Not a fragment, not quite a finished work, Father Abraham is the brilliant beginning of a novel which William Faulkner tried repeatedly to write, for a period of almost a decade and a half, during the earlier part of his career—the novel about the Snopes family which he finally completed and published as The Hamlet in 1940.
The twenty-four-page manuscript of Father Abraham here first published is apparently the earliest surviving attempt at this Snopes novel. Probably written late in 1926, by early 1927 it had been abandoned for another novel, Flags in the Dust, which Faulkner went on to complete later that year, and which was published in a much-edited and cut-down version, entitled Sartoris, in 1929.
But the unfinished Snopes novel continued to plague him. He made further efforts to write it in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, trying different titles (‘Abraham’s Children,’ ‘The Peasants’), making short stories out of episodes he had planned or drafted for the novel (‘Centaur in Brass,’ ‘Wash’), even making large parts of entire novels, like As I Lay Dying and Absalom, Absalom!, out of the ideas and materials that had originally belonged to the Snopes book. When he finished writing The Hamlet, one of his longest novels, he still had so much material remaining that he planned at least two more books about the Snopeses, though it was not till late in his career that he finally got around to writing The Town (1957) and The Mansion (1959). And in 1964, two years after his death, all three volumes of the trilogy were brought out together, as he had wished, with the title Snopes.
Father Abraham, then, marks the inception of a work that altogether spans nearly the whole of Faulkner’s career as a writer of fiction, a work that includes some of his best writing and which, as it evolved, had profound effects upon much of the rest of it. After Father Abraham, no matter what other novels and stories he turned to, Faulkner’s Snopeses would be a vital part of what he called the ‘lumber room’ of his imagination, and the completion of their saga would be one of his major ambitions—or obligations—as an artist.
Why, then, did he for so long leave Father Abraham unfinished—at least as a novel? Surely he felt no dissatisfaction with what he had already written—the introduction of Flem Snopes and his tribe, and the magnificent tale of the auction of the wild Texas range ponies which he used in his 1931 short story ‘Spotted Horses,’ and so much of which he carried over directly into The Hamlet, almost a decade later. But changes in his original conception of the Snopeses, and the need to expand the scope as well as the size of their book, obviously caused Faulkner problems which he had great difficulty in resolving.
One problem may have been the need to outgrow an influence, or at least to achieve a certain amount of distance from it. All three volumes of the trilogy were dedicated by Faulkner to his early friend and mentor Phil Stone, a lawyer and fellow-townsman in Oxford, Mississippi with whom, in the 1920’s, he worked up many of the characters and incidents that eventually went into The Hamlet and The Town. Though the two friends parted ways later on, at the beginning of Faulkner’s career they were very close, and it is clear that Stone’s ideas were still important to Faulkner at the time Father Abraham was begun.
In a 1957 letter, Stone recalled that the idea for the Snopeses, and their book, had been his, and that he had given it to Faulkner after Mosquitoes (his second novel, published in April 1927) was written but before the writing of Sartoris. ‘The core of the Snopes legend,’ explained Stone, was ‘that the real revolution in the South was not the race situation but the rise of the redneck, who did not have any of the scruples of the old aristocracy, to places of power and wealth.’ And he recalled that ‘Bill once wrote fifteen or twenty pages on the idea of the Snopes trilogy which he entitled ‘Father Abraham’ but I think that has disappeared.’ Stone’s recollection seems accurate, both for the date and for his own attitude, at least, towards the lowly origins of the Snopeses. In a piece he wrote early in 1927, for the local paper, announcing the forthcoming publication of Mosquitoes, he mentioned a Faulkner novel in progress which, he said, ‘is something of a saga of an extensive family connection of typical “poor white trash” and is said by those who have seen that part of the manuscript completed to be the funniest book anybody ever wrote.”
At the time he wrote Father Abraham, Faulkner’s attitude towards the Snopeses was very near to Stone’s, and he probably shared to some extent Stone’s aristocratic condescension towards ‘rednecks’ and ‘poor white trash.’ But the creator of Will Varner and V. K. Suratt, or even of Eck Snopes, already possessed a much broader, more sympathetic view of human nature and society than did Stone, and in order to go on from Father Abraham to The Hamlet, Faulkner had to go far beyond the friend who had originally contributed so much to the idea of the Snopeses and their book.
Behind the immediate influence of Phil Stone’s ideas, and the Snopeslore the two men invented in yarnspinning sessions, lay a wealth of experience and reading Faulkner could draw on in creating the Snopeses and their neighbors and their book. In the memoir of Faulkner that his brother John wrote, he recalled an occasion (Faulkner’s biographer, Joseph Blotner, assigns it the date 1922) when William was helping their Uncle John Falkner, Jr. in his campaign for a District Court judgeship.
“Bill was sitting on the front porch of the boardinghouse late that evening when some men brought in a string of calico ponies wired together with barbed wire. They put them in a lot just across the road from the boardinghouse and the next morning auctioned them off, at prices ranging from about five dollars apiece on up.
Just like in Bill’s story, the men sold all the horses, put the money in their pockets and left. When the buyers went in to get their purchases, someone left the gate open and those ponies spread like colored confetti over the countryside.
Bill sat there on the porch of the boardinghouse and saw it all. One of them ran the length of the porch and he had to dive back into the hallway to get out of its path. He and Uncle John told us about it the next day, when they got home.”
To such raw material Faulkner would soon be able to bring the literary skills he needed to make it into the substance of Father Abraham, into his own highly individual blend of realism and comedy—comedy constantly threatening to turn into tragedy and always inclining towards myth. In New Orleans, in 1925, Faulkner came to know Sherwood Anderson, whose Winesburg, Ohio and Horses and Men the younger writer particularly admired, and with whom he invented tall tales of the Al Jackson family, descended from Andrew Jackson and ‘no longer half-horse half-alligator but by now half-man half-sheep and presently half-shark,’ as Faulkner recalled in 1953. Some of the Al Jackson material made its way into Mosquitoes and its influence upon the conception of the Snopeses is obvious. Earlier literary antecedents abounded, in an earlier America, especially in the South. In Constance Rourke’s American Humor she describes such material and what was done with it by other writers:
“Scalawags, gamblers, n’er-do-wells, small rapscallions, or mere corncrackers were drawn into a careless net of stories, against a background of pine-barrens, sandy wastes, half-plowed fields, huts with leaky roofs. Their implements were rusty, their houses wall-eyed and spavined. They belonged to a rootless drift that had followed in the wake of huntsmen and scout, and they were not wholly different in kind. Sly instead of strong, they pursued uncharted ways, breaking from traditions, bent on triumph.…[The center of these stories was] Grotesquerie and irreverence and upset … caricature was drawn in a single line or phrase. ‘He drawed in the puckerin’-string ov that legil face of his’n,’ said Sut Lovingood of a sheriff.
We might recall that Faulkner knew and admired the book from which she quotes that description—George Washington Harris’s Sut Lovingood Yarns (1867), and the description itself recalls Father Abraham’s I.O. Snopes, with ‘his mean little features clotted in the middle of his face like the plucking gesture of a hand.”
Copyright © 2011 by William Faulkner. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.