A Sartoris Thanksgiving

Food rarely plays a significant role in Faulkner’s fiction, but when it does the part has a specific function. Adam Gopnik, in a his article “Cooked Books” (The New Yorker, April 9, 2007), points out that there are four kinds of food in books: “Food that is served by an author to characters who are not expected to taste it; food that is served by an author to characters in order to show who they are; food that an author cooks for characters in order to eat it with them; and, last (and most recent), food that an author cooks for characters but actually serves to the reader.”

Faulkner falls solidly into the second category, a writer who uses food to show who his characters are, as does (unsurprisingly) a French writer who influenced the Mississippian very much, Marcel Proust.  “Proust seems so full of food—crushed strawberries and madeleines, tisanes and champagne—that entire recipe books have been extracted from his texts,” Gopnik says. “Proust will say that someone is eating a meal of gigot with sauce béarnaise, but he seldom says that the character had a delicious meal of gigot with sauce béarnaise—although he will extend his adjectives to the weather, or the view. He uses food as a sign of something else.”

This is precisely what Faulkner does with the Thanksgiving meal at the Sartoris home he describes in Flags in the Dust, his first novel to be set in Yoknapatawpha County (called “Yocona”). Written in 1927, the novel was rejected by his publisher, but it was released in a drastically edited version as Sartoris in 1929. The full manuscript was finally restored and published under the editorial direction of Douglas Day in 1973. The novel is set just after World War I and focuses on the once-powerful, influential and aristocratic Sartoris family contending with decline, but still clinging to the vestiges of affluence.

. . . Simon appeared again, with Isom in procession now, and for the next five minutes they moved steadily between kitchen and dining room with a roast turkey and a cured ham and a dish of quail and another of squirrel, and a baked ‘possum in a bed of sweet potatoes; and Irish potatoes and sweet potatoes, and squash and pickled beets and rice and hominy, and hot biscuits and beaten biscuits and long thin sticks of cornbread and strawberry and pear preserves, and quince and apple jelly, and blackberry jam and stewed cranberries. Then they ceased talking for a while and really ate, glancing now and then across the table at one another in a rosy glow of amicability and steamy odors. From time to time Isom entered with hot bread . . . and then Simon brought in pies of three kinds, and a small, deadly plum pudding, and a cake baked cunningly with whiskey and nuts and fruit and treacherous and fatal as sin; and at last, with an air sibylline and gravely profound, a bottle of port.” (Flags in the Dust, Random House, 1973, p. 281)

The meal is lorded over by the family patriarch, Bayard Sartoris II, referred to as “Colonel” or “Old” Bayard. Once one of the leading citizens in Jefferson, elected mayor around 1894, later founding the Merchants and Farmers Bank and serving as its president until being forced to resign because of his age, Bayard is soon to die and his son, Bayard III, to flee Yoknapatawpha County and himself die in an airplane crash in Dayton, Ohio, leaving the few remaining members of the once proud and powerful Sartoris family in a state of decay and destitution. Old Bayard’s attempts to preserve tradition and heritage are exemplified by this meal, which is indeed a groaning board by any standard. The inclusion of stewed cranberries, somewhat of a luxury item at the time, stands out. Towards the end, the adjectives begin to cluster as they tend to do in any Faulkner sentence, and the final, “sibylline and gravely profound” presentation of port lends an appropriately ceremonial coda.

Elegy

Say that this body held the spirit of a man who learned about strength because he was born with none. Say that he loved even after loss and lifted his face to the rain. Say that he was the last of a pride of lions, the final word in a book about courage and struggle, dreams and death. Then say that the aspirations of man are but sand and wind in the face of God.

Mr. Lilyfoot

Ruth Parker owned over two dozen dolls, and she knew every one of them by name. “This is Snagglepants,” she’d say, holding up a Raggedy Andy with a torn pocket. She called her big Raggedy Ann doll Phyllis and the little one she took everywhere Roo-roo. Ruth and Roo-roo were best friends. They had three tea sets between them, and if the other dolls were nice, Ruth and Roo-roo would have them for milk and cookies. “But you can’t have any peanuts because Roo’s allergic,” Ruth would remind them. Ruth lived with her parents in a big house on a wooded street. Aside from Roo-roo, her best friend was the housekeeper, Lena. Lena was tall and her cheeks were very full. As she cooked and cleaned, she sang songs and made cookies for Ruth and Roo-roo’s tea parties, but she always told them she wasn’t supposed to. It was Lena who told her about Mr. Lilyfoot.

Mr. Lilyfoot lived under a tree at the end of the path in the garden behind Ruth’s home. He had a green cap, red overalls and a long white beard. He always smiled.  On nice spring days, Lena would sit in the swing with something to occupy her hands while she watched Ruth play in the yard. When she had to go inside to answer the phone or change a load of laundry, she’d tell Ruth Mr. Lilyfoot would watch after her. At first Ruth didn’t like Mr. Lilyfoot; he was stiff, not soft like her dolls. She’d hold her little Raggedy Ann up to Mr. Lilyfoot’s smiling face and say, “Roo-roo doesn’t like you!” But Ruth was a sweet child, and when she saw that Mr. Lilyfoot’s face was dirty, she asked Lena for a napkin so she could wipe it off because Mr. Lilyfoot’s arms were always behind him. Lena laughed at her one windy afternoon when Ruth tied one of her father’s socks around Ms. Lilyfoot’s neck and took care to hide the other one.

***

“Mommie, it’s cold outside. Can Mr. Lilyfoot come sleep in my room?”
Janet Parker brushed her daughter’s dark hair. “Sweetie, who is Mr. Lilyfoot?’
“He’s in the garden,” Ruth said. “He’s wearing a hat, but I know he’s cold”
“Oh, honey, I don’t want that nasty thing in your room,” Janet said.
“He’s not nasty.”
“Ruth, he lives outside. He’s an outdoor doll.”
“He’s not a doll.”
“Well, not like your other dolls, but he’s still a doll.”
“Roo-roo says he isn’t. Roo-roo knows everything.”
Janet cocked an eyebrow at her petulant daughter. “And what does Mommie know?”
“I love you, Mommie!” Ruth launched herself into her mother’s arms and looked into the back yard through the window.

***

When Ruth awakened that afternoon, Mr. Lilyfoot, scrubbed by the ever-patient Lena and bright as a new penny, was smiling at her from the corner of her room. She and Roo-roo immediately arranged a high tea with hot chocolate and frosted cookies. When Janet looked in on her later she found that Ruth had arranged her favorite dolls around the little table, with Mr. Lilyfoot at its head.
“Mr. Lilyfoot’s warmer now, Mommie. But Roo-roo’s tired,” she said, holding up the little rag doll.
“Well, let’s put her to sleep,” Janet said. She gathered her daughter in her arms, made sure her doll was with her, and put her to bed. She glanced at Mr. Lilyfoot smiling from the corner, lowered the shutters and closed the door.
When Janet brought Ruth’s tray upstairs that night, she heard her daughter laughing from the hallway. She found Ruth sitting up in her bed, clutching Roo-roo, and smiling.
“What’s so funny?” Janet asked.
“Mommie, me and Mr. Lilyfoot took Roo-roo to Magicland, and she had tea with the King!”
Janet tucked a bib under her daughter’s so very thin neck and began feeding her with a spoon. “Did Roo have a good time?”
“She was scared at first because the king was so high up and her legs are really short. But then the king asked her to dance, so she didn’t have to go so far up.”
“Did you dance?” Janet asked.
“No, Mommie,” Ruth said. “I had to help Mr. Lilyfoot make the band play. I’m tired.”
Janet tucked her daughter under the covers, kissed her, climbed onto the sagging cot next to Ruth’s bed and closed her sad eyes.

***

Ruth and Mr. Lilyfoot, with Roo-roo in tow, went everywhere. The tea parties became a thing of the past. Instead, they took buckets to the beach where they collected shells. Another time they sailed the seas on a boat made of glass and rigged with silver, and once they found a mountain made of chocolate and topped with ice cream. The following morning they went to the moon and found big gold rocks that glittered under the smiling sun. That afternoon Mr. Lilyfoot rearranged the stars, and later they all skated on swirls of light through a sparkling tunnel into a warm, black night. “Don’t be scared, Roo-roo,” Ruth said. “Mr. Lilyfoot will get us home.”

***

It wasn’t long before Ruth’s dreams ended. Lena boxed up the lonely dolls for other little girls, and she returned Mr. Lilyfoot to the garden under the tree at the end of the path.