McCaslin Commissary (Location Key)


Both the Sartoris plantation (in Faulkner's first Yoknatawpha fiction, Flags in the Dust) and the McCaslin plantation in Go Down, Moses are still prosperous in the 20th century, worked by Negro tenant farmers instead of slaves. There would have been a commissary on both of them, the plantation store where the tenants bought most of their food and supplies during the year - the 'furnish,' this was called, the white landlord 'furnishing' the items but charging them against the 'settling up' that occured in harvest time, when in addition to his share of each sharecropper's crop, the landlord collected what each tenant owed the commissary. But Flags does not mention a commissary, which disguises the fact that plantations were money-making institutions. The "commissary" on the De Spain plantation where the Major keeps the "contract" between him and his tenant Ab Snopes is mentioned in "Barn Burning" (16); Ab has had a lifetime of experience with landlords as capitalists, and although he is white he acknowledges that the white columns of the De Spain mansion were built mainly by the "sweat" of black labor (12). The fact that a few years later Faulkner makes the commissary at the McCaslin-Edmonds place the most visible part of the plantation in Go Down, Moses is one way to measure how his earlier nostalgia for the Old South has given way to a determination to use his imagination to take a much harder look at the racial and class inequalities that provided the economic (and human) foundation for the plantation aristocracy. The commissary appears in three of the short stories out of which Faulkner created Go Down, Moses. In "Gold Is Not Always" it's the only building that the narrative ever enters. There its nature as a store is vividly described: the "tinned food and tobacco and patent medicines" on its shelves and the "trace chains and collars and hames" that hang from hooks, and the "roll-top desk beside the front window" where the white landlord, Edmonds, keeps the books (226). "Pantaloon in Black" adds the detail of "Edmonds' safe" in the commissary where Rider's wife Manny does her weekly shopping (240); it serves as the tenants' bank. In "Go Down, Moses" the short story, Edmonds banishes Samuel Worsham Beauchamp from the plantation after he "catches the boy breaking into his commissary store" (259). But it is in Go Down, Moses the novel - which revises and combines these and other stories along with new material about the McCaslin family - that Faulkner does the most with the presence of the plantation commissary. In this account, mostly in the fourth section of "The Bear," the commissary ledgers reveal both the economic reality and the moral injustice of the Southern systems of slavery and tenantry. As Ike McCaslin takes the ledgers off the shelf the first time, the narrator describes how they record "the slow outward trickle of food and supplies and equipment which returned each fall as cotton made and ginned and sold," and the way this is a form of economic bondage all too similar to the slavery that tenantry has replaced: those outward and returning amounts are "cable-strong to bind for life them who made the cotton to the land their sweat fell on" (242). And it is while sitting in the commissary reading the ledgers from the plantation's antebellum years that Ike learns the terrible sin his slave-holding grandfather committed, a discovery that leads him to renounce his inheritance as forever "accursed" (245). The episode and its location can be compared to the scene in Flags where old Bayard Sartoris goes at night to the mansion's attic and, while the ghosts of "dead Sartorises" look over his shoulder, fondles the relics of the old plantation - including a "rapier" and a "fine Mechlin" dress - and concludes that although it's been destroyed by modern history, the Old South "was a good gesture, anyway" (88-89). The ledgers Ike reads sitting in the commissary alone at night with his family's past tell a very different story.

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McCaslin Commissary
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McCaslin Commissary