How Much Did the History of American Chattel Slavery Shape William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!?

W. Ralph Eubanks on the Connection Between Faulkner’s Fiction, His Longtime Home, and the University of Mississippi

William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! is not a novel known for its tidy plot or linear story line. The story of Thomas Sutpen and his sons Henry Sutpen and Charles Bon is told from multiple points of view, as well as from several perspectives in time, which makes it incredibly complex and layered. Yet underneath all these various narrative threads Absalom Absalom! tells a story of the intersection of race, identity, and history, since the novel’s characters and the story that unfolds around them is propelled by those forces. The issue of race turns up throughout the novel, whether it is in the slow reveal of Charles Bon’s one drop of Black blood or Sutpen’s racist behavior, which in time leads to the destruction of his family.

Questions of identity arise with the character of Charles Bon, who looks completely white, lacks even the “parchment colored” skin of his mother, attends the University of Mississippi—where Blacks were forbid-den until 1962—and volunteers for the University Greys, a part of the Army of the Confederacy. Bon even tells Henry Sutpen, “if you haven’t got honor and pride, then nothing matters,” even though one could argue that his desire to be a cosmopolitan white gentleman and to deny his African ancestry shows both a lack of both honor and pride. If American Blackness—not merely as a racialized category, but as a cultural, political, and economic identity—has a history that is largely southern, Charles Bon’s denial of his Blackness and his embrace of whiteness is also southern in its origin, with the one-drop rule used as the ultimate means of social control, determining who was enslaved and who could be free. But it is history that drives the narrative of Absalom, Absalom! In this novel, history is about the impact of choices and the cycle that history creates, a cycle that can be difficult, if not impossible, to escape.

Although Absalom, Absalom! is a novel driven by history, its primary character, Thomas Sutpen, arrives in Jefferson, Mississippi, as a man with no history: “a man who so far as anyone . . . knew either had no past at all or did not dare reveal it—a man who rode into town from out of nowhere.” Sutpen, through his son Henry, seeks to create a history for himself yet fails to realize how the past is not so easily discarded. So while this narrative is about the cycle history creates, it is also about the ghosts of history—particularly the ghosts of Thomas Sutpen’s history—and how those ghosts cannot be escaped.

An essential part of any writer’s toolkit in constructing a narrative is to withhold and gradually reveal information. In Absalom, Absalom! Faulkner slowly unspools the story of Thomas Sutpen and his family to keep the reader engaged with this complex allegory of the South and to build tension in the novel’s nonlinear narrative. This same technique is now driving a new story about Faulkner, his home of Rowan Oak, and the University of Mississippi. As the story begins to unfold, a closer connection between Faulkner’s fiction, his longtime home, and the university becomes apparent. Absalom, Absalom!, as well as a few historical documents, is helping this connection come into closer focus.

Yet underneath all these various narrative threads Absalom Absalom! tells a story of the intersection of race, identity, and history, since the novel’s characters and the story that unfolds around them is propelled by those forces.

When Faulkner purchased Rowan Oak in 1930, he purchased a property with direct links to slavery and to the story of the University of Mississippi. Robert Sheegog, the original owner of Rowan Oak, was an early settler in Oxford, Mississippi, as well as a merchant, cotton producer, and slaveowner. Payment records from the 1840s in the archives of the University of Mississippi indicate that Sheegog, along with other local slaveowners, loaned slaves to the university. The university records characterize the use of slaves as “servant hires,” slaves who would have labored to build the university, which was founded in 1848. Of the eight enslaved individuals living at Rowan Oak in 1860, records indicate the first names of six: Simon, George, Dave, Lila, Frances, Phillis. Records also include a runaway slave ad dated August 9, 1845, and posted by Sheegog for “George” (a slave name that is also included in the 1860 probate documents for Rowan Oak).

It is difficult to say whether Faulkner gained any literary inspiration for Absalom, Absalom! from his knowledge that slaves once housed on the grounds of the home he then occupied helped construct the University of Mississippi. In the early twentieth century the prevailing cultural view was that slavery was a relatively benign institution, even one that led to civilizing slaves by lifting them from the barbarism of Africa. It was not until the 1933 publication of Charles Sydnor’s Slavery in Mississippi that historians began to question what slavery as an institution did to slaves. Sydnor was a faculty member of the University of Mississippi at the time of the publication of his book, and pioneering African American historian Carter G. Woodson admitted in an unsigned review in the Journal of Negro History—after questioning whether whites could write about Negroes without bias—that the author “apparently endeavored to write with restraint and care, but he does not adhere to this standard throughout the work.” While Sydnor outlined the cruelties of slavery in his text, he also still maintained the prevailing paternalistic view of the institution of slavery.

Sydnor’s Slavery in Mississippi drew on some of the same documents, including university faculty and trustee minutes, that are now being used to show the close relationship between the University of Mississippi and the economic and cultural institution of slavery. Whether Faulkner was aware of this at the time cannot be proven, yet it is important to note that the history of slavery was being debated at the university that is near his home around the time he was writing Absalom, Absalom! In fact, in a 1934 letter to his agent, Faulkner never mentions slavery as part of Absalom, Absalom!; instead he said the novel was meant to be “the story of a man who wanted a son through pride, and got too many of them and they destroyed him.”

In his outline of Absalom, Absalom!—which can be found in his papers at the University of Virginia—Faulkner notes facts about his characters and the shape of his narrative, and you can see how owning slaves was merely a component of Sutpen’s wealth. “Col. Sutpen, his daughter Judith, his son Henry. The family is well-to-do in land and slaves, but still provincial country aristocracy of that period: simple, honorable, proud, of good stock.” What this outline reveals is the influence of Faulkner’s work as a screenwriter, since it seems to be part narrative structure and part dramatis personae. So, for Faulkner, slavery was simply part of the architecture of the antebellum South. The story of any ambitious white man in the antebellum South involved the institution of slavery in one way or another.

In Absalom, Absalom! Faulkner slowly unspools the story of Thomas Sutpen and his family to keep the reader engaged with this complex allegory of the South and to build tension in the novel’s nonlinear narrative.

Yet Absalom, Absalom! is a novel about history, and it is the South’s history of slavery and miscegenation—and the shame sometimes associated with that history—that contributed to the destruction of the Sutpen family. Thomas Sutpen may be framed in the narrative as a man with no past, but he is actually a man with a hidden past, and Charles Bon stands as evidence of that past. Cleanth Brooks believed that Faulkner saw “the past as a living force in the present, a force that molds our sense of the present.” So the past can never be escaped.

That is why the narrative of Absalom, Absalom! is propelled by history’s ghosts, by what is hidden. Like the ghosts of history of the American South Faulkner confronts in Absalom, Absalom!, the history of American universities is tied to the institution of slavery, which once only had a ghostlike presence but now is real and present. Given Faulkner’s belief that the past is a living force in the present, slavery at the University of Mississippi is something that we must now examine in its connection with the narrative of Absalom, Absalom! At the University of Mississippi, as well as at Harvard, where Quentin Compson tells the story of the Sutpen family to his Canadian roommate, Shreve McCannon, slavery was used to raise buildings, maintain campuses, and enhance institutional wealth. As Craig Steven Wilder notes in his book Ebony & Ivy—a study of the intertwined history of slavery, race, and higher education—American colleges and universities also “trained the personnel and cultivated the ideas that accelerated and legitimated the dispossession of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans. Modern slavery required the acquiescence of scholars and the cooperation of academic institutions.”

The connection between Faulkner’s fiction and the slaves who helped  build the University of Mississippi helps us see a new narrative that is evolving about Faulkner, slavery, and the University of Mississippi. In particular, the direct link between Faulkner’s Rowan Oak and a group of slaves that constructed the University of Mississippi evokes questions about how Faulkner constructed the relationship between Charles Bon and Henry Sutpen in Absalom, Absalom!, a relationship that has the University of Mississippi as a backdrop. Whether or not Faulkner had knowledge of the connections between the University of Mississippi and slavery, this new narrative twist makes us look at this relationship—as well as its historical context—in a new light. As noted earlier, Faulkner famously withheld information to propel his narratives.

But a reading of Absalom, Absalom! alongside historical records from the University of Mississippi and Rowan Oak leads to the question of whether Faulkner constructed historical parallels in his narrative that we are only now able to see through new historical evidence, particularly since it has only been in the last 25 years that we have begun to realize that American colleges and universities were not passive beneficiaries of the institution of slavery.

A few scholars who have examined the role of slavery in the narrative of Absalom, Absalom! approach it in light of Sutpen’s voyage to Haiti and the Haitian-born slaves whom he brings back with him to help construct Sutpen’s Hundred. In the Mississippi Quarterly Sean Latham notes that Haiti is often viewed as an intersection between Black Africa and white America, which might be why Sutpen’s Haitian slaves are constantly referred to as “wild” rather than as stereotypical docile slaves, wildness being associated with Africanness. This in some ways separates the character of Sutpen from the American institution of slavery as well as from the way slavery operated in Jefferson, where he builds his plantation. Rosa Coldfield even remembers Sutpen’s face as “exactly like the negro’s save for the teeth (this because of his beard, doubtless).”

Although his face may be the same as a Black man’s—and he is known to wrestle and fight with his slaves—in no way does Sutpen see himself as a part of the origins of the American South. In fact, what Faulkner is saying here is that Sutpen’s power may be conflated with his skin color, which in the broader society renders him superior, but his powers and desires are more primal and mercurial. White supremacy may drive certain aspects of Sutpen’s life, but there is more under the surface that makes him the man he is. Faulkner is asking the reader to see the complexities of Sutpen, because a complex character helps enliven a story.

The connection between Faulkner’s fiction and the slaves who helped  build the University of Mississippi helps us see a new narrative that is evolving about Faulkner, slavery, and the University of Mississippi.

In his 1956 interview with Jean Stein for the Paris Review, Faulkner, answering a question about what he felt were the secrets of a good story, responded not by focusing exclusively on character but by saying, “a story usually begins with a single idea or memory or mental picture. The writing of the story is simply a matter of working up to that moment, to explain why it happened or what it caused to follow. A writer is trying to create believable people in credible moving situations in the most moving way he can. Obviously he must use as one of his tools the environment which he knows.”

While Faulkner may not have traveled to Haiti or have known about the slaves used for the construction of the University of Mississippi, he knew his environment. And it is well known that he used his environment to construct his stories. Faulkner used the South and his native soil as a lens through which to view the world, which included stories that were part of local lore. With the American South being an oral culture, it is likely that he knew of the University of Mississippi’s use of slaves who once lived at Rowan Oak through stories related to him by local people or even from records he found at Rowan Oak. Just as Quentin Compson passes on the story of Thomas Sutpen and his family to Shreve McCannon on that chilly evening in 1910 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, someone may have relayed to Faulkner the historical stories that are part of Absalom, Absalom!—a history that would have been part of the very place where he wrote the novel—that we now find in documents and records.

Sutpen’s story may relate to Rowan Oak, but there is also overlap between that story and the founding of the University of Mississippi. Henry Sutpen and Charles Bon both arrive at the University of Mississippi in 1857, just nine years after its founding in 1848. When both men arrive at the University of Mississippi, according to Faulkner’s timeline, fifty-five slaves were listed as the property of faculty and staff of the university.11 Between Bon’s arrival in 1857 and his trip home to Sutpen’s Hundred with Henry for Christmas in 1859, university records show two payments for the use of slaves: $200 to Robert Sheegog on January 1, 1857, and $400 on May 10, 1858, to Jacob Thompson, who owned the Homeplace plantation directly across what is now called Old Taylor Road from Rowan Oak. In today’s dollars, those amounts are equivalent to $5,000 and $10,000 respectively, so this was not an insignificant payment. Moreover, the question remains as to how the cost of “hiring” the slaves was calculated. At the University of Virginia, for example, the cost was calculated based on the amount it cost to feed and maintain the slaves for the contracted period.12 University of Mississippi records, however, do not indicate how the costs were calculated.

While it may be purely coincidental that the dates of the use of slaves at the university overlap with the story Faulkner tells in Absalom, Absalom!, Faulkner uses a larger, better-known historical parallel that is again linked to the records of the University of Mississippi: the founding of its Civil War regiment, the University Greys. In 1861, when Charles Bon and Henry Sutpen join the University Greys to fight for the Confederacy, faculty meeting records indicate that the university only had four students “in readiness to attend lectures,” and the university administration decided to proceed with classes in spite of the sparse student count. Further, the chancellor states, “the continuance of the war kept most of the old students with the army, and made it very difficult for the parents of others to procure money with which to send their sons to the University.” By the end of the term, the University of Mississippi closed, not to reopen until after the end of the Civil War in 1865.

Today, the University of Mississippi has a visible monument to the University Greys for their service to the Confederacy in the Civil War, and in many ways the campus itself stands as a silent monument to slavery. Faulkner probably knew how entangled with slavery his home at Rowan Oak was, and in turn with the university that stands just a half mile from his home. And while those entanglements may not have been spoken of directly, they are symbolically part of the narrative. Charles Bon, with his divided sense of self, is the symbol of those entanglements.

While it may be purely coincidental that the dates of the use of slaves at the university overlap with the story Faulkner tells in Absalom, Absalom!, Faulkner uses a larger, better-known historical parallel that is again linked to the records of the University of Mississippi.

Bon, a University of Mississippi student whose ancestors were once slaves, symbolizes the role of slavery in the founding of the university—and Faulkner’s acknowledgment of that connection—in Absalom, Absalom! A man with the singularity of purpose that Charles Bon has would certainly know that he left his elite status behind when he left Louisiana for Mississippi, yet he chose to place himself at an institution that was built by slaves. In turn, he decides to cloak himself in whiteness, to ingratiate himself to aristocratic young men (or young men with such aspirations) like Henry Sutpen, and in time to fight for the Confederacy in defense of slavery. As Mr. Compson tells the story of Charles Bon and the sway he held over both Judith and Henry Sutpen, he speaks of Bon as being like “a few old mouth-to-mouth tales” or like “letters without salutation or signature” that “we exhume from old trunks and boxes and drawers,” letters “in which men and women who once lived and breathed are now merely initials or nicknames out of some now incomprehensible affection.” Judith, Bon, Henry, and Sutpen are “like a chemical formula exhumed along with the letters from that forgotten chest” that “you re-read . . . again and again,” trying to connect them without “miscalculation.”

But Charles Bon and his racial passing are that miscalculation. Bon’s decision to present himself as a white man, rather than follow his legal racial classification in Mississippi, is his way of exacting revenge on the very society that would oppress him. Bon represents the sins of slavery, since miscegenation is emblematic of those sins. Rather than taking on the role of the tragic mixed-race figure, Bon seeks to become the righteous avenger, only to have his mixed-race identity lead to his death. When Bon says to Henry, “So it’s the miscegenation, not the incest, which you cant bear,” Henry does not answer. By not answering, the message is that race is the prevailing issue in Bon’s intended marriage to Judith Sutpen, not the fact that she is his half-sister.

In Absalom, Absalom! Faulkner shows the historical past and socially determined systems of events as the substance of his narrative. Although these newfound historical documents that stand in parallel with Faulkner’s narrative may not have directly informed Faulkner’s fiction, they serve as a metanarrative that informs a reading of the text. They tell their own story, while at the same time informing the reading of Faulkner’s text.

These historical documents inform the reader of the knowledge and experience of the characters in Absalom, Absalom!, particularly Charles Bon and Henry Sutpen. While the narrative is largely concerned with familial tensions between the two men, readers should not lose sight of the fact that their relationship is shaped in an institution built on the economics of slavery. During their time at the University of Mississippi, the institution assessed each student $5 per semester for “servant hire”—a euphemism for slaves—thus perpetuating the institution of slavery among the sons of the landed aristocracy. Students were taught Albert Taylor Bledsoe’s anti-abolitionist tract Essay on Liberty and Slavery, which promoted the idea that “God sanctioned slavery among the Hebrews” and hence “God sanctions slavery for all men at all times” to provide the philosophical underpinnings of the economic system the university supported. Both of these historical parallels reinforce Faulkner’s larger idea, which he reveals through Thomas Sutpen’s struggles with his sons, of how the racial lines created by the South are the region’s unbridgeable social and cultural divide.

In today’s society, as well as in Faulkner’s time, the biggest problem we face is the rationalization of slavery in a nation built on freedom. Although slavery ended more than a hundred years ago, the rationalization of slavery remains in the form of racism. In Absalom, Absalom!, Faulkner constructed a novel that shows the dangers of racism and its destructive power, with Sutpen as the central object lesson. Most important, the actions of Faulkner’s characters and the way they move through the world—particularly Charles Bon—reveal how race is a social and political construction.

In Absalom, Absalom! Faulkner shows the historical past and socially determined systems of events as the substance of his narrative.

We may never know whether Faulkner had direct knowledge of the slaves who once inhabited Rowan Oak or whether they directly affected the narrative shape of Absalom, Absalom! But we do know that Faulkner’s novels emphasize not only the presence of the past but also the value of endurance. Absalom, Absalom! is a novel about how the past endures and how, when that past is not confronted constructively, it can be destructive.

In the final lines of Absalom, Absalom! Faulkner speaks for himself about the strange tensions of the past, and I believe of race and the legacy of slavery. “Why do you hate the South?” Shreve asks Quentin. “I dont hate it,” Quentin replies. “I dont! I dont hate it! I dont hate it!” History casts a pall over Quentin Compson, and we know that his suicide haunts the ending with its ghostly presence even as he is very much alive. This speaks to the reason Absalom, Absalom! continues to take on new meaning and significance: Faulkner’s work has always had inherent in it a tension between the history of the characters and actual historic events. Historical events are seen as metaphor, while the character’s history is viewed as the real thing. In these newly discovered documents relating to slavery and the University of Mississippi, we see how Faulkner blurred the lines between historical events and fictional narrative. Now we can see, both in fact and in fiction, how history creates a cycle that can be difficult to escape.


Faulkner and Slavery

“Faulkner, Slavery, and the University of Mississippi” by W. Ralph Eubanks in Faulkner and Slavery edited by Jay Watson and James G. Thomas, Jr., Reprinted with permission of University Press of Mississippi, Copyright © 2021 by University Press of Mississippi. All rights reserved.

W. Ralph Eubanks
W. Ralph Eubanks
W. Ralph Eubanks is author of Ever Is a Long Time and The House at the End of the Road. He has also contributed articles and reviews to the Chicago Tribune, Preservation, The Hedgehog Review, The American Scholar, Time, The Wall Street Journal, WIRED, The New Yorker, and NPR. He is a recipient of a 2007 Guggenheim Fellowship and has been a fellow at the New America Foundation. Eubanks lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and three children, and is currently visiting professor of Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi in Oxford.

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