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Teaching Faulkner: A Snopes You Can Believe In

Authored By: 
James Vescovi, English teacher

For me, the best way to teach William Faulkner is to begin with the Snopes, that ornery, duplicitous, barn-burning family of itinerant farmers, blacksmiths, bigamists and bank presidents.  Faulkner does not come naturally to most high school students, and he can be particularly hard to decipher for born-and-bred urbanites, too many of whom see his backwoods people as little more than players in a freak show. The key is to get students beyond a character’s eccentricities to his or her nobility. Faulkner imbued in his people (even the dishonest ones) with a commendable ability to endure the tragic. If you can get students to cross that Rubicon, you’ll find they’ll begin to get Faulkner, even laughing with the characters as opposed to at them.

My introduction to the Snopes family begins with two handouts: (1) a map of Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County; and (2) the Snopes family tree, both of which will help students find their footing in Faulkner’s world. Next, I show a 40-minute film based on the short story "Barn Burning," with an excellent teleplay by Horton Foote. A very young Tommy Lee Jones plays the stubborn, muttering Abner Snopes who, when crossed by others, burns down their barns. Filmed on location in Mississippi's Lafayette County (the model for Yoknapatawpha), the movie provides a rich visual picture of Faulkner’s post-Civil War South.

After that, we read "Spotted Horses." There are two versions of this tale: a short one that can be found in The Uncollected Short Stories of William Faulkner and the longer novella in the Three Famous Short Novels collection. Here we are introduced to Abner's son Flem Snopes, who shows up in town with a mysterious Texan and a herd of ponies (so ill-tempered that they are tethered together with barbed wire). The entire town and countryside comes to see the Texan auction off the ponies, though Snopes’ role in the sale is not clear.

One man who steps right up to bid is a poor farmer named Henry Armstid, who spends his family’s last $5 on a pony. However, after seeing how Henry's wife pleads with him not to make the purchase, the Texan tells her he will give the $5 to Flem Snopes, who will return it to her the next day.  But Henry isn’t having it. That evening, he stomps boldly into the corral to get his pony and he's flattened by the entire herd, which escapes through the gate he’s left open and scatters across the countryside, smashing wagons and raising all kinds of hell. In perhaps the story’s most hilarious scene, one pony that storms into Mrs. Littlejohn's boarding house is only chased off when the brave woman whacks it on the snout with a washboard. Purchasers pursue their ponies all night.

The following day, Mrs. Armstid, whose husband broke his leg during the stampede, shows up at the general store to collect her money. Snopes tells her that the Texan, now long gone, forgot to give him the $5. No one knows whether he’s telling the truth, but given that he’s a Snopes, it’s doubtful. The story ends with a gesture fitting only for a Snopes. He tells the poor woman to wait, enters the store, and returns with a few pennies worth of candy for her hungry children. If you choose the shorter tale, pick some of your best student readers to read it aloud, start to finish. It was the first time I ever heard a Manhattan kid actually guffaw.

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