Conversations are by definition spontaneous, including impulsive reactions, unrehearsed truths and even some awkward moments. In a new book of transcribed conversations by Sally Wolff with Floyd Watkins, Talking about William Faulkner: Interviews with Jimmy Faulkner and Others (Louisiana State University Press, 1996), Wolff records a series of such reactions, truths and moments in all of their unabashed honesty.
These conversations with Jimmy Faulkner about his famous uncle, "Brother Will," began nearly two decades ago when Wolff, assistant dean of the College, was a graduate student accompanying Floyd Watkins' southern literature class on a trip to William Faulkner's hometown, Oxford, Miss. Watkins, now professor emeritus of American literature, took his students on these annual treks to expose them to a sense of the time and place that emerges in Faulkner's fiction.
On one of those early trips, Wolff and Watkins talked with Faulkner's nephew and, Wolff explained, "In the course of the day we realized that what Jimmy Faulkner was saying had not been recorded by other Faulkner scholars. We immediately recognized that Jimmy Faulkner was an untapped source of information about Faulkner."
They taped their conversations with Jimmy Faulkner, initially securing 11 hours of recorded dialogue in one trip. The annual trips to Oxford continued, and after Watkins' subsequent retirement, Wolff and Watkins collected more interviews and eventually prepared them for publication.
In the "Introduction," Wolff writes, "The interviews recorded here are the voices of a few of the remaining individuals who speak today as they once spoke to Faulkner." Wolff felt strongly about publishing the conversations as they actually happened. "It was important to show Jimmy Faulkner as he is, to allow him to speak in his own voice," she said. "This book is partly a person's memoir by his nephew, but also a book about Yoknapatawpha County and the customs and cultures that Faulkner wrote about and that have, for the most part, vanished," she explained.
Through the interviews, Wolff believes that several ideas also emerge about William Faulkner and his family members, especially Jimmy Faulkner. "We see his closeness to Faulkner," she said "He lived with him as a small boy, and we see the effect that William's life had on Jimmy's. Jimmy has become a Faulkner man in the Faulkner tradition of manhood, hunting, riding horses and storytelling." Jimmy Faulkner's life also preserves many of the traditions and customs that defined William Faulkner's existence and subsequently appeared in the author's fiction. He continues old family traditions, such as curing his own meat and canning his own fruit. Other local customs and traditions, as well as the vernacular of northern Mississippi, surfaces in the talks with Pearle Galloway and Motee Daniel and their stories of mules, whiskey and country stores.
Accompanying the transcriptions are Wolff's commentaries on the places where the conversations occur, her footnoted references and black and white photographs taken by Atlanta photographer Billy Howard. These supporting elements lead the reader on a kind of literary tour of Oxford. Wolff admits "that the organization is somewhat unusual," with the conversations grouped according to place. The places in the book, under the scuppernong vines, the old jailhouse, Yellowleaf Creek, Miss Pearle's store and the big ditch, reveal clues to Faulk-ner's life and influences. Wolff explained, "We organized the interviews around places that seemed to Jimmy Faulkner and to us to offer a better understanding of Faulkner's world."
Wolff explained that the book is, in a sense, "a return to Faulkner's world and enlarges the sense of his cultural sources and resources and shows how deeply his community affected him and how he, in turn, had a tremendous impact on his family, community and region."
An entire chapter is devoted to conversations in and around cemeteries. Wolff explained that not only were death and funerals important images in Faulkner's writing (see Absalom, Absalom), but cemeteries reveal a great deal about a community. Faulkner wrote that "A tombstone in a public cemetery is set up as a true part of the record of a community." Wolff writes, "These dead speak now, as they spoke to Faulkner, of the Civil War and subsequent freedom; of other pasts, other histories and other relationships within communities now silent, but not entirely forgotten."
Even though the book offers much insight into the historical context in which Faulkner lived, Wolff is hesitant to label the stories as historical truth. Rather, she would call them part of the truth. "For Faulkner, storytelling and historical truths are closely linked," she explained, "just as in Absalom, Absalom, in which the plot of the novel is revealed through the partial disclosure of fact, conjecture, speculation, surmise and guessing" of the four narrators. "In this way, we uncover the past as best we can."
Therefore, she believes that it is appropriate that this book would demonstrate the same sort of historical truth revealed through the southern storytelling tradition. "The book is almost a final snapshot of Faulkner's time and place," she said.