Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

"Carvin' White Folks": Faulkner, Southern Medicine, and Flags in the Dust

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

"Carvin' White Folks": Faulkner, Southern Medicine, and Flags in the Dust

Article excerpt

Tracing the eclectic history of medicine in the South over the past 200 years, this essay reads William Faulkner's first Yoknapatawpha novel, Flags in the Dust, as an illuminating sociolinguistic portrait of the psychological and cultural consequences of medicine's modernization in the early twentieth century.

On Tuesday, 20 January 1931, William and Estelle Faulkner's first child, Alabama (named after his favourite great-aunt, "Aunt Bama"), died at their home from complications associated with being born two months premature, and (for financial reasons) Faulkner had taken the baby out of the hospital before she was out of danger. Alabama's death wore heavily on Faulkner, and, in a strange twist, he responded by manufacturing a series of tales in which he either shot or attempted to shoot Alabama's doctor, John Culley, for her death. In one account that he related to Ben Wasson later that year in New York, Faulkner claimed that he had shot Culley in the shoulder because Culley had refused over the telephone to come to Faulkner's home in order to save Alabama; Culley, Faulkner claimed, had refused because it was his professional opinion that there was nothing that could be done (Wasson 106-08). Critics have constructed remarkably uncomplicated readings of this peculiar episode in Faulkner's life. Joseph Blotner imp lies that Faulkner's stories about Culley were an imaginative enactment of, a cathartic supplement to, the real desire that Faulkner had to hurt the doctor: "Faulkner had not shot Dr. Culley, but apparently he had wanted to, and so he did it numerous times in his verbal fiction" (683). Joel Williamson similarly sees Faulkner's stories about the shooting of Culley as fictional, self-glorifying supplements to actions that he could not bring himself to do in real life: "No such thing happened, of course. It was simply William Faulkner working out in fiction what he had not worked out in real life--and the story, as usual, made him a hero in his own eyes" (230). Neither, however, of these accounts, both premised upon the assumption that Faulkner did for some reason hold Culley personally responsible for Alabama's death, do much to explain Culley's continued service as the Faulkner's family physician, nor do they show a very sophisticated perspective on Faulkner's complex relationship with his own narratives.

Dr. John C. Culley had been the Faulkner family doctor for many years before 1931 and, as Blotner tells us without going into any detail, was an "opinionated man whom Faulkner did not care for" (682). Culley had graduated from the Vanderbilt Medical School in 1910 and was famous for opening the first dispensary in the South for the treatment of hookworm disease on 17 December 1911 (Link 142-59). Unrelenting in his desire to rid every denizen of the South of the debilitating disease, Culley had stopped at nothing to convince Southerners of the need for up-to-date medical treatment; he had even resorted to furtively collecting faeces from the children of prominent Columbia, Mississippi, city council members in order to show how widespread the disease had become in the South. Ultimately, after becoming sick with a stomach ulcer while working at the dispensary he had founded in Columbia, he retired in 1911 to Oxford, Mississippi, in order to become a general practitioner (Ettling 157-59). Culley's professional i dealism, his apparent belief that it was justifiable to disregard all social mores to achieve his medical goals, could not have been very popular with Faulkner who, as Cleanth Brooks and numerous other critics have demonstrated, had a complicated appreciation for the South's antebellum traditions--while Faulkner certainly disapproved of the racism, provincialism, and dogmatic Christianity of the old South, he at the same time admired its communal values and its veneration of personal honour and integrity.

Faulkner also had a complicated appreciation of language, and, in his first Yoknapatawpha novel, Flags in the Dust, he demonstrates through the ill-fated Sartoris line how language (in its multiple forms) has the power to do more than simply represent selfhood--it is what constitutes it. …

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