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Yoknapatawpha: The Function of Geographical and Historical Facts in William Faulkner's Fictional Picture of the Deep South.

In a canon that includes such rich fictional landscapes as Hardy's Wessex and Marquez's Macondo, Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County continues to hold up extremely well. But if it holds up, it also continues to mystify in certain ways, and for very good reasons. As he did with so many elements of the novel, the artist Faulkner pushed the novelist's opportunities for what might be done with a recurring yet adaptable literary cosmos. In one sense, having begun inventing Yoknapatawpha, Faulkner had less need, each time he began a project within his county's borders, to struggle with the ornery and inexhaustible variety of what humankind can do to make environment. But the beauty of his renewable concept was its flexibility--or his. Neither North Mississippi realities nor what Faulkner managed to make look like them controlled his successive explorations of the geography, history, and people appearing in his novels and stories.

Gabriele Gutting, in a dissertation that can be commended in several respects for its thoroughness, takes a usefully dual approach to investigating the "facts" behind Faulkner's county and the figurative exploitation of place, past, and people in the fiction. She appears to have read Faulkner himself deeply and well and to have studied, and questioned, most of the scholarship and critical assumptions about place and local history in his work. She has visited Faulkner's North Mississippi, interviewing people who know Lafayette County and exploring the landscape herself. As a consequence of her considerable labor, she offers several insights about Faulkner's hand-drawn and re-drawn published maps and adds to the lore about real places previously overlooked as sources or direct references in the fiction. She corrects errors or notes omissions in some of the general treatments of Faulkner's use of place.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part concerns itself with the "geographical space of Yoknapatawpha" and the second with the "space of history." In the first part, Gutting ranges over the identifiable sites in the fictional county--and what she feels are its literal counterparts mainly in Oxford and Lafayette County, Mississippi--relying to a considerable degree on Faulkner's 1936 and 1946 maps. The second part considers the "history" of Yoknapatawpha in its relation to Mississippi history.

Though much of her discussion sticks to the facts of place and history and their embodiment in fiction, Gutting attempts to enrich her discussion of the fictionalizing of Mississippi realities of place, person, and event by resorting to the concept "chronotope"--literally "timespace"--developed by the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin: "The chronotope is the place where the knots of narrative are tied and untied. . . . Time, as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history." She makes the good point that "the miniature maps of the fictional county" that Faulkner drew for Absalom, Absalom! and the Viking Portable Faulkner establish history as part of "the space of topography. References to historical events, places, and persons are inscribed, in the shape of the author's brief comments . . .. The maps of Yoknapatawpha thus may be considered as graphical metaphors of spatialized history" (p. 183).

Finally, basing her argument upon the correspondence between recurring images of the wheel as an organizing metaphor--hub, spokes, rim--in both the fiction and the maps, Gutting suggests a figure in Faulkner's carpet: "The motion of history itself inherently is symbolized by the circular pattern marking the maps of Yoknapatawpha. The wheel image, which determines the road pattern of the maps and which has its center in the courthouse square ... stands for the circle of time" (p. 183).

As this summary suggests, this is an ambitious work, and, as one always fears for such endeavors, it doesn't always fulfill its ambitions. Time, as Faulkner himself knew, is the invariable enemy. In this case, time take two tolls. First, the rush to make such a book for modern academic purposes--a constraint most of us feel--has resulted in several forced oversimplifications that might not have occurred had the writer had more time for reflection. One oversimplification results from the failure to create a useful critical view based on the valuable insights of Bakhtin about the "chronotope." This element now is mainly just an assertion, not an illuminating discussion of the fictionist's opportunities and achievement. Another oversimplification results, despite Gutting's recognition of Faulkner's intertextuality with himself, from occasional uncritical conflations of late work with early work in rationalizing Faulkner's representations of a "deep South."

In this regard, the often illuminating discussion of Faulkner's maps never takes up the issue of how the first and second makings of the map--including the circumstances under which each was made--affected Faulkner's "county" and his representation of it in words. By in effect starting with the maps, Gutting may have missed the chance for an important discussion of how Faulkner's mental and fictional Yoknapatawpha before the maps may have floated a good deal more freely within North Mississippi than it did after the maps. She appears, for example, to avoid the problem that Sanctuary represents for the placement of Jefferson vis-a-vis Oxford and the University of Mississippi. Though it's clear from the maps, and especially from the later fiction, that one can conceive of Yoknapatawpha as a kind of wheel with Jefferson as its hub (though one quote sets Frenchman's Bend as hub to the roads leading away from it), Gutting grinds the wheel thesis without illuminating it as an inevitable figure in Faulkner's carpet. What she has to say about the fictional county's river boundaries on the maps--Faulkner's using the real rivers of Lafayette County with artistic license--is stimulating and might be expanded upon to complement the wheel concept.

Time's other trick on our will for thoroughness is, of course, the relative impossibility of finding everything that has been--and, worse, will be--written affecting our subject. Gutting relies occasionally on John Sobotka's unreliable History of Lafayette County, though she also benefits from the excellent essays by the University of Tennessee geographer Charles Aiken. Several relatively obscure books, however, and a noteworthy one too recent for Gutting's use, might prove helpful in exploring her subject further. Susan Snell's excellent biography of Faulkner's friend Phil Stone, for instance, presents the best picture we have yet of Oxford, in part because it has information no one else has published and in part because Snell enters Oxford without trying to see it through the lens of Faulkner or his work. The late amateur historian Andrew Brown's History of Tippah County, Mississippi: The First Century (Ripley, Mississippi 1976) and Jane Isbell Haynes's William Faulkner: His Tippah County Heritage: Lands, Houses, and Businesses, Ripley, Mississippi (from James B. Meriwether's Seajay Press, 1985) sketch better than any other work the aspects of Colonel Falkner's county that were available to William Faulkner's imagination. Haynes's more recent volume for Seajay, published in 1992, likewise adds to the available record: William Faulkner: His Lafayette County Heritage: Lands, Houses, and Businesses.

Though it is not the critical equivalent of the Doomsday Book of Yoknapatawpha we would like, Gutting's attempt at the subject nevertheless will prove useful--and provocative--for the student of Faulkner's fictional world. It occasionally plays more loosely with Yoknapatawpha than Faulkner himself did, making "facts" out of conflated fictions written years and, intellectually speaking, miles apart. Its arguments do not, for my money, acknowledge sufficiently Faulkner's marvelous freedom with, rather than dependence upon, local or fictional facts. Without going so far as it might, it demonstrates once again, as several recent essays have done, that Bakhtin's writings are conceptually useful for comprehending as yet undiscussed aspects of Faulkner's fiction. Gutting's book has a long bibliography, but it lacks an index, which is unfortunate. The second half of the book appears to be much more prone to misquotation and typographical error than the first (see, for example, pp. 178, 182, 217, 218, 229, 243, 280). But in general Gutting's survey of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha/Lafayette County overlay adds to our consciousness of significant places--again, real and imagined--in the novels and stones and deserves attention.
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Author:McHaney, Thomas L.
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
Previous Article:Faulkner and the Short Story: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha, 1990.
Next Article:William Faulkner: His Lafayette County Heritage: Lands, Houses and Businesses, Oxford Mississippi.

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