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Why Faulkner Needs the Digital Humanities

Why Faulkner Needs the Digital Humanities

This year’s 39th annual Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference marks the fiftieth year since William Faulkner’s somewhat sudden death in July 1962. This year the Conference organizers called for full panel proposals. Given that the conference theme is “Fifty Years after Faulkner” and will reflect upon, re-exaxmine, and reappraise his work within the past fifty years, a panel on Faulkner and the digital humanities seemed like the obvious, if not responsible thing to do.

I waited for a CFP to come up. None did. Never one to pass up an opportunity to fill a gap when I’m qualified, I came up with my own panel CFP.

Then I waited for wonderful abstracts to flood my mailbox. I got one abstract. Thank goodness, it was a really good one. But, needless to say, the drought of papers was disappointing.

The dearth of papers related to Faulkner and digital anything, however, might be broadly indicative of the current state of Faulkner studies. That is, not too many people are thinking about Faulkner in digital terms. Why? One reason is institutional support: Creating a major digital project requires lots of money and talent, both from the humanities and the computer sciences. But the bigger, and maybe sadder, reason is that the number of people committed to studying Faulkner’s life and work may be dwindling, particularly outside the South. Few American students get through grade school without reading “A Rose for Emily” and / or “Barn Burning,” short stories that make it into almost every short story anthology not because they’re necessarily the greatest short stories Faulkner ever wrote, but because they’re the few available to be anthologized. Advanced students might read As I Lay Dying or possibly The Sound and the Fury. And then they read (as they should) other things, graduate, get jobs, have a mid-life crisis, get over it, and die.

Some of those students might read other things and maybe, while reading, encounter writers with a dynamic digital component, whether an online archive, pedagogical and / or research tools. Maybe that digital project wants collaborators. And those resources and opportunities may be one reason why those students are drawn to, for example, the work of Walt Whitman and Willa Cather (or William Blake or Christina Rossetti). Maybe that student goes on to get a PhD in literature (not a crazy idea). When I look at the tremendous site dedicated to Whitman, or the two devoted to Cather, or the number of sites devoted to specific periods or areas in literature, I think: maybe my next research project or teaching assignment will incorporate some of these rich resources. To be sure, Faulkner has some strong and truly wonderful, deeply creative digital projects associated with him, including John Padgett’s terrific resource, William Faulkner on the Web, and Stephen Railton’s incredible Faulkner at Virginia, Absalom, Absalom! Electronic, Interactive Chronology, and his newly launched, work-in-progress Digital Yoknapatawpha, but they feel like isolated instances and not part of a larger body of online resources (including a library archives and databases) and a working community of researchers working to bring Faulkner to students, teachers, researchers, Faulkner fans, and everyone else.

Fifty years after his death, Faulkner remains an important American writer. The best way to honor his life and his work, and the work of the many who have done so much over the years to make sure we understand and develop his importance to literature, is to use the trove of digital resources to read, enjoy, and think anew about his work. My panel proposal, therefore, is an important one because it seeks to raise awareness about the need for bringing Faulkner more deeply into the digital world and to ensure his presence remains with us.

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4 comments

Great post! Thanks very much for sharing all of this with us. A query: You title your post "Why Faulkner Needs the Digital Humanities," and although you make your involvement with Faulkner and DH very clear, I'm still left wondering why Faulkner's work would necessarily benefit from the DH.

I'm sure, of course, that it might. Whitman scholars have benefited from the sort of digital variorum of "Leaves of Grass" assembled by the Whitman Archive, which you link to above, in the project's clarification of the changes Whitman made from edition to edition. What corresponding projects and benefits do you see for Faulkner? You say that using digital tools and projects to reconceive our ideas about Faulkner is the "best way to honor his life and work." What kind of tools and projects are you thinking of?

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Kyle, Thanks for writing and pressing me to clarify how Faulkner’s work might benefit from digital tools and projects. To give you a couple examples, his work would benefit from the use of timelines and mapping. Some of these tools have already been put into use, most notably by Stephen Railton at the University of Virginia. Also, everyone would benefit if his archives (most of which are U of Virginia) had more substantial online presence.

As you may know, Faulkner’s work can be difficult to read in part because his plots, which range from the very basic to the complex, are rarely linear. So, timelines can be useful to help us figure out the basic what-happened-when in, for example, The Sound and the Fury (and there's already a good basic, static version of that). But a more sophisticated use of a timeline might reveal some of the deeper implications of Faulkner's thinking of time's behavior and his engagement of time in the novel's content and form. This is a novel obsessed with time, and linear time is in constant tension with nonlinear time. I wonder, for example, if the second section of novel (when Quentin Compson, who is obsessed / haunted with the past, travels around Cambridge and Boston before committing suicide) was plotted out on a timeline what might be revealed about the way time passes in this section and what that might reveal about the tension among different kinds of time represented in this section and the novel overall. That time line might have three lines: mechanical time, natural time (marked by changing shadows), and Quentin’s own private time, which is constantly interrupted by the other two times. During his perambulations, he attempts to stop time or slow it down. Does time really slow down? If not, is that because linear time is too pervasive and Quentin’s private time must succumb to it even though he (and Faulkner) understood that linear time is a construct? To complement the timeline, I’d like to map out Quentin’s route between Cambridge and Boston. Such a map might reveal that time passes differently depending on Quentin's location. A map and time line might make it more obvious than a close reading that Quentin’s sense of time’s passing (whether as a mechanical progression or slowing down or stopping) changes as the day grows later, and his frustration with linear time eases. Of course, maybe it’s not possible to chart time in this way for this book. Maybe there is no relationship to these temporal tensions and place. Knowing that would be useful, too, in part because it would show that the boundaries between time and place are blurry. Jean Paul Sartre has written about the novel, it's "metaphysics of time" is where “the order of the past is the order of the heart.”

That's a hypothetical project. There's actual ones, too. As I mentioned in the original post, a new, collaborative project currently under way at the University of Virginia is “Digital Yoknapatawpha,” led by Stephen Railton. A small group of Faulkner scholars (I am among them) are mapping out his work on a map Faulkner drew of his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, where many of his stories take place. We’ll be locating characters and events from stories on the map (which includes a timeline). One of the purposes is to get a better visual sense of how Faulkner visualized his invented universe. We hope it will bring him new readers, and foster the interest students and anyone else reading and studying Faulkner. Like any digital project, we hope it will deepen our understanding of his work and complicate it. We’re also interested in what gets lost by digitizing Faulkner in this way.

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Elizabeth, I have a colleague here at UCSB that might be interested in your panel! Candace Waid is one of our department's professors, so the grad students have no end of Faulkner to discuss. Considering our department's strong ties with the digital humanities communities, the DH/Faulkner crossover conversation is not as rare as it might be at other institutions. This colleague and I in particular have had serious discussions about how to DH work with Faulkner. Shoot me an email and I'll introduce you.

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Amanda, Thanks so much for writing and mentioning Candace Waid. She has participated in the Faulkner Conference in the past, and she has done wonderful work on Faulkner. It’s great to learn that there is a substantial conversation about DH/Faulkner going on in other places besides the University of Virginia and in the heads of a few Faulknerians scattered around the country. I did, in fact, manage to put together a panel on Faulkner and DH, and I’ve submitted it to the conference. Otherwise, I would instantly take you up on your offer to help me solicit something from Prof. Waid or someone else at Duke. This certainly won’t be the last DH/Faulkner panel, and in the near future I hope to see more projects being rolled out, discussed, and analyzed. Is Prof. Waid or anyone else at Duke doing any research specific to Faulkner that uses digital tools? I would love to hear more about it either here at HASTAC or in a separate email.

Apologies for taking so long to respond to both of these terrific comments.

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