Undergraduate Literature Class

DATE: 9 March 1957

OCCASION: Undergraduate Class in Contemporary Literature

TAPE: T108-T109

LENGTH: 22:21 (reading of "Was" not transcribed)

Play the full recording:

Moderator: Mr. Faulkner will answer questions [now]. We will have a number of them on "Was," preferably.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, a fyce plays a minor part in "Was" and in a few more of your stories, I believe. Well, is a fyce just a mongrel or is he an out-of-the-ordinary mongrel that you might equate with the primitive?

William Faulkner: He is—in our Mississippi jargon, he is any small dog, usually he was a fox or rat terrier at one time that has gotten mixed up with hound, with bird-dog, everything else, but any small dog in my country is called a fyce.

Unidentified participant: Can we look upon him as representing the primitive, such as the bear and the forest?

William Faulkner: No, he's the—in a way, the—the—the antithesis of the bear. The bear represented the obsolete primitive. The fyce represents the—the creature who has coped with environment and is still on top of it, you might say. That he has—instead of sticking to his breeding and—and becoming a—a decadent, degenerate creature, he has mixed himself up with the good stock where he picked and chose. And he's quite smart. He's quite brave. All's against him is his size. But I never knew a fyce yet that realized that he wasn't as big as anything else he ever saw, even a bear. [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: Yes sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, into what strata would these people fit—Mr. Hubert and Miss Sophonsiba [...]?

William Faulkner: They were the aristocracy of provincial Mississippi at that time. It was still frontier. In Natchez they had the fine Empire furniture. People had—they spent their money on objets-d'art from Europe, furnishings and fine clothes. In—in the country, these people, they were aristocracy, but they were still frontier, they were still the—the tall man with the long rifle, in a way. That even their splendor was a little on the—the slovenly side, that they went through the motions of—of living like dukes and princes but their life wasn't too different from the man who lived in a mud-floored hovel. No, they represented the aristocracy. They were the wealthy, the men of power, the owners of slaves.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Could you explain the significance of the title "Was"?

William Faulkner: Yes, I was—this was the first chapter in a book. The book was composed of short stories. It covered a—a great deal of time. The central character in the book was a man named Isaac McCaslin, who was old at the time of the book. But this background which produced Isaac McCaslin had to be told by somebody, and so this is Isaac McCaslin's uncle. This Cass here is not old Ike, this is Ike's uncle. And "Was" simply because Ike is saying to the reader, "I'm not telling this, this was my uncle, my great-uncle that told it." That's the only reason for "Was," that this was the old time. But it's part of him, too.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, does the presentation of the ribbon to Uncle Buddy have any significance from medieval tales or anything?

William Faulkner: Yes, that was Miss Sophonsiba with that belief of hers and her brother too that they were the rightful heirs to [...] [to die for his choice].

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, do you look at your humor as a—with the same inspiration as you do a serious thing, or is it more a relaxing kind of work?

William Faulkner: No, no, it's a part of man, too. It's a part of life. That people are—there's not too fine a distinction between humor and tragedy, that even tragedy is—is in a way walking a tightrope between the ridiculous—between the bizarre and the—and the terrible. That it's—possibly the writer uses humor as a tool, that he's still trying to—to write about people, to write about man, about the human heart in some moving way, and so he uses whatever tool that he thinks will do most to finish the—the picture which at the moment he is—he is trying to paint, of man. That he will use humor, tragedy, just as he uses violence. They are tools, but an ineradicable part of life, humor is.

William Faulkner: Yes sir.

Unidentified participant: What is the significance of the title "Red Leaves"?

William Faulkner: Well, that was probably symbolism. The—the red leaves referred to the Indian. It was the—the deciduation of nature which no one could stop that had suffocated, smothered, destroyed the Negro. That the red leaves had nothing against him when they suffocated and destroyed him. They had nothing against him. They probably liked him, but it was normal deciduation which the red leaves, whether they regretted it or not, had nothing more to say in.

William Faulkner: Yes sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, you use hunting terms all through "Was" when they're chasing Tomey's Turl. Is there any significance to this—I mean, do they think that perhaps this colored man is not about—well, say he's on the same plane as the fox?

William Faulkner: At that—at that time he was, at the very time that these twin brothers had believed that there was something outrageous and wrong in slavery, and they had done what they could. In fact, they had—had given up their father's fine mansion to let the slaves live in it and they had built a two-room log cabin that they lived in. That they by instinct knew that—that slavery was wrong, but they didn't know quite what to do about it. And in the heat of—of the pursuit—of, well, in—in—in daily life, they would use the terms in which the Negro was on a level with the dog or the animal they ran. And especially in the heat of a race, which—though—though this was more of—of deadly purpose than simple pleasure, in the heat of running—running this man, the man became quarry that would have received the same respect that—that the bear or the deer would—that is, the bear or the deer would have his chance for his life. They wouldn't have betrayed him, tricked him. They wouldn't have built a deadfall for him. They would have run him all fair with the dogs and if he could escape, could kill the dogs and get away, good for him. If he couldn't, it was too bad.

Unidentified participant: Sir, never having been fox-hunting, what do you mean by "going to earth," as far as Tomey's Turl was concerned?

William Faulkner: That's when the quarry finds a—a hole in the ground, a den, and runs into it. The fox before the dogs, he will try first to—to trick the dogs, and if he can't, then he gets into something that the dogs can't follow him into. He goes—finds an old fox den or something that he knows, that—that the dog is too big to follow, he gets in there, he's gone to earth.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, did Tomey's Turl stack the deck? And if so —

William Faulkner: Oh yes, because he wanted Tennie, and he wanted to go back home and take Tennie with him.

Unidentified participant: Well, I understood that in the last thing it says that if he—if Mr. Hubert didn't call Uncle Buddy, then everything would stay just the way it was, and that Tomey's Turl would go back with Uncle Buddy and Uncle Buck and that Tennie would stay with Mr. Hubert and leave it just the way it was before.

William Faulkner: No, no, if Uncle Buddy saved Uncle Buck from Miss Sophonsiba, then Uncle Buddy would have to buy Tennie. That was the way the bet was settled, and so Tomey's Turl, he didn't care whether Uncle Buck was safe from Miss Sophonsiba or not, but he wanted Tennie to go back home with him, and so he—he hunted around, found that last deuce for Uncle Buddy. He was playing for Tennie. Uncle Buddy was playing for his brother, to save his brother. Their aims were the same, though the end was slightly different.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, in another one of your stories, "Percy Grimm," do you think that the type of person that is exemplified there is prevalent in the South today, perhaps in the White Citizens Councils?

William Faulkner: I wouldn't say prevalent. He exists everywhere. I wrote that—that book in 1932, before I'd ever heard of Hitler's Storm Troopers. What he was was a Nazi Storm Trooper, but then I'd never heard of one then, and he's not prevalent, but he's everywhere. I wouldn't say that there are more of him in the South, but I would say that there are probably more of him in the White Citizens Council than anywhere else in the South, but I—I think you find him everywhere, in all countries, in all people.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, was Percy Grimm ever punished for his crime?

William Faulkner: I think in time that—that every Storm Trooper suffers for it. He don't suffer any retribution, any stroke of lightning from the gods, but he's got to live with himself, and there comes a time when you've got to live with that, when you're too old and the—the—the fire which enables you to get a certain amount of hysterical adrenalic pleasure out of things like that is gone, and—and all you have left is to remember what you did, and you probably wonder why in God's name you did things like that, and you have to live with it. And I—I think that quite often unexplained suicides go back to some man who has done something like that, and he gets old, and he's got to live with it, and decides it's not worth living with it.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: You spoke a little while ago of Greek themes. I was wondering if you think that modern literature or twentieth-century literature, so to speak, could feature the truly tragic hero that you would find in Greek times, or do you think the characters should be meaner or more simple? [...]

William Faulkner: That's a difficult question to answer. I think the writer has got to write in terms of his environment, and his environment consists not only in—in the—the immediate scene, but his readers are part of that environment too, and maybe nobody can—can write forever without expecting to be read, and probably a writer, whether he intends to or not, or knows it or not, is going to shape what he writes in—in the terms of—of who will read it. So—so maybe when there are fine listeners, there will be fine poets again, that maybe the—the writing that is not too good is—is not just the writer's fault, it may be because of the environment, a part of which is the general effluvium of—of the readers, the people who will read it, that does something to the air they all breathe together, that compels the shape of the book. It would be fine if people could write in—in the old, simple, clear Hellenic tradition, but then maybe that would be now obsolete, that there was a time for that, the time for that is not now. It may come back, if life does go in cycles.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, in your excerpt from The Unvanquished, "An Odor of Verbena," why is that sprig of verbena left on Bayard's pillow right at the very end, when she leaves, she says she's going to abjure verbena for ever and ever, and then he goes off, he walks into town, and he meets Mr. Redmond, I believe it is, and then without any gun or anything, and then comes back, and the sprig of verbena is left on his pillow.

William Faulkner: That—of—of course, the—the verbena was associated with Drusilla, with that woman, and she had wanted him to take a pistol and—and avenge his father's death. He—he went to the man who had shot his father, unarmed, and instead of killing the man, by that—that gesture he drove the man out of town, and although that had—had violated Drusilla's traditions of an eye for an eye, she—the spring of verbena meant that she realized that that took courage too and maybe more moral courage than to—to have drawn blood, or to have taken another step in an endless feud of an eye for an eye.

Unidentified participant: But then why did she leave?

William Faulkner: Because she was at that time too old, she was still too involved in it to accept that morally. I mean accept it physically, that her husband had not been—been avenged by his own son. That is, her intellect said—said, "This was a brave thing," but the Eve in her said, "My husband, my lover has not been avenged." And she could say, "You were brave," but she—"this is not for me, that I—that sort of bravery is not for me."

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, is there any reason for the Southern—the blossoming of Southern writing, that is, are there any circumstances in the Southern environment that would bring about the blossoming of great writers as it has?

William Faulkner: I don't know. That's a literary question. And I wouldn't undertake to answer it. I might say that when that so-called blossoming of Southern writers came along, it was at a time when nobody in the South had much money. They couldn't travel, and they had to invent a world a little different from the shabby one they lived in, so they took to writing, which is cheaper than a—that is a ream of paper and a pencil is cheaper than a railroad ticket. [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, why, in the beginning of your book about—you mention Ikkemotubbe, why does Ikkemotubbe cease to own the land as soon as he realizes that it is saleable, and do the people like the Compsons who have bought the land, do they ever belong to the land in the sense that Ikkemotubbe previously had?

William Faulkner: No, I don't think they do. I think the—the ghost of—of that—that ravishment lingers in the land, that the land is inimical to the white man because of the unjust way in which it was taken from Ikkemotubbe and his people. That happened by treaty, which President Jackson established with the Chickasaws and the Choctaws, in which they would take land in Oklahoma in exchange for their Mississippi land. And they were paid for it, but they were compelled to leave it, either to—to leave on—to follow a chimera in the West or to stay there in a—a condition even worse than the—the Negro slave, in isolation. There are a few of them still in Mississippi, but they fair a good deal like animals in a zoo: they have no—no place in the culture, in the economy, unless they become white men, and they have in some cases mixed with white people, and the—their own conditions have vanished, or they have mixed with Negroes, and they have descended into the Negroes' condition of semi-peonage.

Unidentified participant: And even the aristocracy, the original aristocracy was tainted. They never owned the land. The land was never theirs.

William Faulkner: That's right. They—the Indians held the land communally, a—a few of them that were wise enough to see which way the wind was blowing would get government patents for the land. There was one of them, a Choctaw chief, was one of the wealthiest men in Mississippi, Greenwood Leflore. He was wise enough to—to get a patented deed to his land and to take up the white man's ways. He was a cotton planter. He built a tremendous mansion and imported the furnishings from France, and he was quite wealthy. And then when in '61, he declined to accept the Confederacy, and Confederate troops were sent in there and his—his—his stables were set on fire, the story is that when—when they demanded that he accept an oath to the Confederacy, he went into the house and got a United States flag and wrapped it around himself, and—and came out and walked into that burning barn and died there, but that's—we don't know whether that's so or not, but that's the legend. But the house is still there. It's a museum now, and—and his descendants, they are two great-great-nieces. They're mostly white now. They own the place.

Moderator: Mr. Faulkner, [...] I want to thank you on behalf of me and the class members. [We meet in this room on Monday and Wednesday.]

William Faulkner: Thank you.[applause]

[end of recording]