William Faulkner and Southern History

William Faulkner and Southern History

William Faulkner and Southern History

William Faulkner and Southern History

Synopsis

One of America's great novelists, William Faulkner was a writer deeply rooted in the American South. In works such as The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom! Faulkner drew powerfully on Southern themes, attitudes, and atmosphere to create his own world and place--the mythical Yoknapatawpha County--peopled with quintessential Southerners such as the Compsons, Sartorises, Snopes, and McCaslins. Indeed, to a degree perhaps unmatched by any other major twentieth-century novelist, Faulkner remained at home and explored his own region--the history and culture and people of the South. Now, in William Faulkner and Southern History, one of America's most acclaimed historians of the South, Joel Williamson, weaves together a perceptive biography of Faulkner himself, an astute analysis of his works, and a revealing history of Faulkner's ancestors in Mississippi--a family history that becomes, in Williamson's skilled hands, a vivid portrait of Southern culture itself. Williamson provides an insightful look at Faulkner's ancestors, a group sketch so brilliant that the family comes alive almost as vividly as in Faulkner's own fiction. Indeed, his ancestors often outstrip his characters in their colorful and bizarre nature. Williamson has made several discoveries: the Falkners (William was the first to spell it "Faulkner") were not planter, slaveholding "aristocrats"; Confederate Colonel Falkner was not an unalloyed hero, and he probably sired, protected, and educated a mulatto daughter who married into America's mulatto elite; Faulkner's maternal grandfather Charlie Butler stole the town's money and disappeared in the winter of 1887-1888, never to return. Equally important, Williamson uses these stories to underscore themes of race, class, economics, politics, religion, sex and violence, idealism and Romanticism--"the rainbow of elements in human culture"--that reappear in Faulkner's work. He also shows that, while Faulkner's ancestors were no ordinary people, and while he sometimes flashed a curious pride in them, Faulkner came to embrace a pervasive sense of shame concerning both his family and his culture. This he wove into his writing, especially about sex, race, class, and violence, psychic and otherwise. William Faulkner and Southern History represents an unprecedented publishing event--an eminent historian writing on a major literary figure. By revealing the deep history behind the art of the South's most celebrated writer, Williamson evokes new insights and deeper understanding, providing anyone familiar with Faulkner's great novels with a host of connections between his work, his life, and his ancestry.

Excerpt

Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County was, of course, his own Lafayette County, Mississippi, and the surrounding counties. Like Mississippi, Yoknapatawpha had regions. In the river bottoms the land was flat, dark, and rich, made rich over the ages by the rushing waters that tore away topsoil from the undefended flanks of hills and mountains, flooded over the banks and levees, spreading, slowing, and as it slowed gently dropping a rain of fresh soil onto those broad acres soon to be filled with black people and white cotton -- dropping, as it were, money into the pockets of the cotton aristocracy, the Compsons, Sartorises, Sutpens, and McCaslins of Faulkner's fictional world. In the hill country, the soil was red and thin. It bled easily and profusely at the touch of the plow, and ran eventually to gullies, to farm houses unpainted and weathering, and to the plain folk of the Old South and the New -- the lean and tendon-tough Gowries, Quicks, Workits, Bundrens, and McCallums.

Yoknapatawpha was Mississippi, and it was also all of the South. The black belts, those areas where the black population stood near a majority or more, extended up and down the vast level lands alongside the Mississippi River and its major tributaries, skipped to form a jagged-edged belt across central Alabama and Georgia, then skipped again to run generally along the eastern coastal plain from northern Florida through low country Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland. The black belts were heavily . . .

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