By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Dry September’ is a 1931 short story by the American writer William Faulkner. In the story, which takes place one hot and rainless September in the American South, a white woman accuses an African-American man of attacking her, and the white men of the town form a mob to go after the man. Despite the barber of the town urging caution, they ignore him and pursue the man with terrible consequences.
Faulkner’s story, like all of his fiction, raises a series of important but difficult questions. Before we address some of these in our analysis of ‘Dry September’, here’s a quick summary of the story’s plot.
‘Dry September’: plot summary
The story takes place in the Southern United States in September. It has been sixty-two days since it last rained. A group of youths are in the barbershop and discussing a local white woman, Miss Minnie Cooper, who has accused a black man, Will Mayes, of attacking her. When the barber defends Will Mayes against the accusation, saying that he knows the man, one of the youths present, a man named Butch, gets angry and accuses him – and several of the other men – of siding with a black man over a white woman.
A man named McLendon turns up at the barbershop and sides with Butch. However, one of the other men points out that Minnie Cooper has form when it comes to fabricating such allegations against men. But both Butch and McLendon have made up their minds to go in pursuit of Mayes, and refuse to heed the barber’s plea that they seek to establish the truth of what happened first.
Minnie Cooper is in her late thirties and lives with her invalid mother and an aunt. Although she had been popular when younger, she has never married or settled down, and remains single, possessed of a faded and slightly haggard beauty. She had been involved with a bank cashier, a widowed man, but he had left her to go and work in Memphis. Minnie can no longer attract the admiration of the local men.
Meanwhile, the barber, whose name is Hawkshaw, tries to reason with Butch and the other men as they get in a car and prepare to drive off to confront Mayes about the alleged attack. They disregard him, and head to the ice plant, where Mayes works nights as a watchman. They grab Mayes and handcuff him, something he allows them to do, but when he demands to know where they are taking him, they start to strike him as they put him in the car.
As they are driving Mayes away, Hawkshaw demands to be let out of the car, not wanting to have any further part in what they do. McLendon drives out to an abandoned brick kiln on the edge of town, and the barber jumps out and limps back to town.
Meanwhile, Minnie attends the cinema with her friends, while everyone is busy discussing what happened to her and what befell Will Mayes. While she is in the movie theatre, Minnie starts laughing uncontrollably, and her friends take her outside, where she continues to laugh in the street. They take her home in a cab and put her to bed, sending for the doctor. Now they have seen how oddly she is behaving and how she is clearly mentally unwell, Minnie’s friends start to wonder whether anything did happen between her and Mayes.
The story ends later that night with McLendon getting home and finding his wife waiting up for him. She tells him she couldn’t sleep because of the heat, but he grabs her and flings her across the chair, half-hitting her in the process. He then goes and sits out on the rear porch, undressing.
He is sweating profusely and panting. Everything around him seems still and quiet, and we are left to assume that he and the other men killed Will Mayes, who was almost certainly innocent.
‘Dry September’: analysis
Like many of William Faulkner’s stories, ‘Dry September’ focuses on town gossip and its relation to the individual. But unlike ‘A Rose for Emily’, which explores the ways in which rumour surrounds an unmarried aristocratic woman living in the American South, ‘Dry September’ takes an even darker theme for its subject: racial prejudice and the lynching of black people in the Deep South.
By the end of the story, a number of factors – the barber’s good opinion of Mayes, Mayes’ own sincere profession of innocence, Minnie Cooper’s ‘form’ when it comes to accusing men of indecent behaviour, and, finally, her hysterical behaviour in the movie theatre – have accumulated to give us what the law courts would call ‘reasonable doubt’ over whether the alleged incident ever took place.
As a result, mob mentality and deep-seated racism towards African Americans has led to an innocent man being killed.
And Faulkner makes it clear that racial prejudice is what drives the leaders of the lynch mob that pursues Mayes. For instance, both Butch and McLendon disregard the point of whether the attack actually took place, implying that this issue is irrelevant. Butch scoffs as the word ‘facts’, while McLendon chastises his fellow white men for waiting around until a black man actually commits such a crime against one of the white women.
For them, even the merest rumour of wrongdoing – no matter how tenuous it may be or how unreliable its source – is enough to justify their subsequent behaviour. In other words, they are both acknowledging that Will Mayes’ innocence or guilt doesn’t matter to them either way: their motivation is racism, and hatred of African Americans like Mayes, rather than justice.
Furthermore, they reveal themselves to be both irresponsible and hypocritical. They cannot even take full responsibility for their own behaviour and own what they have done. Early on in the story, one of the men in the barbershop cites the ‘durn weather’ – it is an unseasonably dry September, as Faulkner’s title reminds us – as a factor in making men do ‘anything’, whether assaulting a woman or murdering another man.
When McLendon arrives home, having supposedly just defended the honour of a white woman (at least in his mind), he is happy to strike his own wife for merely waiting up for him.
How are we to analyse this behaviour? On one level, Faulkner is clearly revealing McLendon’s hypocrisy: for him, and for Butch as well, the hounding of Mayes was never about justice or standing up for a woman. That was merely an excuse for violence towards a black man.
On another level, though, it may point to McLendon’s self-loathing at having given in to such a base impulse: he knows that what they did was wrong and they have murdered an innocent man, and his profuse sweating and desire to strip off his clothes may be caused by more than the hot, ‘dry September’ of the story’s title.
Minnie Cooper, meanwhile, cuts a tragic and pathetic figure: a woman who had been popular and admired in her youth, but now, as she approaches forty years of age, a woman who has been left behind when all of her friends got married and had children. Faulkner tells us that when she had once had the attention of men’s admiring eyes, those eyes follow her no more. Did she concoct the story about Will Mayes to suggest that men did still notice her, albeit in the most appalling manner imaginable?
Her outburst in the movie theatre may ostensibly seem like heartlessness, but again, it’s more likely a nervous breakdown brought on by her conscience attempting to reassert itself: she, too, is aware that her rumours have led (or will shortly lead) to the lynching of an innocent man, and the inner turmoil prompted by her actions break out in the form of uncontrollable laughter.
Of course, such laughter also alerts her friends to the fact that she may well be unstable and, therefore, unreliable. ‘Dry September’ is, in the last analysis, a story which shows the American South as not too far removed from the seventeenth-century New England that Arthur Miller would later depict in The Crucible: a rumour is enough to light the touchpaper of deep-seated pre-existing prejudice among the populace and lead to the deaths of innocent people.