A February 2010 article in the New York Times announced the discovery of a previously unknown influence on the writing of Nobel prize-winning author William Faulkner. According to the report, a man had been discovered with remarkable and heretofore unheard of claims concerning Faulkner. That man was Dr. Edgar Francisco III (born 1930) who claimed that his father, Edgar Francisco, Jr. (1897-1966) had been one of Faulkner’s closest friends during the first four decades of the twentieth century.
Francisco also claimed that Faulkner had been a regular visitor at the Francisco home - the McCarroll Place in Holly Springs, Mississippi - located about 30 miles north of the famed author’s home in Oxford. The most sensational aspect of his testimony was that his family had actually been a seminal influence on the writer who used his experiences from McCarroll Place to create many characters and events in his mythical Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, which constitutes the bulk of his literary legacy.
According to Francisco, Faulkner would visit McCarroll Place where he would listen to stories told by his father of the family’s history. He would pore over a set of antebellum plantation ledgers that had been kept by an ancestor F.T. Leak, taking profuse notes. Much that he experienced and learned there was then molded in his Yoknapatawpha stories such as The Sound and the Fury (1929), Absalom, Absalom! (1936), The Unvanquished (1938), Go Down, Moses (1942), and Intruder in the Dust (1948).
The person who discovered Francisco was Emory University professor Dr. Sally Wolff-King who referred to her discovery as “a once-in-a-lifetime literary find.” She went on to say that the Francisco connection “provided the philosophical and thematic power for some of [Faulkner’s] major works.” Another Faulkner scholar, Dr. John Lowe, then of Louisiana State University, noted that this was “one of the most sensational literary discoveries of recent decades.”
(The McCarroll Place. Credit: Jack Elliott)
After the NYT broke the story, it appeared throughout the media. The following day National Public Radio carried an interview with Wolff-King on the subject. Later that year Louisiana State University Press published Wolff-King’s book, Ledgers of History: William Faulkner, an Almost Forgotten Friendship and an Antebellum Plantation Diary, which presented her findings along with reams of interview transcripts. Soon after she was invited to lecture on her findings at the Library of Congress. Despite the attention paid to the story, few seemed to openly question it.
Questions are now being raised about the credibility of Francisco’s testimony. Retired historical archaeologist Jack Elliott, a lecturer at Mississippi State University, has delved into the problem and written an article entitled “Confabulations of History: William Faulkner, Edgar Francisco, and a Friendship that Never Was.” Following peer review it has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Mississippi History.
Elliott was initially baffled by the elaborate nature of the testimony which claimed to recall incidents in great detail from Francisco’s childhood and even decades before he was born. Furthermore, given the claim that Faulkner and Edgar Francisco, Jr. were close friends for about 40 years, where was the corroboration? Faulkner’s life has been very well documented with biographies, published correspondence, interviews, and reminiscences, yet nowhere is there a mention of the Francisco family.
Given this gap in evidence one would expect scholars to look for something that might shed some light on the truth of the testimony, yet that has not been done. Instead, Francisco’s testimony has apparently been accepted on the basis of his personality that is that he seems to be telling the truth.
To make up for this shortcoming, Elliott delved into deed records, newspapers, local histories, and censuses that chronicle the background to Francisco's stories and has found numerous problems.
One of the recurrent claims was that the antebellum ledgers at McCarroll Place were donated by the Franciscos to the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 1946. However, diary entries by Joseph Hamilton who obtained the ledgers for the Collection never mentioned the Francisco family as having ever owned the ledgers. Instead he refers only to their cousin Perle Strickland Badow as the owner and donor of the ledgers.
Another claim was that Faulkner had been deeply moved by the name "Ludie" which had been etched into a window pane at McCarroll Place by a young woman during the Civil War and that consequently he incorporated a similar image into three of his novels. However, as it turns out, there was also another girl's name etched in glass and this one was from a home in Oxford, and not just any home, but a home where Faulkner's family had resided for some years during his youth. Faulkner's first use of the image of the name-etched-in-glass appeared in his novel The Unvanquished and that was almost a duplicate of the story associated with the etching from his childhood home. So there is little reason that he would have needed to travel to Holly Springs to view a name etched in glass.
There are many other problems with his testimony: the use of an error from a 1932 newspaper article is presented as part of a traditional story dating to before the Civil War; the claim that McCarroll Place was in part built by a Chickasaw named Sam Love in the late 1820s and early 1830s when the only Sam Love was a mixed-blood Chickasaw who was born in 1823 and therefore a mere child at the time. And the list goes on.
Francisco often talked of Faulkner's fascination with the Leak ledgers. Wolff-King devotes considerable effort to drawing parallels between names and cultural practices in the ledgers and the novelist’s fiction. However, virtually all of these are things that were commonplace in nineteenth and early twentieth century Mississippi that Faulkner could have witnessed almost anywhere. For example, Wolff-King writes: “In [Faulkner’s novel] Absalom, Absalom! Henry and Charles, the sons of Thomas Sutpen, are crucial characters. In the Leak Diary, Henry and Charles are slaves whose names appear next to each other.” Was Faulkner so uninspired that he needed the ledgers to come up with the names Henry and Charles?
The Francisco testimony seems to have a prominent purpose-- to establish that Faulkner was a long-time friend of his family and that the family’s influence was such that it became a seminal part of his literary production. However, given the lack of corroboration along with numerous problems that call the testimony into question, according to Elliott, it appears unlikely that Faulkner even knew the Franciscos.
Whereas the Francisco testimony has been described as “one of the most sensational literary discoveries of recent decades,” Elliott concludes by stating that it has all the appearance of being “one of the most sensational literary frauds of recent decades.”