Faulknerian Topography

FUKUDA Tatsuaki

    To most contemporary Faulkner readers it may seem a stale, if not silly, question to ask about the geographical and topographical circumstances that contributed to the writer's literary work. It seems to me that I have spent more than thirty years with Faulkner's books in order to answer the question I first put to myself, as I stood alone under the early spring blue sky at the St. Peter's cemetary in Oxford, Mississippi: What in the world is this stretch of land called the Lafayette County, and its literary counterpart, Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi? Perhaps this paper is another attempt to discover something about this topos, which, I agree, must in turn have fostered Faulkner's topographical imagination.

    The Mississippi Trough, first of all, forms the belly of the North American continent. From the Appalachians on the east and the Rockies on the west countless rivers converge and flow into the Big River, which, almost like entrails, keeps the vast alluvial plain fertile running through the valley down to the Gulf of Mexico. It is the "Old Man" section of Faulkner's "double novel" (Millgate 175), If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem (1939, published under the title of The Wild Palms) that tries to tell what thirty feet on a river gauge at Cairo and Memphis means to the inhabitants downstream in the Mississippi basin, as it actually happened in May of the flood year of 1927. While"The Wild Palms," thecounterpart of the contrapuntal novel centers on the governing motif of wind or the elemental air, the "Old Man" section is suffused throughout with water, which of all the four elements is most intimately connected with life. The Mississippi, metaphorically called "Ole Man" (IFTJ 61) as sung in the spirituals, is described as the primary biogenic environment when, on a rescue mission, the convict's "skiff made one long bounding lunge as the convict's native state, inthe final paroxysm, regurgitated him onto the wild bosom of the Father of Waters (134)." The paroxysm of the earth here suggests reproductive spasms, more specifically, those during the delivery the pregnant woman, the only one rescued onthe skiff, will undergo with no one to aid her but the helpless convict.
    Thus a flow of water from the continental belly refers to the earth's diarrhea, her excretion, and her parturition. In the primeval enclosure of boat on the boundless brown water one is reduced, even if one wears the stripes, to one's primordial self. Very naturally the author gives no proper name to eitherthe convict or the rescued woman. What is man and what woman are the only questions to be asked of either of them in this New World version of the archetypal flood myth story. Woman, a pregnant one especially, is the uttermost stranger to the man who has so long adapted himself to the all male homogenous community of a penitentiary. All he wants to do is get to any town and"surrender his charge to and turn back ...on all pregnant and female life and return to that monastic existence of shotguns and shuckles where he would be secure from it (130)." Although he has other alternative, he wants to"do it the right way, find somebody he could surrender her to, something solid he could set her down on (136)." So he does it even at the risk of not only ten years imprisonment for escaping but also of an unnamed period of drifting "in a state in which he was toy and pawn on a vicious and inflammable geography (137)."
    The reader comes across place names in the text that seem solid enough to enable the tall convict to set the woman on them, such as Yazoo City and Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Just as Huckeberry Finn along with Jim once floated down the same river and passed by Cairo, at the confluencewith the Ohio River, so the convict fails to stop at Bicksburg, the confluence with the Yazoo, where the woman could be properly taken care of in childbirth. Chance governs the rest of their voyages. Further geographical references are made to names of the tributaries of the Mississippi, such as the White River, the Yazoo, and the Atchafalaya, from the states of Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana respectively. The couple's watery migration supposedly covers some 220 miles from the Tallahatchie-Yazoo basin down to the Atchafalaya, which lies in southern Louisiana almost parallel to the Mississippi River. The white couple of "The Wild Palms" certainly migrate farther from Louisiana up to Wisconsin--the man even as far as Utah--and again back down to Louisiana. Both sections observe the archetypal pattern of the migration story in literary Americanism, and the both couples follow up-and-down passages in the Mississippi basin. Theseconstitute not so much geographical passages as cross-cultural experiences, of the type suggested by Faulkner's literary mentor, Sharwood Anderson, in his Dark Laughter (1925) published two years before the Mississippi flood year.
    The Mississippi basin is not merely suited to become a continental reservoiror a huge trough for farming but was also originally destined to become a passage open to the different races, as when the native tribesmen are surprised by the first invaders from Europe:

...the wild Algonquian, Chickasaw and Choctaw and Natchez and Pascagoula, peering in virgin astonishment down from the tall bluffs at a Chippeway canoe bearing three Frenchmen--and had barely time to whirl and look behind him at ten and then a hundred and then a thousand Spaniards come overland from the Atlantc Ocean ...(RN 101; ESPL 13)
The Frenchmen in the Chippeway/Ojibwa canoe referred to above are Robert Cavalier, Sieur de la Salle and his crew who, on an expedition, sailed from the Acadia (French, Acadie) Colony in southeastern Canada down to the Gulf of Mexico in1682. The region explored was named Louisiana, the land of Louis XIV, which la Salle declared a French territory. As the result of the Anglo-French Wars (1744-48, 54-63), all the French territory east of the Mississippi was yielded to Great Britain by the Treaty of Paris in 1763. This was the beginning of the confusionon the part of the local inhabitants as to their nationality. Previously Franceceded to Spain, her ally by the secret Treaty of Fountainebleau in 1762, all herterritory west of the Mississippi River, including New Orleans, which, however, by another secret treaty, that of San Ildefonso in 1800, was returned to France,virtually at Napoleon's behest. The inhabitants in this province, however, remained French for only three years before they found themselves citizens of the United States as the result of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. This chain of diplomatic proceedings suggests how ambiguous was the territory referred to by the term "Louisiana." It is true that for President Thomas Jefferson and his minister prenipotentiary to France, James Monroe, the purchase added a larger territory than they had expected, a vast tract of land from the Mississippi in the east to the Rockies in the west. This diplomatic magic perhaps resulted from a combination of semantic fallacies and concealment of information (the secret treaties).
    To return to Faulkner's narrative, the readers will relocate the tall convict's skiff at a small cabin in marshland, somewhere along the Achafalaya Riverin southern Louisiana. The cabin dweller and their only host is a little wiry man called "the Cajan"(212ff) whose language neither of them can understand. A "Cajan" or "Cajun" is a native of Louisiana originally descended from Acadian French immigrants. Apart from the question whether their host actually is a descendent of those who came far down south out of the Acadia or merely were exiled from that lost colony, he speaks a sort of French patois or Creole language. In the text he congratulates the convict in French when the latter has killed his first alligator in " hand-to-hand battle (218)." Of the two patois languages they speak to each other, the author seems to have difficulty making a realistic rendering of the one (French patois) but not with the other (Southern English dialect). Even such city names as Detroit and St. Louis remind us of how many strategic posts there were in the Mississippi basin connecting the distant French colonies both a long way apart north and south. There are also many place names of the Indian origin. The Native Americans vanishing into farther western wilderness bequeathed these names, as sung by the poet of Leaves of Grass (Whitman 24), of which Faulkner was a devoted reader. The Latin-Catholic colonies seem to have retained more Native American place names. The southern Europeans, having had a longer history of cultural exchanges with people of other continents--Africa and Asia, were naturally more sophisticated and cultured with regard to interracial communication and consequent acculturation.

    Jefferson, the fictional counterpart of Oxford, Mississippi (Brown, Appendix223-41) begins at the turn of the 19th century "as a Chickasaw Agency trading post (RN 3)" that grows into the county seat of Yoknapatawpha (Lafayette). It has an international water route, the Mississippi in the west, and an overland route, the Natchez Trace in the east, leading from Nashville, Tennessee to Natchez, Mississippi. It is understood that local Anglo-Saxon pioneers, the anestors of the Sartorises and McCaslins, came from the East by this trail passing the Cumberland Gap. These early travellers were often at the mercy of not so much the Chickasaws as white outlaws, the Harpes and Masons. Interestingly enough, those established families who have immigrated there in that way are prejudiced against Thomas Sutpen, who comes via the Mississippi River in the oposite direction to the more common westward movement. Sutpen's unusual migration, readers notice, is foreshadowed by the Sutpen clan's move in his childhoodfrom West Virginia east to the Tidewater. His early traumatic experiences as a poor white boy and the subsequent "design" (AA 271ff) he prematurely formulates in the rigidly hierarchical Southern society again ironically prefigures the frustrations he is to feel farther out southeast in the Haitian sugar plantation. The final step of his design is to establish his own manor seat in northern Mississippi, a frontier area then, that forces him to take the river passage from New Orleans up to Jefferson. Sutpen's crew of imported slave are described as "wild negroes" (32) and speak neither English or African tribal tongues but "a sort of French" (33), probably Creole.
    In accordence with the historical pattern of the slave trade, French planters in Haiti are supplied mostly with Dahomean slaves by their compatriot traders (Stearns 17). New Orleans, in which a great number of those planters and some of their slaves, mostly domestic ones perhaps, take refuge from the Haitianslave revolt (1794-1804), naturally received rich Dahomean traditions, the voodooism and tribal music, which contributes to the birth of jazz in this city (Stearns 18). The roars of the drums and chanting that disturb Sutpen in the besieged planter's house during the slave revolt in Haiti--one chronologically different from the actual historical revolution, though--will be blended with imported European music in Louisiana and developed into Afro-American blues and jazz toward the end of the century. Removals of Native Americans from the Southeast accerlerated during the two terms of President Andrew Jackson (1829-36) andthe subsequent influx of Anglo-Saxon immigrants into the Mississippi delta made the present State of Mississippi a sort of Anglo-American frontier bordering on culturally Spanish/French/Creole Louisiana as well as on almost latent Indian territories. The lower Mississippi area is further Anglo-Americanized by the Northern invasion after the Civil War (1861-65). Thus in Faulkner's texts we come across such un-British personal names as Issetibbeha, Ikkemotubbe, Leflore,Louis Grenier, Cassius Major de Spain; and place names such as Yoknapatawpha, Tallahatchie, Grenada, and Le Fleur's Bluff.
    Faulkner himself went through intercultural experiences in his Bohemian daysin New Orleans where he got acquainted with Sherwood Anderson and launched his writer's career. Coming from the neighboring Anglo-American frontier, he might be less inspired by the exotic French-Creole atmosphere than Bruce Dudley of Dark Laughter, who left his wife and newspaper job in Chicago and drifted far down to this cosmopolitan city full of not only Southern drawl and dark laughterbut ragtime and blues (Anderson 73-74). This is the river-/lake-/sea-side town that the tall convict of If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, scorched by the subtropical sun in the Atchafalaya basin, absolutely rejects to be brought to, while persistently declaring "Parch-man" to be his preoccupied destination (200). This Latin/Creole city in turn absolutely rejects giving itself wholely up to Calvinistic Anglo-Saxon America. New Orleans has been a melting pot simmering with European and Afro-Caribbean cultures, which merge and blend anew there. As late as 1925, it remains "the most European city of America (Blotner 385)." Faulkner as well as Anderson, immersed in Euro-Caribbean atmospheres and topographies, must have experienced a spiritual rebirth there. Besides his stay fortwo successive summers of 1925 and 1926 in Pascagoula (named after the local American Indian tribe), Mississippi, he ventures a nearly six-month expatriate journey in Europe in between. It was during his second stay in Pascagoula on the Gulf that he wrote his second novel, Mosquitoes (1927), hereby finding himself as a young modernist writer.
    It is suggestive that the novel includes a setting of the Lake Pontchartrainwhich, along with the Mississippi River, outlines the Crescent City. Lying close to the estuary of the River, Pontchartrain figuratively constitutes the southernmost outlet of the North American continental trough geographically as well as the continental excretory and delivery orifice topographically. The group of main characters find themselves on board of the yacht Nausikaa strandedduring a cruise in the Lake. We will not deal with the question here of whether the work is an"interesting failure (Volpe 56)" or not. But the accident could metaphorically suggest the difficulty of naturalizing the Euro-American modernism on the part of the Anglo-American writer in the deep South. Over the collection of regional topographies in the Delta hover the genius loci, engendered by the ghosts of displaced Native Americans and by the daimones of enslved and transplanted African Americans, both to a white writer perhaps too disparate to be assimilated. Faulkner, however, presently perceiving all those which D. H. Lawrence earlier noticed (40-41), begins to bring them into focus.

    So long as fiction is subject to three-dimensinal conditions, fictional characters cannot be entirely free from their geographical and topographical preoccupations. The convict is far down in the bayou country of Louisiana rampant with alligators, yet the place names that recur to him are Parchman, his old State penitentiary, and Carrollton, Mississippi, which he recollects having passed on the train after he was arrested for attempted train robbery seven years before (206). For him, the line that divides the United States is not theMason-Dixon but something that can only be called the "Delta-Creole" Line.     To cite an example from Faulkner's fiction in which the former functions as a topographical boundary that divides between the North and the South, Quentin Compson in The Sound and the Fury (1929) recalls his trip from New England back down to his house in Mississippi this way:

But I thought at first that I ought to miss having a lot of them [African Americans] around me because I thought that Northerners thought I did, but I didn't know that I really missed Roskus and Dilsey and them until that morning in Virginia (SF 86).
In the stopped train blocking a road crossing, he notices an African American ona mule waiting patiently for the train to move. He playfully takes advantage ofa Southern custom of the Christmas season they share. By throwing a quarter to the forestalled man, he tries to recover his identity as a White Southerner after he has been kept reminded of its falsity in the North. If he could temporarily forget it, it is because a topographical sign saying "You are home again"makes him feel at home, being on the south side of the border, his own homeland.In order to answer the Shreve MacCannon's question what the South is like, Quentin, realizing himself to be a disillusioned Southerner, picks up the saga of the Sutpens, which seems to him best to explains his own old South involving both Anglo-American and French-Creole inheritances.
    In addition to his own involvements in the saga formation, sheer geographical isolations and climatic contrasts between the Deep South and New England, between the spot of the dramatic incidents and the spot of retelling them, make it impossible for Quentin to reproduce the story in duplicate. Sitting before his Farther's letter dated January 10, 1910 that tells about the final sequence of the saga, he feels "that summer twilight--the wisteria, the cigar-smell, thefireflies--attenuated up from Mississippi and into this strange room, across this strange iron New England snow (AA 180)." Quentin and Shreve, born and bredso far apart in the South and Canada respectively, yet as they empathize deeper with the imaginative characters, re-create the saga anew by exchanging the rolesof narrator and audience alternately, like a duo improvisation in jazz. It seems that mythopoeia receives impetus from material surroundings of narrators, that is, topographical conditions of telling a story. "When a mark making histoy is transferred from one topograhical locale to another," says J. Hillis Miller, "it is made material in a new way in a new situation (213)."
    The readers are reminded here of the fact that Faulkner has already incorporated the pair of his narrators in geographical kinship: "both born within the same year: the one in Alberta, the other in Mississippi; born half a continent apart yet joined, connected after a fashion in a sort of geographical transubstantiation by that Continental Trough, that River which runs not only through the physical land of which it is the geologic umbilical, not only runs through the spiritual lives of the beings within its scope, but is very Environment itself which laughs degrees of latitude and temperature (AA 269)." QuentinCompson, the reader of The Sound and the Fury is aware, throws himself into the Charles River in Massachusetts six months after he contributed as one of the chief narrators of Absalom, Absalom! (1936). He returns home in corpse, unlike his legendary hero and a criminal, Henry Sutpen who, Quentin discovers, has returned from his refuge to die in his hereditary plantation house. The spirit ofthe place thus irresistibly spellbinds men. Another narrator of this metafictional masterpiece, Shrevlin McCannon, according to the "Genealogy" appended tothe text, is a practising surgeon in Edmonton, Alberta at the moment of its publication (AA 401).
    This retrospective information directs the reader's attention further to another appendix of the autographic map of Jefferson, Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. This represents not so much a synchronic as a diachronic phase of topography having the author's own autographed legendary references to the exactspots where fictional occurrences took place. So long as William Faulkner declares himself the"sole owner & proprietor" of this topographical domain, he must alone endure not only the burden of the life of whole population he specified as "6,298 whites and 9,313 negroes," along with the historical burdens of Chickasaw Grant, but also every fictionasl character's conducts registered on the spot of the topography. The Faulkner's map thus reminds us of the fact thata cycle of four-dimensional histoires involves a diachronic facet of topography with layers of sedimentation, like fertile Mississippi Delta.


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-----. If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem. 1939. New York: Vintage, 1995.
-----. Requiem for A Nun. 1951. New York: Vintage, 1975.
-----. Essays, Speeches and Public Letters. Ed. James B. Meriwether. New York: Random House, 1965.
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Copyright (c)2002 Fukuda Tatsuaki