"Red Leaves" (Text Key 244)

short story

"Red Leaves" was the second story Faulkner managed to get published in the Saturday Evening Post, and it appeared in the magazine's October 25, 1930 issue. Faulkner may have begun writing it as early as 1927 or as late as 1929. He sent it to the Post on July 24, 1930. Faulkner revised the story for These 13 (1931), and it next appeared in The Portable Faulkner, edited by Malcolm Cowley (1946). Faulkner published it in his Collected Stories (1950), where it opened the section entitled "The Wilderness" that includes his three other tales about the Indians of Mississippi. He revised the story one more time, for Big Woods (1955). "Red Leaves" has been frequently anthologized and is widely considered to be one of Faulkner’s finest. In keeping with the editorial practices of the Digital Yoknapatawpha project, our representation of it is based on the Collected Stories version.

As the earliest written of Faulkner's four "Indian stories," "Red Leaves" steps into a previously unexplored corner of Yoknapatawpha County. In this story the name of the tribe, which in some texts he calls Choctaw and in others Chickasaw, is never given. It should be said that Faulkner's representation of Native American behavior and customs is very unreliable, though it is historically true that after white settlers brought slaves into the region that became the Deep South, some southern Indian tribes owned slaves. The tale is also his earliest hard look at slavery, an issue that would come to occupy more of his attention later in the 1930s.

Dating the Story: It is impossible to reconcile the timeline of the story with either regional history or Faulkner's other fictions about the Indians of Yoknapatawpha. The text uses two real historical figures to locate the period in which Doom traveled to New Orleans - "Carondelet" and "General Wilkinson" (318) - both of whom are in the city at the same time as Doom. Hector de Carondelet was the Spanish Governor of Louisiana from 1791-1797. (Wilkinson could have been there as well during that period, or earlier or later.) Doom's son Issetibbeha, who is born soon after he returns to his tribe, is specifically "nineteen" years old when Doom dies (319). "Five years later" Issetibbeha travels to Paris, returning to the tribe "a year later" (320). He marries after that. The child of that marriage, Moketubbe, is at least "twenty-five" when Issetibbeha gives him the red slippers (321); and Issetibbeha "lives for five years longer" before his death sets the plot of "Red Leaves" in motion (322). So it is at least 55 years after Doom's trip, i.e. the early 1850s, when Issetibbeha's slave runs away. But historically the Indians of northern Mississippi were "removed" from the state and relocated in Oklahoma by the mid-1830s. Given this disparity, we have chosen to follow the intervals provided by the text, choosing "1794" as the date of Doom's trip to New Orleans and counting forward from there. But even so, all our dates are approximate. (Other events in the story are also problematic when measured against history. Congress abolished the importation of slaves into the U.S. in 1808, and steamboats did not appear on the Mississippi until after 1811.)

A Note on Race: Digital Yoknapatawpha's data fields push the collaborators who are creating the project toward specific choices, no matter how ambiguous Faulkner's prose gets. "Red Leaves" keeps the two races at its center - Indian and black - distinctly apart in many ways, but this is also the first time Faulkner's fiction includes direct references to miscegenation and intermarriage. It's surely significant that he can imagine mixed-race marriages and children as socially possible in a non-white community. The way this issue is treated, however, raises more questions than it answers. The unnamed woman whom Doom impregnates in New Orleans and later marries was originally (in the manuscript of the story) described by the narrator as belonging to "a well-to-do family (though they had some negro blood)." When he typed up the manuscript Faulkner deleted the parenthesis, but added the detail that the family was from the West Indies. He left alone a later passage in which her son, Issetibbeha, thinks about his mother's "negro blood." (You can see both manuscript pages in the story's "Other Resources: Manuscripts Etc." section.) There is no reason to doubt Issetibbeha's reliability, so on that basis the editors identify the woman as MixedBlackWhite, and both her son and his son Moketubbe as MixedIndianWhiteBlack (two of the categories we created for the Character field Race). Those are interpretive choices based on textual evidence.
The evidence for the race of the woman Issetibbeha himself marries is still less definitive. What makes him remember his mother and "her Negro blood" is his first sight of the "comely girl" who will become his wife and Moketubbe's mother (320). Also unnamed, this woman is working in one of the tribe's melon patches and wearing a "shift" (320). The context (field labor) and the costume (a shift) may signal that the woman herself is one of the tribe's Negro slaves, which might explain why looking at her makes him remember his mother's racial origins. However, Faulkner's typical practice, in the story and throughout the canon, is to tag non-white characters with an adjective like "Negro" to make their non-whiteness visible on the page; here the narrative does not refer to this woman as either a "Negro" or a "slave." And the comparison Issetibbeha makes between her and his mother is also a contrast: he remembers his mother as "the city woman . . . with her fans and laces and her Negro blood" (321), which clearly distinguishes her from this working woman with "broad, solid thighs," a "sound back," and a hoe rather than a fan in her hand (321). On the other hand, one of the most famous uses of the adjective that the narrative does use is in the Queen of Sheba's description of herself in the King James Bible as "black, but comely" (Song of Solomon 1:5). Taking all this into account, we have chosen to use the category Black to identify the Race of Issetibbeha's first wife and Moketubbe's mother.
This decision doesn't change Moketubbe's Race in our database - it remains MixedIndianWhiteBlack - but potentially there is a lot at stake in this decision.
Moketubbe is repeatedly described as "diseased" with flesh, so obese and lethargic as to be practically comatose (321), mentally and physically unfit to be "the Man," as the Indians refer to the tribe's chief. The future for the Indians under his leadership is not predicted, but it seems clearly doomed. Is the narrative implying that his pathological condition is the result of two generations of interracial marriage? The idea that miscegenation would lead to mongrelization and the decline of civilization was widespread in Faulkner's own cultural time and place. Faulkner's treatment of "Negro blood" and miscegenation is a profoundly vexed subject. Readers of "Red Leaves" should ultimately reach their own conclusions about what this early story says or suggests about that theme, and in the process they should feel free to challenge our own interpretive decisions. This is a good example of how, if digital humanities can help us explore Faulkner's art, Faulkner's art also serves us in turn to interrogate digital humanities.

First Publisher: 
Saturday Evening Post
First Publisher Date: 
25 October 1930
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Edit Copy Publisher: 
Vintage International
Edit Copy Publisher Location: 
New York
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How to cite this resource:
Burgers, Johannes H., Elizabeth Cornell, and Garrett Morrison. "Faulkner's 'Red Leaves.'" Added to the project: 2013.  Additional editing 2018: Erin Kay Penner, Stephen Railton, Christopher Rieger.  Digital Yoknapatawpha, University of Virginia, http://faulkner.iath.virginia.edu