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Book captures Faulkner’s world in photography

Cover of Yoknapatawpha book by George StewartWilliam Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County—the Southern setting for classic novels such as Absalom, Absalom!, As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury—is a fictional place, but as fictional places go it’s one of literature’s most enduring locales.

Faulkner based Yoknapatawpha on the northeast corner of Mississippi where he lived and worked, and while the land around Lafayette County (as it’s known in the real world) has changed significantly since Faulkner wrote about it in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, photographer George Stewart (MA librarianship ’67) was able to uncover some of the area’s hidden treasures for Yoknapatawpha, Images and Voices: A Photographic Study of Faulkner’s County (University of South Carolina Press, 2009).

The book combines 84 black-and-white photographs of Lafayette County and nearby areas with passages from Faulkner’s writing.

“Attempting to find tangible clues to [Faulkner’s] county can be exciting but also daunting, sometimes tentative and even misleading,” Stewart writes in his acknowledgements. “I hope, however, that my photographic study is not only about Faulkner’s private Mississippi but also a Faulknerian interpretation.”

Stewart’s footnoted commentary on the photos delves into the history of Lafayette County and the relationships between Yoknapatawpha and the real world.

Beneath a stark image of a cell door in an old Mississippi jail, for instance, is an excerpt from Faulkner’s Sanctuary about a prisoner singing to himself after the sun has set; below that Stewart writes that Faulkner “believed that a jail was ‘the true record’ of a county’s human history. He felt that the old Oxford (Jefferson) jail, built in 1871, had been carefully and tastefully constructed.”

Yoknapatawpha captures an all-but-vanished American South, from stately antebellum homes to ornate graveyards full of crumbling stones,ancient-looking stands of forest to humble church interiors. Stewart, a retired academic librarian who now lives in Georgia, took the photos between 1989 and 1999.

In his foreword, Robert Hamblin, director of the Center for Faulkner Studies in Cape Girardeau, Mo., writes that he finds Stewart’s book superior to previous volumes that attempted to capture Faulkner’s world in photos.

“Stewart’s work strikes me as more balanced, more comprehensive, and more consistent with Faulkner’s artistic design and purpose,” he writes. “… [T]he black and white photography seems perfectly suited to Faulkner’s somber, tragic vision.”

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