Faulkner's Inspiration

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Van Vechten Collection, reproduction number LC-USZ62-110952.Artistic inspiration is overrated as a subject of study, if you ask me. (And I say that as a Yale English major.) I understand the eager experience of reading a book and wondering where the ideas and characters came from, even sometimes rushing to an author's biography in search of clues. It's natural to assume that a story had to have been modeled closely on some real-life incident—how else could it have been so detailed and deeply felt?—when in reality the business of a novelist is to make shit up. Of course, writers mine their own lives for material all the time. But usually there's no smoking gun to connect an author directly with the object of his or her inspiration.
Well, according to the New York Times, someone just found a smoldering pistol tucked under William Faulkner's metaphorical bed.
The climactic moment in William Faulkner’s 1942 novel Go Down, Moses comes when Isaac McCaslin finally decides to open his grandfather’s leather farm ledgers with their “scarred and cracked backs” and “yellowed pages scrawled in fading ink” — proof of his family’s slave-owning past. Now, what appears to be the document on which Faulkner modeled that ledger as well as the source for myriad names, incidents and details that populate his fictionalized Yoknapatawpha County has been discovered....
     The original manuscript, a diary from the mid-1800s, was written by Francis Terry Leak, a wealthy plantation owner in Mississippi whose great-grandson Edgar Wiggin Francisco Jr. was a friend of Faulkner’s since childhood....

     Names of slaves owned by Leak — Caruthers, Moses, Isaac, Sam, Toney, Mollie, Edmund and Worsham — all appear in some form in Go Down, Moses. Other recorded names, like Candis (Candace in the book) and Ben, show up in The Sound and The Fury (1929) while Old Rose, Henry, Ellen and Milly are characters in Absalom, Absalom! (1936). Charles Bonner, a well-known Civil War physician mentioned in the diary, would also seem to be the namesake of Charles Bon in Absalom.

Faulkner evidently spent hours poring over this diary taking copious notes, and it's clear that it fired his imagination in untold ways. I'll confess to being intrigued to learn of its existence, and I bet scholars are salivating at the thought of reinterpreting Faulkner's entire opus in light of this discovery.

But knowing Faulkner got the names Candis and Ben from some dusty ledger doesn't change the memories I have of being blown out of my chair by the sheer brilliance of The Sound and The Fury. Nor should it, in my opinion. Faulkner's genius isn't that he recognized great source material when he saw it; it's that his singular imagination transformed a dead man's diary into universal statements on the human condition.