Monday, September 25, 2006

Behind the smokehouse we had a kind of map.

Vicksburg was a handful of chips from the woodpile and the river was a trench we had scraped in the packed ground with a hoe, that drank water almost faster than we could fetch it from the well. This afternoon it looked like we would never get it filled, because it hadn’t rained in three weeks. But at last it was damp-colored enough at least, and we were just about to begin, when all of a sudden Loosh was standing there watching us. And then I saw Philadelphy over at the woodpile, watching Loosh.
“What’s that?” Loosh said.
“ Vicksburg,” I said.
Then Loosh laughed. He stood there laughing, not loud, not looking
at me.
“Come on here, Loosh,” Philadelphy said. There was something queer about her voice too. “If you wants any supper, you better tote me some wood.” But Loosh just stood there laughing, looking down at Vicksburg. Then he stooped, and with his hand he swept the chips flat.
“There’s your Vicksburg,” he said.
“Loosh!” Philadelphy said. But Loosh squatted there, looking down at me with that look on his face. I was twelve then; I didn’t know triumph; I didn’t even know the word.

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In honor of William Faulkner’s birthday, September 25, I read a few pages this morning, recalling the tale of the two boys who take a potshot at one of the leading horsemen in the approaching Yankee army, then seek refuge under the skirts of one boy's grandmother during a tense exchange with a Federal colonel.

Faulkner is not always easy to read, but he is one-of-a-kind, and evokes a place and timeand a people—in such a powerful and enduring way, the images and atmosphere of his fictional Mississippi time capsules remain with the reader long after the details of a particular story are forgotten.

One might assume, or have the impression, that Faulkner would naturally have incorporated the Civil War directly into his narratives, but the war is rarely used as a setting so much as it is part of the larger landscape. If the Civil War and the South are inseparable, if black and white make up the essence of southern identity and, as Faulkner wrote, “the past is not dead,” then the tension leading to, and the fallout resulting from the Civil War are unspoken if not explicit threads in his Yoknapatawpha County novels.

Most anyone with an interest in Faulkner has discovered that the Old Colonel, John Sartoris, in The Unvanquished and other writings, is inspired by William Clark Falkner, the larger-than-life great-grandfather of the famous author who served with Mississippi troops at First Manassas and elsewhere (various accounts explain when the “u” in the surname was dropped, and later added again).



Back in the spring when father was home before, he sat in his chair in front of the fire and Ringo and I lying on our stomachs on the floor. Then we listened. We heard: The names—Chickamauga and Lookout Mountain—the words, names like Gap and Run that we didn’t have in this country; but mostly the cannon and the flags and the charges and the yelling. Ringo was waiting for me in the hall; we waited until father was settled. Then I said, “How can you fight in mountains, father?” He looked at me. “You can’t. You just have to. Now you boys run on to bed.”
Faulkner, the American icon, son of old Mississippi, was one of the great inspirations for another novelist from Mississippi, Shelby Foote, who himself became an icon in the world of Civil War historiography. There are various accounts of the time Foote and his friend, the unsung Walker Percy, made a visit to William Faulkner in Oxford, Mississippi. Foote’s Washington Post obituary put it this way:

He said the peak of his college career was a surprise visit he made to Faulkner with his close friend, the future novelist Walker Percy. Pulling up to Faulkner's home in Oxford, Miss., Percy was too shy to enter the house, but Foote knocked on the door, stayed several hours and apparently never bothered to tell Faulkner of his friend in the car.

An account from Foote’s presentation at the New York State Writers Institute's Visiting Writers Series, March 20, 1997, goes in to more detail:
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Foote was at his most captivating when answering audience questions or spinning impromptu yarns in response to comments. How did he meet the great Faulkner, for instance? Foote was 19 years old and he and Walker Percy were planning to drive from Foote’s hometown, Greenville, Miss., through Faulkner’s town, Oxford, Miss.

Foote: “Let’s stop in Oxford and meet William Faulkner.”
Percy: “I’m not going to just knock on his door.”
Foote: “I will then.”
Percy: “Go ahead. I’m staying in the car.”

Foote recalled the walkway to Faulkner’s house was lined with cedar trees and he was greeted by three hounds, two fox terriers and a Dalmatian in the yard. Soon, a small man, shirtless and barefoot, naked save for a pair of shorts, and seemingly drunk, appeared and asked Foote what he wanted. “Could you tell me where to find a copy of Marble Faun, Mr. Faulkner?” Faulkner grunted for Foote to contact his agent. Faulkner was gruff and abrupt during that unannounced visit, but later befriended Foote, who walked Faulkner around the Civil War battlefields of Shiloh.
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Shelby Foote and William Faulkner strolling the still-pristine battleground of Shiloh. I would not have minded tagging along for that walk.

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Postscript: also on this day, in 1789, about 108 years before Faulkner was born, the very first Congress passed a series of 12 amendments outlining the most basic and essential rights that—eventually—all American citizens would come to enjoy. Ten of the 12 were ratified as the Bill of Rights. Ah, those were the days.

both excerpts, top and middle, are from “Ambuscade,” under Stories Revised for Later Books (The Unvanquished), in Uncollected Stories of William Faulkner, ed. by Joseph Blotner.


10 comments:

Drew W. said...

Nice post, Dave. My favorite living writer is Cormac McCarthy, who of course has been compared often with Faulkner. IMO, he can evoke a sense of place like no other.

dw said...

Drew,

Thanks for checking in. I like McCarthy's work a lot, though I've only read a couple of them (All the Pretty Horses, and The Crossing), and have been meaning to delve into some others. You're right, he brings out the sense of a place in a powerful, even intoxicating way.

David

dw said...

Drew,

Have you read any of T. R. Pearson's books? He's another favorite "Southern" voice -- very much a voice of his own, I think -- who is also compared to Faulkner. Certain Southern writers have had a big impact on me, from early on, going back to the first thrills of reading Flannery O'Connor and Harper Lee.

dw

Drew W. said...

David,
I've actually never heard of TR Pearson. Looks like someone I need to look up!

I liked the first two volumes of the Border Trilogy, but my favorite McCarthy works (by far) are "Blood Meridian" and "Outer Dark". I would highly recommend going there next! My uncle, a literature PhD, turned me on to McCarthy after he read the Howard Bloom book "How to Read and Why".

Drew

dw said...

Upon someone's recommendation, I purchased "Suttree," but never got around to cracking it open. "Blood Meridian" is a great title -- might have to pick that up. I'll look for Outer Dark, too -- another great title.

Regarding T. R. Pearson, he seems to be well received critically, but no one's ever heard of him for some reason. Start with "A Short History of a Small Place." You'll either have gotten your fill, or will be compelled to run out and get some others.

David

Sean Dail said...

Here's another plug for TR Pearson. A Short History of a Small Place is one of my favorite works of nonfiction. The comparisons to Faulkner are warranted but, unlike Faulkner, Pearson will also make you laugh out loud on a regular basis.

Great post, David. I'm a big Faulkner fan as well (Light in August may be my alltime favorite novel), and I was fortunate enough to meet Shelby Foote a few years back. I was a little frustrated at Foote's standard refusal to sign books unless you were a personal friend, but I guess every great artist is entitled to some idiosyncrasies...

dw said...

Good to hear from you, Sean. When I was reading "A Short History," I had to stop frequently to read some hilarious passage to my wife. I ended up reading half the book aloud. Same with "Off for the Sweet Hereafter."

Speaking of novels with a North Carolina setting, have you read "The Many Aspects of Mobile Home Living," by Martin Clark? Good stuff!

David

Drew W. said...

David,
Oops, I meant the great Harold Bloom, of course, not Howard.

thanks for the TRP recommendation. I was just going to come here and ask you what Pearson work you thought would provide the best starting point.

As for McCarthy's "Suttree", I tried twice but have never been able to finish it. I've read his entire body of work but the last half of Suttree...it's his only novel that does absolutely nothing for me. Some critics consider it his greatest work, however. Whatever.

Drew

blog4history_chris said...

well done, very nice post...

Sean Dail said...

David,

No, I haven't read that one. But I'll keep an eye out for it. Thanks for the recommendation.

Sean