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  • Not Just a Cash Crop: Etymology and Naming in As I Lay Dying
  • Jeanne C. Ewert

Faulkner scholars have long observed his fondness for choosing names, both given and surnames, that fit thematically into his works. He frequently gives his aristocratic families the Scots-Irish surnames that populated the antebellum US South. He often follows the plantation tradition of giving classical or biblical names to enslaved people. In some cases, symbolic significance is obvious (Joe Christmas in Light in August). In others lie deeply buried jokes (for example, Caroline Compson’s maiden name is Bascomb, a name which arrived in England with the Norman Conquest, as did Compson, and which Jason Senior, at least, likely knows means “a valley filled with thistles and burrs”1). Critics have addressed such diverse aspects of Faulkner’s onomastics as consonance and alliteration (Candace/candle2), biblical allusions (Benjamin Compson, Candace Compson, Abner Snopes3), and literary sources (Jason Compson4). In As I Lay Dying, some of the minor characters bear names with symbolic or historical importance. Cliff Staebler explores the relationship of Vernon Tull to the historical figure of Jethro Tull, who perfected the horse-drawn seed drill and revolutionized tenant farming. Cora’s name denotes her sense that she is unloved by Addie in the resonances of Cora and coral, the stuff of inexpensive jewelry versus the true Jewel. The Bundren’s family name, as many have observed, [End Page 225] carries the sound effect of “burden,” perhaps more so after Faulkner accidentally conflated Addie Bundren with Joanna Burden in his lectures at the University of Virginia (Faulkner in the University 112). Providing further confirmation, as Tull says drily, “I done holp him so much already I cant quit now” (33). But the name also contains the German root bund (“a band,” as well as the associated “to bind,” and “bundle”) and reminds us that Addie is the knot that keeps them tied together (OED II, 665). In the case of the five Bundren children, one might ask if their given names were chosen by Faulkner because they might reasonably have been bestowed by parents in that era, place, and socioeconomic bracket, or if they were assigned by Faulkner for reasons of his own. Perhaps both explanations are possible. I would argue that Faulkner chooses the family’s names very carefully, for purposes that are often darkly ironic, but which also point to subterranean alliances within the family unit.


Anse was not an uncommon name in Mississippi during Faulkner’s lifetime; according to US Census data, Anse or one of several variants reached an all-time high around the year of Faulkner’s own birth.5 He assigns it several other times in the Yoknapatawpha saga to men unrelated to the Bundrens: for example, the sheriff who arrests Quentin for child abduction in The Sound and the Fury. There is also Old Anse McCallum, and a grandson named after him by Buddy McCallum, in The Hamlet, The Town, and the short story “The Tall Men.” The name Anse in southern culture is a derivative of the saint’s name Ansehelm or Anselm, growing out of the Germanic influences on early English language and culture, and imported afterwards with English and Scottish settlers like Faulkner’s own Scottish great-great grandfather. Like its shorter variant, Anselm was also a common proper name. Anselm McLaurin, one of the Scottish immigrant descendants, was governor of Mississippi at the time of Faulkner’s birth, before going on to serve in the US Senate. Anselm literally means “helmet of God” and, more metaphorically, [End Page 226] a protector. The most famous Anselm is a canonized Archbishop of Canterbury, a protector of the church. Anse Bundren is about as protective as a rattlesnake, and I suspect that Faulkner may have been after other, more comical connotations for the head of the Bundren clan. I will return to the saintly Anselm later.

Anse also suggests “anserine” (the family of geese and ducks) and its adjectival form “anserous.” The OED dates the first printed use to 1753 from a medical text on the treatment of scurvy describing the skin of victims as having “an anserine appearance” (presumably...