Plantation Diary Yields Clues To Faulkner's Work

When Emory University adjunct professor Sally Wolff-King was researching her latest book, she came across a plantation diary that bore a strong connection to William Faulkner's novel Go Down, Moses. The names of the slaves in the journal were the same as those in Faulkner's book. Wolff-King discusses the discovery.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. It's been called a once-in-a-lifetime literary find and a peephole into the work of Nobel Prize-winning writer William Faulkner. We're talking about a story in the New York Times today about a farm diary and companion slave ledger from an 1800s Mississippi plantation.

Historians have known about the diary for decades. What was not known until recently is that it appears to have provided inspiration for some of Faulkner's best-known novels.

In a key passage in his 1942 work, "Go Down, Moses," a character finds proof of his family's slave-owning legacy when he opens his grandfather's farm ledger.

BLOCK: There are also names, lots of them. Names of slaves mentioned in the diary appear again and again as characters in Faulkner's work. Sally Wolff-King teaches Southern literature at Emory University and she uncovered the connection between Faulkner and the diary. She says it all began when she met Dr.�Edgar Wiggin Francisco, the great-great-grandson of the plantation owner who wrote the diary.

NORRIS: It turns out his father and Faulkner had been friends, but Faulkner's connections to the diary weren't clear to either Dr.�Francisco or Sally Wolff-King.

Ms.�SALLY WOLFF-KING (Assistant Vice President and Adjunct Professor, Emory University): I happened to turn to a page that showed the individual amounts of moneys paid for slaves, and I realized that it looked very similar to the slave sale records section of "Go Down, Moses." And so I asked Dr.�Francisco if he'd read "Go Down, Moses" and he said no. So I asked whether his father had ever read "Go Down, Moses" and he said no, he didn't think so.

I was struggling to figure out why Faulkner's novel would resemble this diary or vice versa, and eventually I said, well, you had been telling me that your dad and William Faulkner visited frequently at each other's homes. Do you think he ever saw this diary? And Dr.�Francisco said yes, he liked to look at it.

NORRIS: Can you tell us about some of the discoveries that are clearly spotted in some of William Faulkner's works, things that you found as you came to learn more about that farm ledger and that farm in Holly Springs?

Ms.�WOLFF-KING: Yes, I noticed Candis and Ben are names of slaves on the Leak Plantation, and they also figure as prominent characters in "The Sound and the Fury," and Ben, who is a slave, the diary says was not sound. Benjy is likewise not sound. His disability is mental slowness. And other names: Meek and Dalton appear in both the diary and "The Sound and the Fury."

NORRIS: The original manuscript was written by Francis Terry Leak. He was a very wealthy plantation owner. And it's interesting because Faulkner would give some of his white characters slave names from that ledger. What do you make of that? Is that a window into William Faulkner's political views?

Ms.�WOLFF-KING: Well, I think it will be interpreted in various ways, but in "Go Down, Moses," for example, Faulkner does imbue his characters with hope for the future and a sense that condition of slavery might be alleviated and at least points toward the possibility of freedom.

So for him to take slave names and make important characters out of them, it seems to me that he was recovering their names and stories and activities and perhaps even commemorating their lives and marking their graves in a memorial to a forgotten people.

NORRIS: Sally Wolff-King, thank you very much for your time.

Ms.�WOLFF-KING: Thank you.

NORRIS: Sally Wolff-King teaches Southern literature at Emory University. She was talking with us about the plantation diary and slave ledger that helped inspire some of William Faulkner's classic novels.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: