Make Room for Elvis


"He who denies his heritage has no heritage."

Mission statement in St. Jude Children's Research Hospital

     I'd like to begin by expressing my thanks to John Duvall, Don Kartiganer, and Ann Abadie for inviting me back to this conference and my appreciation to the many people at Ole Miss, in Oxford, and beyond who made it possible for me to be here today. A special thanks as well goes to my colleague Jim Carothers, who encouraged me to come here for the first time when he presented a paper at the Faulkner and the Short Story Conference back in 1990 or 1991, threatening that it might be the last time he would attend. (Clever ruse!). At that conference, I began to dimly recognize the community of individuals--past, present, and to come--whose lives, achievements, and fellowship would come to mean much more to me than I was capable of understanding. I did not believe then, as I do now, in the primary significance of relationships to all that we know, feel, do, and hope for. I did not then understand how thoroughly I am formed through relationships. That primacy I am attributing to relationships is one assumption that underlies this paper, which is why my title resonates with the problematics of relationships, particularly within the family.
     Alluding to Danny Thomas's 1950's TV show Make Room for Daddy, with its quirky suggestion that Daddy doesn't quite fit in, my title is aimed at challenging the commonsensical belief that Elvis and Faulkner have little or nothing in common. It is strange how commonalities appear, even when you are not looking for them. When I struck upon the title of this paper, for example, I did not realize that Elvis actually had an association with Danny Thomas. At the very least, Elvis Presley appeared with Danny Thomas in order to raise funds for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, which Thomas founded in Memphis. Two days after I delivered this paper, at Graceland Too, Paul McLeod's Elvis museum and archive in Holly Springs, Mississippi, I saw an elegant black and white photo of Elvis with Danny Thomas. Calligraphically inscribed in the dome of the Danny Thomas/ALSAC (American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities) Pavillion of the Hospital are three maxims, one of which I have taken as an epigraph to this paper: "He who denies his heritage has no heritage." In spite of their strikingly different cultural significance, Elvis and Faulkner share the problematic heritage of the American South.
     The idea of pairing Faulkner and Elvis was not mine; rather, I fell upon it the last time I was in Oxford, in the summer of 95. I like to review the memorabilia I collected that summer, which has already begun to yellow. I spread it out across my bed and am reminded by my own motley collection of printed matter of the unprocessed contents of the boxes or "time capsules" stored in the archives of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. From time to time, Warhol just swept the stuff that he had accumulated into a cardboard box, labelling it with a date, and recognizing it as a kind of raw material history, similar to the capsules sent down during the Kennedy era into the recesses of the earth, for posterity. My collection of ephemera from the summer of Faulkner and Elvis begs for order and meaning -- whether through some orderly scrapbook process of selection and classification or through some wilder aesthetic effort at historical arrangement and interpretation.
     I just fell into this. I was in Oxford to present a paper at the Faulkner Conference, but the Elvis Conference, which began the following week, began to seem more and more important to me. It was as if I had never before realized that Elvis was a southerner, born and raised no more than a hundred miles from Faulkner. As if I had never stopped to think that, when Elvis was born on January 8, 1935, Faulkner was only thirty-seven years old, or that when Faulkner passed away on July 6, 1962, Elvis was already twenty-seven. Simply processing the fact that these two figures had occupied the same world for twenty-seven of the same years was an imaginative challenge. Their purchase on that world had been so different, and they have come to stand for ways of feeling and being that seem impossibly distant from one another. It startled me with the reminder that time and place and culture are processes that people take part in, not fixed elements they inhabit together. I imagine Faulkner and Elvis as a Janus-faced couple, tied to one another yet each ineluctably facing the opposite direction.
     My cats scratch and sniff at the detritus that constitutes my hasty record of that provocative time and place, sensually rubbing themselves or entirely flopping down upon Chamber of Commerce booster literature, newspaper clippings, lecture and conference announcements, posters, merchandise order-forms, and crumpled receipts. Plaster, our eleven-pound white male, settles heavily on "Faulkner in Cultural Context," the poster and conference program cover whose predictable format announced the 22d Annual Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference, while his sister Paris, our eight-pound black female, paws at the cover of the ample yet elegant Elvis Conference programme. 1
     Capaciously entitled ?"n Search of Elvis: Music, Race, Religion, Art, Performance," Ole Miss's First International Conference on Elvis Presley was stylishly presented; the artwork for the Elvis poster also appeared on the glossy cover of the 40-page program. Yet for all the classy swag, Oxford seemed less hospitable to the Elvis Conference than it was to the Faulkner Conference, which it had hosted for the twenty-second consecutive year. More comfortable with its affiliation with William Faulkner and his fictional town of Jefferson, Oxford felt awkward being asked to adopt Elvis, who--as if his distance from Faulkner could be measured in miles--was born a good fifty miles East of Oxford and grew up even further away, after the Presleys moved from East Tupelo to Memphis in 1948.
     Natural as it was to present itself as the home of William Faulkner, it was apparently unsettling for some residents of Oxford to be called upon to accommodate the glitzy and widely noted Elvis Conference. Oxford had of course been disturbed before. It suffered a Yankee invasion during the Civil War, entertained the lynching of Nelse Patton right on the Square in 1908, and furnished principals and extras for the on-location shooting of Faulkner's Nobel Prize winning Intruder in the Dust in 1948. During the making of that film, embarassing as it may be to recall, special arrangements had to be made in order to lodge the cast and crew's people of color. Faulkner himself, when he hosted a party at Rowan Oak, deemed it necessary to exclude the film's main character, who might otherwise show up with his non-white local hosts. Ten years later, Oxford was even more disturbed when the efforts of James Meredith to attend Ole Miss provoked riots, National Guardsmen, and a curfew. Recollections of this period, which commenced a few months after Faulkner's death, are not frequently volunteered and, as far as I know, are little explored by Faulkner scholars. Quiet as it's kept, the erasure of this violently conflicted history from Oxford's self-presentation might be linked in a subtle way to the ambivalence with which Oxford and Ole Miss greeted the Elvis Conference.
     After its second summer, the Conference was dispatched from Oxford and relocated in Memphis by conference founder and former Ole Miss faculty member Vernon Chadwick. Signs of ambivalence surfaced about a month before the conference, when Oxford's Mayor John Leslie vetoed the decision of the town board, which perennially supports the Faulkner Conference, to appropriate $7,000 to the Elvis Conference. Described as a "cultural war," the conflict was featured in a pun-ridden article published in the Boston Globe on July 4th. In the article, Oxford's back-to-back conferences were presented as though they were contestants in a poetry slam. Below a headline that read "Sound and Fury arising over Elvis at Ole Miss," two short columns of copy were topped by identically sized head shots of Faulkner and Elvis. Below the photo of Faulkner--haloed by books, gazing studiously downcast, and sporting a neat shirt and tie, the caption read: "Challenged in hometown." Above the caption""King' goes academic"was a late and cheesy photo of Elvis, his face as poofy as his hair and open shirtcollar, the background vacant, like his gaze and once impudent lip.
     Interviewed for the Boston Globe article, Bill Ferris, founder and Director of the Center for Southern Studies, which sponsored the Elvis conference, and current Director of the National Endowment for the Humanities, described the controversy over the conference as "a feud between the landed gentry and the redneck arrivistes, the Compsons and the Snopeses," as silly as "a skit on 'saturday Night Live'." However, underneath the antics and bluster, this prominent native Mississippian perceived a more serious conflict rooted in longstanding structures of privilege connected with class and race.
'Here you had a poor kid whose dream was to come to Ole Miss and play football,' he said, referring to Presley's boyhood days in nearby Tupelo. 'But he was from the working class and couldn't get in. Blacks were not allowed here back then, either. Faulkner came from the privileged, educated elite, and this was his school. There is a deep and enduring division between the powerful elite, whose literary canon is represented by Faulkner, and the working class and blacks whose values are represented by Elvis.'
The Boston Globe did not pursue the history and life of this deep and enduring social divide, nor did it interrogate Ferris's arguable claim that Elvis represented both white working class and black values. Instead, the article focussed on the provocative yet previously unthought similarities between Faulkner and Elvis. Like the majority of other articles covering the Elvis Conference, this newspaper article recognized that, unlikely as it seemed, Faulkner and Elvis were related. The Globe piece noted that both Faulkner and Elvis wore outlandish clothing, had nicknames associated with royalty, went to Hollywood yet maintained a residence in the South, and inhabited large homes that became shrines after their deaths. More extended interrogations of this conceit have also been offered by academics such as Charles Reagan Wilson, Karal Ann Marling, and Joel Williamson.2 Elvis's biographer Peter Guralnick opens the first volume of his two-volume biography with an imaginary depiction of the famous 1950 meeting between Sam Phillips and Dewey Phillips at the Peabody Drugstore. Guralnick suggests -- who knows?-- that Faulkner, who always stayed at the Peabody when he visited Memphis, might have witnessed the very scene.3
     The questions and challenges that arose from the powerful yet failed effort to bring Faulkner and Elvis together at an institutional level raises an impressively broad range of questions concerning cultural values and the social interests they serve. Linked, as Bill Ferris noted, to structures of privilege associated with class and race, the issues surrounding the poor local reception of the Elvis Conference are thoughtfully explored by Vernon Chadwick in his lively and theoretically sophisticated introduction to the published proceedings of the Conference. Chadwick's exploration of these issues may explain why many people respond with baffled amusement or disdain to any attempt to relate the lives and careers of Faulkner and Elvis. It is not, as my big brother inquired, that Elvis wrote anything that I could compare to Faulkner's writing, or that Faulkner sang or moved his body in any way I might compare to the inimitable style of Elvis.4 Rather, I would like to explore the southern heritage that Faulkner and Elvis share, as well as the points of difference that lead most people to see them as light years apart.


     Interested for a long time in the indirect methods Faulkner employed to weave undeveloped topics into those that emerge in his work as prominent themes, I ultimately began to link Faulkner's methods of indirection to his everpresent yet superficial examination of African-American history and life, an examination that testifies, as I read it, to the profound impact that 20th-century Black migration had on relationships, identities, and culture in the South.5 Given my efforts to flesh out this underdeveloped thematic in Faulkner's writing, and to place it in historical and cultural context, it is a surprisingly short leap to Elvis, who was born into and shaped by the same historical environment. Rather than simply opposing the elite Faulkner to the working-class Elvis, or claiming that either figure in any way stands for African-American experience in the South, I would like to explore the ways in which each related to and deployed the racialized markers of southern identity, particularly as the meaning and value of these markers was renegotiated during the 50-odd-year-period (1915-60s) of mass Black migration. Racialized markers of deportment, for example, included the way a person dressed, held his or her body, walked, directed or averted his or her gaze, used terms of address, etc. Both Faulkner and Elvis revealed that what was Black and what White in southern culture, fixed as Jim Crow sought to make it, was particularly hard to delineate, and although both drew expectations, behaviors, practices, and styles from a shared fund of racialized signifiers, neither drew freely from this fund. Family history, as I will suggest, led them to adopt and relate to racialized markers of identity with different degrees of freedom and constraint. Faulkner frequently appeared in public wearing raggedy old jackets and trousers, for example, although such clothing was a marker of poverty and rural Blackness, yet he would never have dressed in the flashy brightly colored clothing Elvis bought on Beale Street, racial markers of urbanized African-American identity.
     Within the context of the broad period from the settlement of the southwest frontier to the development of newly discovered electronic frontiers, the recording and broadcasting industries, I want to briefly sketch out the history and life of two families, William Faulkner's and Elvis Presley's. Both families trace their ancestry to Scotch-Irish immigrants and to a pioneering male descendant who joined the 19th-century mass migration from the coastal south to the southwest frontier. Renowned and colorful, Faulkner's paternal great-grandfather William C. Falkner, known as the Old Colonel, bequeathed to his great-grandson and namesake a contradictory and inexhaustible legacy of entrepreneurship, authorship, soldiering, landholding, empire-building, railroad owning, office holding, lawyering, slaveholding, murdering, bastarding, horsing, drinking, and hunting (see figure 1). First and foremost, however, he bequeathed his financial and cultural capital to an eldest son J.W.T. Falkner (Faulkner's grandfather) who was able to keep it. Lawyer, statesman, inheritor of a railroad (which he sold), and founder of a bank, this man's success as a lawyer, solid citizenship, and financial conservativism succeeded in maintaining the elite status that was bequeathed to William Faulkner, despite the perception in Oxford that he was an outsider, drank too much, and couldn't trace his family back farther than the Old Colonel.6
     The closest comparable forefather in Elvis's ancestry is his maternal great-great-great grandfather William Mansell (d. 1842) (see figure 2). After fighting in Andrew Jackson's campaigns against the Creeks and the Seminoles, Mansell ironically married the full-blood Cherokee Morning Dove White (1800-35), with whom he migrated from Tennessee to Alabama, bought farmland, and built a substantial home. Morning Dove died giving birth to their third child. Of these children, the most prosperous was the middle child, Morning Dizenie Mansell (b. 1832), who married the town doctor, a large landowner. Of their twelve children, the males included three farmers, one minister, a merchant, and two doctors. William and Morning Dove's eldest son John, from whom Elvis is descended, also had at least a dozen children, but his children did not fare so well.
     Seven years old when he lost his Cherokee mother, perhaps John Mansell was unable to reconcile the conflicting legacy that descended to him as the eldest son of a White Indian fighter and a Cherokee mother. Appetitive and profligate, John fathered children by several women before abandoning the family farm and his wife, her sister his mistress, and his numerous offspring. According to Elaine Dundy, who conducted the research on Elvis's maternal ancestry, he ran off with another woman and relocated in Oxford, Mississippi, in 1880, under the name of Colonel Lee Mansell.7 If so, then Faulkner's great-grandfather William C. Falkner, who was murdered in fall 1889, and his son J.W.T. (1848-1922), are likely to have known the man who dissipated (squandered or renounced?) Elvis's birthright.
     Faulkner derived from his family a materially fading yet culturally vital legacy of wealth and achievement, whereas Elvis inherited from his a legacy of false starts, abandonments, and dispossessions. Whereas four generations of Falkners moved from one large house to another, with roots and property in Oxford, Mississippi, Elvis's maternal and paternal descendants were ever and always on the move, sharecroppers for more than four generations (see figures 2 and 3). Moving as often as once every two years, it is dizzying to count the number of residences Elvis's mother Gladys occupied during her childhood and adolescence before settling, after the untimely death of her father and at the age of 19, in East Tupelo, Mississippi, where she met and married Elvis's father Vernon. In short, whereas the property and social status acquired by one pioneering ancestor did devolve to William Faulkner, in the case of Elvis, the legacy followed a different course. Thus, although Elvis's family shared a history of immigration, pioneering, military service, and professional distinction with White southern families like the Falkners, a history that depended on the "forced removal" of Native Americans and the enslavement of African Americans, their history of landlessness, dispossession, and itinerancy intersected with that of White southern families like Faulkner's Snopeses and with those of the Native American, African American, and mixed race southern families that Faulkner left largely underrepresented and nameless.
     In order to emphasize here the intersection of Elvis Presley's family history with that of millions of Afro-southerners, I must mention briefly the development of the so-called New South, a name that signified the relatively belated post-World War I arrival to the southern states of the changing political economy associated with modernization, rural-to-urban migration, industrialization, and proletarianization. With World War I also came the first peak of Black mass migration from the South, a phenomenon that resulted by the 1960s in a net out-migration of around six million Afro-southerners. Already associated with Afro-southerners because of their poverty and landlessness, southern families like the Presleys were coded Blacker still when, beginning in 1915, hundreds of thousands of Black southerners managed for the first time in history to leave the South or to move from the rural South to the city. For hundreds of years, Southern culture had depended on the immobilization of Afro-southerners, so it was radically destabilized by the newfound mobility and sudden departure of hundreds of thousands of African Americans.
     Yet this destabilization and recirculation of racial markers served to profit Elvis Presley, who in the forties and fifties drew upon previously taboo signifiers of Blackness to capitalize on and introduce into the repertoire of Whiteness a new and unheard of identity and style. William Faulkner, on the other hand, confronted this destabilization of racial identity from a different vantage point. For Faulkner, the unsettling impact of Black migration on the racialized signifiers of southern identities threatened to erode his privileges and opportunities. His sensitivity to this environment as a threat made him particularly attentive to the sudden motility of southern identities, and he used his writing to construct portraits of characters in various states of self-making and undoing, with varying capacities for resistance or adaptation to change. (What suddenly comes to mind, perhaps because of my dozen years in the state of Kansas, is the scene in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy conquers the Wicked Witch of the West by dousing her with a bucket of water. I hear the Witch screaming as she melts, dissolving as she cedes her former domain.) Faulkner's sensitivity to this destabilized context informs such dissolving and reconstituting racialized characters as the Compsons (and their servants) in The Sound and the Fury, Temple Drake and Popeye in Sanctuary, the Reverend Hightower and Joe Christmas in Light in August, the Sutpens, legitimate and illegitimate, in Absalom, Absalom!, etc. As both Faulkner and Elvis demonstrate, each in his own way, this period of destabilization was felt not only as a shortage of labor in the fields and in some people's homes but also as a crisis or turning point at the core of personal identities, an upheaval of the long and elaborate chains of signifiers that once served to maintain the interconnected and assymetrically empowered distinctions that separated Black from White. Thus, the specific experience of change in the post-World War I South, although it intersected with the disillusionment of an entire "lost generation," was uniquely enmeshed with the newfound mobility of Afro-southerners and the destabilization of racialized identities that it brought about.
     Among the southern identities destabilized by increasing Black mobility was that of the ancestral pioneer, whose descendants looked to that ancestor to legitimate the proprietary privileges and rights they claimed in the South. The legitimacy of this figure was destabilized when Blacks became as mobile and potentially pioneering as the White ancestral pioneer of the southwest frontier. The clash of the various meanings associated, on the one hand, with the heroic White pioneers of the so-called frontier and, on the other, with the ignoble Black southerners venturing to leave the South with similar hopes for bettering their fortunes, produced insoluble contradictions. This once resilient image of the pioneering southwestern settler, which had not been tarnished by the forced migration of African slaves or by the wars of extermination and forced dislocation of indigenous peoples, was suddenly collapsing. Black migration seems to have opened a festering wound, that was perhaps already brought to a head by the turn-of-the-century influx of millions of "swarthy" eastern and southern European immigrants, eroding the heroic signification of mobility in American culture.
     Twentieth-century mobility, associated with sharecropping in the South and with factory jobs within and beyond the region, was not a strictly Afro-southern phenomenon. As sociologist John Shelton Reed pointed out at the 1995 Elvis Conference, "[b]y the beginning of the twentieth century, many of the South's white yeomen had lost their land and had joined the great majority of southern blacks as sharecroppers and tenant farmers. Half the South's farmers--two-thirds of all cotton farmers--didn't own the land they farmed, and half of the South's tenants and sharecroppers were white." Reed also emphasized that many of these white southerners migrated, as the Presleys did, to southern cities, and thus participated in one of the largest mass migrations in history, ten million people by 1960, of whom Reed counts two-thirds White (90). Yet the unprecedented inclusion of masses of African Americans in this migration, however one calculates the racial percentages, fundamentally altered the cultural significance of mobility.
     For reasons I have tried to suggest, Faulkner's writings register this change. Published by Random House in an edition of 6,000 copies just a few months before Elvis's birth, Faulkner's 1936 Absalom, Absalom!, for example, depicts the eroding impact of racial markings in the life of the wannabe ancestral pioneer, Thomas Sutpen. Moving as a child from the coastal south to the southwest frontier, Sutpen's migration narrative reveals, behind his determined effort to achieve higher status, Sutpen's anxious desire to distinguish himself from Blacks. According to this allegorical narrative, the racialized displacement and disorientation of his surviving descendants, who are all isolated, deranged, lost, or incompetent, can be blamed on Sutpen's single-minded design. Notably, Faulkner confines his attribution of cause for what he recognizes as a crisis in the values of racialized markers of identity to the overreaching of white men, failing to mention the threat levelled against White southern identity when millions of Black men and women began to succeed in migrating from the South. For me, Faulkner and Elvis come together in this narrative, in which I would cast Colonel Lee Mansell as the ferociously determined Thomas Sutpen, whose belatedness and outrageous extremity ennobles those slightly better established families like the Compsons who, if read as stand-ins for later fictional families like Faulkner's McCaslins or for actual families like the Falkners, had also left behind and repudiated "shadow" families.8
     In Faulkner, migration in the lives of post-Reconstruction white tenant farmers or sharecroppers like the Bundrens or the Snopeses no longer has any connection to empire-building but is embedded in the degradations of modernization, urbanization, industrialization, and Northernization in the South. In As I Lay Dying, "Barn Burning," If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, and the Snopes trilogy, Faulkner emphasizes the outrage of poor white folks, with little opportunity to move from the rural environments in which they were tenant farmers or seasonal migrant laborers, except by abandoning agrarian life and joining the degraded economy and culture Faulkner associated with the city. At times, the racialized encoding of these figures is so fluid that it becomes difficult for readers to be certain about which characters in Faulkner are White and which Black, an uncertainty Faulkner thematized in Light in August. As much to assuage his own guilty part as to reflect first-hand knowledge of the ubiquity (call it universality) of bitter feelings and dashed hopes, Faulkner's writings not only reveal the intensified crossing of racialized markers of identity but also the anxiety that attends this crossing on all sides of the divide. Outraged folks -- aggressive, self-destructive, desperate, stubborn, shortsighted -- increasingly cross gender, class, and racial lines in Faulkner, expressing the underlying anxiety that drove all the deeply divided people who had a share, however unequal, in the past. Bayard Sartoris, Jason Compson, Anse Bundren, Rosa Coldfield, the tall convict, Lucas Beauchamp, Mink Snopes, William Faulkner, Elvis Presley -- something of the same anxiety drove them all as they sought to hold on to or acquire a viable position in life in or, failing that, to find a way to even the score for their disappointments.
     For all their differences, both Faulkner and Elvis, an eldest and an only son (whose twin brother was stillborn), were sensitive to the disappointments of their parents. Faulkner's father Murry, like his son William, was not a motivated student at the University of Mississippi. He was more interested in, even passionate about, the family concern, the Gulf & Ship Island Railroad and, after two years at the University, he quit school to work on the line. Shovelling coal in 1888, when he first began, Murry had been an engineer for six years when he eloped with Maud Butler, against her mother Lelia's wishes, in 1896. Two years later he had two sons and a promotion, and by 1901, when his third son was born, Murry owned a farm, where he raised horses and bird dogs, and a share in the Ripley pharmacy. His father J.W.T.'s professional life was also prospering (a state senator and Universtiy trustee, he owned a farm, other real estate, and was involved in a developing telephone company), and, for reasons no one has fathomed, he decided to sell the profitable railroad, his eldest son's passion. Murry, who lived another thirty years, never seems to have recovered from this unexpected dislocation and, according to Blotner, never forgave his wife Maud for having refused at this point to leave Mississippi and move West on the uncertain hope that he would find a way to become a cattle rancher.
     Faulkner's mother Maud had reasons of her own for refusing to leave home and family in pursuit of her husband's fantasy. Little was known about Maud's family until historian Joel Williamson, who also disclosed the African-American "shadow family" of William C. Falkner, discovered more about the marital indiscretion and hot-tempered feud that led Maud's father Charles E. Butler, the turn-of-the-century town sheriff, to leave Oxford, where his father had been the town surveyer and a large property owner, and abandon his family (see figures 1 and 4). Left penniless and forced to turn for support to extended family members, it was Maud and not her elder brother Sherwin who assumed responsibility for their mother Lelia. Maud was unwilling to relinquish the financial security and social respectability her marriage to Murry had promised. When her husband's fortunes changed and he lost his will to renew them, Maud must have turned redoubled expectations upon her sons, particularly her eldest William, to recuperate the fragile family legacy.
     Notoriously spoiled, Elvis's maternal grandmother Doll grew up in the unstable, crowded, tumultuous environment her father White devoted his life to overcoming. Having resettled in Lee County, Mississippi, with two of his brothers, White had already married and had four children, including Doll, by the time his father ran off to Oxford ten years later. Tenant farming afforded him a large enough home to accommodate his mother, her sister, and their offspring, and his home was also large enough to take in his sister Ann and her children when Ann left her husband. White remarried after his wife died in 1887 but lost his house in the panic of 1890, leaving his extended family to shift as best they could as sharecroppers, forced to reside in an endless string of tiny, crowded, run-down houses. Doll's life changed little when, at the ripe age of 27, she married her first cousin Robert Lee Smith, a poor sharecropper but a renowned moonshiner. Neglected by her neurasthenic mother, Elvis's mother Gladys, one of eight children and reputedly lazy like her mother, was cared for by her elder sisters. Gladys's often-remarked nervousness, a byproduct of the constant movement to which she was compelled to adjust, became temporarily debilitating when she lost her father; for some time, she suffered uncontrollable shakes whenever she tried to leave the house.
     Elvis's father Vernon, however, was descended from a different sort of woman (see figure 3). When Elvis paternal great-great grandfather abandoned his multiple wives and their children, his daughter Rosella (Elvis's great-grandmother) became a sharecropper herself and, although she had ten children, including Elvis's grandfather J.D., she never told any of them the identity or identities of their father(s). While one of her sons, Noah, became a generous, public-minded grocer in East Tupelo, who was elected as mayor in 1936, Elvis's grandfather J.D. was known as a good-looking but bitter n'er do well. Repeating the pattern, J.D. also had a "good" and a "bad" son, and the latter was Elvis's good-looking father Vernon. As good as his forefathers, J.D. in time abandoned his wife and children, who fell predictably into the care of his "bad" son Vernon and thus ultimately to his grandson Elvis.
     One anecdote can serve to illustrate the disappointment and desperation of Vernon Presley, who resembles various characters in Faulkner. First, some necessary background. Seventeen-year-old Vernon married Gladys Love Smith shortly after she lost her father, secured a factory job, and for a very short time assumed responsibility for some members of her scattered family, whom she briefly reunited in a single residence in East Tupelo. At the time, Vernon lived nearby with his father J.D., a sharecropper for Orville Bean. Perhaps owing to repeated displacement, poverty, and desertion, as well as their Scottish and Scots-Irish ancestry, the Smiths and the Presley's faced adversity with the expectation that some extended family member would offer them shelter and support whenever necessary. They were accustomed to frequent moves, sometimes to live with relatives and sometimes on their own, but never far from family. Gladys and Vernon slept on the floor of a friend's house until Vernon borrowed enough money from landowner Orville Bean to build a house on Old Saltillo Road, next door to his family's house. This home, where the Presleys lived for only a brief time, is the well-known birthplace of Elvis.
     A short while after baby Elvis was born, Vernon was arrested and jailed for forgery. Apparently, he had disagreed with landowner Orville Bean over the price of a hog Vernon was selling. When Bean gave Vernon a check for $4.00, Vernon and two others, including his brother-in-law Travis Smith, in an impotent expression of anger, resentment, and defeat, changed the amount shown on the check. They soon found themselves in Tupelo jail, where Vernon remained until they were tried and sentenced to three years at the Parchman Farm State Penitentiary. Vernon's father J.D. posted bail for Gladys's younger brother Travis, but he refused to post bail for his son. Faulkner's Mink Snopes, sentenced to Parchman Farm in 1908, the year Nelse Patton was lynched in Oxford, would still have been there during the eight months Vernon spent at Parchman in 1938 and '39. Although Vernon was repudiated by his father, Gladys remained loyal to her husband and succeeded in winning his pardon.
     Faulkner's Mink Snopes, who murdered Jack Huston after a quarrel over the boarding of a cow, offers insight into the desperate and stubborn mental processes that must have led Vernon Presley to forge that check. Perhaps, like the tall convict in "Old Man," Vernon was inspired to commit such a preposterous, self-destructive act by some fantasy derived from popular culture. Or perhaps, like The Sound and the Fury's Jason Compson, he forged that check in an effort to even a familial score in which he almost came out last. Or again, like the Lucas Beauchamp of Go Down, Moses, who threatened to kill Zack Edmonds for presuming too much of Lucas's wife Molly, perhaps Vernon's blatant forgery was motivated by outraged pride and wounded manhood. Beyond differences in class, race, and even gender (think, for example, of Absalom, Absalom!'s Rosa Coldfield), Faulkner points us to a shared legacy in the post-Confederate South of outraged dispossession, which I associate with the shifting terms of racialized identity and with the privileges that accrued from these identities.
     Faulkner and Elvis explored and expressed an anxiety characteristic of the South yet did so by way of different cultural expectations, opportunities, sensibilities, tastes, behaviors, and practices. Faulkner's entrenchment in a cultural landscape that was losing dominance made him reluctant to embrace new dimensions of the cultural milieu, specifically those involving electronic transmission, like the phonograph and the radio, through which Elvis achieved success, fame, and wealth. Conversely, the motility of the Presleys made Elvis anxious to find a foothold in what had remained for his family a stubbornly inhospitable environment. For Elvis, the virtual frontier opened up by electronic media provided the homestead that his sharecropping farming family had never managed to secure in the South.
     Linked to the rearticulation of class-, racial-, and gendered- identities, the emergence of new cultural forms in response to changing political economies affects individuals according to their present status.9 Thus, for instance, the process of modernization, urbanization, industrialization, migration, and proletarianization in the South offered new opportunities to great numbers of people, including many who were formerly disenfranchised by the dissolution of former ways of racializing southern life. In the 1920s, the recording industry, which recognized in Black migration new opportunities for commodification, began a special line of so-called race records.10 A small but visible segment of Afro-southerners who were eeking out their livelihoods as sharecroppers or domestic servants in the South took advantage of new opportunities in the emergent music business that developed as a consequence of Black migration. Faulkner was disturbed by phonographs and radios, which had the capacity to introduce Black and lower-class cultural forms and practices into private and public spaces that were formerly out of their reach and to render once-dominant cultural practices and forms obsolete. Conversely, the dominance these new cultural forms were achieving represented an opportunity for Elvis.11
     The recording and broadcasting industries had been developing and transforming with unequaled rapidity throughout Faulkner's lifetime, and included the evolution from photography to motion pictures and from recording technology to broadcast radio, talking movies, and television. The wire telegraph, whose transcontinental cables were lain in the late 19th century, introduced a modern transmission system that would shrink the globe. Radio, the wireless telegraph, continued a process whose rapid and continuous transformation we are still experiencing today. From where we sit, President Woodrow Wilson's depiction of the world created by the burgeoning technology of transmission systems as "one single whispering gallery" was as astonishingly sanguine as it was misguided about our future capacity to interpret anything as either singular or quiet!12
     From one pioneering station in Pittsburgh (KDKA) in 1920, commercial broadcasting was originating from 508 radio stations by the year 1922. Within the next seventeen years, the number of families owning radios went from 60,000 to almost 14 million.13 In addition to the fact that rapid internal migration, and especially Black migration, were occuring simultaneously with the rise of these new modes of transmission were the facts that both phenomena were developing rapidly, transforming space and time and in consequence giving rise to new cultural practices. Even the relationship between the president and the public was affected; Roosevelt's "fireside chats," which began in 1933, broadcast his voice to 60 million listeners dispersed across the country. On the ground, the development of radio shows began to provide gathering places for local musicians and to attract others who were passing through. Attracted to these shows as a listener and hopeful participant, the young Elvis Presley frequented Tupelo's WELO, which began broadcasting in 1941. There, a poor boy with working parents and no cash could listen to and learn from Mississippi Slim's live Saturday afternoon show entitled Singin' and Pickin' Hillbilly.14
     In the 1920s, so-called race records had already begun to transform the production, distribution, and consumption of Black musical forms, just at the moment when Black mass migration had reached its first peak. At the same time as hundreds of thousands of rural Afro-southerners were finding opportunities to change their lives by relocating to southern and northern cities, Afro-southern musical forms were becoming commodity forms, transforming material life and upsetting and rearticulating the very meaning of location and culture. Even as Alan Lomax was making his way to "the land where blues began" to record the music of African Americans (music we can now hear without even travelling to Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC but simply by visiting a web site anytime night or day), the relationship of the music to the southern field as the location of its production and consumption was undergoing radical upheaval. As the German-Jewish cultural theorist Walter Benjamin observed in his famous essay entitled "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," cultural objects were losing what he called their "aura," or in other words, their necessary link to a given time, place, or cultural context. As popular as the so-called race records of the twenties were, there was no race radio station established in the South until 1949 -- almost thirty years into the history of radio -- when Memphis station WDIA began to broadcast all-Black programs, dubbing itself "The Mother Station of the Negroes."15 Increasingly, race music was making its way into places forbidden to the musicians who produced it, crossing boundaries in a manner neither Jim Crow nor any other privileged place or social order was prepared to prevent.16
     When Elvis's mother Gladys Love Smith was born in 1912, Faulkner was 15 years old, and by the time she was 15, she was interested in recorded music. Too poor to own a Victrola, Gladys -- like the young Billie Holiday, who worked in a house of prostitution -- first discovered the Victrola when she got a job working as a domestic. With ample opportunity to listen to musical recordings, Gladys distinguished herself during this period as a remarkable dancer, especially when she danced to Jimmie Rodgers' "Corinna, Corinna." "When one says she was dancing," wrote Elaine Dundy,

one is not talking about tap, toe, or ballet: or ballroom or square-dancing, or 'round dancing,' which is what they call it in Mississippi when two people dance together; one is talking about 'buck' dancing which is one person dancing alone....Buck dancing--really good buck dancing--is done only by switching off your mind and allowing your body to take over; and stepping into the rhythm, rejoicing and jubiliating in the surrounding shower of notes and obeying the words of the song."17

The sort of physical excess represented by her dancing is frequently connected to Gladys's much remarked nervousness and to its legacy in the signature moves of Elvis. I mentioned earlier that after Gladys's father died and the family had to disperse, Gladys, reputedly a habitual worrier, was overcome by her worries and fears. Whenever she tried to leave the house, her legs shook uncontrollably. Slowly, she managed to dissipate this nervous energy by participating in the emotionally expressive Holy Roller church meetings and by securing a job at a garment factory in Tupelo.18 Remaining active in the church after she married and started a family, Gladys retained her foothold in this expressive culture, performing with Vernon and Elvis as a gospel trio. Yet when Vernon returned from Parchman Farm, Gladys's heightened nervousness spilled over, and all three members of the Presley family experienced "action" nightmares and sleepwalking. Elvis inherited this nervous physical exuberance which, in adolescence, emerged in periodic involuntary shakes as well as in the habitual expression of emotional energy in movement and song.
     By 1947, when Vernon took a factory job in Memphis, the Presleys managed to buy a radio, and by the time Elvis appeared on The Milton Berle Show in 1956, his parents owned a television as well, and his mother and paternal grandmother Minnie Mae were already fans of Uncle Miltie.19 By that time, Elvis had already been transmogrified, as Faulkner might have said, to another world, living on the road, onstage, and in recording studios. Although Elvis weathered the transition to Hollywood, his celebrity seems to have literally worried his mother Gladys to death. Elvis and Vernon (and even J.D.) lived into the 1970s, yet I suspect that they all suffered from what Vernon expressed as a "constant fear that something...would befall them, and that one day [they] would find themselves back in Tupelo." 20
     The flood of mass cultural modes of production and transmission represented an opportunity for the Presleys to get out of "Tupelo," yet it was greeted by many, including Faulkner, with discomfort, resistance, and even outrage. Whether it was the production of readymade clothing or to the construction of urban and suburban environments, Faulkner expressed his opposition to new forms and sung the praises of the old. Ready made clothing, for example, like the new modes of mass electronic transmission, especially radio, erased markers that formerly indicated class and racial status. In the past, ill-fitting garments were distinctions of lower-class and often racial status, while properly fit clothing had been a clear sign of upper-class status. To reinforce a distinction that mass production was threatening to erase in the arena of clothing, by making everyone poorly fit, Faulkner began ordering tailor-made clothing and fitted footwear. Descriptions in Faulkner's writings aimed at marking the lower-class status of whites often emphasize the visible folds that revealed a garment as mass-produced and recently store-bought. In the case of Black characters, as the laborious description of Dilsey's body in The Sound and the Fury illustrates, the marker of race is not yet mass-produced clothing but rather the adaptively reused garments and shoes of white folks.
     While Faulkner spent much of his energy laboring to maintain racialized distinctions that established his Whiteness, people like Dewey Phillips and Elvis Presley deliberately adopted signifiers of racial identity that suggested Blackness. Dewey Phillips, whose WHBQ radio show, broadcast from the Gayoso Hotel, played exclusively Black music for an almost exclusively Black audience, was frequently described as "transracial." 21 According to Sam Phillips, producer of Sun Records, who first met Elvis in 1953, when he was looking for a White man who sounded Black, even Elvis's bearing was cross-racially marked: "He tried not to show it, but he felt so inferior. He reminded me of a black man in that way; his insecurity was so markedly like that of a black person."22
     Although the number of households owning televisions went from 8,000 in 1946 to 3.9 million in 1950 and over 47 million in 1960, Faulkner remained a vocal opponent of these emergent forms, demonstrating a stubborn and perhaps characteristic refusal, for a white southern man of his generation and station, to listen, to absorb or deal with material conditions emerging in the present. As late as 1950

there was still no radio [at Rowan Oak], and [Faulkner's daughter] Jill could hear programs only at Miss Maud's house or the homes of friends. One day Bill Fielden [Faulkner's stepdaughter Victoria Franklin's husband] said, 'Pappy, if you don't let Jill have her fun at home, she'll go outside her home for it.' And so Faulkner consented to Bill's giving her a phonograph, though she could not play it when her father was at home.23

As little as is published about Faulkner's relationship with his daughter Jill, who presently resides in Virginia and rarely returns to Oxford, it seems that Faulkner imposed his cultural values and practices, or at least those that were gender-appropriate, on her. While he shared literary favorites, horseback riding, and sailing with her, and even asked his daughter to type his manuscripts, he was unwilling to tolerate her interest in a changing cultural environment that included the pervasive sounds of radio and popular music.
     Around the time Elvis was born, Faulkner's music- and dance-loving wife Estelle expressed her unhappiness with her husband's strictly regulated cultural habits and tastes in a parodic poem she sent to her sister:

While he in dignity sits alone,
Aghast at the sound of e'en a trombone.
And whiles his joyless hours away
Reading a book--or maybe a play
That very few people save he--understand--
This breathing soul is my own hus-band!24

Expressing himself with equal mean-spiritedness, Faulkner took out the well-known 1936 ad in the Oxford Eagle refusing to pay any debts incurred by Estelle. In a letter he wrote to his lover Meta Carpenter, he complained that among Estelle's unreasonable purchases on credit had been a radio, which he "had expressly forbidden to be brought into the house."25 Outside his own house, Faulkner also objected to radios. Blotner notes that Faulkner's "irascibility [in 1946] extended to all kinds of sensory intrusion." In particular, Faulkner was disturbed by the entry of popular music into public space. Aubrey Seay, owner of Oxford's Mansion restaurant, "had [in the late 1940s] already begun the practice of unplugging the gaudy jukebox whenever Faulkner entered." After having asked Aston Holley, pharmacist of the Gathright-Reed drugstore, to turn off the radio, Faulkner complained that "it just looks like all the people of this world must have a lot of noise around them to keep them from thinking about things they should remember."26 Disapproving of radio as mere noise that distracted people from more important thinking, Faulkner expressed his position in the continual struggle involved in the establishment of cultural values and in the uses of cultural space, the determination of what belongs in public and what does not, of what is worthy of attention, concern, and even study, and what is decidedly not. In the segregated South, this vigilant protection of the racialized dimension of public space would have to have been troubled by a new cultural form that evaded the old rules and regulations for maintaining, among others, racial and class distinctions.
     Faulkner's allergy to the media in which Elvis worked, not only radio but also television and film, emphasizes the limits of his insights into the material conditions of his own time and place. Perhaps anyone intent on elaborating his thoughts and deeds and achieving individual goals must reject a great deal of life as distracting and extraneous. Yet as a twentieth-century reader, I feel obliged to struggle against the powerful undertow of Faulkner's boundaries, particularly after World War II, to gain a broader view of the range of material from which he carved his work. To see his work accurately requires that we consider not only by what he saw, felt, and articulated, but also what he rejected and left out. However distracting the ubiquity of electronic sounds (and sights) that Faulkner wished to obliterate, it is clear that these dimensions of experience, as much as Black migration and the racialization of American life, needed to be reckoned with and were intricately woven into the fabric of people's lives.
     Although it can be argued that the Presleys were early sacrifices to postmodernity, I would argue that their particular family history contributed to the manner in which they faced the opportunities and challenges of their lives. Like the Falkners and William Faulkner, Elvis brought a reservoir of nervous energy to particular cultural practices associated with particular cultural values. In spite of the gulf that separated them and their publics, each expressed the exhilirating yet desperate experience of change during the breathtakingly rapid shifts of twentieth century life. If Elvis and his kin can be recognized, as I have suggested, in the variety of Faulkner's characters seeking to rectify generations of frustration, upheaval, disappointment, and loss, Faulkner and his kin can also be recognized in the nervous and uncontrollable vocalizations of Elvis Presley. All Shook Up, to take just one example, registers the nervous delight and hysteria of political economic shifts that divest people suddenly of themselves and that leave them grasping at emergent culture, out of defiantly vicious refusal or desperately needy attachment. As you read the following lyrics, you should accompany your reading with the recorded music, readily available on the Internet 27 :

All Shook Up
Well my hands are shaking and my knees are weak
I can't seem to stand on my own two feet
What do you think when you have such luck
I'm in love, I'm all shook up
Mmmmhmmmmhmmm, oooh, yeahyeahyeah
Well please don't ask me what's ah on my mind
I'm a little mixed up but I'm feeling fine
My tongue gets tired when I try to speak
My insides shake like a leaf on a tree
There's only one cure for this body of mine
I'm in love, unh, I'm all shook up
Mmmmhmmmhmmm, oooh, yeahyeahyeah
Mmmmhmmmhmmm, oooh, yeahyeah
I'm all shook up

     That feeling of disequilibrium, transmitted as nervous energy and channeled into cultural expectations, practices, and milieux appropriate to the multiple positions occupied by particular subjects is what, in the end, I found most similar in Faulkner and Elvis. White southern sons, an eldest and an only, powerfully attached to their families of origin and to the generations of struggle bequeathed to them, these two men were compelled to enter their family legacies as redeemers. However desperate the task of redemption, each man was propelled by the withdrawal of his father and the insistence of his mother. Race and racial markers could never have meant the same thing to them, for Faulkner's family owned slaves, and kept them in the family for generations, like heirlooms. Faulkner's famous great-grandfather had children with his Black slavewoman Emmeline, fathering a family that did not stand as equals beside his white offspring as his heirs. After slavery, Faulkner's family retained Black servants to work in their households and on their farms, to drive their buggies and their cars. From his family, Faulkner inherited the necessity of constantly establishing, maintaining, and enforcing the distinction between himself and his white family from the Blacks who served them. To imitate the signs of Black identity, as Elvis did, required distance from a legacy that demanded, as did Faulkner's, a more constant and vigilant performance of Whiteness. For Elvis, however, a legacy of dispossession bequeathed to him the need to constantly perform, to assert himself as something rather than nothing, to exhaust himself in the performance of an inexhaustible repertoire of musical material. A "little mixed up," as the song lyrics understatedly suggest, by the burdens of these legacies -- and all shook up by social, cultural, familial, and geographic upheaval -- Faulkner and Elvis testified to the nervous economies, more fundamental than the racialized channels through which they were published or broadcast, that moved each to his own inimitable beat.


1. Rereading this today, having forgotten that Plaster and Paris have figured in all versions of this paper, including the one I first gave at the MLA in December 1997 in a panel marking the centenary of Faulkner's birth, I am taken aback. Our elegant Paris died in an accident on January 20, leaving her brother Plaster will all the trouble of looking after us.
2. See Karal Ann Marling, Graceland: Going Home with Elvis (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996), Charles Reagan Wilson, Judgment & Grace in Dixie: Southern Faiths from Faulkner to Elvis (Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1995), and Joel Williamson, "Elvis, Faulkner, and Feminine Spirituality," unpublished paper delivered at the 2d Elvis conference "Elvis and the Sacred South" in August 1996.
3. Peter Guralnick, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley (Boston: Little, Brown, 1994), 3-4. The second volume of the biography is Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley (Boston: Little, Brown, 1999).
4. I should note, however, that Mrs. Patricia Brown's compared Mr. Bill's singing voice to Willie Nelson's! (26th Annual Faulkner Conference, 1999).
5. On Faulkner's indirect methods of exposition see my "From Place to Place in The Sound and the Fury: The Syntax of Interrogation," Modern Fiction Studies 34.2 (1988): 141-156. On the indirect treatment of Black migration in Faulkner's writings, see my article "Migration (African American)," in A William Faulkner Encyclopedia, ed. by Chuck Peek and Robert Hamblin (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1999), 158-161; "Racial Awareness and Arrested Development: The Sound and the Fury and the First Great Migration (1915-28)," The Cambridge Companion to William Faulkner, ed. by Philip Weinstein (Cambridge University Press, 1994), 123-145; and "If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem and the Great Migration: History in Black and White," in Faulkner in Cultural Context: Proceedings of the 22nd Annual Yoknapatawpha Conference, ed. by Ann Abadie and Donald Kartiganer. (University of Mississippi Press, 1997), 191-227.
6. See Joseph Blotner, Faulkner: A Biography (NY: Random House, 1974) and Joseph Blotner, Faulkner: A Biography. One-Volume Edition. 1984 (Random House, 1991), 8.
7. Elaine Dundy, Elvis and Gladys (NY: Macmillan, 1985).
8. See Joel Williamson, William Faulkner and Southern History (NY: Oxford UP, 1993), especially 22-29 and 64-72.
9. George Lipsitz has analyzed this in reference to the post-World War II era. See Class and Culture in Cold War America: A Rainbow at Midnight (South Hadley, MA.: Bergin and Garvey, 1982) and Time Passages: Collective Memory and American Popular Culture (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1990), 99-132.
10. See William Barlow, "Cashing In (1900-1939)" and "Commercial and Noncommercial Radio," in Jannette L. Dates and William Barlow, Split Image: African Americans in the Mass Media (Washington, D.C.: Howard UP, 1990), 25-56 and 175-252. See also William Howland Kenney, Recorded Music in American Life: The Phonograph and Popular Memory, 1890-1945 (Oxford UP, 1999), 109-134.
11. To read further on this notion of culture not as a uniform environment or milieu but as a living process involving the struggle -- inequitable because of the assymmetrical distribution of power -- of past, present, and future (residual, dominant, and emergent) institutions, traditions, formations, etc., see Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford UP, 1977), 121-127.
12. Mary Beth Norton et al., A People and a Nation: A History of the United States, 5th Edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998), 639.
13. Norton et al., A People, 698. See also Barlow, "Commercial and Noncommercial Radio," in Split Image, 175-252.
14. Guralnick, Last Train to Memphis, 20-21.
15. Guralnick, Last Train to Memphis, 39. On the establishment of black radio stations in the North, see Barlow.
16. Guralnick, Last Train to Memphis, 6.
17. Dundy, 39.
18. Dundy, 45.
19. Guralnick, Last Train to Memphis, 264.
20. Guralnick, Careless Love, 191.
21. Guralnick, Last Train to Memphis, 4, 6.
22. Guralnick, Last Train to Memphis, 43.
23. Cited in Blotner, Faulkner: A Biography. One-Volume Edition, 506.
24. Blotner, 359.
25. Blotner, 372.
26. Blotner, 476.
27. To listen to recordings of "All Shook Up," you can go, for example, to