Penner Teaching Faulkner Article


Grounding "Pantaloon in Black" in Faulkner Country

Erin Penner
Asbury University


This fall I assigned "Pantaloon in Black" to three classes of non-major undergraduate literature students, as our first Faulkner text. My students then used the Digital Yoknapatawpha site to develop a stronger interpretive and contextual foundation before reading "Was" and "Go Down, Moses."

"Pantaloon" is a compelling way into Faulkner's oeuvre precisely because its main character is not from Faulkner's prominent families, and yet in his daily life he traverses the geographical and cultural ground established by them. Rider, like my students, is not always aware of the ways that such a history shapes his 1940 present. But his dawning recognition of that influence can serve as a guide for students who likewise need to grapple with the historical underpinnings of Rider's cultural context and their own.

The editors of Digital Yoknapatawpha approached their project with a light interpretive hand, so that users can build their own readings from the available data. But I led with interpretation in my assignment: I asked my students to visit the DY site and consider how Rider, a character so painfully consumed by his own grief, yet identified and challenged the power dynamics of his culture.

In the assignment, I included links to some of the DY features that most directly relate to our reading (the "Pantaloon" map, photos, manuscripts, audio clips, and the cemeteries page; see worksheet below) and asked my students to use the DY resources to respond to the following question: How and where does Rider claim kinship with history and culture and then work to redefine his place in relation to them? I wanted to be sure my students not only discovered some of the treasures of the DY site, but also argued for their relevance to Faulkner's short story.

Student Responses

Above all, my students gained from Digital Yoknapatawpha a sense of the scope of Faulkner's ambitions. DY will not replace the reading of Faulkner, but it allows users to gauge his oeuvre as a whole even as they approach DY with perhaps only one or two texts in hand. DY gave us a chance to see the scale of our author's work, even as the text-specific resources of the site equipped my students to make fine-grained arguments about the relationship between contextual information and the short story they had read.

The audio clips that were linked to on the "Pantaloon" map offered my students a powerful point of connection: the audio clips capture, of course, Faulkner in a college classroom, addressing students very like my own. The familiarity of the classroom dynamic offered an entry point even as Faulkner's rich Mississippi accent introduced my students to the fact that his world will require a different kind of listening.

Several students commented that it became more obvious, by considering the map of events, how much Faulkner had not chosen to include or emphasize in the story. Narrative selection became more apparent to them when the map of Yoknapatawpha was before them. One student noted that he had assumed from his reading of the story that "all of the places Rider passed through were pretty close." As he selected the "All Locations" option on the map, however, "I saw that this was not the case. There were entire farms and plantations that he passed to get from place to place." The map holds readers accountable for recognizing the larger set of places and people from which Faulkner selects in shaping the story, particularly since the larger set of things against which the story is set could be both Yoknapatawpha County and the real area of Mississippi on which the fictional county is based.

In thinking through what places Rider needs for "ordinary" life, including his work at the mill, his aunt's house, and the cabin he rents from Roth Edmonds, one of my students struggled to find a similar purpose for the vast tracts of swamp, woods, and fields. He concluded, "I think that Rider connects to these places through his sorrow. I also feel like he uses these places as areas to think and try to get over his feelings of sadness." Another student noticed the "indirect paths he took on his way to his destination. For example, after the burial, he could have gone through the road that went through his aunt's cabin down to his own cabin. But he goes through the woods instead. He could have just preferred longer walks, or was really trying to go down a path that reminded him less of Mannie." As a third student observed, "Different places and settings reveal different parts of character. These places evoke emotions tied with the memories we have with places." Geography helped my students keep track of the many emotional layers and events of the character's life, and not simply his present-day actions. In tying the actions of the narrative present to Rider's history with Mannie, my students were better equipped to understand how the events of his past shaped his efforts to make a life for himself.

With the map serving as a reminder of Rider's own history and that of Faulkner's fictional county, my students began interpreting Rider's social experience in part through this geographical topography: "With the lack of family connections that Rider brings to the table, the land is how Faulkner relates him to the other stories"; "The map shows how the deputy and Rider live in different parts of town. This shows why the deputy doesn't understand why Rider would do what he did and emphasizes the racism of this time"; "Looking at the map by the color of the characters, we see how the segregation of black people did not occur only socially, but also spatially." Knowing that Faulkner's world is modeled on Mississippi, and then seeing the story laid out on a map, one student acknowledged that the site "made it more real to me, as it become grounded in actual land in Mississippi." Although it would be a mistake to conflate Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County with Lafayette County, Mississippi, it would also be a mistake to ignore the very real Mississippi history that lies in the background of Rider's risk calculations. Only with the help of the Digital Yoknapatawpha site, however, were my students able to begin negotiating the relationship between Faulkner's fictional world and the very real Mississippi history he invokes in shaping Rider's growing apprehension of his cultural landscape.

Related Worksheet

"Looking Out for Others"

    Citing this source:
Erin Penner, "Grounding 'Pantaloon in Black' in Faulkner Country." Rpt. from Teaching Faulkner (Fall 2020); Center for Faulkner Studies ( Digital Yoknapatawpha,
University of Virginia, (Date added to project: 2021)