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Was William Faulkner a Conservative Writer? No, Not Quite! (BOOK REVIEW)

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Duluth, MN (OpEdNews) February 26, 2011: On February 25th, Jeffrey M. Jones posted the write-up titled "Mississippi Rates as the Most Conservative U.S. State" at Gallup.com.

As a fan of William Faulkner's novels, I am not surprised to learn that more people in Mississippi today identify themselves as conservative, rather than either liberal or moderate (the other two options available in the Gallup survey). Faulkner himself was born and raised in Mississippi. Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County is based on north Mississippi. Many of the white people in Faulkner's fictional county could be fairly described as conservative in character.

Because the word "conservative" is derived from the word "conserve," we should note that Faulkner's fiction does indeed truly conserve a lot about life in Mississippi, albeit through fictional characters and events. Moreover, Faulkner at times seems to have extraordinary empathy with certain white male characters in his novels, characters who could fairly be described as conservative in character, if you will allow me to make this small play on words. But does it follow that Faulkner himself should be described as a conservative, as I have seen him described at one conservative website on the Internet?

Many of Faulkner's white characters are content to conserve and perpetuate the old customs of slavery and racism and sexism that were typical in the historical times that Faulkner uses in his fictional settings. For example, Thomas Sutpen in Faulkner's novel ABSALOM, ABSALOM! embodies the old customs of slavery and racism and sexism. But Faulkner uses his portrayal of Sutpen as a way to critique the old customs of slavery and racism and sexism, not as a way to celebrate them. As a result, I do not think that Faulkner should be considered a conservative in any serious sense of the term. Conservatives today usually want to conserve the old ways of racism and sexism. If self-described conservatives in Mississippi today were as critical of the old customs of slavery and racism and sexism as Faulkner was, they would probably stop calling themselves conservatives.

Through his fiction, Faulkner himself wrestled with our tragic American heritage of slavery and racism and sexism. Consequently, his stories can help us reflect on and wrestle with these tragic aspects of our American heritage. However, Faulknerian tragedy, as exemplified in ABSALOM, ABSALOM!, is in a sense far less dramatic than Shakespeare's tragedies and ancient Greek tragedies, as Warwick Wadlington shows in his fine book READING FAULKNERIAN TRAGEDY (Cornell University Press, 1987).

In any event, Faulkner fans should welcome Sally Wolff's new book LEDGERS OF HISTORY: WILLIAM FAULKNER, AN ALMOST FORGOTTEN FRIENDSHIP, AND AN ANTEBELLUM PLANTATION DIARY: MEMORIES OF DR. EDGAR WIGGIN FRANCISCO III (Louisiana State University Press, 2010).

The transcriptions of Edgar Wiggin Francisco III's conversations about his memories begin on page 65 and end on page 179, followed by discussion notes, works cited and consulted, and the index. On pages 1-64, Sally Wolf discusses how various points in the conversations can help us better understand Faulkner's novels and particular characters. Between pages 64 and 65, there are several unnumbered pages of photographs of people, places, and things that help us concretize certain aspects of the transcribed conversations.

Wolff's book sheds new light on William Faulkner (1897-1962) personally and on his friendship with Edgar Wiggin Francisco, Jr. (1897-1966) and Edgar Wiggin Francisco III (born 1930). Her book also sheds new light on some of Faulkner's novels and especially on Thomas Sutpen in ABSALOM, ABSALOM!

As Wolff's book reveals, Faulkner based Thomas Sutpen on Francis Terry Leak (1803-1863), whose handwritten ledgers belonged to the Francisco family. Through his friendship with the Francisco family, Faulkner was allowed to read Leak's ledgers at different times. Leak's ledgers cover the period 1839 to 1862. For his fictional purposes, Faulkner embellished the details of the story of Thomas Sutpen beyond the details of the life of Francis Terry Leak. But the Leak ledgers show that Faulkner knew about plantation life in considerable detail.

Sally Wolff of Emory University in Atlanta interviewed Edgar Wiggins Francisco III, who now lives in a distant suburb of Atlanta. But he grew up in Holly Springs, Mississippi. As a young boy, he was known as Little Eddie. His father's friend William Faulkner often visited his father, Edgar Wiggin Francisco, Jr. Will Faulkner usually asked Little Eddie's father to tell him again certain stories that the two men had themselves heard when they themselves were young boys. They heard the stories from Amelia McCarroll Leak, who was Little Eddie's great-grandmother, and her sister Sallie McCarroll. (Amelia and Sallie were two of John Ramsay McCarroll's three daughters.)

So we have four story-tellers telling stories of their family, spanning roughly a century of their family history:

(1-2) Amelia McCarroll Leak and Sallie McCarroll tell stories to the boys Edgar Wiggin Francisco, Jr., and William Faulkner.

(3) Edgar Wiggin Francisco, Jr., tells stories to his adult friend William Faulkner and his son, Little Eddie.

(4) Edgar Wiggin Francisco III (aka Little Eddie) tells stories to Sally Wolff, who records them and then transcribes them and publishes them in this book.

So let's review the family story.

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www.d.umn.edu/~tfarrell

Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)
 

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White conservatives today usually want to conserve... by Thomas Farrell on Thursday, Mar 3, 2011 at 2:15:35 PM
As a devotee during the '50s and '60s of Faulkner ... by Keith Pope on Saturday, Mar 5, 2011 at 2:08:16 AM