Behind the Scenes
As Justin pointed out, the New York Times reports today that the Mississippi plantation diary of a wealthy slave-owning Mississippian has been found that Faulkner consulted often to find names and incidents to use in his work. The son of Faulkner’s friend recalls that when reading the diary, “Faulkner became very angry. He would curse the man and take notes and curse the man and take more notes.”
I can relate.
For about three years, I worked on a never-finished manuscript about my mother’s family. While I went back and forth, for part of the time I wrote it as a fictionalization, so I made up new names for all my relatives. To help, I consulted a family genealogy book called The Descendants of Robert Kay. Robert Kay was my great-(x7 or 8)-grandfather on the side of my mother’s mother’s mother’s mother, one Miss Viola Verona Kay King (pictured: one of her sons). Robert Kay was himself a wealthy, slave-owning cotton farmer in the 18th century. The first few pages of the book tell about how he came to Anderson County, South Carolina (where my mother grew up) from Virginia.
All sides of my family have lived in the South as far back as anyone can trace. But it’s one thing to figure that my ancestors probably owned slaves, and quite another to see a list like the one unceremoniously provided on page 9 of The Descendants of Robert Kay. Here’s an excerpt from the inventory of his property up for sale:
One Girl Silvia seven years of age $250.00
One Girl Winifred five years of age 150.00
One Girl Delilah 80.00
One Large Iron Pot 5.00
One ditto 3.00
One Pot and Skillet 3.00
One kittle, frying pan, and three pairs of pot hooks 2.75
I couldn’t possibly know if reading such a thing affects me differently than it does you. In other words, whether the fact that this is in my family makes any difference in how I conceive of this most abominable list or the horrors it represents. Silvia. Winifred. (There are others: Cato, age 30, $500, Unity, 26, $400, Peter, 11, $350, Sarah, 10, $300, Charity, 8, $250.) I don’t know what it matters, this ancestral connection, inheritance even. Just that it matters.
In Palimpsest, Gore Vidal writes of the respective families of his maternal grandparents, Senator Thomas “Dah” Pryor Gore and Nina “Dot” Kay Gore: “The Gores belonged to the Party of the People; hence, populists…Since there were few blacks in north-central Mississippi, Gores have never been slave-holders, unlike Dot’s father’s family, the Kays of South Carolina.”
Indeed, Vidal is listed in The Descendants. So is Jimmy Carter, whom a little diagramming reveals to be my 6th cousin. Vidal writes,
Once a year the Kay family holds a family reunion in South Carolina. I’ve never gone to one, but a cousin writes to me from time to time. Apparently, that ill-starred president Jimmy Carter had a Kay grandmother, too, and so he and I are, according to the family’s vast Alamanach da Gotha of farmers and mechanicals, “fifth cousins twice removed,” whatever that means…I’ve never met him. I did send him a telegram after his failed helicopter strike at Teheran. I said that honor required him to resign. Had I known of our relationship–as close as that of Franklin to Theodore Roosevelt–I would have said “family honor.”…I am told that he proudly mentions T.P. Gore as his cousin. But there is no evidence that he has made similar claim in regard to me.
Consider this my similar claim in regard to both Vidal and Carter. If Vidal’s not above publicizing who his famous distant cousins are, neither am I.
According to Palimpsest, we Kay descendants have inherited, along with this legacy of slavery, a tendency toward alcoholism. This is borne out on my branch of the tree–old Viola Verona was known to drink whiskey the day long. But otherwise, I’m pretty sure my line of descent parted markedly from Vidal’s and Carter’s a ways back, at least in terms of fortune, given that Viola Verona married a poor sharecropper.
So I have this book, and I get angry and then take more notes. Seems pretty exemplary of what it is like to write–things, objects, artifacts, people hurt us, make us suffer, question, rage, but then we turn around and exploit them for our writing.
What is your source material?
Tags: william faulkner