger and older than any recorded deed:  just as, knowing better, old Thomas Sutpen, from whom Major de Spain had had his fragment of money:  just as Ikkemotubbe, the Chickasaw chief, from whom Thomas Sutpen had had the fragment for money or rum or whatever it was, knew in his turn that not even a fragment of it had been his to relinquish or sell . . .

"Relinquish," McCaslin said.  "Relinquish.  You, the direct male descendant of him who saw the opportunity and took it, bought the land, took the land, got the land no matter how, held it to bequeath, no matter how, out of the old grant, the first patent, when it was a wilderness of wild beasts and wilder men, and cleared it, translated it into something to bequeath to his children, worthy of bequeathment for his descendants' ease and security and pride, and to perpetuate his name and accomplishments. . . ."

"I can't repudiate it.  It was never mine to repudiate.  It was never Father's and Uncle Buddy's to bequeath me to repudiate, because it was never Grandfather's to bequeath them to bequeath me to repudiate, because it was never old Ikkemotubbe's to sell to Grandfather for bequeathment and repudiation.  Because it was never Ikkemotubbe's fathers' fathers' to bequeath Ikkemotubbe to sell to Grandfather or any man because the instant when Ikkemotubbe discovered, realized, that he could sell it for money, on that instant it ceased ever to have been his forever, father to father to father, and the man who bought it bought nothing."

"Bought nothing?" . . .

"Bought nothing.  Because He told in the Book how he created the earth, made it and looked at it and said it was all right, and then He made man.  He made the earth first and peopled it with dumb creatures, and then He created man to be His overseer on the earth and to hold suzerainty over the earth and the animals on it in His name, not to hold for himself and his descendants inviolable title forever, generation after generation, to the oblongs and squares of the earth, but to hold the earth mutual and intact in the communal anonymity of brotherhood, and all the fee He asked was pity and humility and sufferance and endurance and the sweat of his face for bread."

There's a tremendous amount of property theory in just this short passage.  The first few lines remind me of, among other things, the issues raised by Johnson v. M'Intosh.  The expression of utter contempt for the Lockean view that labor, particularly the labor of slaves, could establish title to land by "scratch[ing] the surface of it to a depth of perhaps fourteen inches" is very powerful.  The rest of the passage questions the very idea of title and of the ability of someone with questionable title to pass ownership to another person.

I've been looking around for an analysis of the property issues in Faulkner's work but haven't found anything.  Perhaps it would be a good note topic for a student with a literary bent.

If you have favorite images of property in literature or art, please leave a comment.

Ben Barros

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Ah, Ben, great post. Property in literature--one great place to start is Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Posted by: Al | Aug 1, 2006 7:53:24 AM

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