The Black Autistic Man Who May Have Inspired William Faulkner's Greatest Character

The state of the universe.
Feb. 15 2012 6:30 AM

Eugene Hoskins Is His Name

The long-forgotten story of a black autistic man in Oxford, Miss., who crossed paths with William Faulkner.

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While in Oxford, I visited the old train depot, which after decades of abandonment had been acquired by the university in 2001 and beautifully restored a few years later. Today the building serves as a multipurpose facility for the community. The railroad has long been paved over with asphalt and the vanished tracks extend into a traffic intersection of more recent vintage, but standing on the very spot that Hoskins staked out so regularly transported me back to the age of the Harding administration. If any images of him exist, they most likely survive in some old photos of the depot. Maybe an eager student took a picture or two of his snappily dressed classmates on arriving into town in the 1920s, and happened to capture an image—slightly out of frame and in the shadowy distance—of a tall, slender black man with a notebook in his hand, staring expectantly down the tracks. While such a photo may indeed be pasted into a forgotten family album in some attic out there, the few dated photos of the train station that I could find at the public library showed not a single black person; only the epochal stares of the white Southern middle class looked back at me.

Soon after writing his report on Hoskins, Byrd left Ole Miss for the University of Alabama, where he’d been hired to run their first department of hygiene. He published a book in 1922 titled Forty Notifiable Diseases, but his citation trail runs cold after that. Yet it was the fate of Hoskins that grabbed my interest, and I had one advantage in my search: his name. A similar case study today would describe its subject as “an African-American male, aged 24” or as someone “living in the Southern United States,” but psychologists of the 1920s weren’t especially concerned about protecting the identities of their human subjects. Hoskins himself may have had some reservations about publicity, though. “At length I struck his tender spot,” writes Byrd after several weeks of cozying up to the man by way of introduction through the Gambles. “After complimenting him on his unusual ability, I asked him why he didn’t put it in the paper. Told him I would write it up for him if he wanted me to. ‘Den everybody see it,’ he said. But I didn’t press the matter then.”

Hoskins’ military draft card from 1918 shows a “P.T. Gamble” as his employer. A 1920-census cross-check confirms the name of Hoskins' patron, Patton T. Gamble. Mrs. Gamble was called Annie, and the couple was then living with their three children, Baskin (26), Lillian (19), and Jewel (16). I was able to track Baskin Gamble to Memphis, where he ran a filling station in the early 1940s and died in 1963. The records indicate that Hoskins, meanwhile, may have lived periodically in Coldwater, Miss., about an hour north of Oxford, where he lists a half-brother named Thomas Ellis as his nearest relative. The 1930 census shows him as a boarder in that area, residing with a “Negro” couple named Sam and Hatti Lee. But Hoskins returned to Oxford at some point. His 1972 Social Security Death Index shows he died there in his mid-70s.

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Sitting in the Oxford Public Library, I thumbed my way through a list of thousands of departed souls in a survey of the segregated black cemeteries in town. There was no sign of Eugene’s bones anywhere, nor was his obituary in the papers. The telephone directory showed that both Coldwater and Oxford are home to several Hoskinses today. There’s even a “Hoskin Road” in Coldwater. The people who answered the phone at these numbers listened patiently and politely as I told them the story of Eugene, but he was a complete mystery to them; they knew of no history of autism in the family and even the older ones couldn’t recall ever hearing anything about an odd relative who spoke of trains or calendars. Autism is considered heritable, and researchers have even found that the occupational histories of people in a given lineage often overlap with the nonsocial characteristics of autism—an abundance of, say, engineers or mathematicians in a family. But these folks all seemed intuitively sociable to me. It was as though Byrd’s “feebleminded negro with a phenomenal memory” had faded gradually into the backdrop of a storied town that had seen so much change in a half-century, until he disappeared altogether into the hot Mississippi sun.

On one of my walks through Oxford, I happened to stroll past the house where William Faulkner lived briefly with his new bride, Estelle, while writing As I Lay Dying in a six-week literary tour de force in 1929. It had been years since I’d read any Faulkner and, though he’d definitely been in the back of my mind while wandering in search of Hoskins’ ghost, this imposing neoclassical structure jarred me into a very different type of investigation. There’s little question that Faulkner would have known of Hoskins and crossed paths with him; not only were both notorious in this small town during the 1920s (Faulkner for his drinking and storytelling, Hoskins for his eccentricities), but Faulkner famously did a stint as the university’s lackluster postmaster between 1921 and 1924. One of his daily responsibilities, in fact, was dropping off mail at the train depot. If Hoskins made as strong an impression on Faulkner as he did on Byrd and the other town residents, might some glimmers of him actually appear in Faulkner's work?

It’s long been taken for granted that Faulkner based his most famous “feebleminded” character, that of Benjy Compson in The Sound and the Fury (1929), on a white man in his 30s named Edwin Chandler. Chandler, whom Faulkner often watched as a boy bellowing and pacing behind the iron gate of his wealthy family’s antebellum home near the square, is believed to have had Down syndrome, and the connections are indisputable. But there may be more to the story. When I discussed my research with Jay Watson, a professor of English at Ole Miss and the president of the William Faulkner Society, he noted that Benjy's predicament in the book evokes the black experience in several ways: Like a slave, Benjy is stripped of his given name and reassigned a biblical one; he is castrated after being accused of assaulting a white girl; his “domain” is on a former plantation; and so on. At one point in the book, the character of Versh even tells Benjy that he’s turning into a “bluegum,” an archaic derogatory term for blacks. Though Watson had never heard of Eugene Hoskins before, he found the possible Faulkner connection intriguing.

After several days spent in the Deep South, looking for signs of Hoskins and visiting friends, my partner and I (and our two dogs) hit the road back to Ithaca, N.Y., and on that unconscionably long drive home, we listened to the nine-hour unabridged audio version of The Sound and the Fury, tuning our ears for the slightest evocation of Eugene. There was no mention of calendar calculators or train-engine connoisseurs, but Faulkner does seem to endow Benjy—only incidentally, perhaps—with a voice that, against the background of today’s scientific knowledge, sounds distinctly autistic. Soothed only by routines such as staring into the fireplace, holding his mother’s cushion, or standing at the fence looking at schoolgirls, Benjy inhabits a world of perpetual motion and chaos. In those who chatter and buzz around him, he sees mostly frightening, unpredictable action. In Benjy, Faulkner narrates the autism archetype, a fragile vessel of a mind that processes and contains only the literal.

Back at home now, I’m looking onto a snow-covered field in upstate New York, but my thoughts are still with Hoskins, standing alone at the train depot. I wonder if he was around the day that the Illinois Central ended its passenger service into Oxford in 1941. Did he return to the closed station anyway, staring down rusty, old tracks overgrown with weeds? The predictability of those numbered train engines that whistled into town had given Hoskins a sense of obtainable order and a purpose for decades. As an early case study in autistic savantism, we can look back at his life now and see just how purposeful it really was. I find solace in the thought that whether he lives on in the corpus of science or in the history of American literature, this long-forgotten man never really went away.