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Like most people, I first heard of Faulkner's connection with the diary of Francis Terry Leak (the ledgers of the book's title) through an article by Patricia Cohen appearing in the online New York Times dated February 10th 2010. The diary had been in the possession of a Holly Springs resident, a long-term friend whom Faulkner had frequently visited in the 1920s and `30s.
My initial reaction was one of tremendous excitement; the Old Man does not often make headlines, and this was some real news, a literary find quite beyond anything discovered in my time as a Faulkner reader.
Reading the actual book, however, proved something of a disappointment:
Divided into two parts, the first deals with how Faulkner's fictional works may have, at their root, the diary of Francis Terry Leak, the second part of the book is a series of interviews with Edgar Wiggin Francisco III (EWF), son of the man with whom Faulkner was allegedly such close friends, and great- great-grandson of the diary's author.
My problems with the book arose quite early on: if Francisco's father had indeed had such a long and close friendship with Faulkner, why did the name ring no bells? I appreciate just how ridiculous this might seem: why should I, who never even shared the planet with Faulkner let alone ever met the man, be the judge of who he met and when. But then again, if this friendship was anywhere near as close and enduring as we are told it was, how has it remained a secret as long as it has? When we know more than enough details of the clandestine love affairs Faulkner had with a number of women, how has this friendship managed to avoid detection until now?
Seemingly aware of this, and in an effort to head readers off at the pass as it were, Wolff attempts systematically and repeatedly to convince of the great bond between Faulkner and EWF's father, being barely able to mention the man without describing him in ways that permit us little doubt:
"his good friend Edgar Francisco" (Ledgers p.2)
"his close friendship with its owner" (Ledgers p.9)
"his friend Edgar Jr." (Ledgers p.9)
"long years of friendship" (Ledgers p.10)
"friendship... that had endured from boyhood" (Ledgers p.16)
"visit his good friend Edgar Francisco Jr." (Ledgers p.16)
It is almost as if Wolff feels that without persistently reminding us, we might actually forget who this man is, a kind of inversion of the melodramatic villain's moustache-twirling.
Likewise, and again very early on in the book, in fact in its preface, Prof. Wolff goes to great lengths to determine EWF's credibility being as he is our sole point of contact in establishing William Faulkner's link with the Leak Diary:
"He holds six degrees from several academic institutions... His career focused on health-care policy management... He is shy, courteous, and modest" (Ledgers, p.xi)
While I have no intention of disputing these facts, or casting aspersions on the character of this man, it has to be said that many of the stories he tells regarding William Faulkner are not ones in which he himself participated. Details of the infant Falkner-Francisco birthday parties, or the anecdote regarding how his mother first met Faulkner, these can only have been related to him second- or even third-hand: "Of course, Dad had told me what his mother had told him" (Ledgers p.75) So no matter his own impeccable character, we are reliant on the reliability of the information he himself received. Any student of Faulkner will know that the Old Man himself was no slouch when it came to embellishment of personal detail; can we know for sure that his "good friend" was any different?
Other readers of the book have pointed out that there are simply too many connections between the diaries and Faulkner's work for this to be merely coincidence, though I was already aware many of those connections were spurious at best, at worst utterly ridiculous.
On just one page, we are asked to consider the following:
"Some objects in the diary match those in the novel. Leak orders `slippers'; again Faulkner adds an emotional component to the image: in longing and love for his sister, his Benjy carries around his sister Caddy's slippers [sic] for many years after she marries and leaves home." (Ledgers p.18)
"Leak orders `1 pr Cut Ring Decanturs'; Father Compson in the novel instructs his servant Versh to `Take the decanter and fill it'" (Ledgers p.18), though Wolff does have sense enough to preface this most flimsy of connections with "While Faulkner could have encountered such details in any contemporary description of plantation life, his familiarity with the Leak Diary makes it plausible that he mined the old farm ledgers for detail to add verisimilitude to his work." (Ledgers p.18)
Perhaps weakest of all: "Caroline is the name of a slave mentioned in the Leak Diary, and this name also appeared in the novel." (Ledgers p.18), Wolff momentarily forgetting that Faulkner's beloved Mammy Callie was known to many as Caroline Barr.
Set in a familiar milieu to Faulkner's work, it would not be difficult to find several points of crossover, be they names, places, items, or situations common to both. Quoting Don Doyle from his excellent book "Faulkner's County":
"There are dozens of names - Varner, Littlejohn, Ratliff, Hightower, Carothers, Bundren, Houston, and McEachern - found in Faulkner's fiction and then in the old newspapers, maps, or census rolls until the two worlds of fiction and history become at times difficult to keep separate." (FC p.9)
At 1800 typeset pages in length, I am willing to wager one might equally find connections between the Leak diary and, say, "Gone With the Wind", without positing that Margaret Mitchell must thus have equally been friends with Francisco's father. Or, further, that with that sheer mass of names, places and situations from which to choose, one might find a number of connections between the diaries and any modern work of fiction.
To this end, I hunted down a book mentioned in the footnotes of "Ledgers of History" as one that Faulkner had actually read, being "The Southern Plantation Overseer as Revealed in his Letters" by John Spencer Bassett. (See also "The Selected Letters of William Faulkner". I found the following in a letter Faulkner wrote to Maggie Lea Stone, 6 April 1940, "Selected Letters" p.120:
"The other volume you mentioned I do not find here, and my recollection is that I borrowed from Mr Will only THE PLANTATION OVERSEER [sic], though I have looked among my books to make sure.")
Reading through this book I was amazed at some of the connections I found, and compiled a list as follows (you'll have to know your Faulkner for these to spark):
On Wednesday morning they were missing. I think they are lying out until they can see you or your uncle [...] They may be gone off, or they may be lying around in this neighbourhood, but I don't know.. I blame Tom[...] for the whole. I don't think the rest of them would of left the plantation if Tom[...] had not persuaded them of for some design. I give Tom[...] but a few licks, but if I ever get him in my power I will have satisfaction.
I have bought a section and a half of a Chickasaw lying on the Yocknepetauphy, but the title to it is as yet uncertain.
We have a desperate time to move, mud and high waters, now raining
Henry [...] young Charles
corn [...] cribs [...] shuck [...]
Ben is in Maury and refuses to come back. [...] (Ben is a bad boy).
When a youngish man went single-handed into a new country, leading a band of slaves whom he had to direct and keep under discipline, he deserves some consideration from those who make appraisal of his conduct.
..all have recovered or are now convalescent save one (Caroline) and she I consider not at all dangerous.
The Boy Charls [...] run away some fore weeks ago witheout any cause whatever
William's reply gives us an idea of what migrations had been made by Charles in his brief existence.
Charles came hom the fifth day of December.
Henry [...] and Charls [...] Henry had become so indifferent about his duty I was compeld to corect him, he resisted and fought mee I awdered Charls to take hold of him being the nearest but refused to dwo so
Caroline [...] has ben havin chils and feavor
We learn from them that he sold his crop early in 1838 through the house of Caruthers
Perhaps some of these seem spurious at best, at worst utterly ridiculous? And yet, if Professor Wolff can exact some mileage from the phrase "Ben was priced at $800 because he is not sound" (Ledgers p.18) as it relates to "The Sound and the Fury", how much more legitimate is "Ben is in Maury and refuses to come back. [...] (Ben is a bad boy)." (Overseer p.58) If this phrase had, in fact, appeared written in the hand of Francis Terry Leak, how much we might well ask would have been made of the coincidence?
Without any evidence of Faulkner actually reading the diaries of Francis Terry Leak, there is absolutely nothing to suggest the connections between these ledgers and his work is anything more than the coincidences as might be expected when two men are mining a common seam in the same area, one contemporary, one historical.
Indeed, to quote Professor Wolff herself on this point in what amounts to quite an amazing get-out clause: "Some of the names found in the Diary that also appear in William Faulkner's work are present in other Mississippi diaries produced during the same time. Faulkner could have encountered these names in the Leak Diary or in other, similar diaries of the period - or heard them elsewhere" (Ledgers p.7) before listing in a footnote another NINE possible sources of overlap!
That being the case, the only thing that links Faulkner to the diary of Francis Terry Leak is the witness of Edgar Wiggin Francisco III. Unfortunately, there has yet to surface one shred of evidence to corroborate any link between his family and William Faulkner. And again, I have to stress, this is not to say there is no link, but that there is as yet no evidence of such.
So, in an attempt to cross-reference what is known of Faulkner's life with what is revealed in the interviews in the book's latter half, I began looking for specific times and places where I might try and establish a corroborating link between Faulkner's whereabouts, and those ascribed him by EWF, or his father. Establishing such would allow me to rid myself of the persistent itch the book was continuing to cause.
The only specific date I can find in Professor Wolff's interviews with Edgar Wiggin Francisco III is August 5th, 1929. It is on this, the day after they were married, that Francisco says his mother and father returned home to find William Faulkner, "a beer in one hand... a dead rabbit and a couple of dead squirrels that he had shot in the other" (Ledgers p. 85)
Yet, trying to locate Faulkner in Holly Springs at this point proves difficult. Faulkner himself had been married to Estelle earlier that summer, on June 20th. According to Blotner, after the wedding they honeymooned in Pascagoula. "It took most of June 21 to cover the 190 miles" (Blotner p. 241) to Pascagoula from Columbus where they had left Estelle's son Malcolm, Columbus itself being 85 miles south-east of Oxford.
Four weeks later, the Faulkners ventured from Pascagoula to New Orleans. Blotner states that "by the time they returned to Pascagoula, it was getting on toward late summer." (Blotner p. 245)
Determining what time might amount to late summer in Mississippi is open to debate, but Blotner also mentions that "Not long after their imminent return to Oxford, young Malcolm Franklin would visit one of his friends, agog with stories of Cornell Franklin and his new wife, Dallas, visiting Mama and Mr Bill" (Blotner p.245)
From a note in Judith Sensibar's "Faulkner and Love", we find that "Dallas and Cornell were married in Shanghai, on 2 September 1929, a little more [sic] than three [or sic] months after Faulkner and Estelle's marriage." (Love p.566) (Sensibar also wrongly suggests Columbus is 85 miles NORTHeast of Oxford.)
Even if Oxford was the actual honeymooning destination of Cornell and Dallas, and assuming their journey would last a similar time to that of Estelle, Cornell, and Cho-Cho in 1921, where according to Sensibar's research the sailing from Honolulu to Shanghai took three weeks (Love p.409), they would not have arrived in Oxford until later in the month ie at least a whole month and a half after Faulkner had allegedly left his own new bride to visit his friend in Holly Springs, rendering Blotner's "not long after" relatively redundant.
Does this constitute any kind of proof that Faulkner was not in Holly Springs on August 5th, 1929? Of course not, but no more than Edgar Francisco's recollection of his father's anecdote proves he actually was.
Another slightly less specific time mentioned by EWF is his first memory of William Faulkner:
"My earliest clear recollection of Faulkner is 1936. [...] I couldn't place any of them in specific time-place memory until the first grade in the fall of 1936 [...] That's when I recall... listening to Dad and Will talking, especially about escapades when they were just a little older than I was." (Ledgers p.67)
However, according to other accounts, Faulkner was at that very time working in Hollywood. This particular trip was distinguished by his taking along Estelle and Jill, setting off on July 15th, 1936 (Blotner p.372). Estelle returned to Mississippi with Jill the following May, but Faulkner himself would not be back in Oxford until three months later, in August 1937. (Blotner p.384.) I can find no mention of any trip, or trips, to Holly Springs during this period.
It is entirely possible, and quite forgivable, that EWF has misremembered the date of these meetings, looking back as he is from a distance of over 70 years. What is not so understandable is that Professor Wolf would accept and report these as facts without first checking them against extant research.
Asked about topics that his father would discuss with Faulkner, EWF reveals:
"They spent much time lamenting what they called the tragedies of the South, which included slave owners' lack of attempts to resolve the slave issue on their own, and the influx after the war of landless outsiders who had `no love of the land'" (Ledgers p.94)
"Their lament was the leadership's emotional preoccupation with the issue of `states' rights'. While they regretted slavery, they recognized its inevitability in the development of a cotton-based southern economy." (Ledgers p.94-95)
"Their lament was also that the preoccupation with `states' rights' precluded any attention to suggestions to move from slavery to indentured servants to free men, in spite of the growing opinion of many that in addition to being immoral, slavery was inefficient, unnecessary, wasteful, and expensive, compared with hiring free labor as needed." (Ledgers p.95)
These conversations, which EWF says he repeatedly heard, were taking place in the mid- to late-1930s at a time when he was still a child - "we saw him frequently until 1939, and then I didn't see him but two times after that" (Ledgers p.93) - just eight or nine years old, and yet he remembers himself as having understood the complexities of their discussions.
A later statement like "Some of Will's views on this I really feel I began to understand by age nine, but a lot was filled in for me by Dad" (Ledgers p. 112) perhaps reveals more than EWF would wish.
Likewise the story of the childhood birthday parties: "EWF: Probably starting with Will's second birthday - Dad went to New Albany to Will's birthday party, and then the Falkners came to Holly Springs to Dad's birthday the next year. They did that a couple of times. I do not know how many. Of course, Dad had told me what his mother told him. Somewhere in there the Falkners moved to Oxford." (Ledgers p.75)
Yet, according to Blotner, "In November 1898, [Faulkner's father Murry] was appointed auditor and treasurer and placed in charge of the Traffic and Freight Claim Departments. That December [ie when Faulkner was just over a year old], or shortly thereafter, Murry moved the family to Ripley" (Blotner p.7)
"On September 22, 1902 [ie just days before Faulkner's fifth birthday], the Falkners left Ripley [for Oxford]." (Blotner p.10)
Again, these details have been left uncorrected in the text.
And briefly, further pertaining to the itch:
Faulkner had apparently offended EWF's mother in 1929 with his drinking and coarse manners. Is it possible that she could remain unaware of the scandal that Faulkner's notorious novel "Sanctuary" provoked in 1931? And would she thereafter let such a man as wrote it visit at her home with her husband and infant son?
In terms of concrete evidence of the friendship between the two men, given the length and specific timespan of their alleged acquaintance, it would very be odd if Faulkner had not signed a copy of "The Marble Faun", and indeed each of his subsequent books, to his good friend. Where are these copies now?
With Faulkner and Francisco being the same age, and with their mothers being friends, why does Faulkner not once ask after his good friend in his letters home to his mother? (see "Thinking of Home: William Faulkner's Letters to his Mother and Father 1918-1925")
Faulkner apparently knew the ledgers and their content well enough to ask for certain volumes by shape
"EWF: Will would say to Dad `No, I don't want that one - I want the fat one.' It was almost as if he had memorized them. He knew which volume contained what information." (Ledgers p. 110)
and yet when the subject arises of letters in the diary written by Leak to someone Wolff assumes to be Colonel William Falkner, the novelist's great-grandfather, EWF almost immediately changes the subject. Given Faulkner's reverence for his great-grandfather, wouldn't this discovery have been, for him, one of the ledgers' most exciting details? And something he might have wanted to repeatedly read?
Can this really be the first time since the ledgers have been available for research that any scholar (and there have been many who have consulted them) has made the connection with the work of William Faulkner? Or have they noticed and dismissed these same connections as mere coincidence, seeing the same names in so many other sources as to render no single source more important than the others?
A minor note, perhaps, but this little exchange is worth a look:
"SW: The similarity of [the] name[s] `McCarroll' and `McCaslin' is noteworthy.
EWF: I'm sure Will wanted to get it in somewhere. So L.Q.C. McCaslin...
SW: Could be a conflation of...
SW: L.Q.C. Lamar and your grandfather." (Ledgers p.175)
Earlier, in the first section of the book's passage on "Go Down, Moses" we read that "Faulkner may have derived the last name, McCaslin, from McCarroll, the ancestor of Faulkner's friend Edgar Francisco Jr. On this character, whose name reflects the southern biblical naming tradition, Faulkner will bestow the powerful vision to understand the sins of the past" (Ledgers p.32)
This is re-iterated just a few pages later, "McCaslin seems a very close approximation of McCarroll" (Ledgers p. 36), after which, in discussing Faulkner's appropriation of the initials L.Q.C., Wolff informs us that "L.Q.C. Lamar was a Georgia-born lawyer and judge... [who] rose to prominence as a state senator, later secretary of the interior, and eventually, justice of the United States Supreme Court" (Ledgers p. 36-37)
This convergence of the name McCarroll with those of Isaac McCaslin and L.Q.C Lamar would suggest Faulkner held his good friend in some esteem. Unfortunately, even in the section on The Snopes Trilogy, Wolff has either forgotten, or has consciously omitted, the one name in Faulkner's fiction which bears closest resemblance to that of his good friend: McCarron, a family described by Kirk and Klotz in their book "Faulkner's People" thus:
"McCarron: A gambler who apparently reformed after his marriage... later he is shot to death, probably in a gambling house.
McCarron, Hoake: ..bold suitor of Eula Varner, who, with her aid, fights off the other suitors and gets a broken arm... Hoake takes Eula's virginity, and in so doing causes the arm to break [again]... Later, learning of Eula's pregnancy, he leaves for Texas." (People p.114)
It's quite clear that the muted response to Ledgers suggests that the top level Faulkner folk know a lot of Professor Wolff's research is a stretch and a half, and if she chooses to continue mining what she clearly feels is a rich source she risks making herself a figure of ridicule. I completely understand the desire to make one's mark in the field of Faulkner scholarship, and even though she's done some good lower level stuff in the past (see "Talking About William Faulkner", 1996), she perhaps sees this as her one chance to elevate herself into the upper echelons. With that as a given, it's no surprise she would choose to ignore anything that might set alarm bells ringing, and take as gospel anything EWF has said. Unfortunately, there is no evidence, and the links she's found are often so flimsy you can see why this has been allowed to just drift away. I might be wildly wrong of course, and even now scholars are lining up to view the ledgers and see what connections they too can uncover - I like to hope not.
But there's always that risk that with the book out there, the product of an academic publisher no less, it will be cited by others who are not overly concerned about the facts, and the more any work is cited, the more it becomes the "truth".
I am not a Faulkner scholar, I am a Faulkner fan. In the world of Faulkner Studies, my word counts for naught. I have my fingers crossed that somewhere out there, right now, some scholar is busily beavering away at a comprehensive dismissal of this text which, without any corroborative evidence, should never have been published in the first place.
The motivation here is not the short term exorcism of that bad feeling I had when I first read it, but rather the legacy of eliminating from future research this rather spurious book.
And of course, on the sunny side, if someone should unearth that absent proof, then we get the ledgers as part of the Faulkner whole, and that's no bad thing either.