William Faulkner’s ‘Dry September‘, evokes an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty looming large for the black population as in the case of Scottsboro boys. The narrative unfolds the workings of a prejudiced white mob-mentality seeking instant justice which, here in the story is, fuelled by a rumour. Though never made clear but only suggested obliquely, the rumour is, most likely, an accusation of sexual violation. A (rape) charge has been leveled by a white spinster, Miss Minnie Cooper, against a black watchman named Will Mayes for whose blood the white mob of Jefferson is baying.
The first section of “Dry September” sets the tone and tenor of the story. Set in the Southern town of Jefferson, the story opens on a hot September evening in a salon that is animated only by ‘the rumour, the story, whatever it was’. Even though nobody knew exactly what had transpired between ‘Miss Minnie Cooper and a Negro’, opinions have been formed by the occupants in the barbershop. Except for the barber, Henry Hawkshaw, the others are almost convinced of the truth of the matter. It’s another story that nobody wants or attempts to find out the truth. Any suggestion that Will Mayes, the accused Negro, is innocent, and the white woman, Miss Minnie Cooper, might be lying is met with condescension, insult and veiled threats such as “you damn nigger lover” or “Do you accuse a white woman of lying?”.
Notwithstanding the heated arguments among the white majority of townsmen who are gathered in the shop, the barber, himself a white Jeffersonian, takes it upon himself to defend Will Mayes. He insists on Will’s innocence, and attempts to convince his detractors, who seem to be hounding for a black man’s blood, not to jump the gun.
This gathering of a mob that seems only interested in pursuing quick justice for their felt wrong, lacks a leader and that vacuum is soon enough filled by McLendon, the war hero. He quickly succeeds in exploiting the situation, and manages to leave with his ‘army’ of men to set things right, to avenge the black man’s alleged insult and violation of a white woman. His difference from Henry Hawkshaw who is his polar opposite is underlined when the narrator tells us ‘(t)hey looked like men of different races’.
This section ends with Henry Hawkshaw running closely on the heels of McLendon in a desperate attempt to save Will Mayes, and the two barbers who remain in the shop pondering over the (im) possibility of Will Mayes attacking Miss Minnie Cooper.
This section, a window to her past, introduces Miss Minnie Cooper to the readers who is so far presented through others’ opinions about her. She is already, in the town’s opinion, somebody who entertains delusional thoughts about herself with her ‘man scare’ stories. In Section II, we find her in the grip of ennui relegated as she is ‘into adultery by public opinion’. She comes across as a languishing body who is conscious of her past when she was the toast of the town in her days of youth. However, unlike her contemporaries she has not been able to move onto other womanly roles that society expects of women nor can she come to terms with the fact of her ageing. She spends her idle days sitting in the porch, would go downtown to watch movies and so on. Twelve years ago, she had a short lived affair with a forty year old bank cashier that once again brought her into notice, primarily for two reasons. First, the affair renewed her desirable self, and second, because she had the ‘first motoring bonnet and the veil the town ever saw.’ Almost a decade later, she once again finds herself a castaway with no male attention. Rather, her feeble attempts at presenting herself as still attractive by way of her dressing and attempting to join in the company of her young “cousins” makes her an oddity and subject to salacious gossip.
With section III we move into the action scene as it were. Once again the gothic atmospherics are stressed upon. The recurring motifs of dust, cloud, fog, the waning moon and “dry hissing” collectively add to the sepulchral quality, and intensifies the tension in the moment. McLendon with his cohorts is at the ice plant where Will Mayes was a night watchman. In the darkness of the night, they are here to apprehend and “kill him, kill the black son”. In a dramatic sequence of events the drama unfolds where they drag and handcuff him, and finally they put him in a car. Even though he pleads innocence and Hawkshaw still argues Will’s case, the blood thirsty gang of white men refuse to pay any heed to their pleadings. In the claustrophobic space of the car, McLendon hits Will Mayes. And then something happens that makes the barber, Hawkshaw, jump out of the car. Enveloped in the darkness of the night and the dust, this section closes with McLendon and his men, except Butch, returning in their car, and a little later, the barber limping his way back into the town. The narrative neither depicts nor relays what they did to Will Mayes though the curtains suddenly fall on him. Nonetheless, we are sure Will Mayes has been killed just as we are sure of his innocence, and Miss Minnie Cooper’s lies.
This section stands out among the others for two things. One, as an absolute space of white presence with ‘not a Negro on the square. Not one’. Two, the feverish excitement that it generates in Minnie and her friends as well as the young white men who now do take note of her presence. The now fully reclaimed space of white is animated by an excitement that finds its parallel in the ‘picture show’ such that it looked like ‘a miniature fairyland’. In this fairyland which is a zone of fantasy, Miss Minnie Cooper is back to being the center of attention. Her friends seek a vicarious pleasure in asking Minnie the details about it, the molestation, even while they doubt the alleged rape. It ends on a note of untrammeled excitement such that Minnie becomes hysterical, and is brought back home by her women friends whose eyes aglitter with the fantasy of miscegenation.
The shortest of all, this section unlike the previous ones is not set in a public space like the barbershop, or the ice plant or the square, but rather within an intimate space of home. That this section focuses on a private space of home, and that of McLendon’s, is interesting. What is more intriguing is that it ends not with Minnie or Will Mayes whose story it seemingly is. On the contrary, the narrative ends with the image of McLendon coming back to his ‘birdcage’, and physically assaulting his wife. Exhausted, he stood panting and the weather and the cosmos once again take precedence.