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Once More: the Actual and the Apocryphal

ISSUE:  Autumn 2002

Faulkner’s County: The Historical Roots of Yoknapatawpha. By Don H. Doyle. University of North Carolina Press.$49.45 cloth, $24.95 paper.

Some of William Faulkner’s remarks about his work are now almost as famous as some phrases in the work itself. He quoted Sherwood Anderson’s advice to him in New Orleans that he should go home and write about what he knew, that patch of north Mississippi where he grew up. As he meditated on it he discovered that “my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it, and by sublimating the actual into the apocryphal I would have complete liberty to use whatever talent I might have to its absolute top, so I created a cosmos of my own.” It took many readers years to realize that his apocryphal Yoknapatawpha was basic to most of his best work. One of the earliest studies was Ward L. Miner’s The World of William Faulkner (1952). Forty years later came Joel Williamson’s William Faulkner and Southern History. Others have continued to explore various aspects of Faulkner’s art both narrowly and broadly. Now comes Don H. Doyle with a compendious study of the sources from which this artistic vision sprang, presenting Faulkner’s county in root and branch from the seeds in early stories to the final flowering in the last novels.

Doyle’s central idea was to use the fiction “to inform my historical interpretation and, to a lesser extent, use the history to illuminate Faulkner’s imaginary world.” An ideal reader coming to Faulkner’s work now could start if he chose with this book for an overview of the factual material Faulkner had to work with and a preview of the use he made of it as the vast construct grew. True to the historian’s discipline and method, Doyle goes where possible in each instance to primary sources, to existing records in public and private documents as well as those in published print and oral history. But this ideal reader would not have to worry that he was reading an account judging whether Faulkner got it right or not. Doyle is keenly aware that though Faulkner is using a different angle of vision, he has the reality of his scene clearly in view. For instance, “Faulkner told his own war stories,” he writes, “ones that were closer to the actual history of the war than to the romantic legends of the Lost Cause.” And except for some vexed and highly partisan subjects such as Reconstuction where, in Doyle’s view, “he seemed unable or unwilling to question the orthodoxy of the day . . . Faulkner was often ahead of the historians.”

Doyle begins his Introduction, Epilogue, and each of the 10 intervening chapters with a substantial quotation from a Faulkner novel. Like each chapter, the overall progression is chronological, as when “War” is followed by “The Vanquished.” As to the beginnings, Doyle writes that local lore had it, in Faulkner’s time, that Yoknapatawpha meant “land divided” or “split land,” and he goes on in segments such as “Land of the Chickaza” to chronicle briefly the migration of the Indian tribes from the far west into what would become Lafayette County. This lore fed Faulkner’s short stories, and he collected four of them under the heading “The Wilderness” when he published Collected Stones of William Faulkner. Doyle provides maps of the Indians’ lands as well as a narrative of their culture and growth until Congress’s Indian Removal Act led them to the “Trail of Tears” that made their presence in Yoknapatawpha a thing of legend rather than memory. After the Chickasaws and Choctaws the arrival of the Spaniards, the French, and the English over the next two centuries—harbingers of the American westward migration and the building of communities—set the stage for the arrival of the slaves, the growth of the plantation economy, and the bloody conflict that changed everything. Because of Faulkner’s eclectic use of the past, the reader is almost immediately immersed in the history of the Yoknapatawpha saga.

The historian is confronted with a problem in trying to give a coherent overview of historical analogues in the work of a novelist who said “there is no such thing as “was,” the past is.” And the reviewer is compelled to find a way of assessing the historian’s efforts without resorting to a simple recital of contents. For the reader already familiar with Faulkner’s work, unlike the hypothetical one posited earlier, there is no difficulty in arriving at a strategy. The demonstration pieces emerge from each of the chapters, as the reader sees the historical antecendents of the dramatic events, the unforgettable characters, and the historical processes he had encountered in the fiction. And so the reviewer is left here to cite the most powerful instances Doyle presents of the links between fiction and fact, between individuals and processes driven by factors social, economic, and political. They range from the Snopeses and the Rise of the Rednecks on to the Compsons and Sartorises and the decline of the old landed and professional families.

The Civil War was the Trojan War of Faulkner’s oeuvre, and Doyle provides a factual account not only of the devastation it wreaked on Lafayette County but the supporting numbers as well, most dramatically the numbers of men who joined the colors, those who died at Gettysburg when the University Greys were destroyed in Pickett’s charge, the maimed who returned to the county, and the widows and orphans who mourned them. In Absalom, Absalom! and The Unvanquished Faulkner depicted some of the war’s dimensions. Doyle’s book shows the results of Grant’s war in the invasion and burning of Oxford, reprisals such as bold Van Dorn’s raid, and the struggle against thieves and bushwhackers as in women who reached their fictional apotheosis in Faulkner’s Granny Millard. The reader will also find material less often treated, pro-Unionism and abstention from hostilities such as that of Thomas Sutpen’s father-in-law, Goodhue Coldfield. Doyle shows how deep was the descent into the miseries of the war-ravaged county. “The Falkners and Butlers were not alone among many prominent families in Oxford sliding into genteel poverty,” he writes. There is also treatment here of personal scandal as well as broad-scale disaster. Maud Butler Falkner was fiercely proud of her son, William, but her father, Charles, left a legacy of shame when he departed Oxford with town tax receipts and, it was said, a beautiful octaroon servant. Like the atrocities of the war, those that came in the Reconstruction were preamble to the conflict that would shape the civil rights struggle of the next century. The much publicized lynching of Nelse Patton, a Negro murderer, provided the basis for “Dry September,” one of Faulkner’s most powerful stories. To one bridge club member who criticized his work, Maud Falkner declared, “Billy writes what he has to write,” and told another, “he is heartbroken at what he sees.”

The Falkners knew at first hand the struggle between the Delta bourbons and the redneck arrivistes. A canny politician, John Wesley Thompson Falkner, grandfather to William Faulkner, took young Lee Russell, a country boy, into his law firm. When Russell ran for governor, John Falkner, Jr., ran his Lafayette County campaign and supplied a driver, his nephew, William Faulkner. Russell won and left in his legacy the decade-long extinguishing of the University of Mississippi fraternity system and the juciest scandal Lafayette County would ever savor. In his political victory he represented another version of the defeat of the much-admired Leroy Percy by the much-execrated Theodore “The Man” Bilbo. William Faulkner had a better than ringside seat in this struggle, and with his capacious memory and fertile imagination, he enriched his Snopes trilogy tracing in The Hamlet, The Town, and The Mansion the rise of the rednecks in Lafayette County and elsewhere in the state. He was “very conscious of the massive forces of change that had swept through his part of the world,” Doyle writes, “and that is what his Yoknapatawpha saga chronicles.”

The reader will not turn to this book for literary criticism, but he will welcome here the kind of knowledge of Faulkner’s world that is basic to informed criticism of the kind embodied in the work of brilliant interpreters such as Cleanth Brooks. The dozens of illustrations, with maps, figures, and tables, help to present the reality of the past on which Faulkner drew. This splendid volume will be a permanent resource for those seeking the sources of Faulkner’s Apocryphal County.

One unexpected bonus may be the impulse to enrich and personalize this journey into the past by turning to the words of the author himself. Faulkner called Act Two of Requiem for a Nun (1950) “The Golden Dome (Beginning Was The Word).” He began in prehistoric time and carried the account on for a dozen pages to the era of The May Day Festival and the Junior Auxiliary Style Show. It is a history unlike any other, written as if by a cosmological poet. “Mississippi,” in Essays Speeches & Public Letters by William Faulkner (1965) begins with placement: “Mississippi begins in the lobby of a Memphis, Tennessee hotel and extends south to the Gulf of Mexico” and concludes with self-definition: “Loving all of it even while he had to hate some of it because he knows now that you don’t love because: you love despite; not for the virtues, but despite the faults.”


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