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.


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:
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.

Shelby Foote and William Faulkner strolling the still-pristine battleground of Shiloh. I would not have minded tagging along for that walk.


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.