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.

Oxford, Mississippi train depot.
Oxford, Mississippi train depot.

Howorth Collection, Archives and Special Collections, University of Mississippi Libraries.

Eugene Hoskins is his name. He lives at Oxford, Miss., a University place of about three thousand people. He is well known about town for his eccentricities.” Thus begins the 1920 account of a 24-year-old black man whose constellation of neuropsychological symptoms—that is to say, his “eccentricities”—are now immediately recognizable as those of an autistic savant. Remarking on his “uncanny knowledge of dates,” the case report relates how “a bystander said to him: ‘I was married on the 8th of June, 1901.’ Without a moment’s hesitation Eugene said: ‘Dat was a Satu’day.’ Given the month, day and year, he will give the day of the week. He never fails, never hesitates. Vary if you will by giving the year and month and asking what day of the month was the second Tuesday, or the fourth Friday—he answers just the same.”

The author of this Southern-drawled study from the Journal of Applied Psychology was a hygiene professor at the University of Mississippi named Hiram Byrd. After describing Hoskins as a tall and lanky “eight-rock,” Byrd offers a footnote for his naïve Yankee readers: “A pure blood African is, among some of the Southern negroes, called ‘eight-rock,’ while half-breeds are known as ‘ginger-breads’ and lighter shades as ‘high-yellows.’ ” Despite this casual racist tone, Byrd shows a genuine interest in Hoskins as a human being, and shares observations made with both a cold, clinical gaze and a novelist’s sympathetic eye. One can picture a suspender-wearing Byrd dictating his case report to a secretary while leaning back in a rickety leather-padded chair and chewing on the end of a pipe, the distant ah-hoo-gas of Model Ts and the sound of horse hooves clacking just outside his window.

William Faulkner, 1954.
William Faulkner, 1954.

Photograph by Carl Van Vechten.

Such details we’ll never know. We do know this: Over the next 92 years, Byrd’s brief report on Hoskins would be cited just a dozen or so times, and tangentially at that. Today the eccentric young man from Oxford is merely one of countless characters whose mental anomalies haunt the undisturbed volumes that decompose on library bookshelves. But there are at least two reasons for us to look at Hoskins more closely. First, he appears to be among the first black Americans ever to be described—unintentionally, of course—as possessing the clear hallmarks of autism. (The very first might be Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins, an autistic savant born into slavery in 1848 on a Georgia plantation whose prodigious musical abilities as a “negro boy pianist” made him world-famous.) Second, Hoskins happened to call home a place that would soon be immortalized by another Oxford resident, an aspiring young writer less than a year apart from him in age, named William Faulkner.

To appreciate Hoskins’ role in the history of autism, realize just how swiftly our knowledge of this neurocognitive disorder has evolved over such a short span of time. In Hoskins’ day, autistics of all races and ethnicities were scattered across small towns and burgeoning metropolises, and many of these people were institutionalized after being misdiagnosed as “idiots” or schizophrenics. Autism wouldn’t be identified as such for another two decades. (I’d stumbled upon Byrd’s ancient article only by chance while writing a piece on the demoralizing vocabulary once used to refer to those with mental disabilities. Byrd’s study of Hoskins was titled, “A Case of Phenomenal Memorizing by a Feeble-Minded Negro.”) It wasn't until 1943 that an Austrian-born psychiatrist from Johns Hopkins named Leo Kanner published a report of 11 children exhibiting a distinct set of social and emotional deficits. “[These] children’s relation to people is altogether different,” wrote Kanner. “Every one, upon entering the office, immediately went after blocks, toys, or other objects, without paying the least attention to the persons present … the people figured in about the same manner as did the desk, the bookshelf, or the filing cabinet.” Kanner’s diagnostic christening of autism was made against the asocial mind of Donald Triplett (“Case 1”), a 9-year-old boy from a privileged white family living just a few hours south of Oxford in Forest, Miss. (You can read a 2010 profile of Triplett in the Atlantic.)

Since Kanner’s initial report, innumerable scholarly articles and chapters have examined various aspects of autistic spectrum disorder—everything from its genetic and neurochemical underpinnings to its impact on family members and the community at large. Yet few studies have focused on the question of how autism relates to race and ethnicity. Although there are no known differences in the prevalence or epidemiology of the disorder (16.8 of every 10,000 individuals have autistic disorder, and 62.6 fall somewhere along the spectrum), black families have often been underrepresented in genetic studies. A common prerequisite for participating in genetic research is that both parents provide their DNA, too—which means that minority children, who are disproportionately raised in single-parent households, are often excluded. There are also disparities in the diagnosis and treatment of minority children. Black autistic children are more likely to be mislabeled as having, say, ADHD or conduct disorder, and when they are properly identified, the diagnosis comes significantly later than it would for their white peers. These disparities are probably due to diminished access to health care (one-third of all black children are in the welfare system, compared with 9 percent of white children), lower rates of education among black parents, and the prejudices of physicians who may be more inclined to focus on black children’s disruptive social behaviors or generalized intellectual deficits, rather than their other symptoms of autism.

If invidious stereotypes can still creep into the clinic as psychiatric bias, consider how the perception of black intelligence in 1920s Mississippi might have influenced a scholar like Byrd. Oxford is the same town, keep in mind, where more than 40 years later James Meredith waded through a sea of angry segregationists and U.S. marshals to pass the university’s Lyceum doors as the first black man enrolled at Ole Miss. Anyone who has ever read a Faulkner novel about “Yoknapatawpha County” (the author’s fictitious name for the locale) grasps the sharp and unquestioned racial divides of that specific place in time.

But Hoskins’ autism made him stand out from other blacks, and his difficulty in reading into the behavior of other people may have shielded him, in some ways, from the overt injustices that so dehumanized his peers. From Byrd’s descriptions, Hoskins seems almost to transcend race: “He is a never ending source of entertainment for them,” writes the professor of Hoskins’ impressive calendar performances for dumbfounded undergrads on the Ole Miss campus. “He has a habit of mumbling to himself, and often laughs right out.” Onlookers would often toss him a nickel, but rarely would he accept more. “He has been known to refuse a dollar and [to] become indignant when the donor put it in his pocket. He would not touch it and insisted that it be taken out.”

This brings us to the question of how Hoskins, an undiagnosed, black autistic savant living in the egregiously racist Deep South of 1920, managed to get by. Byrd tells us that Hoskins was cared for by a white family named the Gambles, “who furnish him with food and clothes and a place to sleep, in return for which he delivers papers, gets in coal, feeds the pigs on the farm, and does little odds and ends about the place … he trusts the Gambles implicitly.” Hoskins was especially close to Mr. Gamble. Being known about town by several names—Eugene, Gene, James, and Jim—he loathed being called the latter; this entitlement was reserved for Mr. Gamble alone. When someone else once shouted over to “Jim” for a pail of water to help put out a burning house up the road, “he balked and refused to move.” When Byrd asked him why he did this, Hoskins replied, “Da wasn’t talkin’ to me—I ain’t Jim.”

120214_SCI_mississippiMap

I wanted to learn more about Hoskins’ life, including how he came to live with the Gambles. So after consulting with a local historian by email, a few weeks ago I visited Oxford to sift through the county archives. The Gambles, it seems, had owned a small general store near the train depot that catered to weary rail travelers and incoming students. A 1920 census shows that the family was living on a road adjacent to the station. These pieces fit together when considering another clue to Hoskins’ autism—his obsession with trains. Byrd tells us that the subject of his case report was frequently at the train depot, a place redolent with honeysuckle and coal, and which for generations was a hectic passenger node along the Illinois Central. “I was talking with him once when the locomotive whistled. He darted out of the room almost like a released spring. I asked him yesterday if he meets all the trains. He said not, and told me of two or three times that the trains had passed when he didn’t meet them.” Byrd describes having departed from Oxford on a train between 3 and 4 a.m. one chilly morning, and finding Hoskins alone on the platform. He was likely scribbling notes on train engine numbers into his notebook—an object for scientific study that Byrd would later pry from his hands with “suggestive pressure” for a peek inside. My guess is that the Gambles gradually warmed up to the peculiar young man always milling about outside their shop or hunched over a notebook, murmuring cryptic route numbers and soliciting birthdates from perplexed passengers, and that’s how they came to take him under their wing and open up their home to him.

Such a preoccupation with public transportation routes—or other nonsocial “circumscribed interests”—is widely recognized as an autistic trait. Trains, planes, blocks, home electronics, computer equipment, road signs, and sporting equipment have all been identified as topics of “high autism interest.” It’s clear that Hoskins wasn’t just a train buff; his notebook revealed a blinkered obsession with detailed engine numbers and arrival schedules to the exclusion of all else. Byrd also noticed in Hoskins the autistic savant’s inability to solve easy problems that fall outside narrow domains of expertise. “He did the most astonishing and contradictory things,” observes Byrd. “Although he has such a wonderful memory for dates, he failed utterly to repeat five digits.” (The average 7-year-old can perform this task.) “In [spatial intelligence tasks] he made a superior record. ... Everything pertaining to ages and dates was perfect. But he could interpret a picture only in terms of enumeration, could define in terms of use only, and thought that house rhymed with day.” From such results, Byrd surmised that Hoskins had a mental age between 8 to 9 years. (I have posted some more background elsewhere on the science of autistic savantism, calendar calculation, and circumscribed interests.)

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.

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.

Jesse Bering is the author of Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us. Read his columns here and follow him at jessebering.com, @JesseBering, or on Facebook.

  Slate Plus
Working
Dec. 18 2014 4:49 PM Slate’s Working Podcast: Episode 17 Transcript Read what David Plotz asked a middle school principal about his workday.