The term carpetbagger was originally a pejorative nickname for northerners who, for a variety of reasons, traveled south in the mid to late 19th century. Though their actual origins and intentions varied greatly, their perception among native Southerners was almost universally negative. Aligned with Southern “scalawags” (members of the Republican party), carpetbaggers were viewed as a meddling force that sought to overturn the traditional social structure of the South for their own financial or political gain. As Eric Foner writes in his history of the Reconstruction era, this perception was largely imagined:

“Political, regional, and class prejudices combined to produce the image of the carpetbagger as a member of ‘the lowest class’ of the Northern population. Able to pack ‘all his earthly belongings’ in his carpetbag, he supposedly journeyed south after the passage of the Reconstruction Act ‘to fatten on our misfortunes.’ In fact, carpetbaggers tended to be well educated and middle class in origin. Not a few had been lawyers, businessmen, newspaper editors, and other pillars of Northern communities.” (Foner, 129)

Though Foner grants that many carpetbaggers did have financial motives for their migration to the South, it is clear that attitudes towards Northern émigrés were shaped by paranoia and anxieties about social change. In this way, carpetbaggers fit into a trans-generational lineage of unfairly stereotyped progressive movements. The abolitionists of the early 19th century, for example, were accused of secretly promoting miscegenation and even witchery or other occult practices. Similarly, the Reconstruction-era carpetbagger was regarded as a disrupting force with impure, malicious, and unclear motives. By the 20th century, this projection of anxieties turned towards white liberals, who became associated with Communism and Fascism.

In Faulkner’s Light in August, the carpetbagger becomes a central figure through the narrative of the Burden family. In some senses, Joanna’s murder—at the hands of a (possibly) black man, no less—can be interpreted as a symbol for the foolishness of the Northern desire to “fix” the South. Indeed, some critics have argued that Faulkner’s personal aversion to political radicalism informs such a reading. After all, negative perceptions of carpetbaggers were common not only among poor, crudely racist whites, but also among the more educated, aristocratic set (of which Faulkner fancied himself a member). At the same time, the Burden family’s narrative is hardly a straightforward example of Northern intrusion into Southern affairs. The geographic movement of this family complicates such a simplistic reading of Faulkner’s attitudes, and Joanna’s obsession with the notion of a curse on both whites and blacks exposes the nuanced, ambiguous position of the carpetbagger in Light in August.

In their Marxist reading of the novel, Gregory Meyerson and Jim Neilson argue that in Faulkner’s world, “political commitment is seen as unnatural and pathological” (Meyerson and Neilson, 30). The notion of fanaticism is key to their discussion—Joanna and her ancestors are depicted as wild, illogical, and intense in their determination to end slavery and later improve the social standing of blacks. Though Faulkner is clearly sympathetic to these goals, the authors argue, his skepticism of radical change in general leads him to characterize these figures as borderline insane. The physical depiction of Joanna “…unites her nymphomania (limbs throbbing and entangled) with connotations of manipulation, strangulation, suffocation, death, and of course the taboo lusts of ‘miscegenation’” (31). Joanna’s eventual plan to educate Joe Christmas and enlist him into her philanthropic project can be interpreted as manipulative and calculating—a symbol for the predominant Southern attitude about Reconstruction in general. For Meyerson and Neilson, much of this anxiety about carpetbaggers is informed by underlying fears about communism: “This discourse was retained, magnified and refined during Reconstruction, and again during the 1920s and 1930s; philanthropy was linked to carpetbaggers and communists, all associated with demagogues and racial renegades” (32). Communism, by its very nature, is dependent on true universal equality. As such, it is little wonder that this ideology presented such a threat to the traditional white supremacist social order in the South.

Though a compelling argument that sheds light on Faulkner’s possible prejudices and alignment with the aristocratic “Old South,” Meyerson and Neilson fail to mention one of the major features of the Burden family narrative. While they did originate in New England, Joanna’s grandfather left home at age 12, traveling immense distances before settling in California for a time. After making his way back East, he marries “...the daughter of a family of Hugenot stock which had emigrated from Carolina by way of Kentucky” (LIA, 241). His own lengthy journey, coupled with his marriage to a Southern woman, complicates the characterization of Calvin as a “Yankee.” Additionally, the text states:

“There was no Unitarian meetinghouse available, and Burden could not read the English bible. But he had learned to read in Spanish from the priests in California, and as soon as the child could walk Burden (he pronounced it Burden now…) began to read to the child in Spanish from the book which he had brought with him from California…” (LIA, 242)

In this passage, two significant features point to Calvin’s removal and isolation from his New England upbringing. First, he actually changes his name upon settling down, and second, he attempts to educate his child in Spanish—hardly a “Yankee” language. Joanna’s father follows a similar trajectory, wandering as far as Mexico and even marrying a “Spanish” woman. These forays into the Southwest disrupt the standard North-South binary of anti-carpetbagger sentiment. If Faulkner’s aim was simply to depict carpetbaggers as fanatical and ridiculous, he could easily have created a more direct back story for the Burden family. The influence of Spanish and Mexican cultures on the family at large sets them apart from the popular carpetbagger stereotype.

Faulkner’s ambivalence about the carpetbagger legacy and racial tension in general is ultimately exposed through Joanna’s discussion of the “curse” on both races. She recalls a conversation with her father: “‘The curse of the black race is God’s curse. But the curse of the white race is the black man who will be forever God’s chosen own because He once cursed him’” (LIA, 253). The intentionally convoluted wording here emphasizes the complexity of the situation. Though many southerners eventually came to accept the end of slavery, the widespread failures of Reconstruction were hard to ignore. Coupled with anxieties about Communism and Fascism abroad, it is not surprising that many regarded Northern intrusion with hostility. Rather than accepting the possibility that families like the Burdens simply held strong opinions about civil rights, these outsiders were associated with various forms of deviancy. The text itself works out many of these fears and anxieties, and demonstrates Faulkner’s own skeptical but nuanced attitude towards the legacy of carpetbaggers.

–Bill Keane

Works Cited
Faulkner, William. Light in August. New York: Vintage International, 1985.

Foner, Eric. A Short History of Reconstruction: 1863-1867. New York: Harper Perennial, 1990.

Meyerson, Gregory and Neilson, Jim. “Pulp Fiction: The Aesthetics of Anti-Radicalism in William Faulkner’s Light in August.” Science and Society. New York: Guilford Press, January 2008. Vol. 72, Iss. 1; pg. 11, 31 pgs.