According to the critic MALCOLM COWLEY, writing in the Saturday Review in April 1946, “Faulkner performed a labour of imagination that has not been equalled in our time, and a double labour: first, to invent a Mississippi county that was like a mythical kingdom, but was complete and living in all its details; second, to make his story of Yoknapatawpha stand as a parable or legend of all the Deep South.” The Yoknapatawpha chronicles present a whole society and its history. Cumulatively they build up a mythology by which that society and its culture may be interpreted, a mythology covering the history of the county and of the chief families and the lives of individual heroes and heroines.
There have been widely varied attempts for interpreting the apocryphal county. Gabriel Vahanian termed Faulkner’s world “a historical map of the Christian tradition” and “a spiritual geography of Christendom.” There is a widely accepted interpretation that Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha is a social microcosm of the American South. Malcolm Cowley and Elizabeth. M. Kerr supported this notion. Phillip C. Muehrcke and Juliana 0. Muehrcke, wrote in Geographical Review that “Faulkner created his county to contain the essence of Mississippi and of the South.” Charles. S. Aiken, Professor of Geography in University of Tennessee holds that Faulkner regarded his county as a place within the South and not as South in miniature. The novelist once called his imaginary Mississippi County “a kind of keystone of the universe.” If it were taken away, he went on to say, “The universe itself would collapse.”
Faulkner did not deviate from the usual account of the Southern social structure as it existed before the Civil War in his Yoknapatawpha novels, which depicted a tripartite division. There were Negro slaves, wealthy plantation owners and poorer whites. Though the other two factions dominate Faulkner’s fiction, much of his Yoknapatawpha novels presented the poorer whites. Most of them lived by small farming and they were represented as being in general a shiftless and illiterate group of people. The majority of them were Southern Protestants. Faulkner presented Southern Protestantism not only as a baleful force but as a stable religion which has its own power and dignity. A common denominator of the poor whites throughout these novels is that they are indeed poor. The South as a whole was wretchedly poor, upper classes as well as lower classes, right on from the Civil War period to the Second World War period. Even the so-called aristocracy, according to Faulkner’s picture, had little wealth. The Compsons, for example, in 1909, had to sell land in order to afford Quentin’s Harvard education.
Cleanth Brooks points out that the early career of William Faulkner was essentially that of a young romantic Southern boy, whose imagination was filled with tales of knights and damsels, with landscapes of fauns and nymphs dancing to pastoral music. However, the pedestrian realism of some of the American authors- especially T. S. Eliot- grated on his early romantic sensibility. Faulkner’s invention of the Yoknapatawpha County was crucial to his writing career. His mythical county provided him with a social context in which what was healthiest in his romanticism could live in fruitful tension with his realistic and detailed knowledge of the men and manners of his own land. On one hand, his imaginary nymphs and fauns could take on flesh and blood in Yoknapatawpha. On the other hand, the realistic, earthly life of Yoknapatawpha could be invested with an aura of imagination, a mythic quality to what would otherwise have proved to be drab. So, it could be said that Yoknapatawpha saved the novelist’s losing himself in a baseless dream world, by making a medium of both realism and romanticism.
The creation of Yoknapatawpha County implies a dualism central to the works of William Faulkner. Yoknapatawpha, Faulkner’s fictional reconstruction of the American South and the land of his birth, expresses his dramatization of what he understood as reality. This involved an awareness of the distinction of a modern society, reified in its history and institutions from an older order of myth and tradition. The creation of Yoknapatawpha was ‘‘a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.’’ This dualism of order and disorder, art and reality creates the dual perspective of Faulkner’s fiction which views experience as at once meaningless and significant. This dichotomy helps to define the basic premises of Faulkner’s fictional world by identifying the conflict between the autonomy of the artist and his immersion in history; his power to create an imaginary world free from the constraints of reality and the spatial and temporal coordinates that bind him to that reality.
India has its own counterpart of Yoknapatawpha in the form of R. K. Narayan’s Malgudi, a literary microcosm of India. Malgudi, the fictitious town in which all of Narayan’s stories are set, has often been described as the ‘quintessential Indian small-town’. Situated on the banks of the Sarayu and surrounded by the Memphi hills, Malgudi has bee compared over the years by various critics to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Macondo and Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County and Thomas Hardy’s Wessex. As is also the case of Faulkner’s novels, we can find a progression in Narayan’s novels from earlier works in which he is exploring his fictional world, to middle works in which he is addressing his major themes, to later works in which he expresses a spiritual vision. Other versions of Yoknapatawpha also exist, the major among which is Nobel prize winner Kenzaburo Oe’s own Yoknapatawpha which he created out of his homeland.
Faulkner’s mythic Yoknapatawpha has become a permanent feature of the world’s literary geography, a suffering, defeated place, a haunt of grotesque and villainous Snopeses and Sutpens, with a troubled heritage of slavery and war. But it is an enduring and timeless place too, peopled with ordinary men and women such as Dilsey Gibson, V. K. Ratliff, and Isaac (Ike) McCaslin who rise to heroic stature and in whom hope has not died.