Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014
10

The Faulkner Truthers

faulk"I am the best in America, by God," William Faulkner wrote to his editor in 1939, and history has only confirmed that he was not deceived as to the quality of his gift. Faulkner's position in the American literary pantheon is such that his life has been dissected from every possible angle, inside the academy and out—even James Franco had a go at the Old Man, as some Faulkner devotees like to call him. But nobody has yet succeeded in tracing the exact path by which his genius developed.

He dropped out of high school; he dropped out of college. He corresponded with no mentor, belonged to no literary school or circle. How on earth, then, did he manage to develop the weirdly blazing brilliance of his syntactic rhythms, the wild catalogue of his narrative and stylistic innovations, his piercingly accurate sensitivity to human feeling and to the special qualities of life in the South? He didn't have the remotest idea. In a letter written in his mid-fifties to the novelist Joan Williams, with whom he was in love, Faulkner wrote: "[N]ow I realise for the first time what an amazing gift I had: uneducated in every formal sense, without even very literate, let alone literary, companions, yet to have made the things I made. I don't know where it came from."

To make or to find a key to the source of Faulkner's inspiration, then, would be a lifetime achievement for a literary scholar. In the book Ledgers of History: William Faulkner, an Almost Forgotten Friendship, and an Antebellum Plantation Diary, Emory University professor Sally Wolff-King claimed to have found such a key in the person of Edgar Wiggin Francisco III, whose claims that Faulkner based many of his stories on the Francisco home, family, and documents created a sensation on the book's publication in 2010.

Edgar Wiggin Francisco III is a courtly, soft-spoken, retired economist in his eighties. He claims that Faulkner was a hunting buddy of his father's, and a frequent visitor to McCarroll Place, the Franciscos' home in Holly Springs, Mississippi, in the nineteen thirties. During these visits, Faulkner reportedly consulted and made notes from an old plantation ledger that belonged to the family. The Leak Diary, as it is known, was a collection of several volumes—totaling some 1,800 pages—of highly detailed records, with diary-like entries, weather and crop reports, and records of slave purchases, written by Francis Terry Leak, Francisco's great-great-grandfather. Francisco also maintains that Faulkner "wrote up" many of his family anecdotes, including one of Francisco as a child having his mouth washed out with soap for cursing, and another of the beautiful Mary Louisa "Ludie" Baugh, an ancestor who etched her name in a windowpane at McCarroll Place with a diamond ring, and later married a Confederate soldier. Francisco says that Faulkner was "fascinated" by the name etched in the glass of the old window in McCarroll Place, the Franciscos' home: "He would walk in and go straight to the window. Not even a nod or 'hello.' He would stare at the window and then through it and say, 'Ludie is still there.'"

Ledgers of History consists of interviews and textual analysis attempting to trace Francisco's claims through Faulkner's fiction, and to demonstrate that the Leak Diary was "an important source" in the creation of Faulkner's fictional Yoknapatawpha County. John Lowe, Barbara Methvin Professor at the University of Georgia, called Wolff-King’s work "one of the most sensational literary discoveries of recent decades."

The book created a stir beyond the confines of the academy: It was reviewed everywhere from the New York Times to El País; Wolff-King appeared on NPR's "All Things Considered," and spoke at the Library of Congress. The Times' Patricia Cohen wrote quite authoritatively:

The climactic moment in William Faulkner's 1942 novel "Go Down, Moses" comes when Isaac McCaslin finally decides to open his grandfather's leather farm ledgers with their "scarred and cracked backs" and "yellowed pages scrawled in fading ink" — proof of his family's slave-owning past. Now, what appears to be the document on which Faulkner modeled that ledger as well as the source for myriad names, incidents and details that populate his fictionalized Yoknapatawpha County has been discovered.

The claims of Edgar Wiggin Francisco III passed through a large number of authorities generally held to be trustworthy: Sally Wolff-King, a professor at Emory University; the professors at the University of Georgia and Ole Miss who peer-reviewed the manuscript; Louisiana State University Press, which published her book; the New York Times and all the other publications that reviewed it; the Library of Congress, which hosted Wolff-King's talk. The casual reader, on hearing of the involvement of such august representatives of the literary and cultural establishment, might easily assume that Francisco’s claims had been verified with care. But in fact, Ledgers of History appears to have been published with no attempt to verify the claims of its primary sources, and it has since emerged that there’s no evidence to corroborate even that Edgar Wiggin Francisco III or his father were ever in the same room with William Faulkner.

Shortly after Ledgers was published, doubts regarding the veracity of Francisco's testimony surfaced on the Faulkner Society listserv, an online group which has been "open to students, scholars, and general readers of Faulkner” for twenty years. It's a diverse membership, like that of many literary listservs, with devoted amateurs and professional scholars alike. In the spring of 2011, Marcus Gray, an artist and photographer in Scotland, produced a long list of inconsistencies in Francisco's testimony. For example, Francisco's first memory of Faulkner at Holly Springs could not have been from "the first grade in the fall of 1936," because in the fall of 1936 Faulkner was in Hollywood. And how, Gray asked, with all the painstaking Faulkner research that had been done in the years since, had such an intimate friendship avoided detection? Maine lawyer Seth Berner suggested: "[So] bright is Faulkner's flame that the desire to be in its light must be irresistible. [...] How convenient for one wanting to claim a connection that, if it can not be proven, cannot be disproven.”

It became evident through the summer and fall of 2011 that the blooming controversy was not to the taste of certain academic members of the Faulkner listserv, and by November, list manager Claude Pruitt forbade further discussion regarding the credibility of Edgar Wiggin Francisco III. To Marcus Gray, who had grown increasingly warm on the subject, Pruitt wrote the following:

The Faulkner list is not the venue for the denigration of honest scholarly effort, nor is it intended as a bulletin board for speculation tenuously related to the subject of Faulkner's writing. You have been unsubscribed from the list. CP

A number of Faulkner list members were severely displeased by the silencing of the discussion of Ledgers of History, among them Jack Elliott, a retired historical archaeologist. Gray soon resubscribed under the alias of Verchul Jones (the obscure name of a fictional squirrel invented by Faulkner for the amusement of his small daughter). Two and a half years ambled by, during which time Gray (or Jones, as he was now known), Berner and Elliott kept in touch, comparing notes.

After a twenty-five-year career with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Jack Elliott is a veteran analyst of historical documents. Wolff-King had met Elliott at a Faulkner event in the fall of 2011, and subsequently asked for his help in interpreting some old probate documents. "I have met Jack; I like him; he's very good at finding old documents, records and so forth, and I respect his ability,” she told me.

After researching the claims of Ledgers of History in the wake of the listserv fracas, Elliott concluded, however, that Francisco's testimony was, at the very least unreliable, and most likely a fabrication. Elliott's 2013 report of his investigation, "Confabulations of History: William Faulkner, Edgar Francisco, and a Friendship that Never Was" has undergone peer review and will appear later this year in the Journal of Mississippi History.

Elliott's paper questions whether the original of the Leak Diary was ever in the possession of Edgar’s branch of the Francisco family by tracing its physical location through the records of Joseph G. de Roulhac Hamilton, who in 1946 acquired the documents for the Southern Historical Collection. According to Hamilton's papers, Francisco's cousin and neighbor, Perle Badow, was the sole donor of the ledgers. Separately, newspaper accounts of the wedding of Francisco’s parents cast doubt on whether, as he claimed, Faulkner waited to meet them in Holly Springs after the honeymoon, "…with a beer in one hand and… a dead rabbit and a couple of dead squirrels that he had shot in the other." Francisco's elaborate history of the family home, McCarroll Place, is also systematically taken apart by Elliott, with the deed, dates, and documented construction history of the house all throwing Francisco's narrative into question.

As his research proceeded, Elliott shared some of his doubts about Francisco's testimony on the Faulkner listserv. This second conversation did not go any better than the first one: angry scholars, including John Lowe, again denounced the "attacks." On January 19th, Claude Pruitt lowered the boom on the discussion a second time.

When I wrote to ask Pruitt about the controversy on the list over Ledgers of History, he replied:

As list moderator, I terminated a discussion topic when posts to that topic lost any simblance [sic] of civil discussion and became, in fact, vitriolic attacts [sic] on scholarship in general and individual Faulkner scholars in particular. Dr. Wolff-King’s book was the subject but not the cause of this “controversy.” Simply put, I do not contenance bullys [sic].

Dr. Wolff-King’s monograph was vetted by the University of Louisiana Press in a peer review process which is serious and rigerous [sic]. This process ensures that the end product is good, honest scholarship. I have read The Ledgers of History and can attest that the process works, this is good, honest scholarship.

Jack Elliott's paper has nevertheless opened the door to an airing of opposing views among Faulkner scholars. Several have reviewed Elliott's paper; Robert W. Hamblin, Emeritus Professor of English and Founding Director of the Center for Faulkner Studies at Southeast Missouri State University, commented in an email:

Like many Faulkner scholars, I am struck by the absence of corroborative proof of a close friendship of Faulkner and Edgar Francisco, Jr., and of the claim that Faulkner read and took notes on the Leak Diary. There are no known surviving letters between the two; no Faulkner biographer mentions the friendship; I’ve never heard anyone I know in Oxford or Holly Springs suggest a connection; and it was not Faulkner’s general practice to conduct extensive research and make copious notes on anything…

I’ve read Jack Elliott’s point-by-point refutation of Dr. Francisco’s claims, and I must say I find Elliott’s arguments quite compelling. Personally I have no way of knowing whether Faulkner knew the Francisco family and frequently visited them in Holly Springs, but until tangible evidence is presented that such was the case, I and others will remain skeptical.

For this reader, the textual analysis in Ledgers of History seems oddly strained, with apparently superficial comparisons between the Leak Diary and Faulkner's fiction:

The diary mentions two puppies: "Got two hound puppies from Bostwick's day before yesterday". Within a very short time, Leak records a discovered attempt to poison an overseer and his family: "Went down to James W. Crawford's place to enquire into an attempt on the part of some of the negroes to poison Covington (the overseer) & his family with blue stone." In Go Down, Moses, Faulkner may be translating these details into his portrait of Ikkemottube, who poisons puppies to magnify his power to those around him.

In an email, Elliott wrote, "Sally Wolff-King presents Faulkner as replicating enormous amounts of trivial information from the ledgers, while Faulkner tended to distance himself from seeing his work as being a simple replication of history. I find it impossible to imagine him as recalling names (or anything else) from the ledgers and thinking, 'those are cool names. I need to fit those in somewhere.'"

"I know Sally to some degree, not real well,” Elliott told me over the phone, “but I met her at a little festival, the Faulkner Heritage Festival, that they have in Ripley, Mississippi, which is where the Falkners originally lived. [Falkner is the original spelling of Faulkner's surname.] Sally was there giving a presentation on her discovery. And that's one of the cases where I began to doubt her reliability, because she was making comparisons about the most trivial things that, to anyone with a knowledge of Southern culture—you could prove that Faulkner lived here in my house, based on what's going on around my place!" he laughed softly.

John T. Matthews, a professor of English at Boston University and a Faulkner expert, came to a similar conclusion regarding an excerpt of the book published in the Southern Literary Journal in 2009:

Many of the names Wolff-King locates were those of slaves, not the white plantation gentry who bear them in Faulkner's fiction. Wolff-King speculates that this may suggest Faulkner's inclination to rescue sympathetically the lives of slaves from obscurity, but it's hard to credit that if no one could possibly recognize them as such in the fiction.

Other scholars have moved well beyond skepticism.

"The whole thing is a hoax," Hubert McAlexander, Josiah Meigs Professor of English, Emeritus, at the University of Georgia, wrote to me in an email. McAlexander is unusually well positioned to offer an opinion on these questions. He grew up in Holly Springs, and was acquainted with the Francisco family.

In the 1960s, I borrowed from Ruth Bitzer Francisco the typed copies of the Francis Terry Leak plantation ledgers, which the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill provided by the instruction of people who gave their historical artifacts to the institution. I had known the chain-smoking but charming Ruth Bitzer Francisco rather well through the Presbyterian church. She told me at the time that the original ledgers had been given Chapel Hill by Perle Strickland Badow, Leak’s granddaughter, who saw to it that her cousins, the Franciscos, also Leak descendants, were given a copy.

I went through the copies making various historical notes. Though Leak was a resident of Tippah County, he lived in that part adjoining Marshall County, my home county on which I had been gathering material for many years. Subsequently I received a doctorate in English. My dissertation was on William Faulkner, and, as an English professor, I have taught his works for many decades. If there were any connections between them and the ledgers, I would have noted them long ago.

I knew Edgar Wiggin Francisco, Jr., also. He was a short, small, and very gentle man. When I asked the son of Janis Tyler Calame to inquire of her whether Mr. Francisco had ever been a hunter, she replied, “No. Far from it.” Born in the nineteen teens and still very alert, she is the niece of Harvey McCroskey, a contemporary and lifelong friend of Mr. Francisco. Her statement supported my impression of the man. Neither did I ever hear that he was a friend of the writer William Faulkner.

McAlexander concluded, "I have read Jack Elliott's essay, and I think it is a fine piece of work. I never thought the people involved in this Ledgers business would be exposed."

Sally Wolff-King is lovely to talk to. She wrote to me that the topic was complex and subtle, and that she needed more time to respond to criticism. "I am gravely concerned," she told me later in an email, "that you are on the verge of impugning the integrity and damaging the reputation of a very respectable, highly educated man. [...] I urge you to meet face-to-face with Dr. Francisco before you draw any conclusions." None of our very pleasant correspondence, however, produced any evidence that Edward Wiggin Francisco, Jr. or his son ever met William Faulkner.

If you have any evidence that these two men actually knew each other, that comes from someone besides Dr. Francisco, that would be so great, you know. Anything at all, one letter than one wrote to the other, a photo they were in together?

Well, I don't have that kind of evidence; I believe that evidence of that nature may well come to light, eventually.

Professor Wolff-King said that if I could meet Dr. Francisco, I would see how credible and sincere he was; she told me of his distinguished career, with a master's and a doctorate in economics from Yale, and that many eminent Faulkner scholars had read and admired her work, and all of that is true. When I tried to get in touch with him, however, he did not respond to my request for comment. Videos of Edgar Wiggin Francisco III certainly portray a very charming and sweet-natured person.

I asked the Louisiana State University Press, which published the book, to explain their fact-checking and editorial process. Director MK Callaway, wrote in an email: "The readers we choose to evaluate these submissions are experts on the subjects treated. Sally Wolff-King’s Ledgers of History was read and vetted by two senior scholars–specialists on Faulkner’s work–who enthusiastically endorsed the manuscript for publication. Since its appearance, many academics and publications (including the New York Times) have recognized this book as a major contribution to Faulkner studies."

When I asked Professor Lowe, one of the scholars who vetted the book, about the peer review process, he said that there had been no attempt to corroborate Dr. Francisco's testimony because there had been no reason to doubt it. "I believe that Dr. Wolff-King's work is accurate, and I believe that Dr. Francisco is credible," he said. He referred to Jack Elliott and Marcus Gray as “kooks," and reiterated what he'd posted in the Faulkner listserv: "[Dr. Francisco is] totally convincing in his account of the relation his father had with Faulkner, and the various details of that friendship squared with what I knew and know about Faulkner, the culture that produced him, and the multi-faceted presentation he makes in his works about both slavery and plantation culture."

For good or ill, the public has been taught to believe that academics are held to a more rigorous standard even than journalists—the assumption being that a scholarly book is grilled within an inch of its life, with all potential inaccuracies headed off by the peer review process. That it may not always be the case is the most interesting, not to say alarming, aspect of the case of Ledgers of History: How many academic books are prepared and marketed with little attempt to corroborate their contents? And how easily might the claims of such an unsubstantiated book become accepted as "fact"—and as “history"?

Professional scholars, like professional journalists, would do well to heed the findings of passionate amateurs, whose participation can be valuably disinterested. Those who may imagine that the amateur scholars who first questioned the work of Sally Wolff-King had some personal animus against her or her sources couldn't be more mistaken; what they want is as much of the truth as they can possibly get their hands on. As Marcus Gray/Verchul Jones recently wrote: "Me, I'm still hoping we all get wrong-footed at the final hurdle, and [Francisco] produces a fat stack of never-before-seen letters from Faulkner. Can you imagine? My Gahd!"

Maria Bustillos is a writer and critic in Los Angeles.

Photo of Faulkner's Underwood Universal Portable typewriter by Gary Bridgman, Southside Gallery.com

10 Comments / Post A Comment

libmas (#231)

Joke's on you, Ms. Bustillos: "rigerous" is actually an old Southern word meaning "based on reputation." It says so right in this old book of Southern sayings that Faulkner left out here in California. Which is also totally legit, by the way.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

@libmas You can tell by the soft G sound.

KarenUhOh (#19)

Faulkner would've given his eye teeth to have come up with the tale of a gentlemanly fabulist who builds a comfortable life weaving whole cloth from a famous man's unknowable mojo.

@KarenUhOh RIGHT?? Oh man I loved this piece.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

@KarenUhOh HA, SEZ YOU! Faulkner's eye teeth have been in my family for generations and I can prove it. He gave one to my granny for running off a pint when he was in sore need and had given other one to my great granny in return for something similar. He scratched his name in them with the Hope Diamond. They will endure.

Seth Berner (#271,310)

I am the Seth Berner mentioned in the article. As one of the three amateurs who first raised questions about THE LEDGERS OF HISTORY I am glad this sordid story is reaching a larger audience. Maria Bustillos' excellent article fails to follow through on one important issue. Had Jack Eliott, Marcus Gray and I been bullies then Faulkner Society listserve postmaster Claude Pruitt would have been justified in barring us from his listserve, however important our work. The record of our posts is preserved and makes clear that our presentation was appropriate, raising the inference that what Mr. Pruitt objected to was not our tone but our topic. That calling us uncivil was and is a pretext is bolstered by Mr. Pruitt's first objection – that we were engaging in conversation that no one else cared about. As Mr. Pruitt knew, several members stated at the time that they were interested, and anyway the overlapping conversations that bring a traditional classroom to a halt are trivially ignored on-line. Accusing us of incivility became Mr. Pruitt's defense of choice only when our alleged disruptiveness became untenable for him. Anyone wanting the record to evaluate for him/herself need only ask. It appears that for reasons known only to himself Mr. Pruitt wanted to protect author Sally Wolff-King or her book, and to accomplish this was willing to behave as did the Medieval clerics trying to suppress questions about the arrangement of the solar system. The quantity of "experts" and institutions that have voiced support for THE LEDGERS is no more meaningful than the quantity of respected persons who at one time insisted that the sun revolved around the earth – quantity does not legitimize the illegitimate. Questioning orthodoxy is not in and of itself uncivil, however discomforting it may be to those sitting on the thrones. Calling us bullies is a sorry cover for an academic engaging in the most un-academic of practices.

Feliciana Graves (#271,333)

Even more disturbing than the fabrication of a relationship with a famous bard is the unabashed censorship of critics on a scholarly listserv. Isn't it the scholar's duty to write about these things? And shouldn't a listserv permit the expression of all points of view, even unpopular ones, and especially critical ones? Based on Mr. Pruitt's example, someone up the ladder might find it convenient to "unsubscribe" someone who thinks like him one day, and so on and so on until "the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening …."

Finn44 (#271,514)

I don't know whether Dr. Wolff-King's work is inaccurate or not. It's altogether plausible that the peer review process failed. If Jack Elliot's paper is correct, then it seems like there is good reason to doubt Wolff-King's claims. Is it troubling that a prominent book may not have been held to scholarly standards? Yes.
However, academics are held to more rigorous standards. Does that mean the academic community lives up to these standards 100% of the time? No. This is true in both humanities as well as the social sciences, natural sciences, medicine etc. There has been fraudulent work in fields of genetics and physics as well as history and literary studies. These are a minority of cases. I'm glad there are people out there just passionate about a subject and willing to examine claims carefully and critically, but the the phrase "passionate amateurs" gives away the fact that amateurs are not disinterested observers. Rather, they are just motivated by different interests. There's nothing wrong with that. As a rule, their work is not as rigorous as those of professional journalists or academics. That's not to impugn any of the amateurs mentioned in this story.

I agree that the scholarly community often looks down on the work of amateurs and that sucks. However, the issue of the list-serve is a bit of a red herring. It's true that scholars have not done a good job of negotiating academic standards and the more open discourse of list-servs and other online forums. I know this from experience with a list-serv in another literary field. That being said, I wouldn't conflate the standards of rigor in academia with the policies of a list-serv.

I'm not any kind of scholar, just stumbled on this article. I remember seeing the etched glass back in the 1970s and being told of the Francisco-Faulkner connection. I called my high school history teacher this morning and he said he had been aware of that story all his life (he's 75). This doesn't mean the story is true, just that if it is a fabrication it is one of long standing.

I spoke to a number of other people today and none of them were aware of a hunting friendship between Faulkner and Francisco. One woman who knew Francisco told me the following: "It would amaze me if Edgar and Faulkner were friends. He was just not the type that you would expect to hang out with a bohemian like Faulkner. He was a meek, mild little man; and Miss Ruth, she’s not the type that I would expect to allow any carrying-ons in that house." However, this same woman then went on to tell me that Faulkner had dated a girl in Holly Springs and that everyone knew when Sanctuary was published that one of the characters was patterned after a local lawyer.

I could go on, but in short:
1. Many of us have heard of the etched glass/Faulkner/Francisco connection all our lives. I don't know that it was described as a great friendship, but remember being told that he had seen and was fascinated by the window when he was a visitor in their home.
2. Faulkner regularly visited Holly Springs, and from Sanctuary to The Reivers there were times when local people believed he had drawn characters from the local town.
3. No person I talked to knew of a hunting friendship between Francisco and Faulkner. I may try to make some more calls about this.
4. Several of the people I talked to told me it was funny that I called, because a lady from over in Georgia had called them a few weeks ago asking the same questions.

Addendum: It's funny how many stories you pick up when you talk to people. I told a friend of mine about the controversy and he said one of his big regrets was that he had sold the copy of The Marble Faun that Faulkner had given his great aunt. It was in an estate and he didn't want to pay up for the other four or five shares.

Seth Berner (#271,310)

@Finn44 – There are listserves and there are listserves. The one referred to in the article is run by the Faulkner Society. The Society itself has as its officers university professors who are among the most highly respected Faulkner scholars in the country. A high percentage of people teaching, writing about or studying Faulkner at the highest level are members. Though the Society listserve is also open to amateurs, passionate and otherwise, it contains the most impressive collection of Faulkner experts in one place in the world. The person who closed the discussions was and is teaching at a university. The Society President who refused to intercede was and is the Howry Chair of Faulkner Studies and English professor at the University of Mississippi, and the coordinator of the annual Faulkner Conference at the University of Mississippi. Almost everyone who publicly complained on the listserve about our postings was a university English or history professor. All of those people should have been expected to adhere to academic standards. The policy of the listserve was for open discussion (the postmaster stated in email that the listserve was unmoderated), but all those academics were willing to accept suppression that violated both academic standards and the standards of the listserve. Make excuses for them if you wish, but they can not hide behind the more relaxed environment of a listserve.

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