Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Article to claim Faulkner ledgers story a fabrication; but Holly Springs connection is remembered

The name "Ludie," etched into a
 glass pane at the McCarroll Place,
 which has been owned by the
Francisco family for many years.
    There is an interesting article in The Awl on a claim made and accepted by many in recent years that William Faulkner's writing was heavily influenced by his friendship with the Francisco family in Holly Springs.
    This theory was outlined in the book "Ledgers of History: William Faulkner, an Almost Forgotten Friendship, and an Antebellum Plantation Diary," by Emory University professor Sally Wolff-King. King recounts claims by Edgar Wiggin Francisco III that Faulkner was a hunting buddy of his father's and that he was fascinated by old, detailed plantation ledgers in the family's possession. A window pane in the home, which had been etched with a diamond by an earlier young resident of the house also was said to have caught Faulkner's eye and was later used as a detail in his writing.
    The Awl story says the Francisco claim simply doesn't hold water and cites work by Jack Elliott, a former archivist with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and a seasoned analyst of historical documents. Elliott has written an article to be released soon, called "Confabulations of History: William Faulkner, Edgar Francisco, and a Friendship that Never Was." The article has undergone peer review and will appear later this year in the Journal of Mississippi History.
    I don't have a dog in this hunt. I will share that in the early- to mid-1970s I served as a Pilgrimage guide when the McCarroll Place, owned by the Francisco family, was still on tour. The glass etched with Ludie Baugh's name was pointed out to us and it was stated then that Faulkner was a friend of the Franciscos and that he later incorporated the etched glass detail into one or more literary works.
    I called Bobby Mitchell, my high school history teacher and a true history buff, and asked him what he knew of the Faulkner connection. He told me that he had heard of the Francisco-Faulkner connection all of his life as it pertained to the etched glass. I would say Bobby is about 75, so his memory does go back further than mine.
    There seem to be claims by some that there is no evidence that Faulkner ever even spent time in Holly Springs or drew any stories from the town. Mitchell said this wasn't the case, citing a story about Robert McDermont, who was the owner of the cafe at the depot and had a reputation for being extremely cheap. Customers sitting around the cafe would often joke about him slicing a certain piece of lunch meat so thin you could see through it. Robert's son, Tippy McDermont, carried the book "The Reivers" around with him with a passage highlighted in which Faulkner also describes someone cutting a piece of lunchmeat so thin you could see through it, in such a fashion that the person described is clearly inspired by Robert McDermont. Tippy was clearly sure that Faulkner had picked up the story while sitting at the Depot Cafe, as he would share it with anyone willing to listen or look.
    Mitchell told me that he had heard many times that Faulkner had attended a party given by the Johnson family at the Walter Place in the 1930s. He told me that L.A. "Gus" Smith, Jr. was friends with Faulkner and that he had asked Gus's son, Gus III or Little Gus, whether he was there. Little Gus said he believed so, but had no details as to the other guests. My father was Gus Smith's law partner before he became a judge and he never mentioned the Walter Place party, but I'm not sure he would.
    Finally, Mitchell told me that he believed one of Faulkner's step-daughters, a Franklin, had attended the Mississippi Synodical College in Holly Springs. This would have given him ample reason to visit the town on occasion.
    I decided to contact another source, who told me that if I quoted her by name she would kill me. She echoed doubts raised by Dr. Hubert McAlexander, a Holly Springs native, Faulkner scholar, and University of Georgia English professor. Said my friend: "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."
    My friend described Francisco as being absent-minded as well as meek. It was said that he once drove to Memphis in his car, and unable to remember where he parked it, returned by train.
    With that said, my friend went on to say that Faulkner was known to have regularly visited Holly Springs, and she had heard years later that he dated a local girl, whom she cited by name. One of the characters in Sanctuary was said to have been inspired by a Holly Springs attorney. I'll omit his name as I have no idea how he was portrayed in the book. My friend remembers reading the book as a teen back in the day and being aware of the local connection at the time: "The book was considered kind of racy, and Mrs. Lizzie Craft (the librarian) wouldn't let us check it out, so we had to get it through other means."
    My friend did tell me that she had heard that Henry Fort Gholson used to go hunting with Faulkner. I called my friend Harris Gholson, who confirmed the friendship and passed me on to his older sister, Bea Greene, who said she remembers her father hunting a number of times with Faulkner and her parents getting together with the Faulkners for dinner. They first met in the mid- to late-1950s while Faulkner's nephew, Jimmy Faulkner, was building their house. She knew absolutely nothing of the Francisco friendship, however.
    There is really no hard evidence as to any of this, and some of the best sources have died in the past five to 10 years. The Francisco claims could be a complete fabrication. But there certainly is a long connection between Faulkner and Holly Springs, and insofar as the story of the etched glass is concerned, many of us have heard of it all our lives.


Anonymous said...

"There seem to be claims by some that there is no evidence that Faulkner ever even spent time in Holly Springs or drew any stories from the town."

Where are you drawing this from? There is no dispute amongst those that question the lack of corroboration re Francisco that Faulkner knew and visited Holly Springs. Please do not muddy the waters with your straw man.

Col. Reb Sez said...

This was something that one of the people I talked to said. However, if the claim isn't being made I certainly withdraw the assertion.

Col. Reb Sez said...

Let me elaborate on my comment above. Several of the people I talked to said they had talked to Dr. Wolff-King several weeks ago. So she is clearly trying to buttress her book with additional sources. One of these people told me the claim was apparently being made that some people were claiming that Faulkner had very little contact with Holly Springs. But with that said, conversations can get muddled through two retellings. I certainly have no interest in creating and then refuting a claim that does not exist.

The only point I will reiterate is that the legend of Faulkner and the etched glass is one of long standing.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your elaboration. The Ludie story seems to be watertight, but Jack Elliott, whom you mention in your excellent piece, discovered that Faulkner spent some of his teenage years in a house in Oxford that also had a name scratched in the window, and that name and the story that goes alongwith are a near perfect match for what he describes in The Unvanquished. At which point, Ludie becomes just another young woman messing up windows.
Plus, my own involvement with this debate has confirmed that Sally Wolff-King is not as averse to the ol' straw man as you. Interesting that only now, with the debate raging about her book, has she decided to attempt the location of corroborative evidence. Perhaps if she had done so at the very outset she could have saved us all an enormous amount of time and effort.

Seth Berner said...

I'm one of the three mentioned in the Awl article (http://www.theawl.com/2014/04/the-faulkner-truthers) as having doubts from the beginning about the Faulkner - Francisco connection. I speak for all three of us in saying that we never doubted that Faulkner had connections to Holly Springs. His step-daughter Victoria (Cho Cho) went to school in Holly Springs, and the author had other ties there. But just because Faulkner knew people there does not mean that he knew the Francisco family, any more than my having been to Holly Springs (and I have driven through it twice almost every year since 1992) proves that I know Frank Hurdle, who I would be glad to meet but don't think I ever have. We also do not doubt that there were stories in the town linking Faulkner to the Ludie window at McCarroll Place - it is human nature to want to be associated with greatness. But the historical evidence as developed by Jack Elliot strongly supports that Faulkner's inspiration was a window in Oxford in a property owned by his family, with proven links to details that also appear in Faulkner's description of the window. We three doubters do not claim that there is proof that Faulkner did not know the Franciscos - what we believe, even more strongly now than when we began, is that nothing has been produced supporting any of Edgar Francisco III's claims, and that every detail he has given that has been subject to examination has been demonstrated to be false or extremely unlikely (Edgar Francisco being a hunter is an example of the latter). To this date, we are not aware of anything more definite than EWF3's unreliable testimony and wishful thinking linking Faulkner to the Francisco family. And we reject that as a basis for definite historical statements.