From a Northern Town


     Snow staying on the pavement from the beginning of month, the town of zero degrees Fahrenheit sparkled with frozen powdery exhaling breath, shoveled patches in front of Bay View High, the crossroad slippery icy and no cars around — thinking already of hot chocolate at Sven’s at the corner (not yet, not yet) — passing by the fitness club, the boutique (Ninja!?), the restaurant (tumbler wine), the record shop (oldies), the accessory shop (varieties of hair pieces), the cream-yellow-brick Lutheran church, the Chinese restaurant, the public library on the other side of Kinnickinnic, the movie theatre on this side, houses colorfully decorated for Christmas, the funeral homes quiet as ever, six hair salons and barbers somehow in co-existence — crossing KK to the comic shop, the bakery and the ice cream shop — and Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop. There is a merit in local bookstores. You can enjoy reading the store itself. At Barnes & Noble or at Borders, you may find a book or two of general circulation but you cannot really tell who is choosing what. At a local shop, you can almost visualize the person choosing books and can tell where his/her interest lies. Sometimes you end up buying a book you never expect to buy and often find it more interesting than the book you looked for in the first place. The smallness of the shop is also an attraction. You can tell where certain books are — fiction here, science there, children’s over there.
     Quentin goes to see Miss Rosa on foot and is told to come next time in a buggy. Sutpen, who came from nowhere on horseback, builds a house twelve miles away from the town. Ellen and her children go to church on carriage. One day it is replaced by a phaeton, apparently a change for the worse. Blacks use wagons. Forty miles to the University of Mississippi, which Henry covers on horse in one day. For Charles Bon, horse-riding is as natural as walking. To New Orleans, the horse ride and the steam boat. Dear Yakko, could you tell me if there is any paper that discusses horses and carriages in Absalom, Absalom!? No, I don’t mean to read them. I just want to know if there is any. I presume some of them discuss masculinity and power structure in styles of transportation. But then, there is a surer way of moving than horses and carriages. I mean walking — but the distance too far to go on foot.
     About a mile to Schwartz. A heavy coat and snow shoes slow the walking. Two miles in twenty minutes running on a treadmill machine at the fitness club — with an appropriate outfit and shoes. How long then could a woman walk in Mississippi in the 1840s with her long skirt? Or small children? Twelve miles are too far to go. Dependence on carriage (later phaeton) makes Sutpen’s Hundred an isolated place. “The clinic is closed because of snow.” “Couldn’t I make an appointment?” “No, we don’t take any.” “OK. I’ll call again.” Once in a winter the city becomes snowbound. This snow storm crossed the center of the North American Continent from Canada, cut electricity in St. Louis and accumulated in Texas. In a warm room listening to the pot steaming, I think the isolation in this northern city can be fortunate enough if there still remains a means of communication.
     Shreve, who talks about a Mississippi September in Massachusetts January, came from Alberta, Canada, having crossed the North American Continent in space. Crossing half a century in time, Quentin and Shreve in a Harvard dorm become doubles to Henry and Bon on horseback in Mississippi. Distance in space and time, in this case, provides the foreigner with a better passport to the old town in the South — contrary to the detachment of Ellen from the town street and of Miss Rosa from the time passage. The first reading of Absalom, Absalom! was ... dear, no wonder I have forgotten details ... thirty years ago in a dorm at Tsukuba, on dog days of summer with no wind coming in from the window. The humidity and heat somehow helped me to imagine the South — not that I knew anything about it then — it was even before I have ever set foot on America. And I couldn’t stop reading. No, I couldn’t. Reading it again after all these years, I have come to realize how little I could and can understand it.
     The South as space is intimately connected with Sutpen’s past—time shared coincidentally with Emerson and others: Sutpen 1807-69, Emerson 1803-82, Hawthorne 1804-64, Poe 1809-1849. Ellen, born in 1817, shares the generation with Thoreau (1817-62) and Melville (1819-91). Their contemporaneity itself may not matter much. Still I wonder what it is to “understand” characters and writers whom I can only encounter in books and in literary history — what it is to understand the Antebellum East and/or South (hi)story for a woman who came to the Mid-West from the other side of the earth — from farther away than the Canadian Shreve, the designated stranger to the South. No, I don’t mean to say that no foreigner can understand. A foreigner, or a female foreigner for that matter, has things to say. But neither do I want to emphasize my difference or marginality. To “understand,” I believe, is to have an overview to map out details—or, at least, figure out where these details are. Details, unconnected to each other, produce no understanding. Dotted details need to be connected into lines, then lines into plane surfaces, then plane surfaces into three dimensions.
     The map of Yoknapatawpha County portrays where and who, regardless of when. Sutpen’s Hundred is on the upper left, northwest to the town, isolated twelve miles. Too far to walk. The center of the town is crowded with spots — density in time as well as in space. The town map is the surface of its piled history with respective depths of the past: the street ... and the church ... and Miss Rosa ...and the Compsons ... The joy of reading Faulkner is to unearth these strata and make them into a three-dimensional map — map of the Faulknerian world or world picture. The map is inscribed with “William Faulkner, Owner and Sole Proprietor.” It reminds me of Hawthorne’s Introduction to The House of the Seven Gables where the romance-writing is compared to the house-building by “appropriating a lot of land which had no visible owner.” It may be a simple coincidence. Yet, in both texts, the character’s property is of dubious origin, whereas the writer’s property is claimed for its proper ownership—an intellectual property, indeed.
     The land not only has its legal proprietorship but its geology. Look for geology at Schwartz. Books dotted on the screen at are lined here on shelves. They become substantial entity with their thickness and volume of knowledge visible to the eye and sensible to the hand. Buying is not enough. You need to read them to get the knowledge layered there.
     With the books thus rightfully gained, one needs a place for skimming. Order a cheesy sandwich with a pale ale (after all, this is the land of milk and beer) at Café Lulu. With no car, there is no need to look for a parking space, no need to check the meter. Best of all, no need to worry about drunk driving.
     I walk to buy books.

December 10, 2006

Copyright (c) 2007 Hiroko Washizu