- Two Takes on Faulkner's "Postage Stamp of Native Soil"
That Yoknapatawpha County is an amalgamation of real and imagined topographies is known, concedes Charles S. Aiken in his recent book, William Faulkner and the Southern Landscape. What is not known are the "particular techniques" by which Faulkner "convert[ed] the local geography into a fictional one." To the extent that Aiken remains focused on this question, his study proves an engaging and original contribution to the ever-widening scope of Faulkner scholarship. A geography professor whose family was among the first to settle in Lafayette County, Aiken is deeply familiar with Faulkner's actual—and apocryphal—southern landscapes. Because his "approach, methodology and sources are primarily those of historical geography," Aiken's book will be of more interest to scholars engaged in the interdisciplinary work of southern studies than to literary scholars, although it does offer some in-sightful readings of Faulkner's fiction.
Aiken begins his foray into the world of William Faulkner by acknowledging that much of that world has now vanished, thus positioning his work as an act of preservation not unlike Oxford's recent "movement to preserve buildings [in] recognition of their relationship to the fictional Jefferson." Through numerous maps and photographs, Aiken [End Page 151] details the evolution of Faulkner's real and imagined topographies, dating from the Choctaw and Chickasaw land cessions of the 1830s to the present day. He demonstrates the many parallels that exist between Oxford and Jefferson, and between Lafayette County and Yoknapatawpha County, as well as the ways in which they differ. One of the most compelling aspects of Aiken's study is his seamless movement between real locales—many of which he photographed himself—and descriptive excerpts from Faulkner's novels and short stories.
Nevertheless, despite these striking parallels, Aiken is careful not to subsume fiction to fact. He acknowledges that much of Faulkner's work is a conscious departure from direct observation and experience. Yoknapatawpha and its peculiar cast of characters are products of Faulkner's creative genius. Aiken also recognizes that "precise conformity of his fiction with actual geography and history was never a major concern of Faulkner." This, in turn, leads him to contend that Yoknapatawpha County is not a microcosm of the American South, as many critics have argued. Rather, it is a "distinctive geographical entity related to, and contrasted with, other areas of the Lowland South." Aiken effectively demonstrates the difficulty of presenting any picture of "the South in miniature" given the region's geographical, economical, racial, and cultural diversity. To do this is also to ignore Faulkner's principle objective—namely, "to write universally about mankind." Aiken astutely observes that "no boundaries are shown on the two maps that [Faulkner] drew" for the 1936 Absalom, Absalom! insert, nor for Malcolm Cowley's 1946 The Portable Faulkner. "Symbolically, Yoknapatawpha is a place with a core," writes Aiken, "but the county has no isolating walls."
This observation concludes roughly the first half of the book. The latter half of Aiken's study is difficult to reconcile with his initial claims and questions. Ensuing chapters devoted to the Civil War, Reconstruction, the New and Modern South, and the Civil Rights Movement read as condensed regional histories rather than geographical or literary analyses. Aiken's references to Faulkner become increasingly biographical and increasingly indebted to Joseph Blotner. Although the chapter entitled "Geographical Interpretation of 'The Bear'" provides an exception, the second half of Aiken's study has a derivative, documentarian (as opposed to hermeneutic) quality that belies the quickly exhausted nature of its very subject. Thus, while Yoknapatawpha County has no isolating walls, William Faulkner and the Southern Landscape seems to circumscribe itself in a somewhat limiting way.
These limitations are thrown into greater relief upon reading Annette [End Page 152] Trefzer and Ann J. Abadie's rich collection of essays, Global Faulkner. Here, eleven scholars explore the...