John Sartoris I

Character Key Number: 
1
Display Name: 
John Sartoris I
Sort Name: 
Sartoris, John I
Parent Character Key: 
Ever Present in Yoknapatawpha?: 
Yes
Biography: 

The first published Yoknapatawpha fiction, Flags in the Dust, begins by conjuring up the spirit of Colonel John Sartoris. Dead since 1876, he haunts much of that text and many of the others; the 21 texts he appears in is the most of any inhabitant of Faulkner's imaginative world. As Faulkner acknowledged, his story is basely on the life and death of Colonel William Falkner, the author's great-grandfather. His fictional biography is established in that first novel. He came from Carolina to Jefferson around 1837, where he built a large cotton plantation four miles north of town. (Requiem for a Nun goes into the most detail about his arrival.) Before the Civil War he married a woman who remains essentially invisible, with whom he fathered three children, two daughters whose names are never revealed and a son, Bayard. That son narrates the Unvanquished stories that depict Sartoris' actions during and immediately after the War, as the head of an irregular Confederate troop, a violent opponent of Reconstruction, and the creator of the railroad that runs through the middle of Yoknapatawpha on both the maps that Faulkner drew. (The Mansion calls that railroad "the biggest thing to happen in Yoknapatawpha County," 446.) Beyond noting how loyal all but one of his slaves are to him, the fictions are not interested in his behavior as a slave owner (though "There Was a Queen" acknowledges that one of the servants at Sartoris is his illegitimate, biracial child). To Quentin Compson in The Sound and the Fury he appears in his Confederate uniform as an image of a nobler past that is gone. The justice of the peace in "Barn Burning" is sure that anyone named after Colonel Sartoris can be trusted (4). Bayard's vision of his father is more ambivalent, acknowledging the (white) men whom the Colonel killed in his quest for power. He is by turns a cavalier and a capitalist, but in general the fictions hold him up as a contrast to the other, less admirable plantation- and slave-owners, like Thomas Sutpen or Carothers McCaslin. At the end of Flags his statue stands tall over the cemetery in Jefferson that contains his male descendants, an apt symbol of the great past that is never dead but is nonetheless gone.