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No Relief in Sight : MEN WORKING. By John Faulkner (University of Georgia Press: $19.95, 300 pp.)

September 01, 1996|Robert S. McElvaine | Robert S. McElvaine teaches history at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss. He has written two books on the Great Depression. His latest book, "What's Left?--A New Democratic Vision for America," has just been published by Adams

Having a world-famous, highly talented brother can be a burden. The inevitable comparisons can be disheartening. Such was, to an extent, the fate of the writing career of John Faulkner, William's younger brother.

The publication by the University of Georgia Press of a new edition of the younger Faulkner's 1941 satiric novel, "Men Working," leaves no doubt that he was not as accomplished with words as his brother. But, then, who was--or is? John Faulkner was a very good writer, and the resuscitation of this long-forgotten novel is to be welcomed.

In one respect, the reissuing of "Men Working" is timely. One of its targets is the work-relief projects of the New Deal. Today, politicians are competing to get credit for "ending welfare as we know it" and obliging those on public assistance to work in return for their compensation.

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed, in 1935, the creation of the massive work-relief program that would become the Works Progress Administration, he declared: "The federal government must and shall quit this business of relief. . . . We must preserve not only the bodies of the unemployed from destitution but also their self-respect, their self-reliance and courage and determination."

John Faulkner, who was for a time a WPA project engineer in northern Mississippi, did not think those lofty goals were achieved. Indeed, the characters he creates have little enough vitality, self-respect, self-reliance and determination to begin with, and Faulkner suggests that, in order to get on "the W P and A," as they called it, they readily abandoned whatever meager rations of these qualities they once possessed.

There is a marked contrast between Faulkner's attitude toward Mississippi sharecroppers and John Steinbeck's portrayal of the "Okies" in "The Grapes of Wrath," which was published two years before "Men Working." Nor do the two writers see the programs of a benevolent government in the same light.

In both novels, poor farm families leave the land, but there the similarity ends.

In "Men Working," the good land is idled by a perhaps well-intentioned but misguided government. In "The Grapes of Wrath," nature itself idles the land and the government seems, in the form of a New Deal camp for migrant workers in California, the best hope for the dispossessed.

Yet there are certain similarities between these two late-Depression books about uprooted farm families. The townspeople in "Men Working" react to the migrants from the farms in much the same way that Californians react to migrants from the Dust Bowl. The lure of the town to the rural Mississippians also parallels the magical attraction of the Golden Land in the West to the Oklahomans.

The ills of the town and modern life, with its emphasis on consumption, is a major theme of "Men Working." The Taylors, the family upon which the book focuses, readily embrace the modern consumption ethic without ever having taken up the work ethic. Even after he is laid off from the WPA and has no income, Paw Taylor would rather use whatever money he can find to put a down payment on a used radio than to get a doctor for his seriously ill child.

The emotion that Faulkner evokes toward his characters is pity, but the reader is never drawn to identify with these downtrodden folk. These people are depicted as shiftless, ignorant, essentially worthless human--or subhuman--beings. They "somehow never get around to" such things as learning to read, having the water turned on so they don't have to use the yard for a toilet or finding a truck to take a dead son's body to be buried that has been pushed under the bed for more than a week.

When asked how many children he has, Paw Taylor can only offer an estimate. Apparently he "somehow never got around to" learning to count. One might conclude from Faulkner's descriptions of them that the collective IQ of the adults in the seven families of "W P and A" nonworkers who live together would be hard-pressed to break into triple digits.

Steinbeck wants his readers to see how like them the unfortunate rural migrants are; Faulkner paints his poor rural characters as very unlike "us."

There is in Faulkner's characters none of the quiet dignity one sees in, for example, Eudora Welty's photographs of Depression-era Mississippians. Instead, there is loud offensiveness.

As I finished the book, I was reminded of comments in some of Martha Gellhorn's mid-1930s reports from the South to Federal Relief Administrator Harry Hopkins. She wrote of seeing huge numbers of people she categorized as syphilitic or "morons" and "cretins." Her recommendation was a massive sterilization program. John Faulkner seems to agree with this "kill them (or at least their reproductive organs) before they multiply" approach to the rural poor. "The only unkindness that he [Paw] knew without even recognizing was the fact that he had been born."

It is, perhaps, an exaggeration--but only a small one--to say that Faulkner's message in this novel could be captured in a revision of Randy Newman: "Poor people got no reason to live" (unless it is for "us" to laugh at them).

Southern poor whites seem to be one of the few groups that it is still acceptable to scorn, and it cannot be doubted that "Men Working" adds to many of the negative stereotypes. Not all of them, though. There is no hint of bitter racism among the poor whites in Faulkner's pages. They occasionally use what we have come to know since the O.J. Simpson trial as "the N-word," but only as if it were an inoffensive ethnic name.

Despite the very unflattering portrait Faulkner gives us of his rural neighbors, "Men Working" is at times very entertaining. John Faulkner never became a novelist of the first rank, but it is often worthwhile and revealing to read the work of a good writer of the second rank. Such is the case here.

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