The great-grandfather of Nobel Prize–winning novelist William Faulkner, Col. William Clark Falkner was a significant figure in nineteenth-century North Mississippi, distinguishing himself as a soldier, railroad builder, and author.
There is some discrepancy regarding Falkner’s birth—various accounts set his birthdate at 6 July 1825 or 1826. Another question concerns whether his last name was actually spelled Faulkner and he removed the u, which his great-grandson later either added or replaced. He was born in Knox County, Tennessee; moved to St. Genevieve, Missouri, early in his youth; and at age seventeen went to Pontotoc, Mississippi, to live with his uncle, T. I. Word. Sometime between 1842 and 1845, he moved to Ripley, where another uncle, John Wesley Thompson, lived.
Falkner spent the rest of his life in Ripley. He first emerged as a public figure in town when he interviewed A. J. MacCannon, who had killed an entire family with an ax, and published his life story. In 1846–47 Falkner fought in the Mexican War, receiving wounds in his left foot and hand. After returning to Ripley he became embroiled in a feud with the Hindman family. Difficulties started when rumors spread that Falkner had blackballed Robert Hindman’s membership in the Knights of Temperance. (There is no evidence of Falkner having done so.) In 1849 Hindman attempted to shoot Falkner, but the gun misfired, and Falkner stabbed his assailant to death. Hindman’s family inscribed his tombstone with the words Murdered by W. C. Falkner and only grudgingly changed it to Killed by W. C. Falkner after Falkner’s acquittal. The enmity between the Falkners and Hindmans continued to grow over the next few years, resulting in Falkner’s killing Erasmus W. Morris, a friend of the family’s, in 1851 and culminating in a proposed duel between Falkner and Thomas Hindman Jr. The duel was averted by the intervention of M. C. Galloway, who managed finally to make peace among the enemies, but Falkner had become a much-disliked figure in town.
When the Civil War began, Falkner helped raise Company F, the Magnolia Rifles, and was elected its colonel. This company joined with others to become the 2nd Mississippi Infantry Regiment. Shortly before the first Battle of Manassas, Falkner was promoted to brigadier general of a brigade made up of the 2nd and 11th Mississippi, the 4th Alabama, and the 1st Tennessee Regiments, but he resigned the position immediately after learning that it might eventually bring about a separation from his original regiment. In the battle itself, Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard dubbed Falkner the Knight of the Black Plume, and some have argued that Falkner, not Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, was described as “standing like a stone wall.” Although Falkner later campaigned for election to command the 2nd Mississippi, he was defeated by a candidate whom the soldiers saw as more lenient. Nevertheless, Falkner maintained the title of colonel not only for the rest of the war but for the remainder of his life. In fact, his descendants referred to him after his death as the Old Colonel, partly to distinguish him from one of his sons, who moved to Oxford and was often called the Young Colonel.
Falkner married Holland Pearce in Ripley in 1847, and they had one son, John Wesley Thompson Falkner (grandfather of the Nobel laureate), before her death in 1849. Two years later, Falkner married his childhood sweetheart, Elizabeth Vance, and they went on to have eight children. Falkner also fathered at least one child by one of his slaves. Active in Reconstruction, he built the Ship Island, Ripley, and Kentucky Railroad Company, the first narrow-gauge railroad in North Mississippi. Although still a controversial figure in Ripley, he had established himself as a public figure of significant popularity. He then turned his attention to politics, campaigning for election to the state legislature. This new career path and his life ended on 5 November 1889, the eve of his successful election, when his former railroad partner and now political rival, Richard Thurmond, shot and killed him on the Ripley town square.
Although Falkner led a multifaceted and intriguing life, he is best known today as a figure connected with literature. He wrote numerous books in multiple genres. In addition to The Life and Confession of A. J. MacCannon, Murderer of the Adcock Family, his works included The Siege of Monterey (an epic poem), The Spanish Heroine and The Little Brick Church (romantic novels), The Lost Diamond (a play), and Rapid Ramblings in Europe (a travel book). His most famous book, The White Rose of Memphis, was reprinted several times until the mid-twentieth century.
Falkner is also remembered through the writings of his great-grandson—not only because William Faulkner sought to emulate his namesake’s writing but also because the Old Colonel served as the model for numerous characters in Faulkner’s novels, most obviously Col. John Sartoris, who closely resembles Falkner and whose gravesite statue as described in Flags in the Dust is identical to Falkner’s, which still stands in Ripley. Also modeled partly on Falkner is Col. Thomas Sutpen of Absalom, Absalom!, who is known as the Knight of the Black Plume. Scholars have also argued that Faulkner may have been thinking of his great-grandfather when creating Flem Snopes, since the poor white character comes from someplace unknown to become a major figure in the hamlet of Frenchman’s Bend and the town of Jefferson.
- Joseph Blotner, Faulkner: A Biography (1974)
- Robert Cantwell, introduction to The White Rose of Memphis (1953)
- Donald P. Duclos, Son of Sorrow: The Life, Works, and Influence of Colonel William C. Falkner, 1825–1889 (1998)
- Arthur F. Kinney, Critical Essays on William Faulkner: The Sartoris Family (1985)
- James B. Murphy, in Lives of Mississippi Authors, 1817–1967, ed. James B. Lloyd (1981)
- Joel Williamson, William Faulkner and Southern History (1993)