Light in February: Plantation Diary Find Sheds New Light on Faulkner Novels

For scholars, there is no bigger coup than finding new information that offers insight to a writer’s processes, character construction, or plot development.  Even if one is working with a lesser known writer, there is joy in discovery.  To find previously unknown information for an author as popular and extensively researched as William Faulkner is akin to finding a gem in a junkyard.

Sally Wolff-King is a professor and Southern literature scholar at Emory University. She appears to have found the ledger that Faulkner used as a model for the famous scene in Go Down, Moses in which the character Isaac McClassin opens his grandfather’s farm ledgers and discovers his family’s slave-owning past.  Many of the character names, used in this and other works, seem to have come from this ledger as well.

The diary/ledger belonged to Frances Terry Leak, a plantation owner. Leak’s great-grandson, Edgar Wiggin Francisco Jr. was a childhood friend of Faulkner’s, and the two men remained friendly throughout their lives.  Mr. Francisco’s son, now 79, recalls that Faulkner was a frequent guest in their home and had a keen interest in the ledgers.

Character names that appear in both the ledgers and Faulkner’s novels include Moses, Isaac, and Toney in Go Down, Moses, Caddy/Candace (Candis) and Ben in The Sound and the Fury and Old Rose, Henry,  Milly, and Ellen in Absalom, Absalom!.

Of particular interest to scholars is that Faulkner has given many of his white characters the names of slaves listed in the ledgers. Why did Faulkner do this?  Professor Wolff-King believes Faulkner is trying to “give the slaves a voice.”


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