A Bear Hunt by William Faulkner, 1934
The magic trick:
Hiding a complex story about race relations in the guise of lightweight comedy
“A Bear Hunt” could be dismissed as minor Faulkner; a shaggy-dog story of sorts with silly characters doing silly things to each other. But I’m not buying it. I’d hate to be the over-analyzing critic trying to make myself feel smart by inventing hidden meanings in what could be enjoyed as a simple, fun story, but excuse me while I do just that.
Yes, this story is playful and funny, but that doesn’t mean Faulkner is fooling around. We have a fairly complex set of race relations here, and the way Faulkner obfuscates the narration between frame story and inner story only serves to highlight the confusion.
So let’s see: We have a white man recounting the time he was beaten up by another white man after sending that white man to visit some Indians in hopes of curing his hiccups and those Indians having been tipped off by a neighboring black man decided to prey on the white man’s prejudicial fears of them by tying him up loosely and threatening to burn him as a favor to the black man who had harbored resentment against this particular white man for nearly 20 years since that white man and two other white men had attacked him and a group of other black men and singed off their fancy shirt collars.
Yep. That’s what happens in this story. The humor is present, but it’s entirely dependent on the characters acting ridiculously in accordance with their dubious racial views. What a weird, wonderful, bizarre story. And that’s quite a trick on Faulkner’s part.
Even to some of us – children though we were, yet we were descended of literate, town-bred people – it possessed inferences of secret and violent blood, of savage and sudden destruction, as though the yells and hatchets which we associated with Indians through the hidden and secret dime novels which we passed among ourselves were but trivial and momentary manifestations of what dark power still dwelled or lurked there, sinister, a little sardonic, like a dark and nameless beast lightly and lazily slumbering with bloody jaws – this, perhaps, due to the fact that a remnant of a once powerful clan of the Chickasaw tribe still lived beside it under Government protection. They now had American names and they lived as the sparse white people who surrounded them in turn lived.
Yet we never saw them, since they never came to town, having their own settlement and store. When we grew older we realized that they were no wilder or more illiterate than the white people, and that probably their greatest deviation from the norm – and this, in our country, no especial deviation – was the fact that they were a little better than suspect to manufacture moonshine whisky back in the swamps.