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"Cotton Harvest" by McNair Evans, from "Confessions for a Son" (Owl & Tiger, October 2014)

One Corner of Yoknapatawpha

During the autumn of 1929, when Faulkner was writing As I Lay Dying to the hum of the dynamo in the powerhouse where he was working the night shift, my father, some twenty miles away in Panola County, Mississippi, had another kind of dynamo in his head. He had retrofitted a 1927 Model T Ford with axle spacers and what were called “motor car” wheels that enabled it to run on a railroad. My father described his new creation as slow and noisy, the latter owing to poor alignment of railroad track and wheels. The tires had burned off his “T-Model” when the family home in Batesville caught on fire the year before, and he decided to convert it into a vehicle that he could take into the hunting grounds of the Tallahatchie River bottomland, or as it was sometimes called, the Big Bottom.

This was the bottomland along the Tallahatchie River in Panola County, which is at the eastern edge of the Mississippi Delta and adjacent to Lafayette County, where Faulkner lived. By the time of my father’s youth in the late 1920s much of the timber in the Big Bottom had been cut away by lumbermen, my grandfather among them, but there were still some big woods remaining that were rich with game. The spur-line railroad (known as the Dummy Line by locals), on which timber had been transported from the Tallahatchie Bottom to the Darnell Lumber Company sawmill just outside Batesville, was soon to be abandoned, and my father could motor down to a hunting camp that he had established. At the end of the rail line there was a wye that would get him and his hunting pals turned around and headed back to town.

Though it is not likely that Faulkner was present to hear the new sound of my father’s “T-Model” in the woods that year—he was working steadily on As I Lay Dying during the hunting season—Faulkner was in fact a regular in those very woods. Beginning as early as 1915 or so and continuing through the mid-1930s, Faulkner had come to hunt, and drink, with the hunting parties that General James Stone, father of Faulkner’s friend Phil Stone, held annually at a camp five miles from my father’s camp in the Big Bottom. Faulkner would later draw on these experiences at General Stone’s camp in his creation of “The Bear” and other sections of Go Down, Moses, as well as in Big Woods. Each year Faulkner’s fictional hunters “would drive away to Jefferson, to join Major de Spain and General Compson and Boon Hogganbeck and Walter Ewell and go on into the big bottom of the Tallahatchie where the deer and bear were.” Major de Spain had a hunting camp in the Tallahatchie River bottomland, limning the hunting camp of his real-life counterpart General James Stone.

The Tallahatchie River serves as the northern border of Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County. On the map of Yoknapatawpha that he drew forAbsalom, Absalom!, Faulkner identifies the location of Major de Spain’s Tallahatchie River camp in the northwest quadrant of the county. On a later map, annotated for Malcolm Cowley’s Portable Faulkner, Faulkner altered the “Fishing camp” designation of his earlier map to read “Hunting & fishing camp where Wash Jones killed Sutpen [Absalom, Absalom!]. Later owned by Major De Spain.”

Faulkner’s annotations identify this particular corner of Yoknapatawpha as the setting not only of Absalom, Absalom! but also “The Bear,” as well as the short stories “Wash,” “A Justice,” and “Red Leaves.” All of these works, with the exception of “Wash,” hark back in one way or another to the time when Chickasaw and Choctaw Indians were still present in the region, both before and after the land cessions of 1830 and 1832 wherein they ceded their land to the federal government. Issues of land ownership, conflated later with issues of slavery, are fundamental concerns in the two short stories, though those issues are not expressed in the heightened moral register that Faulkner summons in Absalom, Absalom! and “The Bear.” In the latter, the protaganist Ike McCaslin is so conflicted that he questions the right of even the Chickasaw chief Ikkemotubbe to have sold land to his grandfather. This vexation is deepened further by Ike’s discovery in the plantation ledger that his grandfather fathered a daughter with one of his slaves and later fathered a child with that same daughter. Neither of whom would he formally acknowledge as his child. Ike comes to regard the land as forever tainted by the injustice of slavery. He is profoundly aggrieved too by the destruction of the wilderness that has been home to the bear Old Ben and the primitive spirit that the bear represents.

Faulkner named his “apocryphal county,” as he called it, after an actual river, the Yoknapatawpha, which was the Chickasaw name for the river that is now called the Yocona, a corruption of Yoknapatawpha. A further variation appears on an 1861 map I located at the U.S. Corps of Engineers in Vicksburg, Mississippi. The river is identified as “Yoch na pata fa.” Above it, and sited on the Tallahatchie River, is the now vanished town of Panola. My father’s camp, General Stone’s camp, and the confluence of the Yocona River with the Tallahatchie River were all within a radius of less than ten miles.

Faulkner’s fictional county, according to notes Malcolm Cowley recorded after a conversation with Faulkner in 1948, “borrows scenes and features from three real Mississippi counties.” If Faulkner cited those three counties, Cowley did not record them, but I am confident that one of them is Panola, if on no other basis than Faulkner’s many visits to the Stone hunting camp and the identifiable “scenes and features” that may be observed.

Looking back on that time and place, John Cullen, a farmer and one of Faulkner’s fellow hunters, says “there never was and never again will be on this earth such a paradise for hunting dogs and men as the miles and miles of great virgin forests and jungles of the Big Bottoms.” Cullen, who collaborated with scholar Floyd Watkins on a book of reminiscences, Old Times in the Faulkner Country, recalls further that “a man could travel for miles under the open timber and never see a road. Ole Colonel Stone owned a good bit of land, the place where he built his camp.” In his book My Brother Bill, John Faulkner also recalls the Stone camp: “By the time Bill was grown and began deer hunting, our timber [in Lafayette County] had mostly been cut. That’s why he had to go to the ‘Big Bottom’ for his story. . . . The Delta begins thirty miles to the west of us. . . . It was here, just beyond Batesville at General Stone’s cabin, that Bill first went on his deer and bear hunts and wild-turkey shoots.”

Faulkner’s visits to Stone’s camp and the bottomlands of the Tallahatchie, it seems to me, exposed him to a milieu that, while not radically unlike the one in and around his Oxford, nonetheless extended and enhanced his sense of Yoknapatawpha’s potential as a fictional ground. First there was his exposure, as a hunter going in and out of the woods on a log-train, to the dynamic created by the mechanical force of the lumber industry meeting the resistance of nature. Faulkner was especially sensitive to this tension. The character of that nature was near-primordial—dense virgin timber, swamp, canebrake, briar thickets, diverse wildlife—and it was on the verge of extinction: “that doomed wilderness whose edges were being constantly and punily gnawed at by men with plows and axes.”

When I say that Faulkner was exposed to a somewhat different milieu here, remember that Panola County and the Tallahatchie Bottom are where the Delta merges with the hills, a landscape unlike that of the predominantly hill country in Faulkner’s Lafayette County—and one bearing a slightly different cultural stamp. A liminal zone, if you will. A space betwixt and between, a state of transition and ambiguity. Panola County embraces both the Delta and the hills. In one direction the horizon seems limitless, in the other the hills begin closing in. To say that the one encourages expansiveness and the other clannishness is perhaps too reductive, but it begins to suggest possible tendencies.

Remember too that Faulkner’s Oxford was, and remains, a university town and as such offered a degree of refinement that Panola County lacked. That is not to suggest that Faulkner’s experience in Lafayette County was limited to town life. Again, these various differences were not profound in their every expression, but there were significant nuances and shadings, and Faulkner was keen on gradation—and ever alert to possible strategies for extending the dramatic reach of his Yoknapatawpha.

After my father told me of his motorcar and the proximity of his hunting camp to General Stone’s camp, it occurred to me that I should try to find the site of the Stone camp and inquire among the locals concerning their memories of the place. Clearly Faulkner had found in the surrounding Big Bottom—in its larger history of slavery and in the immediate drama of its diminishment by ax and plow—one of his most resonant and compelling emblems of struggle and loss. Nowhere in Faulkner’s fiction do we find a more plaintive rendering of what he called “the human heart in conflict with itself.” In “The Bear,” there is Ike McCaslin’s plea, “Don’t you see? This whole land, the whole South, is cursed, and all of us who derive from it . . . lie under its curse? . . . Don’t you see?” Ike repudiates his heritage and retreats into a life of near penury in which “even if he couldn’t cure the wrong and eradicate the shame . . . at least he could repudiate the wrong and shame, at least in principle.” In Absalom, Absalom!, Sutpen, with his band of wild Haitian slaves, wrests from the wilderness a plantation, Sutpen’s Hundred, and then goes on in his attempt to subjugate all around him as though the world were a slave quarters. And there is Quentin Compson’s conflicted cry in Absalom, Absalom! when asked by his roommate at Harvard why he hates the South: “I don’t. I don’t! I don’t hate it! I don’t hate it!

I wanted to locate the old Stone camp also because I was curious to learn more about my own family’s investment in that part of my home county. My grandfather had cut and milled timber in the Tallahatchie and Yocona Bottoms (and hence was a villain, by implication, in Faulkner’s indictment regarding the diminishment of the wilderness) and he later owned farmland there. With directions my father had provided and with the help of Panola County’s chancery clerk Brooks Vance and some of the elders around Panola, I found the old campsite one spring in the late 1970s. As it turned out, the hunting lodge itself, or clubhouse as the hunters called it, was still standing. It was in the middle of a big soybean field. In any direction you turned there were silos, John Deere tractors, and more fields under cultivation. Except for a big oak tree that had been left standing beside the house, the only thing that would suggest there was ever a woodland there was a line of trees that formed a horizon along the Tallahatchie River less than a mile away. The effect of the whole scene on my sensibilities was not unlike what I would have felt had I discovered one of the whaleships on which Melville’s Pequod was modeled, the Acushnet, say, or the Essex, stranded somewhere in the whaling grounds.

I was aware too of another phenomenon having to do with literature and place. If I had never read Faulkner and you took me to this bean field and told me all about it and the clubhouse, which resembled the house of a tenant farmer more than a hunting lodge, I would nod and agree, but in truth it would be little more than just another bean field to me. When an author sets a narrative in motion around an actual place that we recognize, however, that place becomes invested with a kind of extra-reality, if the fiction has established a valid claim on our imagination. In addition to its own history, the place takes on that of the fiction as well. All this is by way of telling you something of the effect the sight of the old clubhouse and its surroundings had on me. For other readers that sensation might come in Pamplona, Yasnaya Polyana, the moors of Yorkshire, Birnam Hill (Birnam Wood, alas, like Tallahatchie’s Big Woods, has also vanished—and not merely to Dunsinane gone), or wherever literary pilgrimages might lead. I cannot claim that my vision was of the intensity of Ike McCaslin’s when he returned to the hunting camp for the final time in “The Bear,” but perhaps I had a whiff of it: “The wilderness soared, musing, inattentive, myriad, eternal, green; older than any mill-shed, longer than any spur-line.”

One of the old-time Panola County natives I talked with, Jim Hancock, remembered the days when he sometimes went for as long as two months without seeing anyone else in the Big Bottom. He was a trapper, and his trapping season usually began around the middle of November, after his father’s crops were laid by, and extended until early February. During that time he worked alone out of a 10’ x 12’ tent, trapping mink, beaver, raccoons, and occasionally otter. Hancock told me he once trapped a white otter, which the game warden said was “a freak of nature, just like Babe Ruth.” Born in 1904, Hancock was trapping regularly by 1923, and until his retirement fifty years later he was engaged in something related to the Tallahatchie Bottom, either trapping or logging or clearing land and farming it.

Though he knew who Babe Ruth was, Jim Hancock had never heard of William Faulkner. He did, however, remember the day that General Stone died in the clubhouse of the Stone hunting camp, which was near where he trapped and hunted and later worked in logging camps, one of my grandfather’s included. He said somebody came and told him that old General Stone had died in the clubhouse—that they had been drinking and gambling all night and he had died that morning and that the camp cook wouldn’t go back in the house as long as the General was in there dead.

At one time General Stone owned some two thousand acres in Panola County, most of it in the Tallahatchie Bottom. His father had begun acquiring land when he settled there in the mid-1850s. There were also considerable land holdings on Stone’s mother’s side of the family. Her great-uncle Potts is reputed to have owned one hundred square miles of land along the Tallahatchie River. Potts’s sons, Theophilus and Amodeus Potts, known as Buck and Buddy, owned the land on which General Stone’s hunting camp later stood. (A Potts family member was a partner with my grandfather in ownership of a parcel of that same land in later years.) They served Faulkner as models for his characters Uncle Buck and Uncle Buddy, the former of whom was Ike McCaslin’s father, and it was his entries in the plantation ledger that led Ike to his realization concerning his grandfather’s treatment of his slaves.

General Stone was born James Bates Stone, his middle name most likely in honor of Reverend J. W. Bates, for whom the town of Batesville was named. Stone’s birthdate is listed as 1856 in Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Mississippi (Chicago, 1891), but his tombstone in Batesville’s Magnolia Cemetery is marked 1854. (It is a stone’s throw, so to speak, from my family’s burial plot.) After graduating from Kentucky Military Institute, Stone entered law school at the University of Mississippi, though he withdrew after a few months. Dan Ferguson, former mayor of Batesville, who knew both the Stone and Faulkner families, told me that Stone “read the law” in order to qualify for the bar, a not uncommon method of self-education.

 In my youth I visited Ferguson’s farm with his son Danny for horseback riding and camping trips. In later years I learned that the farm had been a part of the Stone landholdings in Panola County and that the dilapidated log house where Danny and I sometimes found shelter from the rain was Stone’s birthplace.

Danny once found a silver flask in a hidden crevice of the house. I’d venture a guess that someone was maintaining a private stash for drinking on the sly. A fondness for strong drink ran in the Stone family. And, as I’ve mentioned, drinking was one of the main draws at Stone’s camp, along with the gambling and hunting. Jim Hancock noted that he heard that Stone had been drinking heavily during the night before his death. The Panolian of November 26, 1936, carried the announcement that “while on a hunting trip at his lodge west of town Monday morning about 10:30, seated in a chair, Gen. James Stone, age 83 years, passed peacefully to the Great Beyond.” This would have been the Thanksgiving hunt. A month later, at the Christmas hunt, one of his sons, James Stone, Jr., died also. According to the Panolian, the cause of death was a heart attack, but one of my grandfather’s former associates, Selwyn Shuford, told me that the younger Stone had been drinking all night and was found face down in a pool of water surrounding the artesian spring outside the lodge.

As for further potential effects of alcohol, one of my father’s most vivid memories of his hunting days in the Bottom was of the time that hunters from the Stone camp came to his camp late one night with a corpse: 

While we were camped at the Fuller Field one winter, an ice storm covered the earth. Some people from Sardis [a town in Panola County near Batesville] were camped in the old Stone clubhouse. One night about 12 o’clock midnight some of them came to our Fuller Field camp with a corpse loaded on a mule-drawn wagon. They had been drinking corn likker, the man had put his lips to a poison bottle of it, and died. They wanted us to haul the corpse to Batesville and send it on to Sardis. The rails over the bridge were coated solid with ice, and the only way for us to cross it was for one of us to go ahead of the “T Model” and clear the ice from the rails.

The man undoubtedly suffered poisoning, immediate or accumulative, from moonshine that had been distilled through an automobile radiator, a not uncommon distilling process, but one that resulted in toxic whiskey, owing to the lead residue in the radiators. The automobile radiators were cheaper than copper stills, and irresponsible or ignorant moonshiners sometimes resorted to the cheaper method.

Whether General Stone and Faulkner were present at the Stone camp on that particular hunt, I do not know (nor am I suggesting that Faulkner drew on that experience in creating the Bundren family’s travails in conveying Addie Bundren’s corpse by mule wagon to be buried near her family in As I Lay Dying; mule wagons were more common than FedEx is today). But the drinking at the Stone camp was legendary, and Faulkner of course had a lifelong battle with alcohol. Dan Ferguson jokingly told me that he saved Bill Faulkner’s life. He said that General Stone once brought Faulkner into Batesville from the camp and asked him to get Faulkner a cure for the hiccoughs. Faulkner mentions the hiccoughs incident in a letter (undated) to his agent’s assistant.

I am now working at a story which the POST should like. I am sorry I didn’t see you again [in New York]. I got into my usual drinking gang [at the Stone camp] and drank pretty hard for a time after reaching home [from the trip to New York], was taken sick, quit drinking, had hiccoughs for forty-eight hours, and as a result I am expecting to be notified that I have permanently ruined my stomach and must live from now on upon bread and milk.

Ferguson said that General Stone told him he would have brought Faulkner into town sooner but Faulkner “had been down there drunk for two weeks.” Ferguson went to Will Cox’s drugstore, but Cox was out of town, so Ferguson had to call a druggist in nearby Como to come to Cox’s drugstore and fix a “secret” remedy. Faulkner lived to tell the story, though he recast it considerably. In “A Bear Hunt,” published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1934, the character Lucius Provine is cured of his hiccoughs in an encounter with Chickasaw Indians who have been led to believe that Lucius is a revenue agent investigating their moonshine whiskey–making operation.

Stone established his first law practice in Batesville in 1880, and he was engaged in farming and business interests as well. His newspaper notice in an 1891 Panolian states that his law practice embraces the “Circuit and Chancery Courts of Panola and adjacent counties and in the Supreme and Federal Courts of the State.” Stone often rode alone on horseback to get to these various courts of law, the locations of which were distant enough that he sometimes had to make camp overnight. It is said that he claimed John Wilkes Booth once stumbled into his camp. True or not, the narrative impulse and sense of adventure evidenced there were undoubtedly aspects of General Stone’s character that enthralled the young William Faulkner and contributed to his creation of Major de Spain.

Soon after Stone’s notice appeared in the Panolian, he moved with his family to Oxford. Among other considerations, there was the fact that the Federal District Court met there. Stone had served as general counsel to the railroad in Batesville and would later serve in the same position in Oxford, hence the title General, according to some accounts. He retained ownership of his lands in Panola until financial difficulties forced him to begin selling land in order to pay drainage taxes. But he continued to maintain his hunting camp there.

In addition to Stone’s hunting camp, the Dummy Line railroad and other features of the logging operations provided Faulkner with images for the vanishing wilderness of Go Down, Moses in which “the diminutive locomotive and its shrill peanut-parcher whistle” could occasionally be heard by the hunters as it carried the cut timber out of the Big Bottom. (Before the Dummy Line was abandoned by the logging company, and before my father had his motor car, the distant whistle of the logging train served as a geographical marker for my father and his fellow hunters, in addition to their compasses.) Major de Spain had arranged with the lumber company for the hunters to ride the train to a stop near the camp in the same way that General Stone had an agreement that allowed him and his hunters, including Faulkner, to catch rides to and from an official stop near the clubhouse. I found an entry in the Panola County chancery records in which General Stone deeded 16/100 of an acre to Batesville Southwestern Railroad Co. in 1911. This would have been the land required for what was designated as Stone Stop, which consisted of a small building used for storage beside the railroad. According to my father, one of the train conductors was Jim Stone Moseley, named in honor of General James Stone.

The log-line junction, Hoke’s, which figures prominently in “The Bear,” was undoubtedly modeled on the junction and sawmill that Darnell Lumber Company operated in Panola County just west of Batesville, about eleven miles from the Stone camp. Faulkner and his fellow hunters came from Oxford to Batesville and then loaded their camp supplies on the log train at Darnell’s for the journey to Stone Stop. From there they would go by mule wagon to the clubhouse.

The old Chickasaw and Choctaw Boundary, which divided the lands of those two nations, still serves on Panola County land maps and chancery records as the northeast boundary line of the tract of land on which the clubhouse was situated. The Chickasaws, according to federal treaty makers, described the boundary line as follows:

Beginning at the mouth of the Oak-tibby-haw and running up said stream to a point, being a marked tree, on the old Natches [Natchez] road, one mile southwardly from Wall’s old place; thence with the Choctaw boundary, and along it, westwardly through the Tunica old fields, to a point on the Mississippi river about 28 miles by water, below where the Saint Frances River enters said stream on the west side.

The white surveyors who came along after those land cessions of the early 1880s employed a similar method of description; that is, one based on existing landmarks and without any apparent concern that those landmarks might shift or disappear over time. Their determination of the beginning of the boundary in a document of field notes from the General Land Office, dated October 16, 1836, reads as follows (with misspellings preserved):

“Boundry Line Between: The Chickasaw and Choctaw Cessions in Mississippi biginning at a point on the East bank of the Mississippi River directly opposite the house where a Mr. Philips once lived which is siuated in the town of Helena in the state of Arkansaw. Set large post and erected mound as per instructions.” They then trekked through briars, cane, and swamp for their survey.

If you begin at the point across from where a Mr. Philips’s house was situated, and on the Mississippi side of the river where the mound was erected, and make your way along the old Choctaw-Chickasaw Boundary for about 27 miles, you’ll come to the site of the Stone hunting camp: Section 32, Range 2 E, Township 28. The structure, as of this writing, has fallen into a state of disrepair, and in fact is flooded, the tragedy of which I will address later.

I would like to tell you the name of the person who held the original patent on that tract of land, but I am unable to do so. Most likely it was a Choctaw Indian, for the tract lies on the Choctaw side of the boundary. I can tell you the names of a number of Chickasaw Indians—Shana, Untishetubbe, and so on—who marked their Xs and received a pittance for sections of land on the other side of the boundary in this immediate area. Many of those sections were later owned by General Stone (and some subsequently by my grandfather), in addition to his ownership of the clubhouse tract. The Panola CountyChain of Titles goes back only to 1862, and the Department of the Interior was unable to help me find the patent. It would not have surprised me, though, if they had told me that the original patent on the clubhouse tract was held by Ikkemotubbe. He was the Chickasaw chief, you’ll recall, in Faulkner’s fictional account, from whom Sutpen got his 100 square miles, Sutpen’s Hundred, “for money or rum or whatever it was.”

And so Faulkner’s chancery would read Ikkemotubbe, Sutpen, de Spain, and finally the name of the fictional Memphis lumber company to whom Major de Spain sold the timber rights in “The Bear.” Actual lumber companies began arriving in the Big Bottom around the time Faulkner indicated in “The Bear,” the late 1880s. Before they arrived, however—and at approximately the same time the fictional Sutpen came storming in, the early 1800s—a more sympathetic figure passed through and was so taken with the unspoiled quality of the place that he later wrote an account of one of his experiences there. The traveler was John James Audubon, and in one of his essays he gives directions for finding “the Swamp” so that students of nature could visit and observe its “rare and interesting productions: birds, quadrupeds and reptiles, as well as molluscous animals, many of which . . . have never been described.”

Audubon’s essay concerns a panther hunt. In the course of one of his rambles, he chanced upon a squatter’s cabin on the Coldwater River (the Coldwater joins the Tallahatchie less than ten miles west of where the Stone clubhouse and my father’s hunting camp were located). Audubon was so engaged by the handsome pelts on the wall and the squatter’s descriptions of the area’s wildlife that he asked the squatter to be his host and guide for a few days. The next morning while they were feeding the hogs, the squatter told Audubon of a large panther that had been ravaging his livestock: “The Painter, as he sometimes called it, had on several occasions robbed him of a dead deer; and to these exploits the squatter added several remarkable feats of audacity which it had performed, to give me an idea of the formidable character of the beast.” Audubon was fascinated and offered to assist him inhunting down the animal. After gathering enough neighbors and dogs for a hunt, they charged off into the swamp. There follows an enthusiastic report of the hunt and the wilds through which they travelled, the upshot of which was the death of the panther. Afterward the hunters made camp, killed a small deer for their meal, and sat around telling tales, singing, and passing the flask.

The problem with regard to attacks on livestock was a common one in the region. Not only were there panthers, but bears posed a problem as well. And in addition to preying on livestock, they would ravage stands of corn. One such example is contained in a letter posted by Edward Neilson from his plantation Bearsden, which was within ten or fifteen miles from the hunting camps of Stone and my father: “Tallahatchie, 30th of July 1861. . . . I think we will make corn enough to do us if the bear do not eat it up. In the last three or four days several have commenced upon it and they are destroying it very rapidly.”

Posted the next day: “This evening about sundown just as I was going to supper I heard Griffin shoot down in the corn field and call for the dogs. I got my bear knife and went to him in a hurry. He was setting old Jimmy [the name of his gun] for a bear and while he was at it, one started to come over the fence close by him. He shot him on the fence and he rolled over inside but got up and got outside. We put the dogs after him and he went about 150 yards in the cane and stopped for a fight. I gave Griffin the knife and I took the gun. It was dark when we got to him. He ran one of the dogs right up to me and I shot him [the bear]. The dogs all seized him and Griffin gave him the knife. He caught Venus after he had been knifed twenty times and got her down when I gave him a blow on the head with the barrel of old Jimmy which knocked him down and made him let her go. I never saw a bear stand as much knifing. It took at least fifty blows and they well aimed to make him lay still. I do not know how bad Venus is hurt. It was so dark I could not tell. The bear was very large and in good eating order. He was destroying our corn very rapidly.”

Before reading this account, I had at times wondered if Faulkner’s rendering of Old Ben and the bear’s capacity to survive for so long what the hunters mounted against him was perhaps a tad hyperbolic. One of Old Ben’s paws is mutilated from a trap in the distant past, he has been assaulted by countless hounds, and at the time of his death it is found that he has collected fifty-two slugs under his hide over the years. (Readers will recall that Moby Dick carried the remains of broken harpoons from previous encounters with whalers. And it is reported that the whale Mocha Dick, the probable model for Moby Dick, had numerous rusty harpoon tips beneath his skin.)

Neilson’s hunt involves a relatively short time and distance. His bear went only 150 yards from the fence before he stopped to fight Venus and the other dogs. In contrast, the climactic hunt for Old Ben is of long duration and distance. Granted, those conditions are in the service of dramatic effect, but Faulkner’s drama is in fact consistent with the reality of many bear hunts. Among the papers from my uncle Damon Page’s archives is a letter that a man who farmed in the Tallahatchie Bottom wrote to one of my uncle’s in-laws, a Mr. Prince. Besides being faded and difficult to read, the letter is compromised by misspellings and inconsistent punctuation, but it will serve to confirm further Faulkner’s accurate sense of the duration and rigor of typical bear hunts. It is posted from “South Panola Co Mississippi, September the 30th 1867”:

I will tell you of our hunting excursions we lost our start dog last spring and could not dance a lick until the last weak Mr Clinton and myself cut out last weak up to ascues bluff [probably near Askew, which coincidentally is my father’s birthplace, in the northwest corner of Panola Co.] in search of beare dogs. succeeded in getting too fine start dogs, we went out yesterday late in the evening started one at the back of our field & killed it, tell Caleb we got him up a tree about 1/2 mile south east of of the east end of Pennsylvania Avinew [a joke], it was then in the knight three miles from home and in a half Aire [hour] from there home. we could not strike our trail consequently we had to cut our way through to the open woods. we got home at ten Oclock last knight all well. we ran three [two words illegible here], we went again this morning & had 3 more chaces & killed two Clinton killed one & I killed one. Major Dickens was with us today the last race was after one of those that don’t climb trees he was a whale, they are getting very saucy & catching hogs by the whole sale and even wallowing in my cotton field but [end of page] but I think these new dogs will make them sit farther. tel Caleb they are eaqual to Old Red and both young. tell Caleb also that Clintons three Pups is whales & they will make the bear set farther when they get grown. Mr Prince I have nothing of interest to wright as you have already seen but I thought Caleb might bee interested some in my hunting tale as he knows the ground and could appreciate a portion of it at least.

When Ike McCaslin goes into the wilderness to try to get his first look at Old Ben, he realizes after a time that even though he has left his gun behind he is still tainted by civilization. He must relinquish everything if he is to see the bear. He hangs his watch and compass on a bush, leans his snake stick beside them, and pushes on into the Big Bottom, which Faulkner described earlier as “the same solitude, the same loneliness through which frail and timorous man had merely passed without altering it, leaving no mark nor scar, which looked exactly as it must have looked when the first ancestor of Sam Fathers’ Chickasaw predecessors crept into it and looked about him. . . .” Ike gets lost, comes upon the old bear’s tracks, its imprint distinguished by the trap-maimed paw, and follows to where the bear is waiting, appropriately, beside the watch and compass. The boy and the bear study each other briefly across a small glade before the bear fades back into the wilderness to await its symbolic fate. The fate of the bear, of course, is the fate of the wilderness itself, for the bear, as Faulkner once suggested, is the spirit of that wilderness.

During the late 1880s word got around that the Southern forests could be had for relatively low prices (most of the farmers regarded the timber as an obstacle), and speculators, usually from outside the South, came with a fury to buy up or lease large blocks of timber. By 1900 the sawmills in Mississippi had doubled, and four years later the state ranked third among lumber-producing states. In Mississippi Harvest, Nollie Hickman reports that in 1925 lumber output from these virgin forests reached an all-time high of slightly more than three billion board feet. For me the most dramatic illustration of how much timber all of this involves is found in old topographic maps that indicate woodland by green shading. Arrange them in a stack in chronological sequence—they are updated periodically—and flip through from past to present. You can read a good portion of the history of the area in terms of a steadily diminishing green shade.

As I have mentioned, my grandfather cut and milled timber in the Tallahatchie and Yocona Bottoms for many years. One of his smaller mills, called a groundhog mill, was along the route to the Stone camp, and I am confident that Faulkner and his fellow hunters knew of it. Like the wilderness, that mill too has vanished. In fact, one of the large lumber companies in Memphis (not unlike the fictional Memphis lumber company to whom Major de Spain sells the timber rights in “The Bear”) sent a representative to Panola with an offer to buy my grandfather’s entire lumber business. My grandfather declined, and within a month his main sawmill and lumber yard containing thousands of board feet of prime hardwood lumber were nothing but ash. Not exactly like the big guns sent to kill McCabe when he refused to sell his brothel in Altman’s movie McCabe and Mrs. Miller, but close. That is, my grandfather was not shot, but he never fully recovered financially from the fire, his business being uninsured.

I don’t have the sense that my grandfather had available to him the assurances of protection from loss in the lumber business in Panola County—or that he would have availed himself of those assurances, given the probable cost. (It is not apples and oranges to note that General Stone lost virtually all of his land in Panola County, owing to the fact that he could not pay drainage taxes. Apparently he was not insured against losses in other ventures.) Before the mill fire my grandfather had another uninsured loss—a huge float of hardwood timber on the Tallahatchie River near Belmont above the hunting grounds. He didn’t own a spur-line railroad, so his crew skidded the cut timber from the woods to the banks of the Tallahatchie and rolled log after log into the current. Downstream was a log boom that my grandfather and father had constructed, with the plan of catching the timber and then hauling it to their main sawmill nearby. As they waited at the boom, the Tallahatchie began to rise unexpectedly. My father said he looked up as the timber came around the bend of the Tallahatchie and the churn of foam created by the head logs of the float was like froth on a giant mad-dog’s mouth. The timber broke through the boom and spread itself for miles downstream in the flood. Farmers later would pull their mule wagons up to my grandfather’s sawmill with choice hardwood logs marked by metal die on one end with my grandfather’s signature S. “Hey, Mr. Seay, can you mill this up for me?”

There was no strict evidence linking the Memphis lumber company with the fire, but one of the locals said that on the day before the fire he saw two Brazilians lingering on the Batesville town square. How he dreamed up the Brazilian identity—or thought he could distinguish a Brazilian from, say, a Bedouin or an Inuit—is a mystery. But local lore rules, and in that lore the story of hired Brazilians setting fire to my grandfather’s mill and lumber yard is as firm as any in Faulkner’s fiction.

The tract on which General Stone’s camp was situated is currently listed in the Panola County property records as held in a revocable living trust by an owner who lives out of state. That person and other family members, some residing in Mississippi, have evidenced little interest in the Stone clubhouse except to the extent that profit could be had by selling its artifacts online. When I learned of the online offerings—doors, fireplace bricks, and the like—I was outraged that the clubhouse had been stripped bare. I could not countenance the thought that my home county would possibly be left without a visible trace of Faulkner’s sojourns there. I flew to Mississippi from North Carolina and summoned the help of a friend in Batesville, Kenneth Brasell. We drove the sixty miles to New Albany, Mississippi, where a relative of the owner had the artifacts in his garage. I told the man I wanted to buy the whole lot. I do not know if he was sensitive in any appreciable way, prior to my visit and conversation with him, to the idea of provenance and how that might best be honored. I won’t attempt here to parse the concept, pro or con, of private ownership of items invested with historical or literary significance. All I knew was that I wanted to insure that each artifact found a habitation that would honor the connection with Faulkner’s achievement, and in my mind it was fundamental that the first site should be in Panola, my home county and an indisputable corner of Yoknapatawpha.

After consulting with Kenneth, I made an offer and we bought all of the doors, some bricks, and a window frame with empty glass panels. Together we donated one door to our Batesville public library, and divided the remaining items. I donated one of my doors to the University of Mississippi Museum in Oxford. I am still looking for appropriate sites for the other door and the window frame.

The family apparently bought the land in order to put it in the federal wetlands program and collect money while the land reverts to whatever growth will establish itself. Fair enough, but I seriously doubt their dedication to ecology and anything but profit, given their advertising the artifacts of the clubhouse on eBay. Beaver dams now create flooding that has put the clubhouse in a state of desuetude. My hope had always been to initiate restoration of the clubhouse in my retirement years and seek registration with the National Register of Historic Places. But by the time I learned of the family’s stripping of the clubhouse and its flooding, it was too late for anything other than the recovery of those remnants I’ve described.

I recently drove out Dummy Line Road—the foundation of which is the Dummy Line railroad that afforded Faulkner and his hunters access to General Stone’s hunting camp and on which my father hauled back to town a corpse in his motorcar when the world was covered in ice—and got as close to the site of the clubhouse as possible in a four-wheel-drive pickup with the idea of walking the remaining distance—as a trespasser, I assume—but the thick growth and briars and danger of cottonmouth moccasins turned me back.

When I first discovered the clubhouse in the 1970s, I knelt down beside the artesian spring and cupped water in my hands to drink. Even then, after centuries of flow, the spring delivered a stream of water as thick as your wrist. The cold, deep earthiness of the water, with its tincture of sulfur, seemed to me an apt distillation of all that the land had borne, both the real Panola and its fictional corner in Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha. Old Ben’s blood, Venus’s blood, gunpowder, the spoor of Jim’s Hancock’s white otter, Audubon’s crayon, Sutpen’s fury, the ash of my grandfather’s mill, the last breath of General Stone’s son in that same artesian spring, Major de Spain’s ink on the lumber company’s lease, the frail purchase of my father’s motorcar wheels on the Dummy Line, the rumor of Brazilians, Faulkner’s footsteps and shadow. It was all there, blent in an alchemy of dream.

After Old Ben has finally been hunted down and Major de Spain has sold the timber rights to the Memphis lumber company, Ike catches a ride on the log train at Hoke’s and heads into the Big Bottom a final time, thinking along the way of what the train has come to mean:

It had been harmless then. They would hear the passing log-train sometimes from the camp; sometimes, because nobody bothered to listen for it or not. . . . But it was different now. It was the same train, engine cars and caboose, even the same enginemen brakeman and conductor . . . yet this time it was as though the train (and not only the train but himself, not only his vision which had seen it and his memory which remembered it but his clothes too, as garments carry back into the clean edgeless blowing of air the lingering effluvium of a sick-room or of death) had brought with it into the doomed wilderness even before the actual axe the shadow and portent of the new mill not even finished yet and the rails and ties which were not even laid; and he knew now what he had known as soon as he saw Hoke’s this morning but had not yet thought into words: why Major de Spain had not come back, and that after this time he himself, who had had to see it one time other, would return no more.

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James Seay

James Seay’s work has been published in Harper’s, The New Yorker, Oxford American, and others. He is the recipient of an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.