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William Clark Falkner

William Clark Falkner

Soldier, statesman, railroad-builder, and author, Colonel William Falkner’s importance to northeast Mississippi and his influence on his great-grandson named after him, William Faulkner, is immense.

The details of William Clark Falkner’s life are obscured by legend, beginning with his date of birth on July 6, 1826 (some scholars say 1825) in Knox County, Tennessee. Family lore asserts that the name was originally spelled Faulkner but that the Colonel dropped the “u.” While still very young, Falkner moved with his family to St. Genevieve, Missouri; at age seventeen, however, he went to Pontotoc, Mississippi, to live with his uncle, T. I. Word, but ended up settling in Ripley, Mississippi.

In Ripley, Falkner led an action-packed life that, though more thoroughly recorded than his childhood, is equally colored by myth. He first distinguished himself in 1845 when he helped capture an ax murderer and prevented a mob from lynching him by writing a pamphlet entitled The Life and Confession of A. J. MacCannon, Murderer of the Adcock Family. After serving in the Mexican War, Falkner returned to Ripley where he married Holland Pearce and began a law practice. He lived peacefully until 1849, at which time he became involved in a feud that would leave two men—Robert Hindman and Erasmus Morris—dead and a third, Thomas Hindman, spoiling for a duel. Falkner’s wife died the same year.

By 1851, things had taken a positive turn for Falkner: he had managed to disentangle himself from the Hindman affair, and he met and married Elizabeth Vance, whom legend asserts he had originally encountered as a child when he first arrived in Mississippi. When the Civil War began, Falkner helped organize a company named the “Magnolia Rifles,” which joined with other companies to form the Second Mississippi Infantry of which he was elected Colonel. He led this regiment with distinction most notably at First Manassas before being demoted in a subsequent election of officers. He struggled to regain some form of military leadership and did raise a new company named the “Mississippi Partisan Rangers,” but for various reasons he never attained a prominent position in the Confederate army.

After the war, he played an active role in Reconstruction, helping rebuild the northern part of the state and starting The Ship Island, Ripley, and Kentucky Railroad Company. On November 5, 1889, having just been assured of his election to the Mississippi state legislature, Falkner was shot and killed on the square by former business partner R. J. Thurmond. Although the shot itself was not fatal, the bullet lodged in Falkner’s neck, causing his throat to swell until he choked to death the next night.

Colonel Falkner’s literary output was limited but popularly successful. His first two works were an epic poem about the Mexican War entitled The Siege of Monterey and a romantic novel, The Spanish Heroine. He also wrote a play, The Lost Diamond, no copies of which have survived. His most important work, however, was The White Rose of Memphis; serialized in the Ripley Advertiser, this novel told of the maiden cruise of a steamboat named The White Rose of Memphis and featured a dual murder-mystery plot so engaging to nineteenth and early twentieth century readers that it saw multiple printings.

Following this success, Falkner wrote two more books, Rapid Ramblings in Europe—a travel book resembling Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad—and another novel, The Little Brick Church, later reprinted in abridged form as Lady Olivia.

Colonel William Clark Falkner’s impact on the literary world through his own writing is minimal, but the importance of his life and work on his great-grandson, William Faulkner, is great and has been duly noted by scholars. As a child, Faulkner reportedly said, “I want to be a writer like my great-granddaddy.” Not only did Faulkner emulate his colorful ancestor, the Colonel provided the model for Colonel John Sartoris, whose ghostly presence haunts Flags in the Dust (originally published as Sartoris in 1929), which Faulkner identified as “the germ of my apocrypha.” Not only does Colonel Falkner form the basis for Colonel Sartoris in Flags in the Dust, The Unvanquished, and several short stories, elements of his life also find their way into Colonel Thomas Sutpen and even Flem Snopes, who arrives from nowhere and rises to a position of prominence in Yoknapatawpha County.

Of Falkner’s own works, The White Rose of Memphis has received the most scholarly attention; although ponderous, it is a unique and entertaining work of post-Reconstruction fiction and a landmark in the literary history of the Fa(u)lkner family and Mississippi.

(Article first posted June 2003)

Taylor Hagood

Related Links & Info

Descendants who are also writers include:

Murry C. Falkner
Jimmy Faulkner
John Faulkner
William Faulkner
Dean Faulkner Wells

Publications

Fiction:

  • The Life and Confession of A. J. MacCannon, Murderer of the Adcock Family. [Publication information unknown], 1845.
  • The Siege of Monterey. Cincinnati: By the Author, 1851.
  • The Spanish Heroine. Cincinnati: I. Hart, 1851.
  • The Lost Diamond. [Published in the Ripley Advertiser; specifics unknown], 1867.
  • The White Rose of Memphis. New York: G. W. Dillingham, 1881.
  • Rapid Ramblings in Europe. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1882.
  • The Little Brick Church. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1882.
  • Lady Olivia: A Novel. New York: G. W. Dillingham, 1895.

Bibliography:

Books and Articles:

  • Allen, Lourie Strickland. Colonel William C. Falkner: Writer of Romance and Realism. Dissertation. University of Alabama, 1972.
  • Blotner, Joseph. Faulkner: A Biography. Vol. 1. New York: Random House, 1974.
  • Bondurant, Alexander. “William C. Falkner, Novelist.” Publications of the Mississippi Historical Society 3 (1900): 113-25.
  • Brown, Andrew. “The First Mississippi Partisan Rangers, C. S. A.” Civil War History 1 (1955): 371-79.
  • Brown, Calvin S. “Colonel Falkner As General Reader: The White Rose of Memphis.” Mississippi Quarterly 30 (1977): 585-95.
  • Cantwell, Robert. “Introduction.” The White Rose of Memphis. New York: Coley Taylor, 1953. v-xxvii.
  • Duclos, Donald P. “Colonel Falkner: Prototype and Influence.” The Faulkner Journal 2.2 (1987): 28-34.
  • ---. Son of Sorrow: The Life, Works and Influence of Colonel William C. Falkner, 1825-1889. San Francisco: International Scholars Publications, 1998.
  • Hagood, Raymond Allen. Ripley Rebel: The Life and Times of Colonel William Falkner. Hayti, Missouri: Hagood, 1972.
  • Kinney, Arthur. ed. Critical Essays on William Faulkner: The Sartoris Family. Boston: Hall, 1985.
  • Murphy, James B. “Falkner, William Clark: 1826-1889.” Ed. James B. Lloyd. Lives of Mississippi Authors, 1817-1967. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1981. 160-62. (Reprinted http://www.wvu.edu/~lawfac/jelkins/lp-2001/falkner.html at Strangers to Us All, by James R. Elkins.)
  • Puryear, Joan Copeland. Life and Legend of Colonel W. C. Falkner as Source for Colonel John Sartoris. M. A. thesis. Florida State University, 1969.
  • Volpe, Edmund L. “Response to ‘Colonel Falkner: Prototype and Influence’ and ‘An Episode of War in The Unvanquished.’” The Faulkner Journal 2.2 (1987): 45-46.
  • Williamson, Joel. William Faulkner and Southern History. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993.
  • Winston, Edmund T. “Life of Colonel Falkner: A Glorious Word Picture of the Founder of the G. M. & N. by One Who Has Studied His Life.” G. M. & N. News (November 27, 1925): 5-9.

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