Yoknapatawpha County and "Cracker Culture":
A Study of the "Celtic" Component in Faulkner's Mythical South

Charles W. MacQuarrie

     The two main sources for this paper are the works of the 20th Century American writer William Faulkner, especially the literature which takes place in Yoknapatawpha County, and a 1988 book by Grady McWhiney entitled Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways in the Old South. What I shall do in the following pages is to explore the interesting if not always totally convincing theory of McWhiney -- that the Old South was fundamentally a Celtic culture in contrast to the primarily English culture of the North -- in terms of Faulkner's depiction and explanation of the South. I will be focusing, then, not on the actual South but on Faulkner's literary representation. Rather than use quotation marks around Celtic throughout the paper, I will explain and then adopt McWhiney's usage (with some exceptions and clarifications). Although cultural reductionism of the term Celtic by scholars such as Malcolm Chapman goes rather too far -- if we followed Chapman we wouldn't use the term Celt at all -- McWhiney's use of the term Celt is too expansive. For most of the cultural description he uses, McWhiney is really talking about Goidelic culture, Scottishness rather than Irishness, and Highlanders rather than Lowlanders (his argument also focuses on the 18th century rather than on classical or medieval Celts). Michael Newton's 2001 publication We're Indians Sure Enough: The Legacy of the Scottish Highlands in the United States is a more up-to-date, accurate, and expansive study of actual Highland influence in the United States (including the Southern United States), but our interest here is with the myth of Highland/Scottish/Celtic influence as it is articulated by McWhiney, and as it was used by Faulkner in his fiction.
The same fat black rich plantation earth still synonymous of the proud fading white plantation names whether we -- I mean of course they -- ever actually owned a plantation or not: Sutpen and Sartoris and Compson and Edmonds and McCaslin and Beauchamp and Grenier and Habersham and Holston and Stevens and De Spain, generals and governors and judges, soldiers (even if only Cuban lieutenants) and statesmen failed or not, and simple politicians and over-reachers and just simple failures, who snatched and grabbed and passed and banished, name and face and all. Then the roadless, almost pathless perpendicular hill-country of McCallum and Gowrie and Frazier and Muir translated intact with their pot stills and speaking only the old Gaelic and not much of that from Culloden to Carolina, then from Carolina to Yoknapatawpha still intact and not speaking much of anything except that that they now called the pots "kettles" though the drink (even I can remember this) was still called usquebaugh; then and last on to where Frenchman's Bend lay beyond the southeastern horizon, cradle of Varners and ant-heap for the northwest crawl of Snopes. (The Town 316-317)
     We can then distinguish three separate cultures (aside from the Indians) coexisting in Yoknapatawpha county; the plantation people, the Gaelic hill people, and the dreaded Snopeses. I will discuss the Scottish component of the plantation families later on, and as for the Snopeses, I merely wish to point out that they seem to be understood as a separate species rather than a separate culture. The Gaelic speaking hill-people are the only above mentioned group that seem to have a distinct cultural identity. While the Scottish families within the plantation society seemed to actively attempt to shed and ignore their heritage, the hill folk retained much of their cultural heritage intact.
     Whether or not it corresponds to a historical reality, there is manifestly an important Scottish component in Faulkner's fictional South. In his book on Celtic and Cracker culture, Grady McWhiney compares Celtic and Southern culture in a number of different categories. These categories, which also serve as chapter headings, include; settlement, heritage, herding, hospitality, violence, education, progress, worth, and finally collision. McWhiney's first category of comparison is settlement. Both Celts and Southerners, he notes, tended to settle on the outskirts of society. While, no doubt, ethnicities other than Celts, settled away from civic centers, McWhiney's observation is valid in terms of Scots in Faulkner's work at least. One piece of evidence that this was true in Faulkner's South exists in Gavin Stevens' above cited description of the geography of Yoknapatawpha County. The family names: McCarron, McCallum, Gowrie, Fraser, and Muir etc and the place names: Glasgow Caledonia Church etc, point to the predominant Celtic element in the mountainous outskirts of Jefferson (Intruder 63, 219). Furthermore, the rationale for why Celts might have chosen the isolated regions of Yoknapatawpha known as "Beat four," is addressed by the character Charles Mallison:

They could see the hills now; they were almost there - the long lift of the first pine ridge standing across half the horizon and beyond it a sense a feel of others, the mass of them seeming not so much to stand rush abruptly up out of the plateau as to hang suspended over it as his uncle had told him the Scottish highlands did except for this sharpness and color; that was two years ago, maybe three and his uncle had said, 'Which is why the people who chose by preference to live on them on little patches which wouldn't make eight bushels of corn or fifty pounds of lint cotton an acre even if they were not too steep for a mule to pull a plow across (but then they don't want to make the cotton anyway, only the corn and not too much of that because it really doesn't take a great deal of corn to run a still as big as one man and his sons want to fool with) are people named Gowrie and McCallum and Fraser and Ingrum that used to be Ingreham and Workitt that used to be Urquhart only the one that brought it to America and then Mississippi couldn't spell it either, who love brawling and fear God and believe in Hell.' (Intruder 148)
     The Celts, according to both McWhiney and Faulkner, chose the mountainous regions because it reminded them of home, and also because of another interest, which, according to McWhiney, distinguishes them as Celts -- the making of whiskey. McWhiney compares the Southern and Celtic love for whiskey under the heading "hospitality" where he notes that whiskey was the drink of choice in the Old South as it was in Celtic countries, while beer was more popular in the North and England. The "usquebaugh" mentioned in The Town, and the regular appearances of stills throughout the Yoknapatawpha material (notably Lucas Beauchamp's still in "The Fire and the Hearth" section of Go Down Moses) attest to the importance of whiskey in Faulkner's mythical South. According to McWhiney "It was part of their Celtic heritage for Southerners to consider moonshine 'both wholesome and harmless' (McWhiney 92). Faulkner is more ambivalent in his treatment of whiskey. Boss, the grandfather in The Reivers has a toddy every morning before getting out of bed, and Melisandre Backus' father is portrayed as inveterately sipping toddies and reading Catullus on his front porch, and neither seem to suffer any ill effects; but the alcoholism of Mr. Compson and the murderous drunken stupor of the widower in "Pantaloon in Black" show the ugly side of whiskey.
     Violence, especially alcohol related violence, is another characteristic which McWhiney claims Southerners inherited from Celts. But here, I note, he does specifically talk about the Irish: "And the published Irish Code of Honor was the model for South Carolina's own dueling code" (McWhiney 153). Certainly the most violent of the characters in Yoknapatawpha tend to be the Gaelic speaking wildmen from "Beat Four" -- "who love brawling and fear God and believe in Hell" (Intruder 148). But it seems likely that this characteristic violence, in Faulkner at least, is more properly attributed to frontier society rather than to Celtic culture or biology.1 McWhiney also notes that another violent act; the stealing livestock or cattle raid was a common and respectable Celtic pastime. While cattle raids do play a central part in early Irish literature, this feature is also not, in Faulkner, expressly or exclusively Celtic. The event that comes closest to a cattle raid in Faulkner's work is Flem Snopes's stealing of Yankee horses, but Flem is not identifiably Celtic in origin ("Spotted Horses" Uncollected Stories, 165-83).2
     Another Snopes who behaves in a manner which McWhiney would attribute to the Celtic nature of Southern society is the "free-ranger" I.O. Snopes. Both Celts and Southerners, McWhiney points out, were herding people who had an aversion for fences:
Several examples illustrate how Celtic Southerners imposed their traditional herding practices upon the environment. During the 1850's various English travelers remarked that the railroad rights-of-way in the South were unfenced, unlike those in England, and that trains often killed livestock that ventured on the tracks. Their observations plus a Mississippi Supreme Court decision confirm that the Celtic tradition of free-ranging livestock prevailed in the antebellum south, in contrast to the English tradition of restraining livestock that was practiced in much of the antebellum North. (McWhiney 60)
     In fact, I.O. liked to "free range" his stock right onto the railroad tracks in order to take advantage of the laws (The Town 231-61, "Mule in the Yard" 239-64). He made money by charging the railroads for killing the cattle that he grazed in harms way. The "free ranging" notion may indeed have been of Celtic origin, but I.O.'s sinister savvy seems a more akin to literary representations as in Sir Walter Scott of English cunning than Celtic communitarianism.
     Problems with traditional education is another thing, McWhiney contends, which Celtic countries and the South have in common. He argues that:
It was obvious to more perceptive observers that the Irish resisted English efforts to educate them because they realized that such instruction was designed to Anglicize them and thus to destroy their culture... They fully understood how English schooling endangered those clannish values that repudiated labor and striving for wealth but revered leisure... Neither southern Crackers nor their Celtic ancestors abjured education, but what they favored were skills that would sustain, not help to destroy, their culture. Somehow they seemed to understand, just as American Indians often understood, that Yankee or English education was as dangerous to them and to their culture as Yankee or English bullets. (McWhiney 213-14)
     This might explain the resistance to education among the Scots in Yoknapatawpha county who live in "Beat Four" where the culture did not value literacy so much as farming ability. But the education is not usually treated as a threat to Southern society in Faulkner. In fact many of the narrators, notably Gavin Stevens, seem to feel that a great deal of the problem of the South could be solved by educating the highland "rednecks". On the other hand the value of a higher education, especially outside of the South, is rather dubious in Faulkner. Harvard did Quentin Compson little good, and clearly his son's expensive education did nothing to improve Mr. Compson's lot in life. In fact, the selling off of part of the Compson estate so that Quentin could attend Harvard was a milestone in the decline of the Compson family. Other Faulkner characters, perhaps more wisely, attend Edinburgh, Oxford, and Heidelberg, but these alma maters don't lead to brilliant success in Yoknapatawpha either. Horace Benbow, and to a lesser extent, Gavin Stevens, seem to have been made feeble, almost impotent, on account of their exclusive educations. The wisest characters, V.K. Ratliffe, Ike McCaslin, Lucas Beauchamp are on the whole not formerly educated. In Yoknapatawpha the Scottish and Southern reaction to formal education is probably best summed up in the young Thomas Sutpen:
It would not be intractability and maybe you couldn't call it pride either, but maybe just the self reliance of mountains and solitude, since some of his blood at least (his mother was a mountain woman, a Scottish woman who, so he told Grandfather, never did quite learn to speak English) had been bred in mountains, but which, whatever it was, was that which forbade him to condescend to memorize dry sums and such but which did permit him to listen when the teacher read aloud. (Absalom, Absalom! 301)
     Education is not the only example, according to McWhiney, in which progress and worth were not defined in the same terms nor pursued with the same vigor among Celts and Southerners as among Englishmen and Yankees:
but neither antebellum southern mansions nor the houses of the premodern Celtic gentry were as numerous as romantic chronicles and Hollywood legends suggest or as large and costly as certain English mansions and some of those built in the late nineteenth century by Yankee "robber barons" and their decedents. Most Southerners, even planters, resided not in mansions but in unpretentious abodes... Making money was not the primary aim of Celts and Southerners; typically, they disbelieved in progress, despised haste, and distrusted machines (McWhiney 234, 266)

     That Southern notions of worth and progress were more akin to Celtic than English ones, at least as McWhiney defines them, is manifest in Yoknapatawpha county, where even the wealthiest families live in relatively humble conditions. Theophilus and Amodeus McCaslin for example have turned over their fathers unfinished plantation mansion to the slaves while they live in a humble cabin (Go Down, Moses). Even Major de Spain's mansion is not an ostentatious display of wealth until it is taken over by Flem Snopes (The Mansion 358). It is the doomed deviants like Flem and Thomas Sutpen who strive for conspicuous luxury only to loose everything. Melisandre Backus Harris's first husband, an Eastern bootlegger, was also very taken with progress and conspicuous consumption. His efforts are seen by Gavin Stevens to be both silly and tragic. The wonderful old house with the porch on which Mr. Backus used to sip toddies and read Catullus is totally subsumed under the monstrosity Harriss constructs to impress his friends (The Mansion 195-6). The Scots in Yoknapatawpha avoid much of the "progress" and "development" much as their Irish, Scottish, and Welsh ancestors did by settling in especially inaccessible regions (though it might also be argued that modern development avoided them).
     The short story "Victory", which deals with the socio-economic ascent and fall of the son of a Glaswegian shipbuilder's son, seems to be a sort of warning against Southerners with Scottish roots from aspiring to English or Yankee wealth and respectability. In fact many Scots did aspire to become as prosperous and sophisticated as the English. As historians have noted, many clan chiefs in the 18th century, who were in terms of the culture, served as a head of an extended family rather than as sovereigns, began to ape the English aristocracy with disastrous results for their people, whose land was often sold from under them and put to "better" uses than tenant farming, such as a grazing land for sheep. This sort of psychology of success was a major factor in the Highland Clearances in the mid 19th century, to starvation, destitution, and mass migration from the Scottish Highlands and Islands to America, Canada, and Australia. Though, it must be acknowledged, that at least highlanders and islanders left not because their circumstances had become significantly worse, but because they wanted more opportunity, and decided to stop being avoided by the development that they had been avoiding for so long.
     The Celts, according to McWhiney, like the American Indians, did not understand private ownership of land. Both the Indian and the Scottish chief, presided over the tribe or clan's lands, but did not actually "own" it outright (Newton 17). Certainly Sutpen's reaction of confusion and outrage, in Absalom! Absalom! at the attitude of the rich land owner who seemed to claim a sort of innate superiority to Sutpen and his ilk, based on the fact that he owned a great chunk of land, a mansion, and negroes to do his bidding, shaped his [Sutpen's] own obsession with land, power, and respect (Absalom Absalom! 285). Sutpen's tragedy, as that of the protagonist of "Victory", is that he is never truly accepted by the society which he aspires to join. Sutpen's affected mannerisms, like those of the Glasgow shipbuilder's son, provoke people to avoid rather than embrace him. Both of these characters have essentially lost themselves and their culture in their pursuit of success and prestige.
     Another Faulkner short story "Thrift", in contrast to "Victory" supplies a happy conclusion to a Scotsman's war time service, for MacWyrglinchbeath returns home and puts on his kilts at the end of that story, having remained true to his cultural heritage. Faulkner's own identity may have been tied up with the Highland character which he pastiches in this story. According to the Faulkner scholar and biographer Joseph Blotner:
Other measures of his host's frugality - the way he could wear a pink coat one day and a tattered jacket the next - were familiar to David [Yalden-Thomas]. It was part of a Highland pattern, and Faulkner displayed an extraordinary knowledge of Highland history and customs, as he had done thirty years before in "Thrift." It seemed to the Highlander Yalden-Thomas that "Faulkner saw himself as a Highlander living in exile in Mississippi." (Blotner 686)
     Three of the major aristocratic families in Yoknapatawpha are of identifiably Scottish stock; the Compsons, the Sutpens, and the McCaslins. While, I have discussed Sutpen previously, and the connection of the McCaslins and their Scottish roots is implied by their patronymic, the Scottish origins of the Compsons are emphasized by Faulkner and are worthy of note:
The history of the Compson family begins in 1699 in Glasgow, Scotland, with the birth of Quentin MacLachlan Compson. His father was a printer. The boy was orphaned, and raised by his mother's family in Culloden Moor Park in the Perth Highlands. When he reached manhood, Quentin Compson took part in the Jacobite uprising, and then fled to America to the Carolinas.' (Runyan 251)
     While the Sartoris family tends to reflect Faulkner's depiction of his own family, this aspect of the Compson's history is very like that which he understood as his own families:
'My people were Scottish,' he {Faulkner} said. 'They fought on the wrong side [in Scotland], and they came into America, into Carolina, and my Grandfather' -- he meant his great-Grandfather -- 'chose the wrong side again in 1861. (Taylor 168)
     One of the more interesting, correlations in Faulkner's understanding of his mythical South is the connection between the Highland Uprisings and the Civil War. Both cultures, as Faulkner saw it, were valiant in attempting to protect their unique heritage and both were doomed to failure, and both cultures were all but destroyed in the aftermath of their wars, with the victorious culture imposing its codes upon the defeated. It is not surprising that Faulkner seemed to connect the Civil War with the Highland Rising of 1745 not only in terms of his own family, but also in terms of the South in general. The connection between the "45" and the Civil War is one of the most interesting aspects of the Scottish/Southern connection in Faulkner. Both wars, in hindsight at least, were doomed to failure from the beginning, but there is also a glory in defeat. A notion that the defeated are more beautiful and better, but less suited to the meanness, venality, and industrialization of a corrupt world. This "sensibility of defeat", which permeates Faulkner's work, may be connected with the literary fashions stemming from James MacPherson's mid 18th century poem "Ossian" (Moore 192). The parallels are not unique to Faulkner, of course; many people noted that both the Southerners and the Highlanders fought against superior force and equipment, and yet achieved early successes based on their superior fighting ability -- even the Southerner's skill at shooting finds a parallel in the Highlander's lethal expertise with the claymore.
     According to his Nobel prize acceptance speech, which no doubt is informed by a greater degree of liberalism than he expressed in other venues, Faulkner claims that he does not believe in Anglo-Saxon heritage or African heritage, but only in "a heritage of man" (Taylor 169). And although he seemed to perceive of his own heritage as being Scottish, his portrayal of the characters of Scottish origin in Yoknapatawpha is ambivalent. Generally when he speaks of the denizens of "Beat Four" he is a hard primitivist describing savage, unintelligent, blood-thirsty maniacs who want to string up Lucas Beauchamp or any another negro that they can get a hold of. In describing the McCallums on the other hand Faulkner is more like a soft primitivist portraying the virtues of the noble savage. Race and ethnicity is not simply black and white issue in Faulkner; while the actual role of genetic and cultural inheritance in the shaping of American south, as human society in general, is still a vexed and vexing question (Pinker 2002), there is no question that Faulkner both believed in the truth of influences and inheritances from "Celtic" blood and "Celtic" culture, and that he employed them to add mythic depth and epic tragedy to his fiction.
     Quentin saw Jim Bond and Henry in the Sutpen mansion, and was compelled to think about why Henry was miserable. As numerous critics have pointed out, "Quentin is terrified of what Henry represents" because "Quentin needs to believe that Henry Sutpen is a hero, the epitome of the southern gentleman who defeated his sister's honor" (Butery 220). Quentin in the first half of the novel detaches himself from the story of the Sutpens, but it becomes his own story after his meeting with Henry. He must have thought that Henry could not possibly be as miserable as he was if Henry, as Mr. Compson suggests in his twilight talk with him, had killed Bon to protect his sister from the would-be bigamist even if he may have deeply loved the older man: the relationship between Henry and Bon must have been much closer than Mr. Compson's bigamy theory implies. This is how Quentin's detection begins.

This paper is based on a presentation I gave at the 22nd Annual University of California Celtic Studies Conference at UCLA in March of 2000. I would like to thank Professor Joseph Nagy for his hospitality and Professor Clinton Atchley for his sage advice.


1 Though it may be a combination of all three. Stephen Pinker, in his discussion of the genetic roots of violence: "The American South has long had higher rates of violence than the North, including a tradition of dueling among 'men of honor' such as Andrew Jackson. Nisbett and Cohen note that much of the South was originally settled by Scottish and Irish herdsman, whereas the North was settled by English farmers". (The Blank slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Viking, 2002. 328.)

2 Neither would the Welsh, the Irish, the Scots, the Bretons, the Manx, or even the Cornish want to lay claim to Flem, or any other Snopse. They are Faulkner's least appealing characters -- unscrupulous materialists who represent the the worst elements in American culture.


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---. "The Fire in the Heath." Go Down Moses. 1940. New York: Vintage, 1973.

---. Intruder in the Dust. 1948. New York: Vintage, 1972.

---. "Mule in the Yard" Collected Stories 239-64.

---. "Pantaloon in Black." Uncollected Stories 238-55.

---. Requiem for A Nun. 1951. New York: Vintage, 1975.

---. The Sound and the Fury. New York: Vintage, 1984.

---. "Spotted Horses." Uncollected Stories 165-83.

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----. "Victory". Collected Stories of William Faulkner. 1934. Ed. Joseph Blotner. New York: Random House, 1977. 431-64.
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Copyright (c)2005 Charles W. MacQuarrie