Calvin Burden introduces an alternative concept of race in Faulkner’s Light in August, incorporating his northern religious roots and his western travels into his definition of the terms “black” and “white,” assigning labels based on moral grounds rather than purely skin color and ancestry. Calvin further complicates the subject of race relations in the novel with what Leigh Anne Duck calls an “incommensurable” classification system by which to label individuals either white or black. Additionally, Calvin’s oscillation between Protestantism and Catholicism thematically problematizes institutionalized religion in regard to the way it varies from state to state. Calvin’s unique racial and religious codes are influenced by his childhood in the northeast and his travels around the country, both of which cast him and his offspring out of traditional southern societies such as the community in Jefferson, Mississippi.

Calvin’s religion is the social construct through which he understands his life and his relationship (or lack there of) with his community, which is particularly important to a man that moves from one community to another as often as Calvin Burden. In addition to calling him Calvin, a reference to the Calvinist sect of Protestantism that was popular in the northeast, Faulkner characterizes him by his extreme religious affiliations in various locations. The first facts that the reader learns about Calvin are in a religious context: he is the son of a minister in the northeast, he lives in a Catholic monastery for ten years in California, and he eventually marries a Huguenot woman in Saint Louis. Furthermore, when Calvin makes the decision to finally “settle down” after finding a wife, he enacts this first by renouncing Catholicism, only after which he takes part in typical “settling down” activities such as buying a home and starting a family. While Calvin is willing to fight to the death for his beliefs, he ironically changes his religious doctrine depending on the society in which he is living. For instance, in Saint Louis Calvin denies allegiance to the Catholic Church on the grounds that Catholics are all “frogeating slaveholders” after living in a Catholic monastery for ten whole years. In spite of his time in the monastery, Calvin claims he must deny the Catholic Church “for the sake of his son’s soul” (Faulkner 242). Calvin’s dramatic conversion back to Protestantism in the south thematically demonstrates that religion varies from place to place, influenced by the cultures of those who subscribe to a certain doctrine. This changeability threatens the consistency that the church claims to offer to a worldwide congregation, and undermines the stability of the gospel that followers live by in their respective communities. If the same Christian word can be interpreted to protect the right to slavery in the south and also justify the push for abolition in the north, the interpretation of the gospel becomes more important than the gospel itself.

Calvin comes to understand the changeability of religion through his inclination to convert as he travels around the country, and his movement from the northeast to the west to the south in combination with his Puritan roots shapes his unique position regarding race. Calvin’s aggressive anti-slavery position reflects his northern upbringing and begets conflict in the small southern towns that eventually leads to his death. But his notion of “blackness” is largely influenced by time spent in California where he meets Spanish and Mexican people who have dark skin but are not African American, complicating his perception of skin-color. The Spanish and Mexicans do not have a history of slavery, but are hardly distinguishable from the African Americans that are so mistreated in the south. This becomes a particularly sensitive issue when Calvin’s own son looks like he could be an African American: “the tall, gaunt, Nordic man, and the small, dark, vivid child who had inherited his mother’s build and coloring, like people of two different races” (Faulkner 242). While Calvin aggressively dismisses slavery at the time he marries his dark-skinned wife (denying the “frogeating-slaveholder” Catholics), it is only after his own child is vulnerable to social discrimination that he murders a man over a conflict about slavery: “When the boy was about five, Burden killed a man in an argument over slavery and had to take his family and move, leave Saint Louis. He moved westward, ‘to get away from Democrats,’ he said” (Faulkner 242). Later, Calvin is actually shot and killed alongside his dark-skinned grandson in a similar altercation with Colonel Sartoris, a champion of the old south, “over a question of negro voting” (Faulkner 248). But Calvin’s fight for social equality among dark- and light-skinned people in defense of his offspring does not reflect his personal usage of “black and white,” which, congruous with other aspects of his life, is manifested in a moral context.

While Calvin’s public actions demonstrate his vehement opposition to slavery, his domestic persona demonstrates an alternative form of racism in which he believes that there is a moral disparity between white and black men. His usage of the terms “black” and “white” is difficult to define, but Leigh Anne Duck suggests that Calvin “uses race solely to refer to appearance and theological status… [and] he allows these opposing ideas to mix in his speech chaotically” (271). He refers to both slaves and slaveholders as black, allowing the skin-color and immorality references to overlap. When referring to Nathaniel, Calvin would beat him, stating “I’ll learn you to hate two things or I’ll frail the tar out of you. And those two things are hell and slaveholders” (243). The language “frail the tar out of you” is at least in part a reference to moral blackness, but Calvin’s response to Nathaniel and his dark-skinned grandson after a sixteen-year absence challenges the strictly moral definition of “tar”: “Another damn Black Burden… Damn lowbuilt black folks: lowbuilt because of the weight of the wrath of God, black because of the sin of human bondage staining their blood and flesh. But we done freed them now, both black and white alike. They’ll bleach out now. In a hundred years they will be white folks again” (Faulkner 247). In this passage Calvin connects skin color to moral digressions (“staining their blood and flesh”), which suggests that Calvin’s beating the “tar” out of Nathaniel could actually be a punishment for simply having dark skin.

Calvin’s movement around the country places him on the outside of static southern convention in the way of religious and racial norms. His very inclination to move around the US contrasts with the southern, rural tradition of immobility (both on a social and geographical level), and the beliefs he gathers along the way reflect the different regions of the US in which he has lived. Religion and race create a hostile estrangement between Calvin and his southern neighbors that is passed down through generations of Burdens. In the novel’s present time, Joanna Burden carries on the legacy of her grandfather’s strange racist attitude, rendering her relationship with Joe Christmas and his own misunderstanding of his white-skinned, black-blooded identity all the more complex.

–Katherine Grau

Works Cited

Duck, Leigh Anne. “Peripatetic Modernism, or, Joe Christmas’s Father.” Philological Quarterly 90.2 (2011): 255-280. Web. 27 October, 2013.