Equine Gothic

In the "Old Man" sections of The Wild Palms (1939), the flood throws forth its "charging welter of dead cows and mules and outhouses and cabins and hencoops." Faulkner's prose strikes an elegiac note as the convict's skiff rides "even upon the backs of the mules as though even in death they were not to escape that burden-bearing doom with which their eunuch race was cursed" (145-46).

in Blood Meridian (1985) … having a mule drowned intentionally: "The Yumas were swimming the few sorry mules ... across the river. . . . Downriver they'd drowned one of the animals and towed it ashore to be butchered" (253). … That the image of the drowned mule also occupies a subliterary folk status in the South is perhaps attested by a common simile in which a wealthy person is said to have "enough money to burn up a wet mule."

6. Falls from cliffs. The novel Blood Meridian (1985) establishes Cormac McCarthy as unchallenged king of literary mule carnage. No fewer than fifty nine specific mules die in the book, plus dozens more that are alluded to in groups and bunches.

12. Overwork. As Reynolds Price observes in Blue Calhoun (1992), it takes a sorry man to work a mule to death?" Back then white trash didn't mean poor or lazy. People saved it to use on vicious families . . . who beat their children mercilessly or plowed their mule till it died in harness" (71).

One old mule that is almost worked to death but awarded a brief indulgent respite before its end is the centerpiece of a remarkable scene in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eves Were Watching God (1937), in which a full-dress mule funeral takes place complete with singing sisters and eulogy: "He spoke of the joys of mule-heaven to which the dear brother had departed this valley of sorrow; the mule-angels flying around; the miles of green corn and cool water, a pasture of pure bran with a river of molasses running through it; and most glorious of all, No Matt Bonner with plow lines and halters to come in and corrupt" (274).

…an anecdote that used to circulate in oral tradition in parts of the South, about how two fellows (call them Joe and Bob) decide to raffle off a mule at a dollar a chance. After they sell about a hundred tickets the mule dies. Bob says, "Well I guess we'll have to give all the people their money back," but Joe says, "No way. I'm just going to keep on selling tickets." Bob, being an honest man, drops out of the deal; but on the night after the drawing, curiosity prompts him to call his former partner and ask how things went. "Just fine," Joe reports, "I made about three hundred dollars." Bob says he'd bet there were a lot of angry ticket holders, and Joe replies "Naw, just one, and I gave him his dollar back."

Ernest Hemingway's contention that you do see them in war but nowhere else: "In twenty years of observation in civil life I had never seen a dead mule and had begun to entertain doubts as to whether these animals were really mortal. On rare occasions I had seen what I took to be dead mules, but on close approach, these always proved to be living creatures who seemed to be dead through their quality of complete repose" (135-36).

I like to think that - at least in our South - mules experience not actual death but transmogrification, a deliverance through the transforming power of art from mortality's corruption to a fierce foreverness in the well-wrought urn of Southern literature.
Written on June 16, 2009