"A Bear Hunt" (Text Key 4666)

short story

"A Bear Hunt," Faulkner's first published hunting story, is sometimes confused with "The Bear," published a decade later, but no bear and very little hunting appears in "A Bear Hunt."  The story is based on a real-life incident Faulkner experienced on a hunting trip near the Tallahatchie River in November, 1933. According to Joseph Blotner, while at the hunting lodge owned by General Jim Stone (father of Faulkner's friend and mentor Phil Stone), Faulkner was "plagued with a familiar ailment, a prolonged bout of hiccups after his continued drinking" that made it difficult for him to eat, drink, or sleep (325). Faulkner transferred his malady to the story's Luke Provine, a shiftless, quick-to-temper drinker.

The story is told by two narrators: first, an anonymous, articulate narrator who provides some crucial background information before handing off the telling to Ratliff, who tells in a vernacular style how, in trying to play a practical joke on Luke, he himself becomes the victim of another joke. It is comical, firmly in the tradition of southwestern humor both as an oral narrative and in the plot line of the would-be trickster who gets tricked. The story is in some ways a tall tale, but notably, Faulkner makes reference to a real-life curiosity on the Mississippi landscape: Indian mounds, mysterious uprisings of earth whose building, archaeologists have determined, predated the rise of the later Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes. In using a mound as a key location in the story, however, Faulkner invented an entirely fictional band of Chickasaw Indians living in a nearby settlement "under government protection." In reality, nearly all of the Chickasaw in Mississippi had been relocated to Oklahoma a century earlier, and no reservations for those who did not move have ever existed in the state of Mississippi. Calvin Brown reports that when his mother asked Faulkner where he got his knowledge about Indians, the writer replied "Mrs. Brown, I made them up," and here he puts the imaginative needs of the story above historical accuracy.  However, the ahistorical details in the story can also be explained somewhat by the anonymous narrator's romantic musings about Indians based on what he (and others) had read in pulp fiction. As geographer and historian Charles S. Aiken explains, by the 1930s, people of north Mississippi had replaced their earlier belief in an ancient, culturally advanced race of mound-builders with the belief that the mounds dotting the landscape had been built by Chickasaw and other tribes. "To have corrected the record would have undermined the authenticity of Faulkner's fiction because he drew from legend as well as from fact," Aiken writes. Faulkner's description of the mound by the anonymous narrator from his childlike perspective "succinctly conveys how the mysterious earthworks were regarded by most resident of north Mississippi" (62).

The story appeared in the February 10, 1934 issue of the Saturday Evening Post. Faulkner revised the story somewhat for Collected Stories (1950), changing the vernacular narrator's name from "Suratt" to "Ratliff" and the name of the Negro servant who takes advantage of Ratliff to even a score with Provine from "Old Man Bush" to "Old Man Ash." Faulkner made a few more substantial revisions of the story for inclusion in Big Woods: The Hunting Stories (1955), giving more background information on some characters and explicitly identifying the unnamed narrator who opens the story as General Compson's grandson, repeating the pattern he had used in "A Justice," "Lion," and "That Evening Sun" of resurrecting Quentin Compson from his suicide in The Sound and the Fury to be an adult narrator reflecting on his younger days. For Big Woods Faulkner also changed the name of Lucius Provine to Lucius Hogganbeck, drawing an explicit family connection to another prominent character in his hunting stories, Boon Hogganbeck.

Dating the Story: The story's references to "families in want" and the lack of gainful employment clearly allude to the Great Depression, meaning that the story had to be set sometime after the stock market crash of 1929 and before 1934, when it was published. The story is ambiguous, however, about when the story Ratliff tells actually happened. We have decided to date the main incident at the hunting camp in November 1932, largely because the story twice makes reference to a "hay baler," a kind of farm equipment that had just come into use in the early 1930s. Our decision to date the telling of the story in 1933 is based on an assumption that at least some time has passsed since the events happened.


References: Aiken, William Faulkner and the Southern Landscape (University of Georgia Press, 2009); Blotner, Faulkner: A Biography (Random House, 1974); Brown, A Glossary of Faulkner's South (Yale University Press, 1976).

First Publisher: 
Saturday Evening Post
First Publisher Date: 
10 February 1934
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Vintage International
Edit Copy Publisher Location: 
New York
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How to cite this resource:
Padgett, John, and Stephen Railton. "Faulkner's 'A Bear Hunt.'" Added to the project: 2017. Additional editing 2019: John Corrigan. Digital Yoknapatawpha, University of Virginia, http://faulkner.iath.virginia.edu

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