The act of writing fiction is essentially an act of creation. When putting together a novel, the novelist must create peoples and places, bring them to life in a story, and portray them with vivid detail that makes the story come alive for the reader. Many times novels exist as self-contained creations, but sometimes these worlds can spill over from one book to another and create a shared universe across the span of an author’s work. The universe the writer is creating may be planned from the start, or it may appear organically, with connections popping up between some books and not others. In many cases, the longer a writer writes, the more different stories become connected and the more clearly-defined these worlds become. Shared universes are more commonly found in science fiction and fantasy, likely because the writer has to create a vivid world from scratch, but it has appeared in mainstream American literature as well. This entry will discuss examples from mainstream American fiction, and will be followed by one discussing genre fiction.
Creation is a messy thing, and sometimes a shared universe does not have a clear sense of continuity. An example of this would be the writings of novelist and environmentalist Edward Abbey (1927-1989). Abbey’s modern-day outlaw character is Jack Burns, introduced in The Brave Cowboy (1956) and revisited decades later with Good News (1980), a book of post-apocalyptic science fiction very different from its predecessor. In the former book, Jack Burns recalls growing up on a ranch with his grandfather, John Vogelin. However, in the novel Fire on the Mountain (1962), Vogelin’s story is narrated through the eyes of his grandson, now named Billy. Abbey once stated that the grandson was originally planned as the character Jack Burns, but the character was changed in the course of writing.
Other universes are more planned. Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951) set many of his novels within the fictional state of Winnemac. A Minnesota native, Lewis created Winnemac as the middle-sized, middle-brow, middle-American state that embodied many of the social elements he critiqued and satirized throughout his career. The novels set in Winnemac and its capital city Zenith, including Babbitt (1922), Arrowsmith (1925), and Elmer Gantry (1927) are largely self-contained, though overlap is sometimes visible. Archetypal middling businessman George Babbitt makes a cameo in Arrowsmith, while huckster-preaching Elmer Gantry appears briefly in the late novel Gideon Planish (1943).
Perhaps the most famous created world in American literature is William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Modeled on LaFayette County, Mississippi, Faulkner introduced Yoknapatawpha and its county seat, Jefferson, in Flags in the Dust/Sartoris (1929) after Sherwood Anderson advised him to write about his home. The majority of Faulkner’s novels and stories thereafter would take place in Yoknapatawpha, and over the next 33 years his vision of Yoknapatawpha grew more complex and also more prominent in his works. Faulkner defines the history of Yoknapatawpha in Civil War novels such as Absalom, Absalom! (1936) and The Unvanquished (1938) and short works like “A Justice” (1931) and “A Courtship,” (1948) which deal with the first contact between white settlers and native Chickasaws. Faulkner continued the story of Yoknapatawpha through the World Wars and into the 1950s. Early novels feature some inconsistencies, a byproduct of Faulkner’s habit of working and reworking story elements for years. For example, the minor character of Henry Armistid appears in As I Lay Dying (1930), Light in August (1932), and The Hamlet (1940), each time with a wife of a different name. More notably, the garrulous itinerant salesman V.K. Suratt is introduced in Sartoris, only to reappear as V.K. Ratliff in the so-called Snopes Trilogy of The Hamlet, The Town(1957), and The Mansion(1959). The name was apparently changed after Faulkner learned of a real traveling salesman named Surratt in northern Mississippi.
In early novels like The Sound and the Fury (1929) and As I Lay Dying(1930), Yoknapatawpha primarily serves as a backdrop, loosely sketched. Detailed histories of Yoknapatawpha start appearing later, most notably in the generation-spanning story collection Go Down, Moses (1942) and the experimental Requiem for a Nun (1951), where lengthy descriptions of Yoknapatawpha locales are interspersed between scripted acts of a courtroom drama. Faulker’s final novel, the comic The Reivers (1962), follows Yoknapatawpha boys’ misadventures in Memphis, but his penultimate work, The Mansion, serves as a climax to both the Snopes Trilogy and a sort of summation of the Yoknapatawpha saga. While recapping events from the previous two books, The Mansion also brings back iconic characters like Ike McCaslin from Go Down, Moses and Jason Compson from The Sound and the Fury. The action runs from the start of the century to the 1950s. Motor-cars replace horses, old families fall and new ones rise, and meddling Harvard-educated lawyer Gavin Stevens, a recurring character since Light in August, finally gets married and watches his plucky young nephew go off to war and come back a hero. At the end of the novel, Gavin Stevens and V.K. Ratliff sit in a car some 30 years after their introduction to readers, feeling old and dazed by decades of changes they’ve seen in Yoknapatawpha. On some level, Faulkner was surely speaking for himself.