The concept of identity is a person’s sense of self, including their beliefs, values, and morality as they see themselves. Identity can be shaped by many factors including genetics, personal experience, society, and other external forces. The formation of a person’s identity is explored in both Barn Burning by William Faulkner (1938) and The Sculptors Funeral by Willa Cather (1905). Both stories’ protagonists, Sarty Snopes and Harvey Merrick respectively, contend against external forces, such as the expectations their families have for them, in order to exercise their own personal beliefs and values. In the end, both protagonists choose to lead a life that their families might not have chosen for them, or even supported, but that was ultimately true to who they were internally.
In Barn Burning, Sarty is being held back in his development of self and choice by his family, primarily his father, Abner. His mother is seemingly the only positive family influence on him, but she still mostly goes along with the father’s wishes. She shows concern for Sarty when he is bleeding after another boy hits him outside the general store, and is shown to be somewhat protective of him. This can be seen when she attempts to hold Sarty down when he is trying to tell Major de Spain about his father’s plan to burn the barn down. She does this so that Abner will not tie Sarty up to the bedposts as he has threatened to. As for Sarty, while he has a desire to win the approval of his family, what his father wants of him goes against his personal morality. Sarty is very different from his father. He posses “an industry…” He is a hard worker whereas his father is a thief who “had in his blood…own.” Abner claimed to be a war hero, however we learn that he did not actually fight in the war, and instead stole horses and other loot from both sides of the conflict. Also in contrast with Abner’s values, Sarty has a strong sense of justice, both legal and personal. Sarty does not like to lie for his father. This is evident when he thinks, “He aims for me to lie…and I will have to do hit,” with “frantic grief and despair.” He would rather tell the truth to the court, but his father tells him to “stick to [his] blood.” His father, despite demanding familial loyalty, is the reason they are in constant exile and poverty. Sarty feels guilty for the crimes his father commits but, “the old grief of blood” prevents him from telling the truth to the justice of the peace.
We see that Sarty is torn between his personal morality and his father’s expectations. He feels “pulled two ways like between two teams of horses.” He wants to tell the truth because his values mirror those of townspeople, which he believes “wanted only truth, justice,” but he feels, “the old fierce pull of blood” towards his father. The townspeople do not seem to have it out for Abner; they just want peace and stability in the post-war South. Abner’s sentences for his crimes are always lighter than the victims of his crimes want them to be, but Abner is still discontented. Abner feels like he is being cheated and wrongfully punished. Eventually, Sarty does break free from his father’s “ferocious conviction in the rightness of his own actions.” He makes the decision to warn Major de Spain of his father’s plan to burn down the barn. Sarty ultimately runs away, thus gaining his independence and establishing his own identity separate from that of his family and father.
In The Sculptors Funeral by Willa Cather, Harvey Merrick also establishes his own identity in contrast to that of his family and the people in his home town. While Barn Burning takes place during Sarty’s early years and initial transformation, The Sculptors Funeral begins after Harvey Merrick has died. The townspeople attend his funeral and pass various negative judgments about him. The folks still living in Merrick’s hometown say that they value hard work and business acumen. They only respect successful ranchers and farmers, and had held artistic professions and formal education in low esteem. This small town, rural ideology differed at the time, and still differs, from the value put on creativity by more urban locations.
Jim Laird, one of Merrick’s boyhood friends, says that the townspeople’s cruel commentary stems from the fact that Merrick became successful while they have remained, “disappointed strugglers in a bitter, dead little western town…” We learned that throughout Merrick’s life, the town, and in particular his mother, had “made Harvey’s life a hell for him.” Merrick’s father, like Sarty’s mother in Barn Burning, seems to be the only one that even vaguely provided a positive influence on the younger Merrick’s life. His father made financial and personal sacrifices to ensure he received a good education, even though he says he never understood his son. Despite his upbringing, Merrick became a noble, kind man. Laird remarks that he, “Never could see how [Harvey] kept himself sweet” despite how the town, “drummed nothing but money and knavery into their ears from the time they were knickerbockers…” Laird himself was similar to Merrick in morality and work ethic, but instead of traveling away, he returned to the town of their youth and became a drunkard. Steavens, a man who only knew Merrick in his adulthood but who accompanies the body back West, summarizes what he observes and learns at the funeral. He says Merrick, “was wonderful… but until tonight I have never known how wonderful.” Steavens was shocked to know that such a gentle man had grown from such harsh and criticizing conditions. Merrick’s creations and eye for beauty were a testament to the strength of his inner identity.
Steavens’ statement could easily be uttered by one of Sarty’s friends at the end of his life, it his formative years were revealed later. Both men, one at the beginning of his life and the other at the very end of it, had to overcome the outside influences that would have prevented them from being true to themselves. Through it all, Sarty stayed hard working and honest and Merrick stayed gentle and kind. Stories like this are a testament to the role that human agency plays in developing individual identity.
The fact that both of these characters’ stories are celebrated as triumphs of individuality, shows the emphasis that Americans put on being your own person and not sticking too rigidly to the wishes and traditions of our parents. As much as Americans seem fond of conformism, being true to oneself regardless of challenges is part of American identity. The principle of individualism is even written directly into our constitution, that all people have the God-given right to “the pursuit of happiness.” American philosophy is built upon the idea of personal advancement and self-actualization for each citizen. Cather’s short story, published in 1905, was indicative of the next 40 years’ ideals, in which great clout was given to the idea of rugged individualism. This concept was also written about by Herbert Hoover in his 1922 book. These concepts and works likely influenced Faulkner when he was writing Barn Burning in the 1930’s. Today, these the ideal of individualism still plays an important part in socioeconomic and political discussions.
Hoover, Herbert C. American Individualism. Doubleday, Page, & Company, 1922.
The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 9th ed., vol. 2, W.W. Norton & Company, 2017.