CALLIE BARR, THE BLACK WOMAN WHO RAISED MURRY AND MAUD Falkner's four boys, is a familiar figure to those conversant with the life of William Faulkner. In most Faulkner biographies the story is essentially the same and to a large degree based on the monumental biography by Joseph Blotner, who based his version of things on the recollections of Faulkner's brothers. Barr was born a slave in the vicinity of Lafayette County, Mississippi, and was owned by a Barr, from whom she derived her name. Sometime following the 1902 arrival of the Falkners in Oxford, she entered their employ as a nursemaid to the young sons and over the years virtually became a member of the family. She spent her last few years living in a cabin behind Rowan Oak, where she died in 1940 and was buried under a stone inscribed
Callie Barr Clark 1840-1940 "Mammy" Her white children bless her.
Judith Sensibar's Faulkner and Love: The Women Who Shaped His Art, A Biography examines the lives of three women closely associated with Faulkner: his mother, his wife, and Callie Bart. Early on she states her agenda: "Rewriting Faulkner's life by radically altering its context, as I have, by writing in his life-long relations with this community of three generations of black and white women, alters the ways we read his art" (xvii). Minrose Gwin calls this book "a revisionist, paradigm-shifting biography," a "remarkable, original work of scholarship ... [based in] primary documents and oral histories" (135).
As part of her agenda, Sensibar re-examines the life of Callie Barr. On first reading, her depiction of Callie Barr appears to provide considerable new information on her life and relationship to Faulkner. Early in her discussion of Barr, Sensibar notes that while "the facts remain sparse and fragmentary.... I have had to speculate more than I would have liked" (20). This statement seems intended to provide justification for emphasizing oral sources and other reminiscences (xv-xvii). These sources consist of written recollections by Faulkner's stepson, Malcolm Franklin, as well as interviews with Faulkner's daughter, Jill Faulkner Summers, and with BaiT's relatives. However, questions soon arise regarding the account because of Sensibar's use of relatively late sources for relatively early history.
In his memoir, Bitterweeds, Malcolm Franklin claims that Barr originated not near Oxford, as the standard narrative has it, but in the South Carolina Low Country (109; Sensibar 37). After the Civil War, in an odyssey filled with trials and adventures, Barr wandered westward to Arkansas, then after a few years crossed the Mississippi River and wandered back eastward, eventually settling in Tippah County, Mississippi, where she came into the employ of the Falkner family, who brought her to Oxford in 1902. Although Franklin states that his information came in part from Barr and in part from Faulkner, his account diverges so radically from those given by Faulkner and his brothers that one questions its veracity. Similarly, the oral accounts provided a half century after Barr's death by those who were young...