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One Matchless Time
A Sense of Place
The past is never dead. It's not even past.
Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun
A sense of place was everything to William Faulkner, and more than any other American novelist in the twentieth century, he understood how to mine the details of place, including its human history, for literary effects. His novels, from the outset, are obsessed with what T. S. Eliot once referred to as "significant soil," but the outward details of place quickly become inner details as Faulkner examines the soul of his characters through the prism of their observations, their rootings and branchings, their familial and social as well as geographical contexts. Place, for Faulkner, becomes a spiritual location from which he examines a truth deeper than anything like mere locality. Faulkner saw himself as taking part in a great process, moving through history and, in an intriguing way, creating a counterhistory of his own.
He would focus in his fiction on a parallel universe based on the "real" universe of Lafayette County, Mississippi. Faulkner's invented region, Yoknapatawpha County, was named after an actual stream that ran through Lafayette County, the name itself meaning, according to Faulkner, "the water runs slow through flat land." Lafayette was among several counties created by various acts of violence in northern Mississippi in the 1830s, when the native Chickasaw tribe was driven westward, displaced by a procession of planters, slaves, and small farmers, all of whom worked together to fashion an economy based on cotton. At least for a while before repeated plantings ofcotton depleted the topsoil this economy worked well for the white population of Lafayette, especially those living at its middle and higher end. Not surprisingly, this prosperous class regarded the abolition of slavery as a threat to their way of life and joined forces with those who believed in secession.
Their allegiance to the Old South was, for the most part, unwavering. In Faulkner's fiction, the Sartoris clan would stand in for this class, the planter class, and their failure over generations is one of his most compelling themes, counterpointed by the implacable emergence of the Snopes clan, representing the greedy, unscrupulous white folks who come from the outlying country and who form a kind of counterpoint to the Sartoris clan, although it is somewhat misleading to regard this dialectic in a simplistic fashion, since there are admirable Snopeses and selfish, inconsiderate members of the Sartoris family.
The Civil War came as a tidal wave, sweeping over northern Mississippi with a vengeance. Oxford itself Faulkner's hometown, and the focal point of his imagination was ransacked by Union troops (which included many liberated slaves in their ranks) in August of 1864. The aftershocks of this horrific war reverberated through the decades, and Faulkner's characters might be considered survivors of an original trauma, often unspoken, absorbed and transmogrified in their own lives and relived as other kinds of trauma. Even World War I, which obsessed Faulkner, was in a sense an extension, for him, of the original war, which destroyed families by pitting brother against brother, father against son. (Faulkner plays out some of these conflicts in A Fable, a late novel set mostly on the western front, and in many stories.)
It is in the nature of things for violent acts to repeat themselves, even though the original source of the violence is lost to view. In many ways, Faulkner's writing is about uncovering these hidden sources of disruption, about following their echoes and unconscious reenactments down the decades. Even the form of his narratives obsessed with revision as much as vision often reproduces the content, with the novels and stories ("a few old mouth-to-mouth tales," as Faulkner says in Absalom, Absalom!) doubling back on themselves.
Lafayette County was indeed a representative county, even without Faulkner. As Don H. Doyle notes, "Quite apart from Faulkner's unique contribution to the history of this county and region, Lafayette County, Mississippi, stands on its own as a southern community whose history can reveal much about the larger past of which it is part."1 One tends, when thinking of the Old South, to concentrate on the more settled parts of that region, from Virginia southward through the Carolinas and Georgia and Alabama. Mississippi, at the western border of the Old South, occupied a liminal territory on the wilder edge of frontier society. It was, as a result of its position, more dynamic, less predictable, and therefore appealing to a writer's imagination, a place where he could explore the "human heart in conflict with itself," as he said in his Nobel address in Stockholm in December 1950.
Faulkner examined a wide range of social classes, each struggling for survival in a county that fell between piney hills and richly fertile river valley. Two rivers dominated the region: the Tallahatchie and the Yoknapatawpha the names themselves like poems in the ears of a young boy sensitive to language. During Faulkner's childhood, the lower ranks of society were dominated by sharecroppers and "poor white trash," who course vividly through his fiction. Of course, before the Civil War, there were the slaves the rock bottom of society, who later become "free" Negroes and who worked the fields after the war in much the same way they worked the land before the war. Faulkner would write about them frequently, and with sympathy, although not with the same passion or inwardness that he reserves for white characters.
Forty percent of the white families in Lafayette County owned slaves before the war, as Doyle notes, with half of these families owning five slaves or fewer. (A few families owned more than a hundred slaves, but this was exceptional.) The slaves themselves made up roughly half of the county's population. Nearly a century later, the balance between the black and white population remained roughly the same. Needless to say, blacks in postCivil War Mississippi lived close to the poverty line, sinking into a period of deep subjugation from which they would find little relief until the civil rights movement of the 1960s began to lift their burden, however slightly ...One Matchless Time. Copyright © by Jay Parini. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.