Sam Fathers

Character Key Number: 
Display Name: 
Sam Fathers
Sort Name: 
Fathers, Sam
Ever Present in Yoknapatawpha?: 

This is not the Indian named "Had-Two-Fathers" who plays a minor role in "Red Leaves." This is the character best known as Sam Fathers, though as he tells Quentin Compson in Faulkner's second Indian story, "A Justice," his Indian name was "Had-Two-Fathers" too (345). In that story he is the child of a Choctaw named Crawfish-ford and an enslaved woman whom Doom, the chief, won gambling on a Mississippi riverboat. In later fictions he is first the grandson and then the son of Ikkemotubbe; making his father a Chickasaw chief raises his imaginative status in the class-conscious world of Faulkner's fiction. His mother is usually identified only as "a Negro slave" ("The Bear," 294), but in Go Down, Moses, the text that gives him his most prominent role, she is identified as a "quadroon" slave (158) - that is, someone who has three white grandparents; giving Sam this 'white blood' (as the fictions put it) along with his Negro and Indian ancestry symbolically makes his very body the site of Yoknapatawpha's conflicted racial history. The story Sam tells Quentin in "A Justice" - about the injustices of slavery and race that gave him existence in the first place and that then determined the alienated existence he has led as someone whose Indian culture has vanished and who has no home in either the black or the white cultures that remain - is very powerful, and leaves a very young Quentin in a world that feels "faintly sinister" (360). This anticipates the way the story of Sutpen and the Southern past will haunt Quentin in Absalom, Absalom! But in the larger Yoknapatawpha canon, Sam's role is to provide Quentin and then Ike McCaslin, another son of the plantation aristocracy, with a possible path to a better world, a place outside the injustices of Southern history, outside time itself: the big woods. As Ike puts it in Go Down, Moses, "Sam Fathers set me free" (285). In short stories that are revised and incorporated into that novel, Sam fathers first Quentin and then Ike by initiating them into the lessons taught by the wilderness as a spiritual realm and by hunting as a way of being a man. Ultimately Sam's role is the mythic one of the holy teacher, but in more culturally specific terms it recalls the trope of 19th-century American romanticism, and the redemptive relationships outside social and racial conventions between Cooper's Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook or Melville's Ishmael and Queequeg. But it has to be noted that Faulkner comes too late to that trope to deploy it uncritically; the hunting camp where Sam shows Quentin or Ike 'the way' is in the woods, but in Faulkner's fiction it is also already inside the bloody human past, as the exact spot where Wash Jones had to kill Thomas Sutpen.