Though the 1862 Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves, their economic conditions were dire, as inequalities kept them from many jobs and educational opportunities. Southern states, bitter upon losing their bid for secession, attempted to deal with emancipated slaves by passing laws known as the “Black Codes.” These laws, effectively perpetuating the racial segregation and degradation formerly applied to slaves, kept the ex-slaves from achieving economic opportunity and fair judicial process almost as thoroughly as before Emancipation. Congress, however, refused re-admittance to the Union to those states who would not ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, and the Fourteenth Amendment, which guaranteed civil liberties to all citizens. By 1877, the plans for Reconstruction were completed. Rather than integrate African Americans into society, however, the South erected a system of segregation that supposedly provided separate but equal opportunity for freed slaves and their descendants. “White supremacy” undercut any sense of fairness as the South began to rejoin the Union. Conditions had improved very little by Faulkner’s day. Segregation still kept African Americans from entering the better schools and from securing jobs, and they were still in frequent danger of violence and humiliation.
The United States was a very different place at the conclusion of the Civil War. The agricultural South was virtually destroyed, while the industrial Northeast had grown strong. The railroad industry exploded as opportunists in the Midwest and the West sought ways to get their products—primarily beef and grain—to market. Owned largely by New Yorkers, the railroad received free land and millions of dollars in loans. The bankers, led by financier J. P. Morgan, could not get rich fast enough; nor could the railroad-owning families of Vanderbilts, Goulds, and others. Soon the nation’s wealth was controlled by fewer and fewer businessmen who sought to protect their riches through trusts. Big business had been born, and its foremost goal was to protect itself. Railroad companies manipulated rates to favor the business of associates while extracting huge fees from unknown independent companies. They were represented in government by the Republican Party, while the South and poorer northerners, including immigrants, sought leadership in the Democratic Party. The Republicans usually won, but Democrat Grover Cleveland did serve an eight year term, and it is during his presidency that “The Bear” is set. These big business families also controlled the stock market, and their efforts to manipulate the market are blamed by many for the stock market crash of 1929. It is Faulkner’s perspective in the early twentieth century, a period when industrialization began to seem overwhelming, that gives the destruction of deSpain’s hunting grounds a certain urgency.
Although ‘ “The Bear” is set in the late nineteenth century, Faulkner initially began writing the story during the Depression. Economic conditions in the post-war South were similar to those during the Depression. People in both eras lost land and family possessions, suffering an identity crisis in the process. The post-war South was ripe for “carpetbaggers,” those who moved from the North seeking opportunities in business and land ownership. Many desperate Southerners felt they had no choice but to sell out, as Major deSpain does when he sells the land to the forestry company. The Great Depression uprooted families in many parts of the country, as people were forced to migrate to other cities in their search for work. Similarly, slaves freed during the Civil War soon began migrating, some to the industrialized north and others to land promised to them by the Union before Emancipation. Some slaves were skilled craftsman, and a few, like Fonsiba’s intellectual husband, could read. Most freed slaves, however, had no education, no money, no work skills, and no understanding of how to manage for themselves. They were often the victims of fast-talking carpetbaggers, sometimes joining them in their quest for power and money. Some even opted to stay on the plantation, seeking a certain amount of security from their former owners in exchange for their loyalty. Tennie and her son Jim are among those of the McCaslin slaves who opt to stay with the McCaslin family.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.