“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.