We often identify certain writings as realistic fiction. That is an odd term because fiction, by its very definition, is an imaginary creation. All fictional worlds and settings are creations of the minds of authors. The wooden belly of the Trojan Horse was imaginary, as was the journey through Hell that Dante, accompanied by Virgil, took.
Some authors rely on actual places and events for their imaginary dimensions to live. Huck Finn traveled down the Mississippi River. But the town he was from, St. Petersburg, was a fiction based on Hannibal, Missouri. Some authors, such as J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, create entire worlds for their stories. Their readers become as familiar with Middle Earth and Narnia as their own neighborhoods. The geography, history, and inhabitants of those worlds are accepted features of those fictional universes.
William Faulkner began his writing career in search of a voice and a direction. It was just after World War I, and that was a prime time for young writers in America. Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald were rapidly gaining fame through their fresh, bold novels. Post-war disillusionment, pessimistic philosophies, and sweeping changes in economic and material possibilities were all changing the face of literature. The eras of James Fenimore Cooper and Charles Dickens were ending. Something new was being called for.
Young American writers and artists were flocking to Paris to find their venues for artistic expression. Whether it was the modern art of Picasso or the obscure free verse of T. S. Eliot, experimental flights into modernity defined art and literature. Instead of finding himself artistically in Paris, France, Faulkner went to New Orleans. But that was only a temporary stay. His yearning to find the story he was looking for took him right back home to Mississippi.
Faulkner had spent most of his younger years in Oxford, Mississippi. It was the county seat of a predominantly rural area. Like most of the South, Oxford was steeped in lore, legends, and actual history related to the Civil War. Like most of the South, Oxford was a city of white citizens ranging from heirs of the antebellum plantation society and town dwellers whose ancestors had been farmers. Like most of the South, Oxford was racially mixed, with codes, both written and assumed, regarding the place of the blacks in the community.
Faulkner disproved the phrase “you can‘t go home again,” which actually was the title of a book by a fellow writer, Thomas Wolfe. He went back home to Oxford, Mississippi, and with the exception of a few extended journeys to Hollywood and other places, stayed home. Faulkner bought an old Southern home, remodeled it, and named it Rowan Oak.
He often walked to the town square and around the block that would become the model for his fictional world. Right in the middle of that block was the Lafayette County Courthouse, which again was a part of his stories. Faulkner hunted, fished, rode horses, and found sources for homemade moonshine.
His townsmen thought he was strange. He put on airs and affectations, resulting in some referring to him as Count No-count. He walked with a limp in order to perpetuate the myth that he had served in the Canadian Air Force during World War I. (He actually was a flyer and loved air planes.) Always a dapper man, he would wear tweed jackets but wear pants that were torn and shoes with no socks.
Rumor about town was that Faulkner wrote books. Few in Oxford actually read his works. When they did, they were either totally puzzled by his writing style or infuriated with his depiction of their town. It would only be in the later years, to some degree after he won the Nobel Prize but more so after he was long since dead, that Faulkner would be embraced by Oxford.
While both the town and the university, the University of Mississippi, discovered the wealth of having Faulkner as its home town icon, Faulkner found his own gold mine in what he would call “my own little postage stamp of native soil.”
Faulkner credited author and mentor Sherwood Anderson for advising him to find his literary voice in his home roots. “You’re a country boy,” Anderson said. “All you know is that little patch up there in Mississippi where you started from.”
Faulkner named that world Yoknapatawpha County. As the overlapping stories, novels, legends, and lore of this world began to appear in print, Faulkner decided to draw a map of his land. In the center of the county was Jefferson, the town modeled after Oxford. Surrounding Jefferson were the locations of some of the main events of the literary history of Faulkner’s characters. At the bottom of the map, Faulkner wrote: “William Faulkner, Sole Owner and Proprietor.”
Faulkner used the microscope to survey the universe. By that, I mean this: Faulkner used Southern history and culture, local geography, family history, and local folks and legends to tell greater truths. Some readers tried to understand his work as a travel guide to the South. If so read, the warning “No Trespassing” would have been unnecessary. Faulkner’s world was often violent, cruel, twisted, and abnormal.
Yet when Faulkner accepted his Nobel Prize, his lecture affirmed “the old verities,” that is, the old truths and traditional values of the culture. He proclaimed that man would not only survive but would prevail. Those two ideas led to a re-reading and different understanding of Faulkner’s creation. Yes, there were the abuses—social, racial, economic, and historical. Yes, Faulkner’s characters were not the regular folks one hopes to live next to. Yes, Yoknapatawpha was dark, grotesque, and sin-filled. But there are human hearts to the rich and the poor, the black, white, and red, and the fallen and struggling characters Faulkner created.
There was love, reconciliation, honor, dignity, and even pietas even among the worst of the Snopes, Compsons, Sartoris, McCaslin, and Sutpen families. In a warped and fallen world, there were still knights—although armor was not befitting the Southern clime—and damsels in distress who were worthy of rescue.
Mankind’s story is rooted in history and the land. A novel about the entire earth and all of history would be impossible. So Faulkner gazed out the window and along the streets and around the woods of the little postage stamp native soil where he lived. From that long, deep look at his roots, his home town, and his people, he envisioned the world. Most of the time, he called it Yoknapatawpha County.
More Photos of Faulkner’s Worlds