The climactic moment in William Faulkner’s 1942 novel “Go Down, Moses” comes when Isaac McCaslin finally decides to open his grandfather’s leather farm ledgers with their “scarred and cracked backs” and “yellowed pages scrawled in fading ink” — proof of his family’s slave-owning past. Now, what appears to be the document on which Faulkner modeled that ledger as well as the source for myriad names, incidents and details that populate his fictionalized Yoknapatawpha County has been discovered.
The original manuscript, a diary from the mid-1800s, was written by Francis Terry Leak, a wealthy plantation owner in Mississippi whose great-grandson Edgar Wiggin Francisco Jr. was a friend of Faulkner’s since childhood. Mr. Francisco’s son, Edgar Wiggin Francisco III, now 79, recalls the writer’s frequent visits to the family homestead in Holly Springs, Miss., throughout the 1930s, saying Faulkner was fascinated with the diary’s several volumes. Mr. Francisco said he saw them in Faulker’s hands and remembers that he “was always taking copious notes.”
Specialists have been stunned and intrigued not only by this peephole into Faulkner’s working process, but also by material that may have inspired this Nobel-prize-winning author, considered by many to be one of the greatest American novelists of the 20th century.
“I think it’s one of the most sensational literary discoveries of recent decades,” said John Lowe, an English professor at Louisiana State University who is writing a book on Faulkner. He was one of a handful of experts who met Dr. Francisco at the hand-hewn log house in Holly Springs last month. There they saw the windowpane where a cousin, Ludie Baugh, etched the letters L-U-D-I-E into the glass while watching Confederate soldiers march by — a scene that appears in several Faulkner works.
During the gathering Dr. Francisco, known in childhood as Little Eddie, described how Faulkner stood in front of that window and said, “ ‘She’s still here,’ like she was a ghost,” Professor Lowe recalled.
Dr. Francisco, speaking by telephone from his home in Atlanta, remembered hearing Faulkner rant as he read Leak’s pro-slavery and pro-Confederacy views: “Faulkner became very angry. He would curse the man and take notes and curse the man and take more notes.”
Sally Wolff-King, a scholar of Southern literature at Emory University who uncovered the connection between the author and the journal, called it “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,” she added.
Names of slaves owned by Leak — Caruthers, Moses, Isaac, Sam, Toney, Mollie, Edmund and Worsham — all appear in some form in “Go Down, Moses.” Other recorded names, like Candis (Candace in the book) and Ben, show up in “The Sound and The Fury” (1929) while Old Rose, Henry, Ellen and Milly are characters in “Absalom, Absalom!” (1936). Charles Bonner, a well-known Civil War physician mentioned in the diary, would also seem to be the namesake of Charles Bon in “Absalom.”
Scholars found Faulkner’s decision to give his white characters the names of slaves particularly arresting. Professor Wolff-King said she believes he was “trying to recreate the slaves lives and give them a voice.”
Dr. Francisco says he is still very uncomfortable that his family’s connection to Faulkner has come to light. “I wouldn’t have done it at all,” he said about publicizing the diary. “My wife urged me until I finally did it,” he said of Anne Salyerds Francisco, his wife of 50 years. “She pushed and Sally pulled.”
“There were long-repressed things that Faulkner uncovered that I didn’t know were in the family,” Dr. Francisco explained, adding that his father never talked about Leak and his slave-owning past. “I just bottled all that up and forgot about it.”
Dr. Francisco said that neither he nor his father ever read much of Faulkner’s work, including “Go Down, Moses.”
“I tried to read that book years ago,” he said, “but I got so angry I threw it across the room, and it stayed there for months.” He said he now might give it another go.
The mothers of Faulkner and of Dr. Francisco’s father were close. The boys went to each other’s childhood birthday parties. Later they double dated and became hunting and drinking buddies, remaining friends until their 40s, when they drifted apart, a situation probably encouraged by Mr. Francisco’s wife, who did not approve of Faulkner’s drinking, smoking and cursing.
Professor Wolff-King had been working on a book about people who knew Faulkner and ended up connecting with Dr. Francisco because he was an alumnus of Emory. When she visited his home in Atlanta, his wife suggested he show the professor a typescript copy of the ledger. Included was a facsimile of a page that listed dollar amounts paid for individual slaves.
“At that moment I realized this diary may not only have influenced the ledger and slave sale record in ‘Go Down, Moses’ but also likely served an important source for much of William Faulkner’s work,” said Professor Wolff-King, who has spent 30 years studying the writer.
A short preview of her findings is in the fall 2009 issue of The Southern Literary Journal; her book “Ledgers of History: William Faulkner, an Almost Forgotten Friendship, and an Antebellum Diary,” is due out in June from Louisiana State University Press.
Professor Lowe reviewed the manuscript before publication. To protect against leaks the editor arranged a meeting in a coffee shop. “He gave me the manuscript in a plain brown wrapper, and I was sworn to secrecy,” he said.
“I was electrified when I was reading it,” he said. “Faulkner had a very intense and intellectual relationship with Dr. Francisco’s father,” which seems to have formed “the basis of some of the conversations you find in ‘Absalom, Absalom!’ and ‘Go Down, Moses.’ ”
The Leak papers are not unfamiliar to scholars. The family donated the journal, which includes the plantation accounts as well as descriptive sections, to the University of North Carolina in 1946 and received a typescript copy of the material that runs 1,800 pages. The original documents have been used by Southern economists and social historians for their insights into Mississippi’s plantation life, but no one has previously been aware that Faulkner, who died in 1962, had any connection to them.
Professor Wolff-King argues that elements and terms from the diary repeatedly surface in Faulkner’s work, including the ticking sound of a watch that Quentin Compson is obsessed with in “The Sound and the Fury”; descriptions of building a plantation match Thomas Sutpen’s in “Absalom, Absalom!”
Noel Polk, the editor of The Mississippi Quarterly and among the deans of Faulkner scholars, said, “I was surprised at the discovery of what is so clearly a major piece of information about his life, and maybe his work.”
He and others said it was still too early for them to gauge just how significant the diary is without reading Professor Wolff-King’s book and examining the ledgers themselves, especially when it comes to the more common details about the antebellum and Civil War eras.
“Almost every document that you can come up with that Faulkner used is interesting, but the question is what do you do with it,” Judith L. Sensibar, whose biography “Faulkner and Love: The Women Who Shaped His Art” was published last year. What does it tell us, for instance, about his “obsession with the ways in which slavery has disfigured the lives of both the slaves and their masters?” she asked.
Although literary experts have been taken aback by this unexpected find, Faulkner more than anyone would have understood how the past can unpredictably poke its nose into the present.