According to Southern superstition, particularly that of rural African Americans, people with blue-tinged gums are devilish beings who can kill others with their poisonous bite. Though this belief originates in voodoo lore, it also has a medical explanation: in cases of bismuth poisoning, a blue-black deposit known as a bismuth line builds up on the gums.
The Virginia Opossum, the only species to be found in North America, is a common denizen of rural areas. Not known for its attractiveness, Captain John Smith in his Description of Virginia (1612) painted it thus: “An Opossum hath a head like a Swine, & a taile like a Rat, and is of the Bignes of a Cat. Under her belly, she hath a bagge, wherein she lodgeth, carrieth and sucketh her young.”
Opossums have long been hunted by the poor for their flesh and fur. They are not difficult to kill as any threat sends these skittish creatures into an involuntary state of paralysis (hence the phrase ‘to play possum’). As regards their flavour, John Lawson, a traveller to the Carolinas in the early 1700s, reported that they tasted like a cross between “young Pork and Veal”, though they have never been a popular repast amongst those able to afford other meat. Their fur, however, was a fashionable material for shawls and scarves during the early 20th century.
Based on an association between ‘feeble-mindedness’ and a parcel of other traits allegedly abundant amongst the ‘defective’ classes, eugenicists’ attempts to curtail the reproductive freedoms of the mentally ill and ‘subnormal’ were gaining ground across the US. Mississippi joined those states, enacting compulsory sterilization for the mentally ill and mentally retarded, in 1928. However, the castration of ‘idiots’ was by no means legally sanctioned.
In the American South, castration was typically used as a punishment for blacks accused of rape or attempted rape, as well as a means of taming animals. Benjy’s treatment highlights the ugly trend in dominant white ideology of defining all who did not conform to its own image according to a clustering of supposedly linked characteristics: blackness, sexual rapacity, animality, uncontrolled instinct and intellectual inferiority.
This is a contraction of Reductio ad absurdum (reduction to the absurd). It refers to the disproval of a proposition by demonstrating that if one logically follows through all its implications, you end up at an absurd conclusion.
Saint Francis of Assisi (1181/2-1226) is one of history’s most venerated religious figures. Rejecting worldly concerns, he preached on the streets and amassed a large following that was later established as the Franciscan Order. He also founded the Order of St Clare and the Third Order of Brothers and Sisters of Penance. On his deathbed, he sang The Canticle of the Sun, a religious song which he had composed himself. The reference to Sister Death comes in the final verse:
Be praised, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whose embrace no living person can escape. Woe to those who die in mortal sin! Happy those she finds doing your most holy will. The second death can do no harm to them. Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks, and serve him with great humility.
New London is a seaport city in Connecticut. The annual Harvard-Yale Regatta takes place along a four mile stretch of the Thames River (named after the English location of the Oxford-Cambridge race). The race was first contested in 1852. Harvard had thus far won 23 races to Yale’s 25. Though he would not be there to see it, Quentin’s university would triumph in the race that took place on 30th June, 1910, 28 days from the narrative present.
June is held to be the ‘month of brides’ for reasons both superstitious and practical. With regard to the former, the month takes its name from Juno, the Roman goddess of marriage, and was thought to be particularly auspicious for that reason. More prosaically, marriage was the step one was expected to take after graduation from high school and many wasted little time in this regard.
In flower lore, roses represent June. Like the month itself, they are associated with love, marriage and, as Quentin suggests, carnality. This last draws on a long tradition that has likened the rose to the female genitals, from Guillaume de Loris and Jean de Meun’s Roman de la Rose (13th cent.) to the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe.
Dogwood, meanwhile, is associated with the divine: Christian tradition holds that its wood was used to make the cross on which Jesus was crucified. Christ was, of course, the fruit of an immaculate conception, hence Quentin’s association of the flower with virginity. It comes in various colours, and its white form is often planted in churchyards to symbolize purity. Milkweed — whose name derives from the sticky white sap its petals emit when broken — denotes innocence.
Incest is one of Faulkner’s great fascinations. He explores it in so many of his works that, when he was nominated for the Nobel Prize, the New York Times felt it necessary to assure its overseas readers that “Incest and rape may be common pastimes in Faulkner's ‘Jefferson, Miss.’ but they are not elsewhere in the United States”.
Endless derogatory jokes circulate about the supposed popularity of incest in Mississippi but Faulkner’s interest in the subject is psychological rather than anthropological. Taking his cue from Freud, whose theory of the Oedipal complex posits that personal and moral development hinges on a reaction to an immature sexual desire for the opposite sex parent, he constructs incest as an alternative original sin embedded as a primal scar in the human psyche. The urge for endogamous union also serves as a symbol for the dead end which the traditional culture of the Old South has reached.
Established in 1636, Harvard is the oldest university in the United States. A private Ivy League institution, its wealth, history and prestige have made it one of the most famous educational establishments in the world. It is located in Harvard Yard in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and its main campus covers some 210 acres. Amongst its impressive roll-call of alumni are presidents John F. Kennedy, Theodore Roosevelt and Barack Obama; poets Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot and E. E. Cummings; and Nobel Prize winners George Minot, Henry Kissinger and James Tobin.
Appleton Chapel was built in 1858 and was the centre of Harvard’s religious life until 1932. Attendance at the 8.45am Morning Prayer was not mandatory: a controversial ruling in 1886 declared that worship should be seen as a privilege rather than an obligation. Turnouts went into a predictable decline after this point, and the chapel was replaced by the current Memorial Church which could better accommodate fluctuating numbers. The portion reserved for morning worship retains the name of Appleton Chapel.
Despite Harvard’s current reputation for liberal and progressive attitudes, homophobia reigned on campus during the early years of the 20th century. Letters sent between students in the early part of the 20th century attest to clandestine relationships and sexual encounters, but these remained invisible to the authorities until the suicide of gay student Cyril Wilcox in 1920. Following his death, the university implemented a Secret Court to investigate homosexuality. After interrogating dozens of students, the court found a pervasive culture of ‘homosexualism’ and, in a bid to purge that element which threatened to muddy the moral waters of the entire establishment, excluded ten students not only from Harvard but from the whole of Cambridge. Two of these men committed suicide following the verdicts. Re-enactments of the students’ testimonies can be viewed here.
In the northern states, male virginity prior to marriage was considered the ideal state, the hallmark of a gentleman. In the more overtly patriarchal South, where masculine identity was bound up with principles of strength and dominance, it was considered a deficiency. To repress sexual desire was to go against nature and would lead to that most undesirable condition, effeminacy. Furthermore, unpractised husbands were thought likely to fail in satisfying their brides, and thereby their duty as men, on the wedding night.
The brides themselves, of course, were expected to be virgins. This created a dilemma for the men, who had to derive their pre-marital experience from somewhere. The result was a binary system of stereotypes played out along predictable Madonna-whore lines. Women with whom one slept were “the dirty little sluts” to which Shreve refers. Their sexuality was seen less as an element of their own identities and more as a function of the man’s: by using them as an outlet for his own ‘animal’ urges, he was able to justify a paradigm which construed them as ‘base’ and which, by dint of contrast, further elevated the class of woman towards which his marital ambitions tended.
Lying on America’s east coast, South Carolina is bordered by North Carolina to the north and Georgia to the south. It comprises 46 counties and its capital is Columbia. A former Confederate state in the Deep South’s cotton belt, it is culturally similar to Quentin’s native Mississippi. The state’s population in 1910 was 1,515,400.
Final clubs are social clubs open to Harvard undergraduates in the senior year. Although all-female clubs have been introduced in recent times, in 1910 only male clubs existed. These were the A.D., the Owl, the Delphic, the Fly, the Fox, the Phoenix-SK, the Porcellian and the Spee, all of which still operate today. These highly exclusive organisations elect their members on the basis of their social standing, family background and savoir-faire. New members are required to go through an initiation ceremony which, despite the emphasis on social graces, often turns into a drunken brawl. Each club has its own clubhouse featuring a dining hall, library, bar and games room.
According to Christian doctrine, the day of resurrection takes place before the Last Judgement in which God is to decree each person’s ultimate fate, consigning him or her to eternal salvation or eternal punishment. That Quentin does not envision himself ascending heavenwards reflects both the influence of his father’s atheism and a desire for the perverse, all-effacing gratification of damnation.
The Saint Louis World Fair is a popular name for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition which took place in 1904. Celebrating the centenary of the Louisiana Purchase, the fair introduced the public to a dazzling array of novelties, from architecture to food to ‘exotic’ people from newly-acquired territories.
The Louisiana Purchase Exposition Official Program:
A reference to the Scottish author and reformer Samuel Smiles, who writes in Self-Help (1859), "A man may usually be known by the books he reads as well as by the company he keeps; for there is a companionship of books as well as of men; and one should always live in the best company, whether it be of books or men".
The Voice that Breathed o’er Eden is a hymn written by John Keble in 1857. A tribute to the divine nature of marriage, it was sardonically described in Fraser’s magazine as “the stock hymn at all respectable Church weddings”, and appears to have been Caddy’s choice for her union with Sydney Herbert Head.
The Square students were those who occupied the opulent dormitories that sprang up to accommodate the university’s mushrooming numbers around the turn of the century. Whilst the existing accommodation in Harvard Yard had nothing by the way of running water, steam heat, electricity or indoor bathrooms, the Square dormitories boasted not only these but luxuries including swimming pools, room-service, gymnasiums and squash courts. Naturally, those able to live there were the wealthy elite. Quentin and Shreve, as Yard residents, are highly conscious of the social divide.
Decoration Day originated amongst black and northern white citizens to honour the Union soldiers who had died during the Civil War (see note for page 89). Small cities and towns across the country hosted large military-style parades with marching bands and army vehicles. Decoration Day was officially renamed Memorial Day in 1967, with both Union and Confederate casualties being mourned.
The Great Army of the Republic was a fraternal body composed of those who had fought on the side of the Union during the Civil War. In addition to around 2,000,000 white Americans, foreign nationals and immigrants, some 210,000 African American soldiers fought against the Confederate states. Organized as the United States Colored Troops, they comprised both northern freedmen and southern ex-slaves. The efforts of the USCT did much to enhance recognition of African American citizens in the North.
Columbus Day celebrations do not actually fall on the explorer’s birthday, the exact date of which is unknown (between 22nd August and 31st October, 1451). Rather, they take place on the anniversary of his arrival on American shores on 12th October, 1492. Though the widely-held belief that he was the first westerner to discover America is apocryphal, it was his expedition that forged the first lasting link between Europe and the ‘New World’, leading to the colonization of the latter. Recognition of this event varies widely from state to state, with some regions taking part in large parades while others do not celebrate at all.
Giuseppe Garibaldi, born on the 4th July, 1807, was an Italian soldier and patriot who dedicated his life to fighting tyranny and oppression. His military enterprises in Europe and South America earned him the sobriquet ‘the Hero of the Two Worlds’, though he is perhaps best known for his role in the unification of his native country. His birthday is celebrated particularly by Italian Americans in the U.S.
The Street Sweeper’s section followed up the tail-end of a parade and was responsible for scooping up horse manure and other debris. Deacon’s attire, much grander than was usual for a street sweeper, is — bar the Italian flag — somewhat suggestive of Uncle Sam, the personification of the American people and government. Deacon’s alliance of himself with this figure of patriotism and power is illustrative of the way in which he plays with racial and status-related signifiers.
This phrase, biblical in origin, relates to the Promised Land: “And take your father and your households, and come unto me: and I will give you the good of the land of Egypt, and ye shall eat the fat of the land” (Genesis 45.18). The imagery of the Promised Land features prominently in colonialist rhetoric which likened America’s settlers to the ancient Hebrews, and the ideal of living off the fat of the land is central to the American Dream. Despite having been systematically oppressed by those settlers and their descendents, during Reconstruction African-American freedmen began to absorb some of this utopianism in the form of democratic idealism. In Mississippi, huge numbers of people migrated to the uncleared downlands with the hope of carving out a life of self-sufficient freedom. These dreams were effectively crushed by a new constitution introduced in 1890 by which they, along with poor whites, were politically disenfranchised. Increased lynchings, Jim Crow laws, crop failure and flooding cemented this disillusion and contributed to the Great Migration of 1916-1930, during which some 1.25 million African Americans left for the North.
The centrality of the ‘fat of the land’ to the American Dream — and that dream’s ultimate emptiness — is nowhere better exemplified than in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1937).
Parker House hotel was founded in 1855 by Harvey D. Parker and was located on School Street. A highly luxurious establishment, it was also the seat of the Saturday Club, an informal coterie of intellectuals whose members included Charles Dickens and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Long noted for its fine cuisine, it was the home of Massachusetts’ state dessert, the Boston cream pie. The site is now occupied by the Omni Parker House.
As a 1925 edition of Survey Graphic records, the only career options available to African Americans during the early twentieth century were “’blind alley’ jobs which lead to nothing beyond the merit of long and faithful service”. Bootblacking was one of the most humble and least remunerative of these. It was so strongly allied with race that it practitioners were assumed de facto to be black, though the trade was of course also plied by poor whites.
The likening of the bootblacks to blackbirds ties in with the unpleasant racial stereotypes of the time, as this poster illustrates.
This refers to the folk belief that you can predict the month’s weather by the shape of the new moon. If its horns are pointing upwards, it is said to be holding water, thus auguring a dry month. If it is facing downwards, the water is thought to pour out in the form of rain. Perhaps Quentin’s association of “all I used to be sorry about” with the moon is also based on that body’s associations with virginity.
Since the first American electric model was introduced in the 1880s until the Great Depression of the 1930s, streetcars were the main mode of transport. Boston gained its first electric streetcar in 1888, and by 1910, a vast network stretched from Rhode Island to New Hampshire. Only a few of the original lines now survive, though many have been rebuilt as trolleybus routes.
Though segregation was repealed during the Reconstruction years, it was reintroduced in most southern states between 1901 and 1907 following the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling. In Mississippi, therefore, this man would have been required to surrender his seat to make way for Quentin. No such laws existed in the North, though in general unwritten social codes continued to maintain a divide. However, the fact that so prominent a civil rights advocate as W. E. B. Du Bois reports in 1890 that “A street-car ride to Boston on a pleasant morning is quite a treat” suggests a more liberal attitude may have prevailed there.
The history of racial terminology is perhaps the most fraught area of language development and it reveals much about the way in which ethnic identities have been constructed, appropriated and fought. Today, Nigger is the most offensive word in the English language, but it has not always been thus. Deriving from the Latin niger (black), it began its life as a neutral descriptive term but quickly became inextricable from rhetoric aiming to establish and maintain white cultural supremacy. By the 1800s, its derogatory nature was already fully-fledged and negro had become the standard neutral term. Coloured was an appellation which freedmen embraced after the Civil War to express a positive sense of racial identity, particularly in the North. The South took a while to catch up with this and nigger continued to be standard in neutral and racist use alike. In fact, Quentin’s reminder to himself to “think of them as coloured people” itself shows a lag in understanding, for northern black civil rights activists had returned to negro as the most appropriate descriptor. During the heightened political consciousness of the 1960s, this was replaced by black; these days, African American is generally preferred.
Racist propaganda was fond of asserting that African Americans were, by virtue of their racial heritage, incapable of ascending to the intellectual, cultural and moral heights on which whites loftily perched. This idea, of course, hinged upon rigorously policed ideas of what constituted black and white ways of being. Quentin’s belated questioning of these stereotypes — and the fact that his insight doesn't extend to seeing that 'blackness' has been constructed by whites to preserve their own power — reveals how deeply embedded they were culturally.
Quentin is here reflecting on an earlier journey back home to Mississippi. The map shows that he would have taken the Vanderbilt line down to New York, the Pennsylvania line to Washington and the Morgan line back to his home state. Virginia, the northernmost southern state after Maryland, represents a gateway back to a place where blacks were the heart of the family, providing reassurance and nurturance not to be found amongst the relatively independent northern African Americans.
The contrast between this figure and the well-to-do man on the street-car again attests to the different social positions of African Americans in the North and South. Mules, the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse, were essential to the rural southern economy. They were used for transport, ploughing and as beasts of burden, in which capacities they were deemed superior to horses. From 1931, however, they were increasingly replaced by tractors.
Faulkner was huge admirer of these humble animals. In The Reivers (1962), he remarked, "A mule is far too intelligent to break its heart for glory running around the rim of a mile-long saucer. In fact, I rate mules second only to rats in intelligence... [A mule] will work for you patiently for ten years for the chance to kick you once."
Southern custom dictated that the first person to call out ‘christmas gift’ — at any time of year — must be given money or a small present.
Hernando de Soto, a Spanish explorer, became the first documented European to discover the Mississippi River on 8th May, 1541. He and his 400 men were engaged in a long and fruitless search for gold and silver in the American wilderness before they encountered the ‘Father of Waters’ just south of present-day Memphis. The Mississippi had of course been known to America’s native inhabitants for some time, with archaeological evidence suggesting some form of settlement may have been established there as early as the 4th millennium BC. Nonetheless, DeSoto County is named for the Spanish explorer, as is its seat, Hernando.
The Mississippi is the largest river system in North America. With its main body and tributaries combined, it covers a distance of approximately 3,740 miles. It has its source in Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota and empties in the Gulf of Mexico.
Quentin is here conflating two biblical figures: Benjamin and Isaac. The latter's birth is described thus: "For Sarah conceived, and bare Abraham a child a son in his old age" (Genesis 21.2). See also note for page 48.
Weld and the Newell — stand on the banks of the Charles River, along with other boathouses not affiliated with the university.
The wooden drawbridge which Quentin crosses is based on the Great Bridge. It stood on the site currently occupied by the Anderson Memorial Bridge, which today bears a plaque memorializing Quentin’s fictional demise.
Follow Quentin across the modern-day bridge below.
According to James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890), cultures as diverse as Melanesia, South Africa, ancient India and ancient Greece have believed a person’s reflection in water to be his or her soul. As an external manifestation, this reflection-soul was vulnerable to water-spirits who might wrest it away and leave the body to perish. Looking into water was therefore regarded as taboo and to dream of one’s own reflection was seen as an omen of death. It seems likely that this is the origin of the folk belief to which Quentin refers.
Quentin is referring to Archimedes’ principle which states that the weight of displaced water is equal to the weight lost by an immersed object. His Harvard education, which plays into his tendency to approach life from a theoretical rather than a practical angle, enables him to conjecture about the possibility that his drowned body will float as a mere academic hypothesis.
Rowing club members at Britain’s University of Oxford traditionally wore single-breasted boating blazers. These were brightly coloured or striped depending upon the college with which one was affiliated. Headwear consisted either of a boating cap, similar in style to a cricket cap and particularly favoured by coxes, or a straw boater such as that which Gerald sports. Patterned neckties or bowties completed the ensemble.