488 pp., 61/8 x 91/4, 27 illus., 3 maps, 3 figs., notes,
Published: Spring 2001
Roots of Yoknapatawpha
by Don H.
(c) 2001 by the University of North Carolina Press. All
We have a few old mouth-to-mouth tales; we exhume from old trunks and boxes and drawers letters without salutation or signature, in which men and women who once lived and breathed are now merely initials or nicknames out of some now incomprehensible affection which sound to us like Sanskrit or Choctaw; we see dimly people, the people in whose living blood and seed we ourselves lay dormant and waiting, in this shadowy attenuation of time possessing now heroic proportions, performing their acts of simple passion and simple violence, impervious to time and inexplicable. -- William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!
This book is about the history of a real place, Lafayette County, Mississippi, the main source of William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, and the storied past they shared. It was one of several counties formed in northern Mississippi in the 1830s, after the Chickasaw people were forced to leave for Indian Territory. They called the area Yoknapatawpha, and a river flowing through the county still bears that name in abbreviated form. The human history of this place goes back long before the creation of Lafayette County and before 1540, when the first Europeans, Spanish soldiers with Hernando DeSoto, entered the Chickasaw domain.
Three centuries following that first fateful encounter, the Chickasaws made their exit westward while a swarm of cotton planters, slaves, yeomen, and poor whites came in from the East. Almost overnight the new claimants to the land built a plantation economy based on cotton and slavery with towns, hamlets, roads, bridges, railroads, a courthouse, and government all in service to that economic and social order.
Twenty-five years after its founding, pushed by an ardent corps of fire-eating secessionists, the citizens of Lafayette County joined a revolutionary struggle to become independent from a nation they feared would destroy slavery. During four years of war that followed, Union armies invaded northern Mississippi, plundering the land and encouraging slaves to rise and flee. One day in August 1864 a Union force, including former slaves among its troops, invaded the county and sacked and burned Oxford, the county seat, leaving the courthouse and public square, along with several mansions in town, nothing but blackened ruins. What the Union invaders had not pillaged or destroyed, the Confederate armies foraged for themselves. Roving bands of bushwhackers, white southerners preying on defenseless families in a war-torn society, took much of what remained. Lafayette County was as decimated by war as almost any part of the South. The revolution for independence was defeated and, instead, a revolution that destroyed slavery had succeeded.
Another war ensued, this one over the status of former slaves, who made up nearly half the population. Reconstruction continued the Civil War in new form. It was a political contest and an armed struggle that pitted Democrats against Republicans, whites against freedmen, Ku Klux Klan terrorists against federal marshals. Ten bloody years after the war for southern independence was lost, the war for white supremacy was triumphant in Mississippi. The losers, the former slaves, began their dark journey into violent subjugation and segregation, an ordeal they would endure the better part of a century until the civil rights movement -- the Second Reconstruction -- brought relief.
Once part of a frontier full of promise, following the Civil War and Reconstruction, Lafayette County, along with much of the rural Deep South, became a backward region burdened by conditions of poverty, poor health, illiteracy, and misery that bore heavily on both races. The domain of abundant forests, wildlife, and fertile fields the Chickasaws had ceded to whites was now a largely ruined landscape of washed-out gullies, silt-laden creeks, and fields exhausted by the repeated planting of cotton. Forests once teeming with deer, bear, and other wild game were depleted, while the voracious advance of itinerant sawmills denuded wide swaths through them. Lafayette County was part of a nation that congratulated itself on a history of triumph, prosperity, opportunity, tolerance, and progress. In this part of America, however, a history of defeat, poverty, racism, and fatalistic despair cast a deep shadow across the land. These conditions would not begin to lift until after the Great Depression, when a combination of forces brought change to the economy, politics, and race relations of the South. It was toward the end of this prolonged era of gloom that William Faulkner, a fourth-generation Mississippian, began writing about his native land and the history that haunted it. He wrote fiction and made up characters and stories, but his subject, his source material, was the very real people and the history that his family had been part of since the time white Americans first settled in northern Mississippi.
Quite apart from Faulkner's unique contribution to the history of this county and region, Lafayette County, Mississippi, stands on its own as a southern community whose history can reveal much about the larger past of which it is part. We can learn from this kind of case study, not because Lafayette County was in any way exceptional or because events took place here of great significance to the nation's history. On the contrary, this county and its people present a rather typical, even ordinary, portrait of the southern past. Founded during the high tide of Old South expansion, it offers a view of southern society as it formed on the coarse western edge of the expanding cotton frontier. Much of our understanding of the Old South rests on images of older, more settled and finished eastern states like Virginia and South Carolina. In Mississippi, we witness the freshest expression of a dynamic southern society as it regenerated itself in the West.
Lafayette County also replicates in some rough fashion the social diversity of the Deep South. Straddling the piney hills and broad, fertile tablelands and river bottomlands near the Tallahatchie and Yoknapatawpha Rivers, the county included a range of wealth and social classes. There were hardscrabble, semisubsistence farmers in the hills who lived in unpainted dog-trot cabins, rich cotton planters and slave owners who lived in grand mansions with ostentatious white columns, and, in between, a wide strata of yeoman farmers who owned few or no slaves. Over 40 percent of the white families owned slaves, half of them owned less than five, but a few had well over one hundred. Slaves made up nearly half the people of the county, and blacks still claimed between 40 and 50 percent of the county's population a century after emancipation. Serving the isolated plantations and small farms of the countryside were several scattered hamlets that dotted the county's landscape, some emerging, others disappearing over time. Clustered around a country store, a cotton gin, or a blacksmith shop, these remote outposts of the marketplace connected, in turn, to Oxford, the economic hub and political center of local society. There, a distinctive town society led by the more prosperous families of planters, merchants, lawyers, government officials, and artisans fostered a genteel middle-class culture. The University of Mississippi, founded in the 1840s, was the foundation of Oxford's identity as a cultural outpost in Mississippi. Faulkner had the freedom to take the university out of his fictional Jefferson, probably because it seemed atypical of the southern town life he was depicting. Historians do not possess the same license to remove or even ignore such things, but if the university makes Oxford seem exceptional, its impact on the local economy and society was limited before the twentieth century and never so great as to make the entire county significantly different.
The history of Lafayette County, as told in this book, does not always parallel the fictional historical portraits that Faulkner created for Yoknapatawpha County. The earlier history of Lafayette County and the crisis of the Civil War and Reconstruction receive far more attention here than in Faulkner's accounts of Yoknapatawpha. Slaves are present in Faulkner's fiction usually as anonymous background figures, but the slaves and descendants of slaves in Lafayette County are an integral part of this history. African slaves were the main source of labor for the cotton economy. Moreover, slavery and the destiny of former slaves were of central and continuing importance to the way history happened in this part of the world.
The faith underlying a local historical study such as this is that by knowing one small place well we can understand better the larger society of which it is a part. It is a premise not unlike that underlying a biopsy or blood sample examined by a physician. We know there is much to be learned about the larger organism by close inspection of one small part, not because it contains all the features of the larger body but because it includes many of its essential elements. No local sample of one county can ever be truly representative of such a large and diverse region as the American South, especially over more than a century. Whatever anomalies might exist in our Lafayette County sample, it nevertheless contains enough of the essential traits of the larger society to serve as a plausible specimen of the South.
To study a small community is more than just a convenient way of sampling; it is the context within which people experienced what we call social history. All social history, to rephrase Tip O'Neil's famous comment on politics, is local. Important national events, the Chickasaw treaties, the Panic of 1837, Fort Sumter, and Appomattox, always impinged on life as people experienced it in Lafayette County, to be sure. They lived in a nation with laws, wars, and markets that framed their lives in many ways. But to a remarkable degree people well into the twentieth century lived out their lives within a network of local connections. Political parties rested on grassroots organizations and were led by men who were known to local voters. When Lafayette County sent its men to war in 1861, they were told they were fighting for the altars and hearths of their loved ones at home. Those men fought -- or deserted -- based on their own calculation of personal and family advantage. Politics and economics, along with many other types of history, must take place within a broader, national or international framework, but social history requires us to scale down to the local context within which ordinary people lived.
Whatever one can say for Lafayette County as a representative case study, let me hasten to admit that the real reason I chose it was that William Faulkner chose it before me. Lafayette County was the primary source for what is the most famous imaginary place in American literature: Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. The "sole owner and proprietor" of this domain was William Faulkner, but his frequent references to the actual past remind us that the apocryphal Yoknapatawpha was also a product of the actual history. In sixteen novels and dozens of short stories, Faulkner conceived this fictional county, mapped its geographical landmarks, and filled it with characters he created. Yoknapatawpha was a place of the imagination, invented by Faulkner as a vehicle for developing a coherent body of fiction, but the raw materials from which he created this place and its people lay right at his front porch. His main subject was the history of this place, these people, and the larger South of which they were part. There is no single place in America that offers such a rich and extensive body of historical fiction.
Table 1 illustrates in schematic outline the broad historical periods of the sixteen novels in the Yoknapatawpha opus. This listing necessarily oversimplifies what were often complicated relationships between the present time of narration and flashbacks to earlier historical periods. A few of Faulkner's stories float loosely in time without the specific historical detail to allow precise definition of the chronological location, which sometimes must be deduced from knowledge of a character from another story. Faulkner's treatment of the past was more seamless than this table suggests, but it nonetheless illustrates his continued probing of his people's history during a career of writing.
Interest in the relationship between the world Faulkner lived in and the
one he created in fiction has generally focused on the anecdotal connections between particular people, places, and incidents in fact and fiction. Following Faulkner's belated rise to fame in the years after World War II, journalists, scholars, and local residents began outlining the parallels and connections between Yoknapatawpha and Lafayette County. Ward Miner's The World of William Faulkner (1952) was a pioneering attempt to connect the actual and apocryphal and to place Yoknapatawpha within a broad framework of historical interpretation. Joseph Blotner's meticulous biography of William Faulkner, published in 1974, unearthed a vast and fascinating web of connections between the fictional characters and events of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha and their local counterparts. Many other scholars have added to our understanding of how Faulkner made such extensive use of local characters and stories. Often they have relied on interviews with Lafayette County people and research into historical records to connect the fictional and factual. Among his neighbors, it became a local sport to try to guess the real-life counterparts to Faulkner's characters, "the one literary criticism of the town being 'How in the hell did he remember all that.'" There may be no finer tribute to Faulkner's authenticity.
These links between people or incidents in famous literature and the "real world" hold a certain fascination for readers, in part, because they seem to validate the notion that literature relates to life. I initially approached this project with the historian's instinctive skepticism toward fictional representations of history and with the unspoken expectation that my own empirical research into the historical sources of Yoknapatawpha would cast doubt on Faulkner as an authority on southern history. But the deeper I took my research into the history of this place, the more my respect grew for Faulkner, not as a historian dealing with facts and evidence but as an intuitive interpreter of the past and an astute observer of his contemporary social environment. I disagree with those who assume that because he was indifferent to "facts" that his fiction does not document accurately the social and historical reality of the world he was exploring. Writing history is not just sorting out facts; it is interpreting the past from the evidence left to us. At the same time, I came to appreciate more than ever the limitations of empirical historical research alone in understanding the past. Faulkner, I have often told my friends in literature, is much too important to leave solely to literary scholars. What I learned from Faulkner is that history, the interpretation of the past, is too important to leave exclusively to historians.
Many historians before me have seen in Faulkner a credible authority on the South, a writer of fiction who had something important to offer about the region and the meaning of its past. The renowned southern historian C. Vann Woodward credited Faulkner with leading the literary attack on the stubborn myths that enshrouded the region's past, thereby helping clear the way for historians to take up the task of revising the traditional narratives that had dominated southern history since Reconstruction. More than that, Woodward tells us, it was Faulkner's fiction that framed his reading of that past. After reading Faulkner, Woodward asked, how could one write about the New South without thinking about Flem Snopes or Jason Compson? How could one discuss the planters without recalling such vivid characters as Thomas Sutpen or Old Carothers? How could a historian exploring the world of black people not have in mind Joe Christmas, Lucas Beauchamp, or Dilsey? When Woodward refers to the New South as the "age of the Snopes," it seems his emplotment of southern history, as well as his ironic and tragic tone, owes much to Faulkner's fictional rendering. Confessing himself to be a historian "dedicated to fact" but "inspired by fiction," Woodward speaks for many historians of the South who cite Faulkner or his characters alongside documented evidence as though Faulkner's people, his South are -- if not real -- historically "true." This exchange between fiction and history began with Faulkner's absorption of local and regional history into his works of fiction, but at some point this fiction began seeping back into the narratives and plots historians employ to narrate the South's past.
As I waded into the historical materials that document Lafayette County's past, while at the same time immersing myself in Faulkner's fictional world, I found I was frequently confusing the fictional and historical worlds. Names of people, events, places, and countless little details that emerged from the historical record of Lafayette County began to blur with what I was learning about the fictional Yoknapatawpha County. It must have been the same for William Faulkner, surely more so, because local history and legend were in the very air he breathed and voices he heard every day.
Often I stumbled across things in the historical records that immediately triggered a reference to the fictional Yoknapatawpha. In the attic of the county courthouse, I opened a large, leather-bound ledger to find a copy of the land deed with the "X" by which Hoka, the Indian woman who briefly owned the land, signed it away to three white men. This became the town site of Oxford that now lay sprawling outside the courthouse below. I could only think of Faulkner's Mohataha, the Indian queen in her silk dress who signs her own "X" conceding the land to the whites and then heads her wagon west to Oklahoma.
Names and people continually provoked connections to Faulkner's characters. In church records I came across a slave named Dilsey who was admitted as a member of the white Baptist church, then ran away with the Yankees and was excommunicated. I found the name Snipes so often in local records and on tombstones in the hills east of Oxford to make me think that it probably inspired Faulkner's name for the Snopes clan. Tales of shrewd country traders and their complicated deals I came across evoked thoughts of the Snopeses' uncanny talent for trade. Other stories of country folk who come to town and rise to wealth and position, like Joe Parks, who is always pictured with his Snopes-like small black bow tie, trigger images of Flem on the rise. There are dozens of names -- Varner, Littlejohn, Ratliff, Hightower, Carothers, Bundren, Houston, and McEachern -- found in Faulkner's fiction and then in the old newspapers, maps, or census rolls until the two worlds of fiction and history become at times difficult to keep separate.
I heard many stories and legends while visiting this county, some of them verifiable, many not. Some tales speak of the Civil War era when families buried or hid silver and other valuables from the invading Union soldiers (or maybe from marauding Confederates and bushwhackers, though they are rarely acknowledged). One account tells of the old Price mansion, near the Yoknapatawpha River, not far from Faulkner's Frenchman's Bend, said to have family treasure buried by a slave or slaves just before the Yankees invaded the area. The slaves ran off with them, or the Yankees killed them; the accounts vary, but no one remained to tell where the treasure was buried. For years after the war, treasure hunters came to the now abandoned mansion to dig fruitless holes around the abandoned house, just as Faulkner's characters do in The Hamlet. There are other stories that bleed into the fiction Faulkner wrote. One is about a man who hid out in the attic to avoid Confederate provost marshals, something like Faulkner's Goodhue Coldfield holed up in his pacifist attic retreat, with his bitter daughter Rosa below scribbling odes to Confederate heroes. One afternoon Earl Truett, a local historian and genealogist, told me in a whispered voice that his grandfather once showed him the location of Toby Tubby's grave. According to legend, when Toby Tubby died his Chickasaw tribesmen tried to bury his African slave, along with some of his gold and silver, in the chief's tomb. To anyone familiar with Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha, these and dozens of other accounts in Lafayette County's past testify to the parallel and sometimes intertwining worlds of the actual and the apocryphal.
I passed part of one afternoon visiting Susie Marshall, granddaughter of a slave, sitting on the front porch of her home in Oxford's "Freedman Town," facing what is now Martin Luther King Drive. She told me stories of her family a century or more before and showed me a photograph of her great-grandfather Jerry Fox, posing proudly with his freedom papers in his coat pocket. She also recalled stories of her childhood when she worked with her family in the cotton fields, waiting at the end of the cotton rows ladling water for the workers as they picked their way down to her, long bags of cotton trailing behind them.
Among the long-settled families in this county the past is very much part of family history, and it never seems more than one or two degrees separated from the present. One warm summer afternoon I was digging through dusty old ledgers in the basement of the City Hall with the help of W. C. Hill, a member of the Skipwith Society. He was telling me stories of the area around Delay and "Old Dallas," the latter a notoriously violent community in the southern part of the county, near Faulkner's fictional Frenchman's Bend. When I mentioned my interest in the murder of Elizabeth Ragland by former slaves right after the Civil War, he looked up and said: "She was my great-grandmother." Like so much of the informal collection of stories that make up local history, the Ragland murder had filtered down to me in a variety of confusing, contradictory accounts, which left even the year of the murder uncertain. The next day W. C. and his wife, Sybil, led me to the Ragland family cemetery, and there Elizabeth Ragland's tombstone gave an eerie verification of the date of the murder: 1866. Later we went over to the old Ragland house where she had died, her throat slashed one winter night 130 years before, and where her bloodstained hand print was left on the doorjamb. Some of the people and stories I came across began to sound more like Faulkner than Faulkner.
Another time, while probing the history of Oxford's Second Baptist Church, among the first churches founded by former slaves, the Reverend Leroy Wadlington paused to tell me that some of the history of his church "reads like a novel." Much of the history of this place seems to read like a novel, or is it that the novels Faulkner wrote depicted so vividly the people and the history I was unearthing? Many local citizens thought Faulkner painted too bleak and gothic a picture of their community. They shunned him after the publication of Sanctuary (1931), which featured the sexual molestation of a young university coed by a depraved criminal. Some early admiring critics tried to distance Yoknapatawpha from the historical South and emphasized the more uplifting moral message they saw in Faulkner's writing. But the more I learned about the history of this place, with all its drama and violence and fascinating stories, I came to realize Faulkner hardly told the half of it.
By drawing so heavily from the world he knew, Faulkner gave Yoknapatawpha an undeniable historical and social authenticity. "The land, the people, and their history," one fellow southern writer, Robert Penn Warren, wrote, ". . . come to us at a realistic level, at the level of recognition. . . . No land in all fiction is more painstakingly analyzed from the sociological point of view." Faulkner was fully conscious of using local history as a source for his fiction. When explaining the actions or motives of his characters, he often referred to the historical context within which he imagined them. "I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about," he told one interviewer, ". . . and by sublimating the actual into the apocryphal I would have complete liberty to use whatever talent I might have to its absolute top."
If the actual corresponded to the apocryphal in so many of the details of the Yoknapatawpha saga, more caution is due before granting Faulkner authority as an interpreter of the larger meaning or plot of southern history. Precisely because Faulkner is so often convincingly realistic or plausible in parts, it becomes tempting to accept his credibility as an authoritative guide to the South. Realistic historical fiction, whether in writing or film or television, has a dangerous way of imprinting on our minds images that sometimes overpower the less vivid version of the past that comes to us from conventional historical narratives. Historians have kept busy in recent years trying to correct misrepresentations of history as presented in Hollywood films. It is not that they want to impose the same rules of evidence on fiction that are appropriate to historical scholarship. We all know that a writer or director will exercise a certain creative license and take liberties with what is well known to be the accepted truth. As the lines blur between fact and fiction, the historian who sets out to evaluate a fictional representation of history is thrust into two levels of response. One casts him as the defender of verifiable truth sorting out what is factually accurate and what is not. The other places him as an interpreter of the past in which facts and evidence of all kinds become the material with which one constructs a narrative or theory that explains the past. While the first role reduces the historian to a nitpicking researcher, the second moves the historian dangerously close to the writer's craft of inventing stories.
Historians are among the first to admit that the distinction between fact and fiction is hardly clear-cut. Even the most rigorous and objective empirical research rests on historical evidence created by humans and filtered through their social and cultural biases, whether conscious or not. The newspapers this book relies on, for example, were politically slanted and their coverage focused on the town elite. If the hard, cold facts of the past are tainted by our ancestors' human prejudices, the narratives historians construct to interpret the past are shaped by another level of complicated and sometimes unconscious human bias. Whether it is popular versions of local history or academic historical scholarship, interpreting, or even simply reporting, the past can never be an objective, impartial account of what happened, when, and why. Because the past includes everything that happened, historians must select what seem the most important events, actors, and themes, but this first step in deciding who and what belongs in history is often the most loaded with partiality. Not long ago most historical writing was limited overwhelmingly to the story of government, political leaders, and the major events of national history. In recent times the boundaries of history as a subject have expanded to include a wide range of ordinary people, including women and blacks, rich and poor, along with diverse realms of experience: work, family, sexuality, and religion. There has been an accompanying shift toward the intensive study of local society, as in this book, as a means of getting at the full range of experience in the past and the way people lived. While professional historians have consciously sought to include a wider range of experience in their studies, this only complicates the problem of deciding one's subject. The choice of focus, in the end, remains a very human, and therefore inevitably partial, decision.
Fully aware of the imperfections of historical data and influences that affect choice and interpretation, the historian has faith, nonetheless, that the past is something we can come to know and understand. Even if we could recover full and perfect knowledge of the past, no historian would claim that we could arrive at one true and final version of what happened, let alone its cause and meaning. On the contrary, most historians see their task as an ongoing obligation to reexamine the conventional wisdom or to tell the untold story. They seek to displace old myths or deliberate lies with what they see as a truer story.
It is not at all the purpose of this book to burden readers with nitpicking corrections of various historical "errors" or implausible stories found in Faulkner's fictional epic of Yoknapatawpha. To be sure, there are may dates and details in the Yoknapatawpha saga that are "wrong" insofar as they do not agree with the historical record. We know Faulkner sometimes deliberately changed things to keep history and fiction at a distance. Out of respect for his neighbors (or fear of lawsuits), he changed names (Ratliff was Suratt until Faulkner became aware someone with that name was upset with him). Beat Two became Beat Four, the hill country source of poor white racism, perhaps out of a similar sensitivity. Other discrepancies, along with many factual inconsistencies in events and biographies within and across his many stories, came from his indifference, even contempt, for research and facts as a source of truth. "As far as I know I have never done one page of historical research," he once boasted to a group of wide-eyed college students. "Also, I doubt if I've ever forgotten anything I ever read," he added. "That what I research," he went on to explain, "I read exactly as I do fiction because it's people, man in motion, and the writer . . . never forgets that, he stores it away . . . and when he needs it he reaches out and drags it out, and if it don't quite fit what he wants to say he'll probably change it a little bit." "I dont care much for facts," he complained to Malcolm Cowley, ". . . you can't stand a fact up, you've got to prop it up, and when you move to one side a little and look at it from that angle, it's not thick enough to cast a shadow in that direction." Faulkner in the end was less concerned with "history as a factual record," Michael Millgate tell us, "than with the past, especially the past as viewed from the standpoint of the present."
But Faulkner wrote about the past with unusual sensitivity and understanding, and having spent several years plumbing the "historical record" myself, I am not sure I believe Faulkner's protestations that he never engaged in historical research and did not care about factual details. But that depends on how we define research. I had to spend hundreds of hours over several years doing research in libraries and conducting interviews to retrieve just a portion of what Faulkner would have grown up knowing about the community. That kind of research was never Faulkner's style. Blessed with a spongelike memory and a fine ear for stories and expression, he apparently had little need for formal research to acquire a command of his historical material. He spent a lifetime surrounded by people who immersed themselves in the past, some of them deeply engaged in serious historical research and writing. Asked how he came to know southern history, Faulkner once replied: "When I was a boy there were a lot of people around who had lived through it, and I would pick it up -- I was just saturated with it, but never read about it."
From boyhood Faulkner surrounded himself with people obsessed by the past, some engaged in serious historical research, others in the telling of stories. They all became his unwitting research assistants. At home and with relatives, he spent countless hours listening to stories. His father told of his youthful exploits, and his Aunt Alabama told tales of his great-grandfather Colonel William C. Falkner (the traditional family spelling), a Civil War colonel, railroad builder, and novelist of local fame. The Falkner family servant, Caroline (Mammy Callie) Barr, told young Bill Falkner stories of slavery days, the "secesh times," and the Klan, all from her perspective as a former slave. When Faulkner was in grade school during the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil War, his teacher spent hours on the local history of the Civil War, while down at the courthouse aging veterans told their own war stories, while young Bill Falkner sat for hours and listened enraptured. His friend Phil Stone regaled him for hours on the Civil War and local history. Faulkner had several other friends and neighbors who were steeped in the local history. Maud Morrow Brown was writing a never-published but remarkably well-researched and thoughtful manuscript on Lafayette County and the Civil War, which bears striking similarity to the portrait Faulkner was sketching at the same time in his Civil War stories. Calvin Brown, her husband, an archaeologist at the university, published a widely respected book on Mississippi's Indians, an enthusiasm he and Faulkner shared. Faulkner's sister-in-law Dorothy Oldham wrote a master's thesis on Jacob Thompson, an important local political figure.
Out at the university historians Charles S. Sydnor and Franklin Riley, along with Percy Rainwater, who taught school in Oxford, were writing important works on slavery, Reconstruction, and secession. Professors Riley and Sydnor directed the work of dozens of graduate students researching state and local history. Some of this scholarship, along with popular accounts by local journalists, was immediately accessible in the local newspaper, the Oxford Eagle. The fiftieth anniversary of the Civil War, the Mississippi centennial in 1917, and the county centennial in 1936 all were occasions for the Eagle to offer extensive coverage of local history. Women in the community, notably Faulkner's maternal grandmother, played leading roles as keepers of the past. In addition to raising Confederate memorials, they often conducted historical research. The local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution did interviews and researched documents to produce an unpublished county history in the 1920s. By the late 1930s, the Works Progress Administration employed several women and men to conduct interviews of former slaves and old settlers and set down on paper much of the local folklore and history that pervaded the county.
No one knows how this historical knowledge surrounding Faulkner might have filtered into his consciousness. Suffice it to say it would have been difficult, especially for a man with Faulkner's curiosity about the past, to be alive in this environment and not become familiar with the past that enveloped him. "The pattern," Malcolm Cowley surmised, "was based on what he saw in Oxford or remembered from his childhood; on scraps of family tradition . . . on kitchen dialogues between the black cook and her amiable husband; on Saturday-afternoon gossip in Courthouse Square; on stories told by men in overalls squatting on their heels while they passed around a fruit jar full of white corn liquor; on all the sources familiar to a small-town Mississippi boy."
Faulkner may be of greatest value to the historian trying to understand the Mississippi past when he is least like a historian. It is Faulkner's intuitive knowledge of his subject, not his "factual" accuracy, that offers the historian insights not accessible through conventional research. It is when Faulkner goes inside the minds of his characters and imagines dialogues and thoughts that he reveals layers of historical experience historians can never document. They can only envy the creative license a fiction writer enjoys in inventing characters, dialogue, and inner thoughts. No amount of archival research can ever yield the kind of insight Faulkner imagines in the mind of a Thomas Sutpen who as a poor white boy of fourteen suddenly becomes conscious of his inferior position in the hierarchy of class in the antebellum South. In Faulkner's fiction people who remain inarticulate to the historian are given a voice, a mind, and a point of view through which the reader can see the world from their perspective. He once explained that he wrote about things his subjects "could have done," or "would have done" when no one was "there to record the action." Faulkner was recording not only the action but also the thoughts and unconscious feelings that compelled the action.
What was Faulkner attempting to "tell about the South"? What was he making of the larger historical drama in which his actors were playing parts? Faulkner's early admirers George Marion O'Donnell, Robert Penn Warren, Malcolm Cowley, and Cleanth Brooks all sought to identify the underlying theme and meaning of the Yoknapatawpha saga. None was more influential in shaping the popular understanding of Faulkner's historical framework than Malcolm Cowley, editor of The Portable Faulkner (1946), which marked a key turning point in Faulkner's reputation as a writer. Cowley set out to assemble the stories and excerpts he selected from Faulkner's work according to the coherent design he saw in them. All the stories and novels, Cowley wrote in the introduction, were "like blocks of marble from the same quarry." Cowley organized the blocks within a historical and thematic framework. He took pains, constantly querying Faulkner through his letters, to locate each story in time, to place them in some chronological order, and to organize them in sections dealing with distinct historical eras, social groups, and themes.
As he demonstrated the remarkable historical scope and coherence of the Yoknapatawpha stories, at the same time Cowley disassociated them from their historical source. He told readers that Faulkner was using the "legend" of the South as a parable to illuminate universal moral themes. The legend of the South, Cowley explained, revolved around the dichotomy between Old South and New South and the distinctive social and moral order of each. The dominant class of the Old South was the "aristocratic" planters and slave masters, men like Colonel John Sartoris, who sought to establish in Mississippi a lasting social order. Based on a traditional code of honor, this way of life was to be inherited by their sons. The flaws in their "design" for the Old South, Cowley admitted, derived from their ruthless appropriation of the land from the Indians and by the "guilt" associated with slavery. They nonetheless "had the virtue of living single-mindedly by a fixed code." The Old South's ruling class gave way, after the Civil War, to a "new exploiting class descended from the landless whites" personified in the unscrupulous Flem Snopes. Beginning with Frenchman's Bend, then the town of Jefferson, the county was "infested by the tribe of Snopes . . . in the bank, in the power company, in politics, Snopeses everywhere gnawing like rats at the standards by which the South had lived." Against the avaricious force of Snopesism the traditional values of honor and chivalry were no match. The decline of the old order and the ascendance of the modern are the main themes in an essentially tragic and pessimistic history. The "ultimate subject," as Cowley put it, was "not the South or its destiny . . . but rather the human situation as revealed in Southern terms."
Old South against New South, Sartoris versus Snopes, declining aristocracy and ascending poor whites, the code of honor and unscrupulous greed, these are the dichotomies through which early Faulkner critics taught us to read meaning into his work. It was a romantic view of southern history and one that had become a familiar formula in both popular and scholarly interpretations of the South. The stereotypes, as they were fleshed out, drew heavily on stock images of Old and New South, some dusted-off versions of antebellum propaganda on Yankees and Cavaliers, some borrowed from the Vanderbilt Agrarians' view of a traditional South beleaguered by modern forces of industrialism. Still others came from popular culture, notably Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind.
Whatever the source of this southern imagery, all did service in favor of romanticizing the Sartorises of the Old South and demonizing the Snopeses of the New South. Cleanth Brooks summarized much of the tone of this anti-Snopesian sentiment when he wrote: "The insidious horror of Snopesism is its lack of any kind of integrity -- its pliability, its parasitic vitality as of some low-grade, thoroughly stubborn organism. . . . The difficulty of fighting Flem and Snopesism in general is that it is like fighting a kind of gangrene or some sort of loathsome mold. . . . Flem is a kind of monster who has betrayed everyone, first in his lust for pure money-power, and later in what Faulkner regards as a more loathsome lust, a desire for respectability." Another early critic, Irving Howe, though writing at some distance from the agrarian romanticism that shaped Brooks's view of the South, nonetheless joined forces in his utter contempt for the reptilian Snopeses: "Let a world collapse, in the South or Russia, and there appear figures of coarse ambition driving their way up from beneath the social bottom. . . . Scavengers without inhibition, they need not believe in the code of their society; they need only learn to mimic its sounds."
By the 1960s Brooks had completed his own more elaborate version of this agrarian romantic interpretation of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha. His finely crafted essays made Faulkner accessible to a growing legion of professors and students as Faulkner became firmly ensconced in the academic canon. A new generation of Faulkner scholars would move beyond these early interpretations, often into social themes of race and gender, the interior realm of psychology, and the historical-intellectual context of Faulkner as a writer. In general, contemporary Faulkner scholars have more interest in the text and its author than in the historical context of the historical subjects he wrote about. Even those with a deep interest in historicizing Faulkner's fiction are understandably unlikely to do the kind of historical research required to retrieve more than a few pieces of the puzzle. Several probing studies have taken up the subjects of race and social class, themes that lie at the heart of Faulkner's historical interpretation of the South. Perhaps more out of neglect than agreement, however, the main structure of the Old South versus New South, Sartoris versus Snopes paradigm erected by Cowley and finished by Brooks remains intact, or at least unchallenged by some other framework for understanding the social history of Yoknapatawpha.
It is my hope that readers of this book will come away with a different reading both of the South's past and of Faulkner's fictional version of that past. Wisdom dictates that I leave the task of reinterpreting Faulkner to others more qualified than I and not risk practicing literary criticism without a license. I have profited enormously from several biographies and critical works on Faulkner, and my several sojourns to Oxford for the annual Faulkner conference have introduced me to a group of professional colleagues in literature who have generously guided my journey in Yoknapatawpha. I have enjoyed crossing the boundaries on the unfortified but sometimes formidable academic frontier that separates history and literature. I can think of no place better than Yoknapatawpha where the two disciplines can meet, communicate, and enrich one another's knowledge of this writer and his subject. But my travels in this realm of literature have also reminded me that I am a tourist in a country where the natives speak a different language and use different currency than historians are accustomed to using. Historians have their own special skills and modes of interpretation, and it has always seemed more fruitful that we use those rather than try to ape the language and approach of another discipline. While this book is in some ways an interdisciplinary adventure that joins literature and history, it is history not literary criticism.
As I immersed myself in Faulkner's historical-fictional world I came to admire his knack of setting his stories characters within a particular time and place in his Yoknapatawpha cosmos. Whether by references to larger events outside the county, or perhaps to the technology of mules or automobiles, Faulkner seemed attentive to placing his subject in time. He could not resist telling us the history of each character as well; even minor characters act as they do because of their personal and family background. The past bears down upon and shapes the present always. Faulkner also seemed keenly interested in how we come to know the past: whether by memory or record, through biased, vague "mouth to mouth tales" or through what we learn in written documents such as letters from "old trunks and boxes and drawers" written in a language that may sound to us "like Sanskrit or Choctaw." Part of Faulkner's obsession with the past had to do with his idea of time as a fluid entity in which the past and present flow into one another. The past was ever present in the here and now, he often repeated; everything we do, all that we believe, and all we think we know in the present and the future has been shaped by what came before. The "past is never dead," one of his characters says; "It's not even past." These quotes and others are sometimes mistaken for a romantic southern traditionalism that reveres the past above the modern American cult of progress. But Faulkner's view of history was more tragic than nostalgic. He saw the southern past as a burden on his people, carrying with it sins so profound that the past constituted a curse that hung over the land, inherited by one generation after another.
In Absalom, Absalom!, William Faulkner's historical novel about Thomas Sutpen and his doomed plan to elevate himself in the society of the Old South, much of the story unfolds many years later in a setting familiar to most anyone who has gone off to college or anyplace away from home and shared stories about where they came from. It is 1909 and two Harvard freshmen are staying up late in their dormitory room, in the "iron cold" New England winter. They are in what C. Vann Woodward once called the "Deep North," a place and time that seems remote from the place and people they are talking about. One roommate, who is mostly listening to the story and helping piece it together, is Shreve McCannon. He is from Canada, a nation serenely sheltered from the traumas of revolution, civil war, and reconstruction, innocent of slavery and racism, all of which had left deep scars on its neighbor to the South. The other young man in the dorm room that winter is Quentin Compson, who comes from a small town named Jefferson in Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, a place his grandfather helped found in the 1830s. Unlike Shreve, Quentin has grown up with stories of the Civil War and all the calamities that befell the South. He is "a barracks filled with stubborn back-looking ghosts" who knows history has inflicted terrible pain on his people.
The story Quentin is sharing with Shreve has to do with a mysterious man, Thomas Sutpen, who came to Yoknapatawpha County "out of nowhere," established a grand plantation, and survived the Civil War only to die violently shortly afterward. Parts of Sutpen's story have been related to Quentin by different sources, each with very different points of view. One informant is an embittered elderly woman, Rosa Coldfield, who has carried a grudge against Sutpen for over forty years. Just before Quentin left for Harvard, this woman summoned him to her home one afternoon and regaled him with her diatribe against this "demon," as she calls him. The boys have other, more sympathetic, sources on Sutpen to consider. Sutpen told his story to Quentin's grandfather sometime in the 1830s, and this account filters through Quentin's father in ways that supplement and balance Rosa Coldfield's vindictive story. Far removed from any firsthand knowledge of the subject, with only some biased oral testimonies, along with a few letters and tombstone inscriptions as written documents, the two boys do exactly what historians do when interpreting the past. They piece the story together, they gather facts, they infer other events and thoughts, they imagine some things and research others, and they interpret motive and causation from the facts and evidence available to them. They construct a history, and they struggle to come to terms with its meaning.
For Quentin the story is a disturbing exploration of Sutpen's past, and by extension his own. It goes to the core of the South's tragic history, but it also impinges upon his own family's past. Quentin learns that he was probably summoned by Rosa Coldfield, so his father speculates, because of some inherited guilt she may think the Compson family bears for aiding Sutpen. Shreve, the Canadian, on the other hand, is personally innocent of this past and apparently unperturbed by any moral implications the story might have for him. Against Quentin's tormented probing of his people's past, Shreve plays the role of the objective historian, an outsider who is simply fascinated by the story for its intrinsic interest. Sheer curiosity and a desire to know about this exotic place, the American South, with all its folly and tragedy is what drives Shreve. He prods his tortured roommate to get on with the telling of the story, and provides witty, often sardonic, summaries of the plot as it unfolds. "Tell about the South," Shreve urges Quentin. "What's it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all." Faulkner's life work is in some degree or another a response to Shreve's questions.
As the two young men dig deeper into the story, the Mississippi native serving up more evidence, the Canadian helping make sense of it all, Quentin tells Shreve you can't understand all this if you are not part of it: "You would have to be born there." Shreve is unimpressed with this claim to subjective knowledge and replies: "Would I then?" "Do you understand it?" To which Quentin replies with honest confusion: "I dont know. . . . Yes, of course I understand it. . . . I dont know." Shreve: "Yes. You dont know."
I have thought often of this scene while working on this book. It speaks directly to the confused debate of our own day over whether we can understand people of different races, nationalities, or genders. It resonates even more with a historian who would claim he might know and understand the often strange people who inhabit that very foreign country, the past. One of the things I most admire in Faulkner is his attempt -- even when it fails -- to transcend his own time, his class, his gender, his race, his identity and to tell about the South in all its human diversity, to tell us about places, so to speak, where we were not born. Faulkner's durability as an author is explained in part by the capacity of readers and scholars to find in his work a remarkable range of human experience. Faulkner stayed close to home, close to what he knew well, and yet within that little "postage stamp of native soil" so bizarre, remote, and outlandish in many ways, he explored a vast human world. He is at his most impressive when he attempts to write outside his own personal experience, to render sympathetic sketches of poor whites or planters, women, and blacks, or to put the reader inside the mind of a retarded boy, a young child, a slave, a crazed killer, or an angry white racist. It is this same intuitive power to escape the confines of personal knowledge and experience that allows Faulkner to grasp historical time and be able to depict plausible people, motives, thoughts, and behavior. The creation and reading of both fiction and history depend on this desire to transcend the limits of personal knowledge, to learn something of human experience beyond the narrow compass of our own lives.
Though I have now lived in a neighboring state in the South for more than twenty-five years, I am an outsider to Mississippi. I was not "born there." Through research in old documents and occasional conversation, my goal has been to excavate and make sense out of the history of this place. In a sense, Shreve and Quentin's exchange speaks to most every reader of Faulkner, for his work invites us into a world that is strangely foreign to most of us now, even to those "born there" in more recent times. The South Faulkner wrote about has changed dramatically. Even the pictures taken by Martin Dain, the Life magazine photographer who documented Faulkner's contemporary world, with its gaunt men in overalls, unpainted cabins, and country stores, seem as though from another century. As I drive through this part of Mississippi most of the old sharecroppers' cabins, along with the barns Dain captured on film, are collapsing from neglect or engulfed by kudzu vines. There is still poverty here, but even the poor now live in double-wide trailers with all manner of appliances on the porch, and a car or two, maybe a boat, and always a satellite dish, out front. The simple boxlike country churches still are standing, though many now are prefabricated metal buildings and others have new asbestos or aluminum siding with bright green astroturf at the entrance. Service station convenient marts seem to have replaced the old general stores in the countryside, but most people make their way into Oxford to shop at the mall. In the age of air conditioning one rarely sees people sitting outside on the porches these days. With television, movies, computers, and travel, Oxford, and to some extent the whole county, is part of a national and international culture that seems to erode local and regional traditions.
For all the change that modern life has brought to this part of the world,
the past remains, hanging over the place, shaping its daily life. As I drove south into Mississippi these past few years, I often thought of Faulkner's story of the blackened glass shard with the inscription that is part of his story "The Jail." As though anticipating the stream of scholars who would come to explore his world, he imagines a stranger "the outlander with a B.A. or (perhaps even) M.A. from Harvard or Northwestern [my alma mater, as it happens] or Stanford, passing through Jefferson" by chance. One of the local women, those mainly responsible for keeping the past, tells him the story of a "frail blonde girl" who, after the Civil War began, scratched her name and the date, "Celia Farmer, April 16th 1861," in the jailhouse window. The window becomes a proud display in the local museum, Faulkner imagined, apparently modeling this on the etched shard of blackened glass housed in the Mary Buie Museum in Oxford, which the curator brought out for me to admire during one of my visits. It is this window with its inscription from the past that becomes the "clear undistanced voice" of a long-dead frail girl who "across the vast instantaneous intervention, from the long long time ago" says, "'Listen, stranger; this was myself: this was I.'" It is voices like hers and others "performing their acts of simple passion and simple violence, impervious to time and inexplicable" that I have tried to listen to and animate in telling this story.
1. Harry Runyan, A Faulkner Glossary (New York: Citadel Press, 1964), is helpful in dating the historical focus of Faulkner's novels and short stories.
2. Ward L. Miner, The World of William Faulkner (New York: Grove Press, 1952); Joseph Blotner, Faulkner: A Biography, 2 vols. (New York: Random House, 1974). Other excellent explorations of the parallels and links between the actual and apocryphal worlds of Faulkner's fiction and history include Faulkner's Mississippi: Land Into Legend, video, directed by Robert Oesterling, script by Evans Harrington, 1965; Arthur F. Kinney, ed., Critical Essays on William Faulkner: The Compson Family (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982); Critical Essays on William Faulkner: The Sartoris Family (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1985); Critical Essays on William Faulkner: The McCaslin Family, (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990); Charles S. Aiken, "Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County: Geographical Fact Into Fiction," Geographical Review 67 (Jan. 1977): 1-21; Aiken, "Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County: A Place in the American South," Geographical Review 69 (July 1979): 331-48; Gabriele Gutting, Yoknapatawpha: The Function of Geographical and Historical Facts in William Faulkner's Fictional Picture of the Deep South (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1992); Elmo Howell, Mississippi Scenes: Notes on Literature and History (Memphis: E. Howell, 1992). Thomas S. Hines, William Faulkner and the Tangible Past: The Architecture of Yoknapatawpha (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), and Martin J. Dain, Faulkner's County: Yoknapatawpha, (New York: Random House, 1964), offer visual portraits of the world Faulkner wrote about. See also Tom Rankin, ed., Faulkner's World: The Photographs of Martin J. Dain (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997). John B. Cullen and Floyd C. Watkins, Old Times in the Faulkner Country (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961), is an early example of what are now numerous accounts by contemporaries and relatives of Faulkner that illuminate parallels between the factual and fictional; some are more reliable than others. Joel Williamson, William Faulkner and Southern History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), is a fascinating exploration of the Falkner and Butler families in their Mississippi historical setting. Final quote from William Faulkner to Malcolm Cowley, [Hollywood, Calif., Aug. 16, 1945], in Joseph Blotner, ed., Selected Letters of William Faulkner (New York: Random House, 1977), 197.
3. C. Vann Woodward, The Burden of Southern History, rev. ed., (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1968), 38; Woodward, Thinking Back: The Perils of Writing History (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1986), 109, 145.
4. Robert Penn Warren, "William Faulkner," in William Faulkner: Four Decades of Criticism ([East Lansing]: Michigan State University Press, 1973), 96.
5. Interview with Jean Stein, quoted in Blotner, Faulkner, 1595.
6. Frederick L. Gwynn and Joseph L. Blotner, Faulkner in the University (1959; rpt. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995), 251.
7. Blotner, Faulkner, 1205.
8. Michael Millgate, "Faulkner and History," in The South and Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha: The Actual and the Apocryphal, ed. Evans Harrington and Ann J. Abadie (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1977), 38. Millgate, Cowley, Brooks, and others see Faulkner using the local and historical only as a means of studying what they see as a more universal and timeless "human condition."
9. Robert Cantwell, "The Faulkners: Recollections of a Gifted Family," in New World Writing: Second Mentor Selection (New York, 1952), 306, quoted in Michael Millgate, The Achievement of William Faulkner (New York: Random House, 1966), 25.
10. Malcolm Cowley, ed., The Portable Faulkner (1946; rev. ed. New York: Viking Penguin, 1967), viii.
11. David Minter, William Faulkner: His Life and Work (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), 78, paraphrasing Gwynn and Blotner, Faulkner in the University, 59-60.
12. Malcolm Cowley, The Faulkner-Cowley File: Letters and Memories, 1944-1962 (New York: Viking Press, 1966).
13. Cowley, ed., Portable, 389.
14. Ibid., xxxii.
15. Cleanth Brooks, William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1963), 222.
16. Irving Howe, William Faulkner: A Critical Study, 3d ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975), 80. The first edition of this work appeared in 1951, and Howe, a disillusioned communist, was referring to Stalin's Russia, not today's.
17. William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun (1951; rpt. New York: Vintage Books, 1975), 80.
18. William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom! (1936; rpt. New York: Vintage International, 1990), 142. Original italicized; otherwise, punctuation as in the original.
19. Faulkner, Requiem, 225. Original italicized.
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