February 15, 2010

Finding Faulkner with a 'once in a lifetime' discovery

Sally Wolff-King (right photo by: Billy Howard)

Emory English professor Sally Wolff-King has made a startling discovery about the works of legendary author William Faulkner that may change the course of scholarship for this area of Southern literature.

While interviewing people who knew Faulkner for a book project, Wolff-King spoke with Emory alumnus Dr. Edgar Wiggin Francisco III. He shared stories of how Faulkner would visit regularly with his father in Holly Springs, Miss., and would frequently look through the family's old plantation diary kept by his great-great grandfather, Francis Terry Leak. He had a copy of the diary and shared it with Wolff-King.

"I took one look through the first pages and it was as if I were reading the pages of 'Go Down, Moses,' one of Faulkner's works," says Wolff-King, a scholar of Southern literature. A careful examination of the 1,800-page, multi-volume diary found many names, places and events that echoed throughout Faulkner's work.

She described the discovery in an interview with the New York Times Feb. 11 as "a once-in-a-lifetime literary find... The diary and a number of family stories seem to have provided the philosophical and thematic power for some of his major works."

Wolff-King lays out her conclusions that Faulkner drew inspiration extensively from these ledgers in her forthcoming book from LSU Press, "Ledgers of History: William Faulkner, an Almost Forgotten Friendship and an Antebellum Diary," and in an article in the current edition of the Southern Literary Journal, "William Faulkner and the Ledgers of History."  Wolff-King finds that some of his most powerful ideas and themes, and some of his most compelling characters and stories apparently derive from the real people who were, in many instances, slaves on the plantation of Francis Terry Leak. 
Wolff-King is the author of Talking About William Faulkner (L.S.U. Press, 1996), and the coeditor of Southern Mothers: Fact and Fiction in Southern Women's Writing (L.S.U. Press, 1999), as well as numerous articles on Southern literature.

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