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Joiner Tasked for Digital Faulkner Project

The imaginary county in Mississippi that William Faulkner fashioned to serve as the foundation for his fiction will come to vivid, online life in a new digital humanities project involving some two dozen Faulkner scholars from around the country – including Dr. Jennie Joiner, assistant professor of English at Keuka College.

“Dr. Joiner’s participation in this important and prestigious digital humanities project promises to raise Keuka’s profile significantly in the field of digital scholarship,” said Doug Richards, professor of English and chair of the Division  of Humanities and Fine Arts.

Over the next three to five years, Faulkner scholars will collaborate to translate the characters, timelines, dialogue and events of his short stories and novels into interactive online maps that help readers visualize and glean new insights into Faulkner’s works. According to Joiner, Faulkner himself drew a map of Yoknapatawpha indicating locations and events portrayed in his stories.

“He considered it his little postage stamp of native soil of which he was sole owner and proprietor. Thus, this project is  attempting to digitalize his fiction and expand on his mapping,” Joiner explained.

Stephen Railton, professor of English at the University of Virginia, is directing the project and invited Joiner to come aboard in late August. This fall Joiner will team with Taylor Hagood, associate professor of English at Florida Atlantic University, to map a short story “The Unvanquished” (later revised and known as “Riposte in Tertio”), first published in The Saturday Evening Post as part of a 1934 series. Joiner and Hagood are facing a year-end deadline to finish digital mapping of the short story and then, Joiner will be assigned to a team mapping one of Faulkner’s 15 novels.

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William Faulkner illustration Courtesy Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia

The project, which received a nearly $60,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), builds upon a 2011 Yoknapatawpha map prototype created by the University of Virginia Library’s Digital Media Lab. The NEH grant was one of 23 awarded through its start-up program to promote progress in the digital humanities. Back in 1957-58, Faulkner held the university’s first writer-in-residence post, so the current online archive includes nearly 30 hours of audio recordings of public readings or remarks he gave, according to a news article from the Virginia website.

According to the website, the project centers on the 15 novels and 48 stories Faulkner wrote between 1926 and 1960 and set in Yoknapatawpha. The prototype models a way to enter every character, location and event from separate works into a robust database that  then maps that data into an atlas of interactive visual resources, according to the demands of each particular story. Ultimately, the entire body of Yoknapatawpha fiction would be linked together in new, cumulative maps enabling scholars or students to study, for example, all black inhabitants and the roles they play in Faulkner’s works, or his representations of violence, religion, or family, the site indicates.

Joiner’s doctorate, from the University of Kansas, focused on marriage and masculinity in Faulkner’s fiction, and she has published papers on his works and presented at academic conferences. For this new project, once she and Hagood have compared their individual lists of characters, events and places in the short story, they’ll discuss differences and form a final list for input into the database.

However, Joiner said the attention to detail required in each scene “is a very different type of reading and interpretation than I’m used to doing” as what seems relatively simple actually involves complex analysis. The text must be examined to determine whether a location is generated from explicit wording in the story, from one of Faulkner’s original maps, or through interpretive reasoning, she said. Where one scene may clearly state that “a conversation occurs in ‘the cabin,’” another event may take place a “two days ride away,” she noted.

“How does one map this?” Joiner asked. “Which direction?  How far is a day’s ride?  Or if a character leaves at sunup and arrives at sundown, how far is that [distance]?”

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Faulkner's map courtesy Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia

Further, mapping characters or even conversations between characters is similarly challenging, even in determining which are worthy of mapping, she said. Mining the narrative in this way for details “requires a lot of thought and interpretation in relation to other events in the narrative,” Joiner said, adding “it’s also causing me to look at narrative structure in ways I’ve never done before.”

Ultimately, each work should have its own map, cross-referenced against others, enabling readers to pinpoint a specific location and review the breadth of characters in all Faulkner’s fiction that  have a relation to that place as well as the totality of events that happened there, Joiner suggested.

“The really exciting thing is that the entire project is a research project and the range of opportunities for what we can do with the data may not yet be discovered,” she said.

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