Rumor and reputation are powerful elements of life in “Dry September,” as characters are defined by their social status and the stories that others tell about them. As an unmarried middle-aged woman and a black man, respectively, Minnie Cooper and Will Mayes have little control over their public images in the 1920s American South. Accordingly, both are passive bystanders to the action of the story and have little to say for themselves. The white McLendon, meanwhile, is seemingly automatically afforded a sense of respect and dignity that belies his cruel, abusive nature. This distinction highlights the hypocritical nature of the Jefferson community and condemns respectability based on shallow societal judgments.
At the center of the story’s controversy is Minnie Cooper’s honor, though Faulkner makes clear that she, herself, has little say in the matter; Minnie has no lines in “Dry September,” and her reputation is entirely defined by those around her even before the rumors of her alleged insult or assault by Mayes. In her youth, Minnie “had been a little brighter and louder flame than any other,” which may have made her the object of rumor and jealousy and excluded her from the traditional path of marriage and motherhood. Now, she is described as “good people enough,” but, as an unmarried woman of nearly forty, she is no longer considered a suitable prospect for any respectable man. In either case, outward markers have been used to define Minnie’s social value.
Minnie’s sexual history also separates her from many other women in town. At some point in the past, “the town began to see her driving on Sunday afternoons with the cashier in the bank,” a man who eventually left her for a job in Memphis. Even the mob of men in the barber shop take a moment to question her truthfulness based on her past, noting, “This ain’t the first man scare she ever had,” and commenting vaguely that “them ladies that get old without getting married don’t have notions that a man can’t…” Through these details, Faulkner establishes a world that places a premium on social reputation, even as it suggests the arbitrary, malleable nature of such judgments.
This backdrop points to the shallowness of the Jefferson community, which is all too eager to latch onto and extrapolate from potentially baseless rumors in order to cast judgment. For instance, although the men in the barber shop do not know the details of what happened to Minnie, they assume the worst, asking themselves if they will “let a black son rape a white woman on the streets of Jefferson.” A white woman’s reputation is fragile enough to be damaged by such a rumor, however false or truthful, and the simple possibility of sexual contact with a black man is a significant enough to warrant violence against him. Rumor and reputation, then, are more than social conveniences; they have distinct repercussions and consequences, especially for those afforded little personal agency beyond what others say about them—that is, women and black people.
Somewhat ironically, it is because of this that the veracity of Minnie’s accusation remains in question throughout the story. The recent rumor of her insult or assault has brought her a lot of attention from both men and women in town, essentially allowing her to reclaim visibility from those who had dismissed her. While she had long ceased to be an object of interest to men, after the Mayes rumors, “even the young men lounging in the doorway tipped their hats and followed with their eyes the motion of her hips and legs when she passed.” Her female friends, meanwhile, cannot suppress their desire to live vicariously through the details, looking at her with “secret and passionate” eyes, telling her “you must tell us what happened. What he said and did; everything.” Like the picture show, which offers a glimpse into life “in its terrible and beautiful mutations,” Minnie’s story provides the townspeople with a salacious escape from their daily lives.
Minnie’s strange actions on the evening of the attack on Will Mayes only add to the mystery. Her laughing fit in the movie theater could be a delayed reaction to her purported assault; on the other hand, it could be another bid for attention. Faulkner leaves it up to the reader to decide on Minnie’s intentions and evaluate her actions. If she is lying or even mistaken in her accusation, then identifying Mayes as her attacker was likely an attempt to boost her own reputation at his expense.
It is the white McLendon, however, who perhaps offers the greatest example of the dangers of privileging reputation above all else. Despite being the epitome of respectability because he “had commanded troops at the front in France and had been decorated for valor,” McLendon is the instigator of the vigilante mob, entering the barber shop for the sole purpose of recruiting men. He establishes himself as a man of action, claiming “no talking necessary at all. I've done my talking. Who's with me?” While the other customers are seated at the shop, McLendon remains standing the whole time, demonstrating his readiness to act. He also repeatedly calls into question the reputation of those unwilling to join him. When Hawkshaw joins the men in the car, for instance, McLendon taunts him, “when this town hears how you talked tonight.”
McLendon is clearly a man who knows the power of what other people say, and ostensibly well aware that the respect afforded him as a white war hero will insulate him from any repercussions for violence against Mayes. The unfairness of this—especially viewed in light of to the lack of respect afforded Minnie, and, especially, Mayes—is made all the more jarring in the final moments of the story. McLendon returns to his house, described as “trim and fresh as a birdcage and almost as small, with its clean, green-and-white paint.” Like McLendon himself, the house denotes respectability, but is a deceiving façade; inside, McLendon is both emotionally and physically abusive with his wife. He berates her for waiting up for him and then attacks her. First grabbing her shoulder, he “released her and half struck, half flung her across the chair” before leaving the room. The contrast between the public and private is clear here, as McLendon has gone from defending a woman’s honor out in town, to cruelly abusing a woman in his own home.
The fact that such a man has led the crusade against Mayes again points to the utter hypocrisy of the Jefferson community’s conception of honor, as a—very likely innocent—man has been deemed a criminal and led to his implied death at the hands of a respected but deeply cruel “hero.” “Dry September,” then, offers a scathing condemnation of those who would privilege reputation above actual character, as well as those who fail to look beyond flimsy rumors and social appearances to discern the truth.
Rumor, Reputation, and Hypocrisy ThemeTracker
Rumor, Reputation, and Hypocrisy Quotes in Dry September
“Except it wasn't Will Mayes,” a barber said. He was a thin, sand-colored man with a mild face, who was shaving a client. “I know Will Mayes. He's a
good nigger. And I know Miss Minnie Cooper, too.”
“That's the one: see? The one in pink in the middle.” “Is that her? What did they do with the nigger? Did they?” “Sure. He's all right.” “All right, is he?” “Sure. He went on a little trip.”
“Haven't I told you about sitting up like this, waiting to see when I come in?” “John,” she said. She laid the magazine down. Poised on the balls of his feet, he glared at her with his hot eyes, his sweating face. “Didn't I tell you?” He went toward her. She looked up then. He caught her shoulder. She stood passive, looking at him. “Don't, John. I couldn't sleep... The heat; something. Please, John. You're hurting me.”