Southern Cultures 9.1 (2003) 102-103
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Faulkner's County: The Historical Roots of Yoknapatawpha. By Don H. Doyle. University of North Carolina Press, 2001. 488 pp. Cloth $49.95, paper $24.95
William Faulkner's imagination has been the subject of literally hundreds of scholarly essays and books. Since his death in 1962, what people see as the enigma of this great American novelist has prompted biographies, close readings of his fictions, and a range of theoretical treatments of those works that still leave students and scholars puzzled. Who was Billy Faulkner, the sometimes modest, sometimes flamboyant, and always driven writer? Working within the postage stamp of his homeplace—Lafayette County, Mississippi—Faulkner claimed his right to be considered one of the most significant novelists of modern times, even as his life itself mandated against his ever attaining such a position. What historian Don H. Doyle provides in his Faulkner's County: The Historical Roots of Yoknapatawpha is a kind of scaffolding for any number of interpretations of Faulkner's oeuvre. In always clear prose, Doyle provides a wealth of information that supplements what we already know. Doyle shows how much Faulkner's home county gave the inventive writer, in both its commonplace and unremarkable dailiness and its startling, sometimes macabre, events. Faulkner's county, it becomes clear, was not merely the context for his narratives: it often was the starting point for them.
William Faulkner was the fourth generation of his family to inhabit Lafayette County; the legends of the place were his family's stories. As if he were a part of that tradition too, Doyle begins with the beginning: a description of the way the Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes differentiated themselves, and the way the Chickasaw attained legendary status. From before 1540 through 1830, when Mississippi state law replaced tribal law and caused the devastating removal of the tribes, Doyle recounts the uses of Indians to whites—as providers of furs, allies against foreign invasion, successful farmers and land owners (land held by the tribe rather than individuals), and subjects for Christianization. He interweaves the history of the planter culture, the system of slavery, and poor white attempts [End Page 102] at survival (the struggling Sutpen-like land owners). His accounts of life in antebellum Mississippi are as fascinating as his narrative of the postwar years—the Civil War itself with the destruction of Oxford; Reconstruction with the Ku Klux Klan, bushwhackers, and political battles between the Democrats and the Republicans; and the downward spiral of poverty that fed forests and game into sawmills, and modest families' hopes into a similar waste. Doyle's considerable accomplishment is recounted modestly; he quotes Faulkner's phrase "a few old mouth-to-mouth tales" (from Absalom, Absalom!) to suggest the oral source of much of a people's knowledge about their place and time, and past times.
Doyle admires "Faulkner's continued probing of his people's history" and does his best to give the reader information about the facts and contexts of that history. Faulkner's County tells of the importance of the Elizabeth Ragland murder, the reasons for burying the family coin and silver, the story of hiding out in attics to remain free from the Confederate provost marshalls, and why the burial of Toby Tubby occasioned protest. He also describes the way Hoka's "X" gives three white men ownership of Oxford, as well as other historical details that Faulkner wrote into Yoknapatawpha legend. For Doyle's aim, as he states, is "to use Faulkner's fiction to inform my historical interpretation and, to a lesser extent, use the history to illuminate Faulkner's world." This appears to be a task only an historian could undertake, and one only a good—and very literate—historian accomplish.
Faulkner's County also illustrates the case study method of historical writing at its best. The author states that he has attempted to provide "a history of a small but characteristic little piece of the American South, 'a postage stamp of native soil,' Faulkner [and/or Sherwood Anderson] called it...