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Tom Chaney. R765 review: Mississippi storytelling

Of Writers and Their Books No. R765: First appeared 5 June 2005. A commentary on the works of William Faulkner, Frenchman's Bend, and Yoknapatawpha County
The next earlier Tom Chaney column :Tom Chaney. R764 review: The Piper on the Mountain

By Tom Chaney

Mississippi Storytelling

Looking at an Irish storyteller telling a story about a storyteller last week set me to thinking about how the art works in this country. Now there are storytellers amongst us - some mighty good ones. But I thunk me a thought that to find a really good storyteller who not only told a fine tale, but who created a complete society out of which such stories might arise, I might have to go further afield.

That set my mind to wandering south to Mississippi.

I know and have known some Mississippi storytellers in my time. I recall an evening of tales in Lexington in the late 1960's that pitted a Horse Cave and a Mississippi storyteller against one another. The tales began about 9:00 p.m., and when the session ended no one present was able to stand, much less read the time on a clock. Both the storytelling and the whiskey continued as long as we could stand it. No clear winner emerged.

More recently a retired Mississippi storyteller made his final home in Hart County. For a time his stories echoed around The Bookstore, and stories are still told about the stories he told and those for which he traded his tales.

I would not go so far as to declare any superiority to either state. But modesty forces me to say that the two Magnolia state artists of whom I speak were partially formed in their youth by Bullitt and Hart counties in Kentucky.

But in a search for a teller of tales about his own society, I had to turn to William Faulkner. In my mind I returned to Yoknapatawpha County that Faulkner created close to, but not in, Oxford. The county seat is Jefferson. The small village to which I wandered is Frenchman's Bend.

The novel is The Hamlet, first of the Snopes trilogy. It begins the tale of the rise of Flem Snopes from the son of a barn-burning tenant farmer to clerk in Will Varner's store to president of the bank in Jefferson.

The Snopes revolution in Yoknapatawpha is as implacable as a termite invasion. Faulkner's story of the rise of the Snopes is told with the humor of flawed characters spinning their own web, with the sadness of a way of life being destroyed, and with a certain admiration for the wiles and blunders of the Snopes.

Flem Snopes emerged in Faulkner's imagination as a character larger than the page. When meeting with his New York editor, Faulkner is said to have regaled him with the latest goings on of Flem "down in Yoknapatawpha."

Faulkner in the late 1930's chose to focus on Flem Snopes, the beady-eyed, coldhearted social climber of the trilogy. The Varners hire Flem, in part, because not to do so would place them in jeopardy from his barn-burning daddy. By mid point in The Hamlet Frenchman's Bend is full of Snopes as Flem is joined by a host of cousins whom he exploits for his own rise.

Early on Flem marries Will Varner's daughter Eula, a fecund teenager who "passed puberty in the womb." When the father of her child-to-come flees Frenchman's Bend terribly beaten by rivals, Flem is elected to become the husband/father, extracting a large price in land and authority from Will Varner.

Ike Snopes, retarded, inarticulate youth of odd jobs, follows his true love Jack Houston's cow through fields and woods, like some mythical lover pursuing the goddess, until he is given the cow to keep in the stable at the boarding house.

V. K. Ratliff, a traveling sewing machine salesman weaves in and out of the story, sometimes commenting on the foibles of the Snopes like a chorus in a Greek play, other times intervening in the crueler pastimes of the village. The latter occurs when he boards up the hole in the stable wall to stop the loafers at Varner's store from spying on Ike and his love.

In the second Snopes novel, The Town, Flem is an entrepreneur in Jefferson, where he continues his rapacious rise. In The Mansion, he inhabits the mansion of the former bank president whom he has displaced.

Faulkner is ambivalent about the Snopes. In the first place, he sees in the Snopes the commercial greed that is destroying the South of lore. In the second, he knows that that old South was built on the displacement of the Indians and the exploitation of slavery. In the third place, he has a storyteller's grudging admiration for the success of chicanery.

Courage, honor, pride and endurance -- are the virtues that the Snopes lack and for which Faulkner searches in all his work.

But most of all, Faulkner is the fine Storyteller. His small world of Yoknapatapha County competes with Ireland and Hart County for vivid characters and complexity.

And, yes, the Snopes are amongst us yet, burning barns, despoiling the land, failing to give good measure, murdering for greed. And we yearn for an earlier, more noble day that never really was..

Box 73/111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2012-06-03 05:10:02
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