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« Faulkner and the Southern Renascence | Main | A Douglass Lexicon »
Saturday
Oct152011

Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi

William Faulkner's LIGHT IN AUGUST (1932) is set in his fictional--no, mythical--county: Yoknapatawpha, Mississippi. It's pronounced yawk-nuh-puh-TAW-phuh, from two Cherokee words: yocona and petopha, meaning "split land." In a lecture at the University of Virginia, Faulkner--ever one to "go on" (as my grandmother would have said)--claimed it meant "water flows slow through flat land."

Over the course of fourteen out of his nineteen novels, as well as umpteen short stories, Faulkner developed, refined, reworked, changed, and deepened this square stamp of imagined Mississippi soil. It's supposedly in the northwest corner of the state; the county seat is Jefferson (note the irony: the pastoral-loving, founding father who believed in the theory of personal liberty while he fathered children by his slaves).

Major characters in some novels appear as minor shadows in others. (There's an off-the-cuff remark about Colonel Sartoris shooting Joanna Burden's kin in LIGHT IN AUGUST. Sartoris is more fully given his story in the early novel FLAGS IN THE DUST.) Characters refer off the cuff to events in other novels. You don't have to have read other Yoknapatawpha novels to start with one, as we do here. But the echoes and shadows lend a certain "ah-ha" to the novels if you've read others, as if you've by chance come upon a forgotten fact or person. Gavin Stevens, the Harvard-educated district attorney who first pops up just toward the end of LIGHT IN AUGUST, will become one of the most important figures in a series of later Faulkner novels, from INTRUDER IN THE DUST to the Snopes Trilogy.

In 1945, Random House asked Faulkner to make a selection of his works for a volume to be called "The Portable Faulkner." (If you recall, the editors had asked Willa Cather to do the same--to which she'd refused, saying, "I am not portable.") Faulkner obliged and even hand-drew a map of Yoknapatawpha for the volume, placing the names of some of his novels and short stories over pieces of the land. It became this:

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