In the work of William Faulkner—in its resonances of history, place, and memory—I have found much to help me understand my own relation to history and place. In the hope that it will be of interest to those involved in historic preservation, I offer the conclusion of this reflection.
My Own Little Postage Stamp of Native Soil
It was through reading the works of William Faulkner that I began to see that there is more to history and place than meets the eye. Faulkner is best known for his Yoknapatawpha saga, a collection of novels and short stories that are set in his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi and its county seat Jefferson. Although the town and county were at one level fictional yet they were based on the history and places that Faulkner knew. Even the county’s name was derived from the original name of the Yocona River – the Yoknapatawpha – which flows though southern Lafayette County before emptying into the Tallahatchie. Yoknapatawpha County and the characters that occupied its stage were all drawn from the world that Faulkner knew, a world similar to the world that I knew.
His stories were vignettes of a history that involved people and places, that began in the primordial time of the Chickasaw Indians and continued through the arrival of families named Carothers, Compson, Sartoris, and Sutpen who chopped farms and plantations from the wilderness and laid the foundation for the county. The site of the Chickasaw Agency was surveyed into streets and blocks and became the town of Jefferson and the location of the county court house. In particular one of Faulkner’s characters, Col. John Sartoris, was clearly based on his own great-grandfather Col. William C. Falkner of Ripley. Both were Civil War veterans, both constructed railroads through their home towns, both were assassinated by their former business partners, and both were buried beneath statues of themselves.
However, the Yoknapatawpha stories aren’t merely retellings of historical episodes; they point beyond themselves to larger contexts like shards from a broken ceramic vessel from which the shape of the vessel can be discerned. The greater whole is glimpsed in a panoramic view of Yoknapatawpha as described by the lawyer Gavin Stephens. In a well-known passage from The Town, Stevens described driving out of Jefferson to a ridge top where looking back he viewed his world beneath him:
And now, looking back and down, you see all Yoknapatawpha in the dying last of the day beneath you. . . .
And you stand suzerain and solitary above the whole sum of your life. . . . First is Jefferson, the center, radiating weakly its puny glow into space; beyond it, enclosing it, spreads the County, tied by the diverging roads to that center as is the rim to the hub by its spokes, yourself detached as God Himself for this moment above the cradle of your nativity and of the men and women who made you, the record and chronicle of your native land proffered for your perusal in ring by concentric ring like the ripples on living water above the dreamless slumber of your past; you to preside unanguished and immune above this miniature of man’s passions and hopes and disasters….
Yoknapatawpha is described as the “sum of [his] life,” implying a personal linkage to history and place. Furthermore the county was a “miniature of man’s passions and hopes and disasters” — the implication being that it was a microcosm of the universal conditions of human existence. This insight lay behind the oft quoted lines from the 1955 Paris Review interview, where he noted his discovery that in his “own little postage stamp of native soil” there was something “worth writing about.” Through “sublimating the actual into apocryphal” he had created a “cosmos of [his] own.” His stories weren’t meant to be more than “tale[s] told by an idiot, full of sound and fury” (Shakespeare, Macbeth), but were designed to represent, as he noted in his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed….” In his own locale, he came to see the symbolic potential that revealed those verities.
This involved reflection on our relationship to the past. As he noted “no man is himself, he is the sum of his past,” and he was not the first to realize this. His vision did not spring full blown from his head but was clearly a part of the Western/Christian tradition as suggested by titles of his work such as Absalom, Absalom!; If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem; and Go Down, Moses and by the outline of his World War I story, A Fable, which paralleled the events of Holy Week — Palm Sunday to Easter. The outline in his hand writing can be seen today on the walls of Rowan Oak.
Fifteen hundred years earlier St. Augustine, one of the first to reflect upon the relation between history and human existence, observed that the past is always present to us and the aspirations for the future emerge from that experience. These insights either directly or indirectly influenced Faulkner in his concern for a past that is never dead; he possessed what Dermot Quinn has termed an “Augustinian sense of a past not dead but incorporated into all of humanity.” Olga Vickery elaborated on this theme when she noted that “[a] vision of man as related to both the particular and the universal, to time and eternity, underlies Faulkner’s examination of perception, truth, and reality.” So Faulkner pointed the way beyond mere history to a more ancient way of seeing.
Plato saw the world as a shadow or reflection of a deeper pattern of truth that we can only partially grasp. One can think of places and persons of history as these shadows. They are like the peaks of mountains as viewed from aloft emerging from unbroken cloud banks, like islands in an ethereal sea. Although they appear to be separate from one another, yet we know that these seemingly isolated masses extend below the clouds where they all link in a common but hidden landscape. For those who look there are intimations of such a deeper pattern. As the historian Christopher Dawson noted “To the Christian the mystery of history is not completely dark, since it is a veil which only partially conceals the creative activity of spiritual forces and the operation of spiritual laws.” I suspect that Faulkner lived at Rowan Oak in Oxford for the same reason that I live at Palo Alto — because it afforded a view encompassing the land and characters that made up his little postage stamp of native soil, and through this veil he could glimpse something bigger.
History and place are more than fodder for academic studies. They potentially mean something to us, that is through their symbolic potential they can reveal far more than we often realize. Understanding this means going beyond unreflective awareness to reflection upon our own experience aided by those who can provide insight such as William Faulkner, St. Augustine, and many, many others. There is no higher calling for preservation than to focus–not merely on saving old things as if they’re intrinsically significant–but upon uncovering the symbolic dimensions of history and place that reveal our personal connectedness to community, nature, and to the Mystery that we can only inadequately symbolize as God. To realize this is to become aware of “the old verities and truths of the heart” without which preservation efforts are “ephemeral and doomed.”
Categories: Historic Preservation