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Wednesday, January 08, 2020

Cousin Faulkner

William Faulkner and Billie Holiday
I'm so glad that other people (that is, people who are not me) are interested in or obsessed with genealogy. Because they turn up the most curious things. My ancestors came over early and really kicked up their military heels in the Revolution, and a lot of them are remembered--a thing I knew nothing about for many years, but eventually found it intriguing to learn about one's rambunctious patriot ancestors. Of course, as Southerners, many of my family members were Confederates later on, leading a half-Yankee little boy who loved Civil War lore to wonder why we were on the wrong side. (My eldest son, he is what led me to write The Wolf Pit.) A good many of my ancestors fought and some died in the Revolution and the Civil War, just as many in a later generation served in WWII and Korea. But what follows is my first literary piece of geneaological news, offered by a distant cousin in South Carolina, my natal state. I was born in Aiken, where South Carolina and Georgia rub up against each other.
William Wallace Tabbot on facebook: 
 Interesting that Faulkner came up in your post, Marly... William Cuthbert Faulkner is a distant cousin of yours and mine...
I’ll have to look it up to be more precise but our maternal 5th great grandfather, Col. Thomas Word, was the brother of Faulkner’s 3rd great grandfather, Charles Word Jr, who was killed at the Revolutionary War Battle of Kings Mountain, 7 October 1780... 
 I consulted my family tree and William Cuthbert Faulkner is your and my 5th cousin twice removed...
Here are a few thoughts about that tenuous connection in my maternal line.

I was obsessed with Faulkner in high school and read everything by him in the Western Carolina University library, where my mother worked. Way back then, I had a stack of Faulkner paperbacks. I kept reading him off and on in college as well. So if I had to unearth a literary cousin, that's a highly appropriate choice.

Later on, I took a seminar from the Faulkner scholar, Cleanth Brooks. All I can remember is that he made us analyze the timeline of Soldier's Pay (it is definitely a first novel and not all that tidily constructed, time-wise.) The assignment fired something in the future novelist-moi because I did a bang-up job (also known as a weird, obsessive, overly finicky-and-detailed job.) Mr. Brooks asked me if he could keep a copy, so I suppose he did.

When I think about Faulkner now, I also am led to recall my father. A poor sharecropper's child in Depression-era Georgia who ran off to war at 17 (flying missions as a tail-gunner in a B-17) and who afterward attended Emory and LSU and became a Professor of Analytical Chemistry, he disliked Faulkner's work. My father felt anguished and angered by Faulkner's portrayal of poor people, white and black, in the deep South. I've long felt that my father's own story arc is strange and often tragic, a great adventure with a brilliant protagonist who had trouble fitting in to institutions and bending to the will of others. And there were so many enticing lacunae, so many difficult passages in his life that I knew little about... Well, gaps and imaginings are why I wrote A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage. He might not have liked that one either!


  1. I'll be back shortly. But was this prescience? In my review of The Book of the Red King (Tone Deaf, September 16) I wrote: "For me a window on an entirely different and civilised way of life with strangely Faulknerian roots." Had you mentioned Old Bill before? Or was this my version of predictive text?

    1. Perhaps so! I may have mentioned him before, but not in this way. One of my blurbs for the next book (showed up today) mention Faulkner and Cooper, which felt odd, coming right after this--not sure if the blurber knew that I lived in Cooperstown.

    2. But if you're going to provide more prophecies, make 'em good!

  2. As a child I didn't get on with adults, with one exception which I'll get around to. Adults spoke a different language and tended to repeat themselves a lot. I may have been unusual in that I shared life with both pairs of grandparents; since they represented the family history and - in my opinion - had nothing to say to me, genealogy was always going to get the brush-off. Even now, some four generations later, my urge to rake around among the long dead is faint to the point of extinction. Which is odd, really, since journalism nurtured my fairly well-developed sense of curiosity in many other directions.

    One further reason for my antipathy towards the past is that I started writing at a ridiculously early age. And for me writing was an act of imagination, dealing with matters that had not previously happened. Recycling what had happened didn't appeal.

    But suppose I had discovered that someone someone like Faulkner formed part of my roots. Might that have changed things? I was given a copy of Sanctuary when I was far too young and years passed before I staggered through it. I still associate Faulkner with "difficult" prose and have only read two or three titles. Characteristically I did learn how to pronounce (and spell) Yoknapatawpha as a means of discouraging those who sought to plumb my literary ignorance. So let's put that down as a maybe.

    It was my mother who gave me Sanctuary which again is odd. For one thing I knew she'd taken against the Snopes family. But never mind, she alerted me to the existence of Faulkner and tiny things like that can be useful. Of course my mother was that "other" adult, the one I got on with. She made it seem normal to devote one's spare time to writing short stories and novels. She actually read my first, totally inexpert, attempt at a novel (inevitably based on my national service in the RAF - 1955-57) and was kind about it. My only regret is that my interest in poetry (something she was truly good at) arrived forty years after her death.

    Let's say this, I have a horrible apprehension I'd have boasted about Faulkner had he turned up dangling from my family tree. Not good, eh.

    As to beneficial predictions, you just don't need them. The boy done good, as someone once said.

    1. The funny thing is; there was a time in my life when having notable ancestors (like the ones involved in the Revolution) would have really helped me in a circle of people to whom that meant so, so much! But I was uninterested in those sorts of things and didn't know, haha! And I'm glad, or I might have been tempted to use it in order to be approved. Well, I didn't keep that circle, and I'm glad. Any circle where that would elevate you as a human being would be a strange one.

      It is so interesting that you continue to have a kind of relationship with your mother through writing poetry. That kind of regret is touching and sorrowful. Time is so intractable... But it's a thread twined in with your own poetry that may even be generative.

      Young Roderick Robinson, making it all up--I like that picture of you. And your mother. You know, I'm not sure how interested in straightforward history as a small child. I was wild for the myths of the past, more than for accounts of kingly lines or battles.

      Thanks for the good compliment on the predictions front. Those of us immured in the shadowy hinterlands always welcome a vote!

  3. What a neat post! (I am finally catching up on my blog reading....)

    What specifically was it about Faulkner's portrayal of the South that so saddened your father?

    As you know, I'm working on the history of a small town about which almost nothing else has ever been written. One of the points we're hoping to make in the epilogue of the book is that the best people to fill in some of the forever-unknowable gaps will be poets, writers, and artists. Which is my way of saying you were right to engage with your family history as you did, rather than place it on a shelf and admire it from a distance.

    1. Jeff, hi! Hope your travels were enjoyable...

      My father simply felt that the portrayal of poor people was overly harsh and cruel. He felt it was unfair. He disliked the Snopes clan at a deep level, I think! Of course, he came from an unusual deep South family (not so many young white boys had mixed race uncles, I expect!) He had close friends, growing up, both white and black--all in that region were terribly poor in the Depression--and he did not like how his people appeared in Faulkner's mind. Meanwhile, I was a Faulkner fan. I'm sure he found that difficult to some degree. But then, time and change often make progeny a thorn in the side of parents!

      Thanks for the vote of confidence... I'm sure "A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage" would have bothered my father. It's not his story, but it attempts to bridge some gaps with the materials I have in my head, for good or ill. And I suppose "Charis in the World of Wonders" is kindred to his story in that it takes someone who has nothing and builds her a world with the help of grit and inner compulsion.

      I've been concluding that the only people who comment on the blog are those of us who still have blogs--all other comments on posts appear on facebook, twitter, etc.. Just wondering if the blog mode is gone the way of dinosaurs, and if bloggers should pack up their little bags. But then I still enjoy your blog and RR's and others...

    2. Oh, I think blogs have been dinosaurs for years, but I'm going to hold out for as long as I can, because I hate how quickly the online conversation shifted from independent voices using a wide range of platforms to all of us having to converse according to the strictures of a handful of social-media corporations. I like to hope there will be a blog renaissance, but it may not happen in my lifetime.

    3. Who knows, maybe there will be some other way of conversing we haven't even considered? It is a bit odd how people will read a blog post and then reply at a social media link... My favorite part of social media is talking with writers and artists in the messaging parts of sites. Trala, we shall all be dinosaurs together! Jolly dinosaurs.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.