Can historians use Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" as a primary-source document?

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While it can be a challenging source to work with, Faulkner's short story "A Rose for Emily" can be used as a primary-source document.

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Ultimately, what primary sources a historian uses should reflect the historical problems and subject matter that they aim to study. Thus, a short story such as "A Rose for Emily" can make for a valuable primary source within one project, even as, in a different context, it would fail to substantially meet the historian's needs.

What you need to remember when working with short stories is that they serve as historical artifacts, reflecting the times in which they are written (and the subjects of which they are written about). Even so, however, real limitations and pitfalls remain. For example, to what degree can we trust Faulkner's depiction of Southern society, knowing its fictitious nature, and to what degree would alternative sources such as personal correspondence, pamphlets, sermons, political speeches, and so on provide a more accurate impression of life as it was lived? Generally speaking, a work of fiction, by its very nature, will provide serious obstacles for historians interested in trying to reconstruct historical reality as it happened.

That being said, history is far more complicated and multifaceted than this. For example, while one historian might be primarily interested in investigating the factual realities of a historical moment, another might be interested in how it was culturally understood (perhaps in its own time, or perhaps by later generations). In this case, these works of fiction can be of extraordinary value.

Can "A Rose for Emily" give concrete insight into the realities of Southern culture and society as they were actually experienced? Perhaps, but only to a limited extent. Can it provide insight into how Southerners themselves might have understood and perceived the times in which they lived? Especially if used in conjunction with other documents from the general time period (art, film, literature, etc.), most certainly.

With that in mind, there really is not an easy answer to this question, given that the value of any primary source is going to rely on what questions the historian asks of it.

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