The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

March 27, 2010

Yoknapatawpha County — a dispatch from fictional Mississippi

straight out of the pages of Faulkner

“…he knew it was almost dawn, the night almost over. He could tell that from the whippoorwills. They were everywhere now among the dark trees below him, constant and inflectioned and ceaseless, so that, as the instant for giving over to the day birds drew nearer and nearer, there was no interval at all between them. He got up. He was a little stiff, but walking would cure that too as it would the cold, and soon there would be the sun. He went on down the hill, toward the dark woods within which the liquid silver voices of the birds called unceasing – the rapid and urgent beating of the urgent and quiring heart of the late spring night. He did not look back.” — William Faulkner

I arrived yesterday morning in Yoknapatawpha County, not the real county, Lafayette County, where for 100 miles south of Oxford, Mississippi, there are farms, rolled bales of hay, horses, cows, but in Faulkner’s fictional county, where surely Faulkner is not mocked, for that which a man soweth, he shall also reap.

I drove through the farm country, thinking of  the grittiness of agriculture, the struggle between good and evil, for there is right in this county, and there is wrong in this county.  It is dawn now, and the sounds of the birds are overwhelming.

I have made the most wonderful discovery about Southern writers.

I used to think that there was something uniquely lyrical about the South that lent itself readily to discussions of mendacity and blight, of tragic love and closeted yearnings.  I used to think that the diphthongs and cadence of Southern parlance was naturally more musical than the staccato of Brooklyn’s “Yo”s.  I was wrong.

The beautiful thing I have discovered is that Faulkner, Williams, Welty, O’Connor, Mitchell, Walker, Gurganus, and all the others are all up to the same shenanigans as I was up to in New York — it just sounds different.

What they do — and what New York writers do — is that they already have a story in their hearts, perhaps not quite consciously, but it’s there.  They then glean, to use a particularly Faulknerian verb, from their surroundings the necessary sustenance for this narrative.  “Barn Burning,” from which the above quote is taken, would be a very different story indeed in the hands of a lesser writer.  It would be different indeed were it not told in an agrarian paradigm, but “Barn Burning” could be “Arson in Staten Island.”  It could be, “Rive Gauche Vandalism.”  It’s not — Faulkner found his idiom in the rolling hills near the Yalobusha River.  He found a way to have his Lot walk away from his exploding Sodom without a wife into the darkness, trusting in the Right.  He borrowed from ancient stories but wrote his own close to home.

Perhaps I will write another blog entry about historical Faulkner.  I am headed to the University of Mississippi — a transfer to a better school with a program more suited to me.  Ole Miss is in Faulkner’s home town, and the English department, naturally, is filled with his greatest fans.  It is worth noting that only a few Americans have won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and Faulkner was among them.

However, creating a mausoleum to Faulkner is not necessary for a contemporary writer.  I have his secret — let me share it with you:

You see, we all live  in Yoknapatawpha County, a Yoknapatawpha of our own making.  Our stories play out in the Avalons of our own minds. We are all living in our own Brigadoons.  Visiting Faulkner’s country has not nearly half the utility for me as a writer of exploring my own undiscovered and undocumented territories.  We could stand in the same corn field, Faulkner and I, and we would see different landscapes.  He has already finished his writing.  It is up to me to complete mine.

For years, I wrote about the women and men I met in New York City, or more precisely, I took my inspiration from the women and men I met in New York and wrote about people of my own imagining.  The city in my poems is not quite visitable; it is a place of the mind, not of the intersection of “walk” and “don’t walk.”

My style of crop as a writer

Now that I’m in Mississippi, the land will yield up to me a similar harvest.  After all, that which a woman soweth, she shall also reap, and the ground in Mississippi, with its pungent mud, its worms, its hot coagulation, is fertile ground.  I have my own stories to tell.  They are not Faulkner’s stories but my own.  All that remains to see is whether I have the richness of voice with which to enchant my interlocutors.  I am fertilizing the mud with the words of those  who have sat on this land for generations.  However, I sense I am no Steinbeck, finding her metaphors in the grape harvest.  I am an immigrant.  My words are more like hanging wisteria — a flowering weed that wraps itself around a tree and puts off gorgeous blooms with the most lovely perfume known to anyone.  I am not planted deep but hanging over this land, and my perspective is bound to stay aerial.

That said, I am here for the duration.  Weed killers and tree surgeons won’t remove me.  It would be better for the residents of Yoknapatawpha County to simply  resign themselves to enjoy my fragrance and to admire the blooms that flower from my embracing bowers.

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4 Comments »

  1. Welcome to Mississippi. I’ve lived my entire life within thiry miles of Oxford. If you can tolerate the humid summers you’ve got it licked.

    Comment by crpurdon — April 29, 2010 @ 11:20 pm | Reply

  2. Love your blog!
    Love this entry!!!
    I, too, have my own stories to tell…in poems (smile)
    Reflections of a Mississippi Magnolia-A life in Poems
    http://www.patricianeelydorsey.webs.com

    Comment by Patricia Neely-Dorsey — August 12, 2010 @ 7:37 pm | Reply

  3. Hey Mrs. Babson,
    I am in your Wednesday 8:00 discussion class. I just wanted to let you know something about Colonel Reb that may change your mind about how evil he is. The way this mascot was started was when a black man dressed up as a colonel and attended a football game. Everyone fell in love with this idea. This is a little known fact that many people do not know about the Colonel. No one had a problem with mascot for twenty-five years after the mascot was selected, so I don’t see why it should change now. What about other mascots that depict Indians as savages? Should those be changed too?

    Comment by Krystal Vaughan — October 13, 2010 @ 12:34 am | Reply

    • Dear Krystal,

      I appreciate your commenting on my blog! Yes, in answer to your question — I definitely think that depictions of Native Americans are inappropriate football team mascots. Many colleges have changed from Indian/Redskin mascots — Stanford University’s football team used to be called “The Indians.” Now they’re “The Cardinals.” Their mascot is a dancing tree. And yes, I do find (and so did many other people) the image of Colonel Reb offensive — a kickback to a time when people were enslaved. I’m glad the school has wisely decided to choose a new on-field mascot. I’m personally rooting for the land shark but would be happy with Hotty Toddy — who might just be the first openly homosexual mascot in the SEC (I’m kidding). Again, I’m very happy you chose to post to my blog.See you in class.

      Comment by annebabson — October 13, 2010 @ 2:16 am | Reply


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