Reconstructing Faulkner’s World: The Fictional Status of the Chronology and Genealogy in Absalom, Absalom!

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Abstract

Published in 1936, Absalom, Absalom! is perhaps William Faulkner’s most radical experimentation in the perspectivism of story-telling. Each of the four primary narrators – occasionally supplemented by a fifth, extradiegetic narrative perspective – tells of Thomas Sutpen, reordering and reinterpreting the events of this story to correspond with his or her personal understanding of the South and the Sutpen family. While these narrative perspectives comprise the bulk of the novel, Faulkner also included an appendix to Absalom, Absalom! consisting of a chronology, genealogy, and map. Most scholars have regarded these end materials as “crutches for the reader of a difficult book,” as John E. Bassett has pointed out, and indeed, Peter Brooks has called them “traditional schemata for the ordering of time and experience.” Yet in 1946, Faulkner sent another appendix to his publishers to be included in the Random House reprinting of The Sound and the Fury, writing, “When you reprint The Sound and the Fury, I have a new section to go with it. …When you read it you will see how it is the key to the whole book.” Faulkner regarded his appendix not as a mere crutch for the reader, but as an integral part, a “new section,” of the work itself. This view of his materials in turn suggests that, rather then serving as a means by which the reader can follow the events of the Sutpen story, the appendix of Absalom, Absalom! plays an integral role in the actual telling of the Sutpen story. In this paper, I argue that Faulkner designed the chronology and genealogy not as supplementary documents, but rather, he formally patterned them upon Biblical chronologies and genealogies even as he deliberately introduced textual variations within the end material. This argument has two primary implications: First, that textual discrepancies in Faulkner’s works – particularly those between the text of the novel and the appendices – are often intentional; and second, that these appendices and other so-called extra-textual material – including such items as Faulkner’s map of Yoknapatawpha and Edward Shenton’s original 1955 illustrations of Big Woods, which Faulkner himself critiqued and caused to be revised – are essential extensions of Faulkner’s story-worlds. This paper draws upon archival research from the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia and the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin in order both to examine the original manuscript and typescript copies of the chronology and to reassess the editorial practices surrounding the publication of the appendices of Absalom, Absalom!.