A Slice of Yoknapatawpha: Conference director isn’t ‘completely out of the saddle’

By M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal

OXFORD – William Faulkner once declared himself “sole owner and proprietor” of Yoknapatawpha County.
It’s a fictional place in Mississippi and Faulkner created it, so his initial claim probably isn’t in dispute.
But these days, surely his readers have earned partial ownership, however tiny. They’re the people who keep giving the stories life.
Consider Don Kartiganer’s case.
The 74-year-old first encountered Yoknapatawpha about 55 years ago. Faulkner was the subject of his Ph.D. dissertation, and he spent nearly 30 years teaching the finer points about “Light in August,” “The Sound and the Fury,” “Absalom, Absalom!” and others at the University of Washington.
That kind of dedication might’ve been enough to earn the thinnest sliver of Yoknapatawpha County for Kartiganer to call his own, but there’s more.
In 1991, the University of Mississippi offered Kartiganer the position of Howry Professor of Faulkner Studies. He and his wife had never thought of moving to Mississippi.
“By this time, the kids were all grown up,” he said. “We thought, Why not?”
Kartiganer also served as director of the University of Mississippi’s Faulkner & Yoknapatawpha Conference in Oxford. About 150 Faulkner fans and scholars gathered last week for the 38th conference.
“These people come together in broiling Mississippi July just to sit and talk about Faulkner,” he said.
As of last year, his title changed to Howry Professor of Faulkner Studies emeritus.
“They had to put that ‘emeritus’ on there when I retired,” Kartiganer said.
The 2011 conference, which ended on Thursday, was his last as director, but he’s not letting go of Faulkner’s world.
“I’m not completely out of the saddle. At the end of November, my wife and I are going to Australia, where I’ve been invited to speak at a Faulkner conference,” he said. “I’m not quite through yet.”
A quick lesson
Even in retirement, teaching thrills Kartiganer. The opening of the University of Mississippi Museum’s “Faulkner’s Geographies: A Photographic Journey” exhibit furnished a prime opportunity when someone mistook a photo of the Chandler House in Oxford for Faulkner’s home, Rowan Oak.
“It’s an important house,” he said. “It’s the house Faulkner thought about when he wrote ‘The Sound and the Fury.’”
Faulkner’s third-grade teacher owned the house. The teacher’s younger brother had a mental disability and often stared through a fence at kids going to school.
“Faulkner was one of those children,” Kartiganer said.
The author remembered the boy and the house, and decades later positioned a mentally disabled character, Benji, behind a fictional version of that real-life fence.
“It’s interesting how a writer’s mind works, and where he goes for his images,” said Kartiganer, who learned the history of the house since his move to Oxford. “If the Chandler House didn’t exist, I think we can assume that the images of the book would be different somehow. The photo is a very good example of how Faulkner uses this town.”
When the occasion calls for it, Kartiganer plays the role of student, too. He and others scour academia for scholars who might have something new to say about Faulkner at the conference. He digs for insights in books and essays.
Barbara Ladd, an English professor at Emory University, opened the 2011 conference at Ole Miss’ Nutt Auditorium. She felt honored by the introduction Kartiganer gave her.
“Most of the time, they introduce you with a list of facts,” Ladd said. “He seems to know the work of each person he introduces. He reads the work carefully and he translates it. He’s a special guy.”
As speakers address the audience, Kartiganer’s pen is in constant motion. The notes help him come up with questions if audience members are slow to get started during the Q&A sessions.
“Besides, it’s the only way I can remember anything, writing it down,” he said. “You never know what you might learn, or what might lead to something you haven’t thought before.”
Opening up
Ole Miss’ Jay Watson will take over as conference director in 2012, which will celebrate milestones 50 years after Faulkner’s death. Watson said he aims to carry on an important tradition Kartiganer started.
“Before Don, this was principally a Southern literature conference,” Watson said. “Don really opened up the lineup. He ventilated the conference to a wide community of scholars.”
You’ll still find specialists in Southern literature, but there’s also room for Valérie Loichot, an associate professor at Emory University, who studies the Caribbean.
The character Sutpen in “Absalom, Absalom!” goes through Haiti, Martinique and New Orleans before building a plantation in Yoknapatawpha.
“I focus mainly on Caribbean literature. I was quite honored to be invited out of the blue like that,” said Loichot, who knew Kartiganer by reputation before the invitation. “There is this whole community that’s really built around Faulkner’s world.”
During Kartiganer’s tenure, scholars from around the South, the country and the world have visited Oxford to share their perspectives on the town’s most famous citizen.
“It’s my hope we can continue following his example,” Watson said.
Standing invitation
In the future, Kartiganer won’t be required to introduce speakers or make sure alcohol is available at the traditional Sunday buffet at the Howorth Home.
“Last year, there was no liquor,” Kartiganer said. “It was a problem. I thought they were going to burn the house down.”
Solving problems will be someone else’s job in 2012 and beyond, and the word “emeritus” will be added to Kartiganer’s conference director title.
But as is the case with all readers and lovers of Faulkner, Kartiganer will retain his claim to a piece, however small, of Yoknapatawpha County.
“He’s not riding into the sunset,” Watson said. “This is just his last year as director of the conference. He’ll be back.”

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