Dr. Stephen Railton and Dr. John B. Padgett on Digital Yoknapatawpha

Pictured: A photo taken at the University of Virginia at one of the annual summer meetings of the team.
(From left to right: Lorie Watkins, Jennie Joiner, Erin Penner, Theresa Towner, Worthy Martin, Wm Faulkner, Chris Rieger, Steve Railton, Johannes Burgers, Jay Watson, Ben Robbins, John Corrigan, and John Padgett.)


FM: For those unfamiliar with Digital Yoknapatawpha (DY), can you explain its purpose along with what is available on the site? How does taking a digital approach to Faulkner—in the creation of DY—make him more accessible to modern readers?

SR: The project grew out of my other digital projects, especially the two on Faulkner (an electronic chronology of Absalom!, which was Flash-based and so currently unavailable, and Faulkner at Virginia, https://faulkner.lib.virginia.edu/). Seeing what the storage, search and display capabilities of electronic technology could do with the Yoknapatawpha fictions as a group seemed like a good next step. Because it’s so intertextual, “Yoknapatawpha” is already a kind of hypertext, and because it’s so impressive as an imaginative achievement it seemed to me that Faulkner’s art and digital humanities still had a lot to say, both to each other and about each other.

We’ve tried to develop DY as both a pedagogical and a scholarly resource. There’s no question that 21st century students have had a lot more practice with electronic media than with high Modernist texts, so we try to meet 21st-century students where they already are – that is, online – and use their fluencies to lead them into Faulkner’s world. Using our map and timeline of The Sound and the Fury, for example, allows a class to visualize how Benjy Compson moves around inside that fence in 1928 while his mind keeps jumping back and forth in time. With luck, DY can help them get past the first question every reader of the novel keeps asking – “what’s going on?” – to take up the more important question of “what does it mean?” – or, to use the word that, is both not-there in the title and always present in the text, “what does it signify?” Teachers will be glad to hear that one of the project’s goals has been making sure DY cannot be used as a substitute for the experience of reading Faulkner, but we’re doing all we can think of to make it a way to enhance that experience.

At the same time, while we don’t claim DY puts Faulkner’s 68 Yoknapatawpha fictions at your fingertips, our Location, Character and Event databases contain over a million searchable data points that scholars can use to follow up investigations into a broad range of critical topics, from the role of non-white characters to the textual moments that deal with environmental issues or the scenes of domestic violence.

JP: The way I normally explain DY to someone not familiar with it is that it is an attempt to map Faulkner: not just the places, but also the people and the events in his fiction. It stems, of course, from Faulkner’s own map of his apocryphal Yoknapatawpha County, and we have limited ourselves to just his works that are set, at least in part, in that county. There are only a handful of his stories and novels that aren’t associated with Yoknapatawpha—of his 19 novels, for instance, only five are not set in Yoknapatawpha—so that leaves a lot of fiction for us to “map.”

Interactive Yoknapatawpha maps: compare Faulkner’s own map to DY’s

For me, it grew also out of my earlier Faulkner website, William Faulkner on the Web, which I began when I was in graduate school at Ole Miss in 1995, mainly because the only other website on Faulkner in those days was one that seemed to me woefully incomplete. In that site, one thing I attempted was a hypertext glossary of Faulkner’s characters, essentially a compilation of all the characters in each work along with a brief bio and links to related characters and texts. That part of my site remains incomplete even all these years later because there are so many characters and character groups that it is almost impossible to keep track of them all. To me, that’s what is most enlightening about DY: its systematic approach to all the people and places in Faulkner’s fiction, including unnamed ones, and its exhaustive list of every event in those texts in which those people and places appear or are mentioned. This systematic approach allows for insights into these texts that are not as obvious when just reading them. It really highlights the care and precision, the genuine artistry, with which Faulkner approached his craft as a writer.

FM: How can users digitally interact and engage with Faulkner’s corpus in ways that transcend print culture? Are there limits to doing so, i.e. digitalizing “Yoknapatawpha”? What are some challenges that DY faces/has faced?

SR: At the digital heart of the project are those databases, which contain text-based entries for over 2500 locations, almost 5000 characters and about 8500 events. Each textual event is unique, of course, but Faulkner’s recurrent use of places and people in multiple texts is one of the defining characteristics of “Yoknapatawpha,” and DY also includes the fullest index of all the characters and as far as we know the only index of all the locations in the fictions, so you can see which ones recur and how they evolve across the course of his career. One reward for those of us who have been building the project for the last decade is learning to locate each of the texts in time, that is, discovering how Faulkner kept re-creating his world over the decades, as his artistic and moral preoccupations changed. A great example of this process are the 150 or so family trees that display the county’s 11 major families as they morph over time. Genealogies are a staple of Faulkner scholarship, and we gratefully acknowledge our debts to the earlier scholars who made them; but a print – i.e. static – genealogy of a family like the McCaslins cannot capture the complexities of Faulkner’s ongoing revisions of the family’s history over 22 stories and novels.

The McCaslin family tree is only a bit complex!

Reconceptualizing the texts visually as text maps, heat maps, force-directed graphs and other forms of dynamic, interactive visualization is a core component of our project. But DY also contains ancillary materials like manuscripts, audio files, illustrations, photographs, and so on. One of the wonderful (and for those of us who’ve been seduced by its possibilities, the terrifying) things about virtual reality is that there is no obvious limit to how much an online resource can include.

FM: What initially inspired DY? With the rise of digital humanities and the digitization of archival resources, it seems that few are as interactive and as rich as your project. That being said, are there plans to add or expand the site, or ideas you believe would enrich a user’s experience?

SR: Thanks for your compliment; as Mark Twain said, we can stand considerable petting!  The short answer to your question is: DY is still very much a work in progress. There’s a lot more to do, for example, with the “Teaching & Learning” section, giving teachers help navigating the resource and opening new digital pathways into Faulkner for their students.  The Yoknapatawpha fictions are still in copyright, but we hope someday to give users direct access to Faulkner’s texts through, say, the Events database. And we’re still trying to figure out how to bring Yoknapatawpha into direct conversation with Lafayette, the real Mississippi county on which Faulkner’s mythical one is based. For example, it should be possible to map the way his world does and doesn’t reflect the racial and socio-economic demographics of the real one over the same decades depicted in the fictions. I’ll stop there, but the list of things we still hope to try keeps getting longer, not shorter. And we are always open to suggestions from users about what they’d like to see . . .

JP: I’ll second what Steve says, and one benefit in recent years—after we had done a lot of the drudge work of just getting the site started in the first years of the project—is that we can now begin to think about additional features and applications. I lived in Faulkner’s hometown Lafayette County for 12 years, for instance, and I saw in person many of the real-life landmarks that in some way inspired or are featured in his fiction: there are obvious ones, like the Confederate monument on the courthouse square, for example, but a whole host of lesser ones. For instance, there is Yellow Leaf, the name of both a creek and a beautiful old country church high on a ridgeline in southeastern Lafayette County that becomes “Whiteleaf,” a community, church, and creek, in his fiction. One recent thing we’ve added to DY are historical photographs of Faulkner’s Mississippi, which provide examples of what the world he depicted looked like; when a photo’s specific location is known, we place it on a real-life map of Mississippi, thus adding more ways to visualize the real world that was a source for the fictional world.

Like Steve, I also would like more ways to link our project with the actual texts. As long as they are under copyright, we can’t do that directly in a free website, but without having to wait until all these texts enter the public domain, I’m hopeful that at some point, we can work out some compromise in which entire texts are in the database (and thus searchable), but only portions can be accessed at any given time—much like copyrighted books can be searched now in Google Books. A similar arrangement would give our users a powerful tool to locate events in which specific words or phrases appear in Faulkner’s fiction and then view our commentary and keywords on those events along with each event’s associated people and places.

Civil War monument in Oxford, Mississippi (1936)

Also, I think it’s fair to say that everyone on the DY team has his or her own “wish list”  of things we’d like to see added to the site, and the way the site has expanded in the past few years offers a lot of potential for additional features, some of which we’ve already begun adding, like the aforementioned photographs. One item on my wish list might be called “The Animals of Yoknapatawpha,” which I see as a feature about the wide variety of animals depicted in the fiction but especially named animals: horses, dogs, mules, and so forth. In some cases, I would argue that animals rise to the level of actual characters in the fiction, as in the novel Go Down, Moses, but the constraints of the project did not allow us to list Ol’ Ben or Lion as characters.

FM: For many, The Sound and the Fury is characterized by its difficulty and linguistic disarray. With the sections themselves not placed in chronological order, it seems like an impossible feat to accurately and chronologically arrange the events in the novel. When I adjust the display controls for the Quentin section, I have the option to open a Complete Event Record. This breaks down several categories, such as aesthetics, cultural issues, and themes and motifs. I can even see the Narrative Status. For instance, I see that the Narrative Status of page 123 is “Remembered.” With this in mind, can you touch on how the DY team approached the concept of accuracy, or trying to best determine the presumed intent of Faulkner’s writing?

SR: I just looked at the data for the novel. We divide page 123 into 8 different “Events,” half of which are “Remembered.” (The others are “Narrated” and “Narrated+Consciousness.”) We try to let users know that DY is a re-presentation of Faulkner’s work, and a highly mediated one at that. The team of 3 dozen editors who worked on pulling Faulkner’s prose into those databases were of course constantly making editorial choices. If by “accuracy” you mean, Would every scholar analyze page 123 exactly as we do? then we’ll freely concede that our organizing assumptions and definitions (from “what is an ‘event’?” to “how many events are there on page 123?” and so on) are very much open to second-guessing. But we try to make those assumptions and definitions explicit. A related issue, and one I think you might mean by “accuracy,” is consistency – i.e. did every one of our team members follow the same coding practices when entering data? We worked really, really hard toward that goal, but I know it remained aspirational rather than achieved. In the end, DY has to succeed or fail as a critical project the same way other forms of literary criticism do: is it useful? is it persuasive? do the texts themselves seem to support the interpretive acts on which our project is based?  I think all digital humanities work is essentially an experiment, and I honestly don’t claim to know how the experiment will turn out.

One of the 8 events from page 123 of The Sound and the Fury, as DY represents the text. 

JP: We try to make clear that our commentaries are interpretive exercises, and that a different set of scholars approaching the same material might come up with different interpretations. But as Steve says, we have tried very hard to be consistent in how we approach these texts, and I can confirm that we have met repeatedly in person and online over the years, and exchanged many, many group emails in which as a team we try to reach consensus on some particular point of contention: these can include things like the date during which a particular event occurred or the class or status of a particular character. For some of these issues, we had to make what amounts to a “best guess” based on the available information in the texts or in relevant historical information about the time and place being depicted.

Obviously, some users may question the interpretations within the project, and as I say, even within the project team are some disagreements in conclusions reached. However, the potential for disagreement is true of scholarly criticism in general, and when dealing with fictions created over a writing career spanning more than 30 years, including some blatant contradictions to both internal and external, or “actual,” history, I am often amazed at how consistent we have been in DY. The raw material of Faulkner’s novels and short stories is at times highly inconsistent, as in his depiction of Native American characters, or in events that he re-works for other novels or stories. I think here of the disclaimer Faulkner added to the beginning of The Mansion, the third and final volume of the so-called Snopes trilogy, in which he admits that over the 34 years he’d been writing this particular story, there were more “discrepancies and contradictions” that he had found than he hoped readers would notice. Faulkner finishes the disclaimer by saying he now knows “more about the human heart and its dilemma” than he did 34 years earlier, and “having lived with them that long time, he knows the characters in this chronicle better than he did then.” I like to think something similar is true of the DY team: Many of us have lived with these characters and texts for more than 10 years now in our work for the project, and so I think it’s fair to say we know them pretty well by now.

FM: I entirely agree that accuracy is both unattainable and impossible; I really like the emphasis on “consistency,” which I noticed when browsing through the different computational findings of various pages of The Sound and the Fury. To continue with how the text is analyzed—using page 123 of The Sound and the Fury—the themes and motifs found on that page are broken down into categories, like Futility, Meaning, Memory, Morals, Philosophical, and Recurring Tropes. Then, more particular phrases are allotted to those categories. For example, I can see that the “illusion of success or victory” is unique to the Futility sub-category of Themes and Motifs. (My favorite on this page is one of the Recurring Tropes: Themes and Motifs:Recurring Tropes:Father said.) To address the topic of consistency (rather than accuracy) more narrowly, how are particular words and phrases found throughout the Quentin section categorized?

SR: You’re referring to the Event Keywords we’ve been entering, as one of the ways DY might be useful: by trying to tag, for example, every instance of the various tropes that occur in multiple texts. “Father said” is one of 74 “Themes and Motifs>Recurring Tropes” we code for, along with “Belatedness,” “Dark house,” “Trying to say,” and so on. Recurring Tropes is one of 29 categories in Themes and Motifs, which itself is one of 6 broader categories. One of my own favorites is Environment>Time of Day>Twilight, which according to the keywording we’ve done to date is a significant element in 57 different Events across the canon. We developed the list of categories and individual keywords as a team over several years, and have been entering them for several more. As you can tell from this small sample of numbers, it’s a huge task, which will prove itself when – or if! – other Faulkner scholars and students make use of them. The indexed Keywords can’t tell anyone what to say, for instance, about Twilight as a pervasive Faulknerian motif, but they can point you to the texts and passages you can consider if you want to write an essay on that topic. Here too, we can say we’ve tried hard to do this coding work accurately and consistently, but there’s no question that we haven’t been able to do that perfectly. As I’ve said elsewhere, though, one of our consolations working on the project is the high regard in which Faulkner himself held the idea of failure.

Mapped: mentions of and instances occurring during twilight in The Sound and the Fury 

 

JP: I was the DY editor who made the first pass for our second-generation keywords for The Sound and the Fury, so your mention of page 123 does invoke a bit of déjà-vu for me. In our earliest commentaries for the site, each team came up with a list of keywords for each event, but without any real attempt at consistency. That changed with our second attempt at keywording events, which we tried to make more consistent by considering six broad categories of keywords for each event and then getting progressively more specific with second- and third-level keywords. Applying keywords in DY is essentially a very slow reading of a novel or story, considering each event and how elements in it can be applied within each of the six broad categories.

In Quentin’s section, to return to the points you raised in your question, an event can range anywhere from several pages to just a few words because of the fragmented nature of his narrative. But regardless of the actual length of each event, the thing that struck me most as I did keywords for this novel, and for this section in particular, was just how much was going on in each event. Quentin is one of Faulkner’s most complicated characters, and in keywording his section, I tried to capture the multiplicity of his emotional and mental states: he spends the entire section carefully planning and contemplating his suicide, for instance, but he is also remembering, or in some ways reliving, past interactions with his father, his sister Caddie, and others from back home, and he is simultaneously interacting with a whole range of other characters, both friends and strangers, during his present-day travels on his last day. He also is struggling with his ideas about honor, trying to make sense of his sister’s sexual promiscuity, and when he turns to his father for answers, he finds an even deeper nihilism and cynicism than he is willing to accept. Over the course of the day’s events, Quentin cycles through all of these emotional states, and many more, and our keywords try to capture the fullness of all of Quentin’s thoughts and feelings.

It’s also worth noting that DY’s keywords try to capture as well characteristics beyond just mental or emotional states; these are just some of the most obvious areas to keyword that come to mind for Quentin. Faulkner’s stream-of-consciousness style, for instance, provides lots of techniques and narrative styles that fall under the broad category of “aesthetics.”

FM: Has there been a particular work of Faulkner’s that has been the most difficult to make interactive with users? If so, which text and why?

SR: Let me give credit to the technologists at the University of Virginia who have worked alongside the scholars over the years to develop our programming. UVA’s Institute for Advanced Technology deserves a special medal for all the work they’ve done. DH projects take a village; all our participating technologists are listed at the DY credits page.

Almost all Faulkner’s works present real challenges. Some challenges – like Faulkner’s pervasive narrative indeterminacy and perspectivism, say – are always there.  Some – like the difficulty reconciling the journey of the Bundrens in As I Lay Dying with either of Faulkner’s own maps, or the date of the events in Intruder in the Dust – are particularly steep with particular texts. But in all cases, we provide a Note on the Text in which we fess up about the extent to which we are basing our maps and chronologies on our own educated but fallible judgments.

FM: The Manuscripts &c. portion of DY is arguably unparalleled in how manuscripts and typescripts are both digitized, transcribed, and explained to users. Steve, I’ve cited you in several of my writings that use Faulkner’s manuscripts. For some typescripts that the Alderman Library provided me with, there were many words and phrases that I couldn’t transcribe, even when I returned to them weeks later. What was your experience in transcribing and elucidating materials written in Faulkner’s own hand?

SR: The only person I ever met who could simply read Faulkner’s handwriting was Noel Polk, and I’m sure it took him decades to get to that point. I’ve been at this for a dozen or so years, and I still struggle much of the time, especially when Faulkner deploys his own system of abbreviating words. Thank goodness we have options like broken brackets and <illegible> to indicate the places were a transcribing gives way to speculating or to indecipherability. I started working on the manuscripts wondering who on earth he got to type up his manuscripts. I should have realized he had to do that himself, and should not have been surprised when he admitted that even he couldn’t always read what he’d written.  Before I retired from teaching, I used to love showing students the difference between Walt Whitman’s grandiose, sprawling handwriting and William Faulkner’s meticulous, minuscule script. One of my deep misgivings about electronic technology is the fact that, as authors increasingly write on laptops and pads, future generations will have sparser records of the compositional ferment out of which great literature comes.

In Railton’s words, this shows “the way Benjy’s section begins in the manuscript. ‘Twilight’ is the title Faulkner chose for what he intended as a short story, before the story grew into a novel.”

FM: I’ve voiced the same concern regarding technology, as it’s difficult to wonder how scholars can attempt to understand the process of writing a text. It’s, now, impossible for me to understand The Sound and the Fury in the ways that I do if extant typescripts, manuscripts, holographs, etc. didn’t exist. So, how does working with archival materials play into your overall understanding and/or appreciation of a text? Is there anything we would be surprised to learn about Faulkner’s writing process or cut writings that were once placed in certain works?

SR: One really interesting case in point is the passage in the manuscript of “A Rose for Emily” in which Emily and her African American servant, Tobe, have a surprisingly open conversation about the secret of that decaying mansion that always shocks readers when they get to the end of the story. In DY you can see the passage, which appears in both the autograph manuscript and Faulkner’s own typescript but not in the text as published in Forum magazine, and decide for yourself how different the story, and even Faulkner’s early treatment of race and interracial relations, would be if the passage hadn’t somehow, by someone, been cut.

JP: I agree about the excised Tobe sections of “A Rose for Emily”; a textbook I used years ago actually included those typescript pages as part of a “casebook” on this story, and we often had very fruitful class discussions about why Faulkner chose to cut that passage from the final version of the story. I am glad that DY is able to make this typescript version of “A Rose for Emily” conveniently available to teachers and students who wish to read and discuss it.

FM: Now, lastly, I have to ask you both which of Faulkner’s works you either enjoy reading or teaching the most!

SR: For me, The Sound and the Fury.

JP: It’s hard to say for sure, since the experience of teaching Faulkner can differ markedly each time, but for me, Absalom, Absalom! is the novel I enjoy reading and teaching the most. I normally teach this novel in a Gothic Literature class, and it never fails to capture students’ attention, and every time I read it, I see or notice things that I had not seen before.

 


ABOUT

Stephen Railton taught American literature at the University of Virginia for almost 50 years before retiring in 2019. Much of that time he spent online, creating major digital humanities projects on Mark Twain, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and of course William Faulkner. He is still looking for the place in virtual reality where one can write “The End.”

John B. Padgett is an associate professor of English at Brevard College in North Carolina. While earning his PhD at the University of Mississippi in the 1990s, he created the first extensive website on Faulkner, William Faulkner on the Web, and The Mississippi Writers Page. He has been a collaborator on the Digital Yoknapatawpha project since its inception in 2011.


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