Filed under: Films | Tags: faulkner, military, mulatto, mules, old man, southern literature, zora neale hurston
They said he was 65 years old. i dont know about that now that’s a long life for a mule. but he eventually died. they rooted him over into that pond that old skeleton lying there with the hide all on him just as tough as anything you ever seen. and a big hole in his throat here where the buzzards and things had eaten him, eaten him up him they couldn’t have eat him all. i was a fishin’ in there one day and dropped my bait down there in that hole. that old mule laying in there all puffed up. dried up on the skeleton. and there’s a big warmouth perch run out of it up here and bit my hook, took it in that old mule right that quick you know and he got off of there got loose. and i went to pull the hook out and i must of hung it on one of his ribs and i had to break it off. but i put on another hook and dropped down there and i caught a big one you know. the bones had come out of his legs, the skin was laying there you know just as tough as a, just tough as a bear you know. and i got over this deep in the water and went down there and got ahold of them legs and dug that old mule out there on the hill and there was one hundred and fourteen warmouth in him, was warmouth perch. i could hear em a flutterin’ just quick as i run out on hill with him, the water run out of him and i could hear them a flutterin’ in there you know. [laughter]
Now, I’ve heard fish tales. And I’ve heard mule tales. In fact, I wrote a whole paper (it was more of a list) on mules in Faulkner’s story “Old Man.” Mules also pervade the work of Zora Neale Hurston. But this epic combination of the two is from the Eroll Morris documentary Vernon, Florida. An unnamed resident of Vernon quite candidly tells the documentary crew about his big catch. Here he is:
Objectively, the story is hard to believe and would be disgusting if true. Can you imagine pulling on the bone-less legs of a dead mule? Let alone eating the fish that had been living in the carcass… But examining it as a cultural phenomenon, the American mule tale, is quite fascinating to me. Mules pop up all over Southern fiction, from Faulkner and Hurston to Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy. Half the time they are dead and the other half they are mocking humans.
Traditionally, mules were bred in America for labor and used in war. They are known for their productive resilience and stubbornness. They can take paths and climbs that are impossible for horses. Apparently, American military currently uses them in the war in Afghanistan.
Mules are the offspring of a male donkey mated with a mare. They are notoriously sterile. Scholars have pointed to the historical association of mules with mulattos (people of mixed race, white and black). Pseudo-race sciences often argued that mulattos were sterile, while, paradoxically, much of society feared the “one drop” of African blood staining its progeny. As people liked to view the construction of race to represent distinct “species” of man, the mule, an animal hybrid, was a natural analog for some.
I hope to do more work on the subject of mules in Southern fiction. Vernon, Florida has only reinvigorated my interest. Why did Southern authors use mules so often in their work? Was it because they were such a large part of Southern every-day life? Why do they frequent folklore? Why are they often tied to Florida? If you have any thoughts on mules I’d love to hear them. If you’ve encountered one (I have not) I am curious about your experience. For now I leave you with this image, and a simile:
Some said that President Truman was as stubborn as a mule.
**Love and credit for this post go to Ernie and Giovanna
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