Family Keys


The last name of the Gibson family only appears once in The Sound and the Fury, the novel where they first appear: when Dilsey is addressed as "Sis Gibson" by other black members of the church she attends on Easter (290). Gibsons from three generations appear in a total of five Yoknapatawpha fictions, but like the Strothers family in Faulkner's various accounts of the Sartorises, this black African American family is almost exclusively defined in the context of the white family whom they serve. For the Gibsons, that's the Compsons.


The two oldest members of this family - Joby and Louvinia - came from Carolina to Mississippi as slaves of John Sartoris. With two exceptions, they and their descendants serve the Sartorises loyally, as slaves before the Civil War and servants afterward, for five generations and in 3 novels and 9 short stories. Simon Strothers appears in the first chapter of the first Yoknapatawpha fiction, Flags in the Dust.


In the very beginning, Faulkner was going to create a novel about the Snopeses, but after starting that his imagination was taken over instead by the Sartorises. If the poor-white but upwardly mobile Snopeses represent what Faulkner found wrong with the "new," 20th century South, the culturally dispossessed, aristocratic Sartorises can be seen, at least at first, as a kind of monument to the greatness of the Old South, and a Modernist symbol of loss, like the exiled Russian aristocrat Marie with whom T.S. Eliot begins The Waste Land.


The multi-generational, racially complex family that Thomas Sutpen begets - five children with four different women - is at the center of one of Faulkner's major novels: Absalom, Absalom! (1936), where Faulkner uses it to explore the problematic history of the Old South and its racial legacy. Sutpen himself arrives in Yoknapatawpha in the early 1830s; Requiem for a Nun lists him along with the county's oldest, most prominent, upper class white families: "Sartoris and Stevens, Compson and McCaslin and Sutpen" (8).


In the context of Faulkner's career, the Benbows are one of Yoknapatawpha's very 'first families,' along with the Snopeses and the Sartorises. In 1927 or 1928, when he put aside the "Father Abraham" manuscript about the rise of the Snopeses in the New South to write Flags in the Dust about the displacement of the county's old aristocracy, he divided the novel's focus between young Bayard Sartoris and Horace Benbow, descended respectively from planters and lawyers.


For The Sound and the Fury, his second Yoknapatawpha fiction, Faulkner creates a third aristocratic family: the Compsons. Their social credentials are even more impressive than the Sartorises - according to Quentin Compson, at least, "one of our forefathers was a governor and three were generals" (101); although only one General ever appears in the nineteen fictions with Compsons in them, he outranks all the Colonels and Majors in the other stories.


There is one family in the Indian tribe that lives in Yoknapatawpha which recurs in Faulkner's fiction. As a family, it is mainly defined in terms that can be called political. According to Faulkner's representation of Indian culture, the male head of that family is also "The Man" - the chief of the tribe, who is also "the hereditary owner" of the tribal lands and slaves and can sell or trade these commodities to the white settlers who have already begun arriving in the area ("Red Leaves," 317).


In both Flags in the Dust (1929) and As I Lay Dying (1930), Faulkner spells the family name "MacCallum." When he brings them back a decade later - first in The Hamlet (1940), then five other texts - it's "McCallum." But the role the family plays in the Yoknapatawpha saga remains constant. To use the term that Faulkner inherits from Southern culture, they are yeomen.


Faulkner had already created the Sartorises, the Compsons and the Sutpens when he decided to add a fourth planter family to the census of Yoknapatawpha. Eventually the McCaslins become the largest of them all, with more than sixty members. They don't come into focus as a family until Go Down, Moses, a novel published in 1942, and the complex process, as much moral as imaginative, by which different characters, white and black, move toward each other in various stories over the previous decade is one of the most fascinating aspects of Faulkner's career.


The Snopeses are the largest family in Faulkner's world: altogether at least 67 different Snopeses appear in twenty-one different fictions, including the three long novels (The Hamlet, The Town and The Mansion) written as parts of a Snopes trilogy that Faulkner planned and worked on for decades.