— From the Francis Terry Leak Papers, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
A little literary sleuthing has uncovered a link between an unpublished antebellum diary and the well-known work of William Faulkner.
Sally Wolff-King, a professor of Southern literature at Emory University, was working on a book based on conversations with living acquaintances of Faulkner when she met Edgar Wiggin Francisco III. During the course of an interview, Francisco’s wife prompted him to show Wolff-King a diary kept by his great, great grandfather. The ledger was written in the mid-1800s by Francis Terry Leak and kept record of his Mississippi plantation.
The 1,800 page document had been available to scholars since it was donated to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1946, but the connection to Faulkner remained unknown. Francisco’s father had been a life-long friend of the Nobel Prize-winning author, who made frequent visits to the family’s home in Holly Springs, Miss.
“William Faulkner would visit with his dad frequently, and then would say, ‘May I see the diary?’, and took notes from it,” said Wolff-King. “Dr. Francisco even said William Faulkner poured over it. He had a pad and was always scribbling.”
Listen to a conversation with Wolff-King (transcript after the jump):
Numerous names, descriptions and details from the diary appear to have been source material for some of Faulkner’s most famous works. Wolff-King noticed that a page showing money paid for slaves bore a striking resemblance to the fictional family ledger kept by the character Isaac McCaslin in Faulkner’s novel “Go Down, Moses.” The name “Isaac” appears throughout the Leak diary, as do other names used by Faulkner. In another section of the log, a slave named Ben is described as “not sound.” Faulkner’s novel “The Sound and the Fury” is told from the perspective of Benjamin “Benjy” Compson, who is mentally handicapped.
“We know that Faulkner drew from a host of different sources, but this an 1,800 page document that is full of rich detail about what life was like on the antebellum southern plantation. I think it confirms that Faulkner liked to use sources that were around him,” said Wolff-King, who has spent the last two years examining the diary for connections.
Wolff-King’s findings, collected in a new book called “Ledgers of History: William Faulkner, an Almost Forgotten Friendship, and an Antebellum Diary”, will be published in June.
MIKE MELIA: It’s a link between an old plantation diary and one of America’s most renowned authors. We’re talking about William Faulkner and an old plantation ledger that has now been linked by Sally Wolff-King. Sally Wolff-King teaches southern literature at Emory University where she also served as associate dean and assistant vice president. Thank you for taking the time to talk with us this afternoon.
SALLY WOLFF–KING: Thank you very much.
MIKE MELIA: People have known about the diary for some time, donated in North Carolina, UNC in 1946. What drew you to go back and look through its pages for links to William Faulkner’s work?
SALLY WOLFF–KING: Well, I met Dr. Edgar Wiggin Francisco III, and he lives in Atlanta now but he’s a native of Holly Springs, Miss., and grew up there, and I was interviewing him for a book that I’m working on of conversations with people who are still living and knew William Faulkner. And I discovered that he did know William Faulkner and his father knew William Faulkner very well, so I went to his home and met with his wife Anne Salyerds Francisco and him to talk about William Faulkner. And in the course of the interview, Mrs. Francisco said, why don’t you show her your diary. And it is the diary of his great, great grandfather, Francis Terry Leak. So I opened the diary and I saw that the original is on ledger paper. The page that I looked at showed monies paid for individual slaves. I realized that it was very similar to Faulkner’s novel, “Go Down, Moses,” or that “Go Down, Moses” was similar to it, and I wasn’t sure why. And I said, you’ve mentioned to me that William Faulkner visited with your father often at your family home, do you think William Faulkner ever saw this diary? And he said, yes, he liked to look at it. And I was surprised, and he has told me that William Faulkner would visit with his dad frequently and then would say, may I see the diary, and took notes from it. And Dr. Francisco even said William Faulkner poured over it. He had a pad and he was always scribbling.
MIKE MELIA: And now you’ve done the same. The diary is a whopping nearly 2,000 or 1,800 pages long. As you look through it, what did William Faulkner glean from those notes? How did he use his notes from this diary in crafting characters or themes or names and locations in some of his more famous works?
SALLY WOLFF–KING: Well, I think at some point William Faulkner turned to the diary for information. I see evidence that he drew any number of names correspond with names in his work. For example Caruthers, Moses, Isaac, Sam, are all in the diary. Some of those are more common names than others. Isaac, for example, is a common name, but in the dairy near the name Isaac are I think relatives of this particular Isaac who was a slave, and their names are Little Ike, Old Ike and New Ike, and William Faulkner uses both Isaac and Ike in “Go Down, Moses,” so that’s just one tiny example. And Candis and Ben were slaves on the Leak plantation and they also are mentioned in the diary. Candis was a slave who was about 25 years old at the time. The diarist noted her presence there, and Francis Terry Leak said that Ben was “not sound,” quote unquote, “not sound.” And in the novel, “The Sound and the Fury,” Benjy Compson is also not sound. His disability is a mental slowness. So those are a few examples among a number of others.
MIKE MELIA: Given you’re are a scholar of southern literature and you’ve written on written on William Faulkner, what does this tell us about Faulkner’s writing style? Does this open up new windows on pieces of inspiration and sources of inspiration for his works and how he used those?
SALLY WOLFF–KING: Well, we know that Faulkner drew from a host of different sources, but this an 1,800 page document that is full of rich detail about what life was like on the Antebellum southern plantation. I think it confirms that Faulkner liked to use sources that were around him. He liked to write about what he knew and he liked to talk to people in his area, he liked to hear the old tales and talking that he heard around him, so it fits in with what we know about how he drew from the sources in his area, and this is another and extensive source, one that has not been previously identified.
MIKE MELIA: Well, Professor Sally Wolff-King, professor of southern literature at Emory University and author of the upcoming book, “Ledgers of History: William Faulkner, an Almost Forgotten Friendship, and an Antebellum Diary,” thank you so much for talking with us.
SALLY WOLFF–KING: Thank you very much.