English Department Faculty and Wives
DATE: 13 May 1957
OCCASION: English Department Faculty and Wives
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A. K. Davis: We all know why we're here, and we're very lucky to be here with Mr. Faulkner, and that's all I'll say, and ask you to begin. Any questions you want to ask Mr. Faulkner?
Boggs: Mr. Faulkner, there's been a lot of talk about the—some kind of Southern Renascence, an outburst of creativity in the South. I wonder—from your own experience—you have any ideas on why it should come at this time, or is there one?
William Faulkner: No, I don't because I'm—I'm not very literary and don't keep up with things like that. Somebody said that—that southerners don't read books, they write books. Maybe that's all it is, but I—I can't say unless it may be that until the last war, southerners never got away from home. Their only chance to—to adventure was in the imagination. Their only chance for—for change, for a—an experience that was romantic and—and interesting was to invent it and put it down on paper. I'm not too certain that I believe that very much myself, but that's the sort of thing [...].
A. K. Davis: It's been both stated and denied that Sir Walter Scott has greatly influenced southern people, especially during the—not the recent unpleasantness but the less recent unpleasantness, the mid-nineteenth century war, the War Between the States. I notice you name one of your characters Quentin, as a rather romantic-minded individual. [Do you ] suggest by that name that he is the type of southerner who was influenced by the kind of things that Walter Scott—
William Faulkner: Not necessarily. I think that—that Scott was read more in the South for the reason that at a time the southerner had very little of his money to devote to the buying of books, and there was a kinship perhaps between the—the life of—of—of—of Scott's Highland and the—the life the—the southerner led after Reconstruction. They too were—were in the aftermath of a—of a land which had been conquered and devastated by people—people speaking its own language, which hasn't happened too many times. And so every southern household, when they bought books, they—they bought Scott. I reckon it was because you got more words for your money, maybe, could have had something to do with that. [audience laughter] But every household that all—that at all pretended to be literate had Scott.
Unidentified participant: That's true.
Floyd Stovall: While we are on that literary angle, which we dreamed up a little bit on the literary side, do you feel that the—the subject Mr. Boggs raised about the literary renaissance, or whatever you want to call it, the flourishing of literature in the South, has been in any notable way indebted to the fact that a number of young people, writers, were resident in Paris, came under French influence perhaps in the Twenties?
William Faulkner: I don't know. It seems to me that—that very few southerners were a part of that group of expatriates of the Twenties in Paris. Most of the ones I knew were—were northerners. I don't remember a single southerner that had any part in it. I would say that the reasons for the renaissance in southern writing was in the—the cards, in the making, long before that. I think this may have had a little to do with it: since the Civil War, there has been a—a great deal of—misunderstanding is not quite the right word, the northerner, the outlander, had a—a queer and erroneous idea of—of what southern people were. It may be that that was an instinctive desire in southerners to—to tell the—the outlander just what we were, just what we might have had that—that we felt was—was worth accepting four years of war, in which we knew we had no chance to win it, to say this is what we had that we thought was worth that, or this is what we actually are. I don't know. That—that's probably valid. I—I imagine there are so many things that went into it that probably nobody could say, "This is where the resurgence of writing in the South came from." I myself am inclined to think it was because of the—the—the barrenness of the southerner's life, that he had to resort to his own imagination to—to create his own Carcassonne.
Unidentified participant: In that connection—
William Faulkner: [...]
Unidentified participant: —would you mind commenting on this question? You—you said a minute ago, facetiously, that southerners don't read books, they write them. It has long been known, of course, to literary historians that southern writers both before and after the Civil War counted pretty largely on northern readers. And Hayne, for example, was a notable example. Lanier is another example. Do you suppose that has been in the consciousness of the average southern writer and could possibly have influenced his work in any way?
William Faulkner: Yes, it has. It's in his consciousness that the man that will publish his book is a northerner, and he—he is never unaware of that, that the publisher and—and, to an extent, his readers are northerners. I think that most southerners know that his—his home folks ain't going to like what he writes anyway, that he's not really writing to them, and that—and that they simply do not read books. They are good people, but they just do not read books.
Unidentified participant: The clash, [sir], between the explanations of the South, does that help square the fact that the explanations offered are not always greeted with warmth in the South itself?
William Faulkner: Can I have your specific question again? I—I got two or three different ideas there.
Unidentified participant: What I meant was that if—if part of the renascence in southern writers is due to an urge to explain the southern—the South to explain itself, is it not also true that once one gets out of the moonlight and magnolias school, that various of the non-writing southerners do not like what the writing southerners do or the picture they present?
William Faulkner: Yes, that's quite true. The—the non-writing southerner, the non-reading southerner, he wants the sort of brochure that the Chamber of Commerce gets out. [audience laughter] There are things in his country that he's not too proud of himself, but—but to him it's bad manners to—to show that in public.
A. K. Davis: Does any locality like to read the books that are written about that locality, do you think? Is it characteristic that a locality is—is generally offended when it finds itself in a novel or a story?
William Faulkner: The—an element of the locality, but didn't the people of his own country have a—a sort of a—a fierce pride in people like Thoreau and Emerson? Or was that just the—the educated intellectual New Englander that felt that?
A. K. Davis: I don't know—
William Faulkner: Well, I always thought that—that everybody, they might not have approved so much of all that—that Emerson or Thoreau said, but they had a—a—a fierce, almost provincial pride in—
A. K. Davis: They did, but neither Emerson nor Thoreau were writing about the people of New England, in the way we're talking about, in the way you write about the people of the South, or Eudora Welty, or whoever. They were writing about ideas and nature, but as far as I know they didn't write about—they didn't give pictures of the locality, [that is—is to say ], this is what things are like in New England. I—I think I'm right, aren't I?
Joseph Blotner: You'd have to go to Hawthorne, wouldn't you, to find—
A. K. Davis: You'd have to go to Hawthorne to find if the—the—
William Faulkner: Would that have held true of Hawthorne?
A. K. Davis: I don't know, sir. I don't know whether that—whether Hawthorne would have been perceived [...].
Unidentified participant: [...] Anyway, [as far as that's concerned,] as far as I know, he was just as popular at home as he was anywhere else.
William Faulkner: Well, that gets back to something else. Can a man write about ideas except in—in the provincial terms of his background?
A. K. Davis: Well, they certainly must affect him.
William Faulkner: Could Emerson have—have written Emerson—would it have been the same Emerson if he'd been a Mississippian, say, or a Texan or a Californian?
A. K. Davis: Well, I think not, but still when you are writing about self-reliance in general, it could apply all over the world.
William Faulkner: But would a Californian in a climate that don't change, where you don't need [audience laughter] even a warm house to live in—what would he care about self-reliance? [audience laughter]
Floyd Stovall: That reminds—that—that brings up this question, Mr. Faulkner, in my mind, that I often—Carlyle says Walt Whitman—he says, "Walt Whitman thinks that because he lives in a big country, he's a big man." What do you suppose—I—I gather that he thought that Whitman thought that the climate and the general landscape, background of—the geographical features of a place had some influence on the—on the person who grows up in that, whether he be a writer or not. Do you suppose there's anything in that? In the South, for example, what—how does that turn out in the South?
William Faulkner: Well, I would say that—that Carlyle's and Whitman's definition of a big man were completely different. Carlyle's an islander—a small country. His idea of a big man is a—is a big individual man. I should think that Whitman's idea of a big man is one that is lucky enough to belong to a race of giants, that he's one too. I wonder if Whitman believed that he was a bigger man than anybody else in America.
Floyd Stovall: What I was getting at was whether the peculiarities of Southern climate and topography might possibly have any influence on the nature of the writing?
William Faulkner: It would have to, just like the language the man knows to write in would have some influence on him. But I don't think that the—that the topography—one topography will produce a writer where another topography won't. But of course—
Floyd Stovall: You don't think there's any relationship then between the lack of roads in Yoknapatawpha County and the difficulties of your sentence structure?
William Faulkner: No, sir, [audience laughter] because—because the lack of—the lack of roads in Yoknapatawpha County ain't near as complex as—as Madison Avenue or 42nd Street. Though, of course, that depends upon who is looking at each one. Yoknapatawpha County ain't near as complex as the Empire State Building. [audience laughter]
A. K. Davis: Mr. Faulkner, I spoke to you about your long sentences and asked you if one reason for them were not that you were trying to give the past and the present and the future, more or less all at the same time, to throw light on the present action by referring to the past and to the future. And I understand why throwing light on the past would throw light on a present action. And I think I understand why reference to the future would do it. But I am not sure that I do understand, and I would like to ask you why you—you feel it is necessary to bring in the future while you are telling the present. Why—why the—why is that significant? It's not going to happen yet. So why—why bring in something that has not yet happened while you are recounting something that is happening?
William Faulkner: Well, a man's future is inherent in that man. I—in the sense that—that life, A.D. 1957, is—is not the end of life, that there'll be a—a 2057. That we assume that. There may not be, but we assume that. And in man, in man's behavior today is 1950—2057. If we just had a machine that could project ahead and could capture that, that machine could—could isolate and—and freeze a—a picture, an image, of what man will be doing in 2057, just as—as the machine might capture and fix the light rays showing what he was doing in—in B.C. 28. That is, that's the mystical belief that—that there is no such thing as "was." That—that time "is," and if there's no such thing as "was," then there is no such thing as "will be." That time is a—is a—not a fixed condition, that time is, in a way—in a way, the sum of the combined intelligences of all men who breathe at that moment.
A. K. Davis: So you—so you arrogate to yourself the power of knowing the future of your characters and use that in your depicting of them and what happens to them.
William Faulkner: No—
A. K. Davis: You—you are, in a sense, in 2057, and you're writing about somebody in 1957, and you also know what happened in 1857.
William Faulkner: Well, I—I can assume the fact that—that in the people which I create is the—the genesis, the—the seed of 2057. I don't know it, and I don't think I need to know it. But the people behave according to the—the—the pattern by which man has been able to endure this long. Then, if he holds to that pattern, he will continue to endure, assuming that there's not some—some tremendous cataclysmic explosion which will wreck everything. That the—the verities which are true now will be true in 2057, and man will—will go through the same struggle to—to live up to them, to behave as he—he wants to behave, whether he can or not, whether he fails or not. That his problems really won't be any different. The important problems won't be any different in 2057 than they are now.
A. K. Davis: I—I was thinking of something a little more specific than—than that. You—you are talking about a man brushing his hair, and you refer to the fact that twenty years ago he was a child playing in the dust, and at the same time you know he's going to commit a murder up here. And you bring in the murder, and you bring in the playing in the dust, and you bring in the combing of his hair, all together, we will say, as I see it, in—in one passage, in one—one sentence.
William Faulkner: Oh, I see what you mean. Well, of course the writer arrogates to himself that right, to know the future of his own people. He don't know the future of the human race, but he does know the future of—of—of that individual, that character, or he never could get his book done. That is, he has got to know where the thing's going, in a way, before he starts because then he won't know when to stop it.
A. K. Davis: And you think this future murder throws light on the way this fellow—
William Faulkner: Yes, yes.
A. K. Davis: —combs his hair, and the playing in the dust—
William Faulkner: Yes, yes.
A. K. Davis: —also throws light on the way he combs his hair, and you can describe the combing of the hair the better because—
William Faulkner: I think so.
A. K. Davis: —you have this in mind and that in mind.
William Faulkner: I think if—if we could know the future of ourselves and one another we would never be as baffled and confused by—by people, by our contact with people, as we are. It wouldn't be as much fun, of course, but—
A. K. Davis: Didn't you have a question you wanted to ask in connection with Dostoevsky, the Russians in general?
Unidentified participant: [...] let me figure a way to—to phrase it and get it clear in my mind [...] [in so long. I don't know][...]
Robert Turner: Well, what—what do you think is the—was the difference in quality of the impact on the—to the southern people after the Civil War and the—as a mental experience and though—and say World War I—the people that were involved in World War I?
William Faulkner: I would say possibly it was—was sharper, a harder experience, because for—for years the southerner had lived a—a safe and isolated life in which nothing actually had happened to him, except the—the simple things of—of crop failures and—and trouble with—with his own particular plantation economy. The Civil War was—was a great deal of a shock to him because suddenly it thrust him into the world. He had to become a member, not of a class or of a—a provincial segment, but a member of the whole human race. When he got into the second World War he had gotten used to having to be a member of the human race, whether he wanted to or not, and so that wasn't as much shock. Also, if anybody did, he won that war. That is, he was on the side that was succesful. In the Civil War, the southerner was on the side that lost.
Unidentified participant: I suppose my question in reference to Dostoevsky boils down to this. Why do you consider Benjy a good tool in the—the telling of this story, one of the—the instruments in telling the story? The same question, why do you often use children who are quite young and not much of a—the one in—Vardaman. Is it possibly because the idiot and the child are free of any preconceived ideas about the truth? They have no convention. They haven't had any religion [to fog them] or anything like that. They're sort of open-minded and free. And are they better judges of the truth? Can they see the truth better than the more sophisticated and more intelligent human beings?
William Faulkner: Only in this sense: say there was a mirror which would obliterate everything from the image it reflected except—except the verities. To me, that is the child. As you say, it has less trash that it—it has had to—to assimilate and live with in order to—to cope with the adult world. It—it sees with a—not a clearer eye, that's not the word I want—but it—it is incapable of seeing the things which are—which are not true, which don't match the verities, which the adult has been trained and had to learn, so that he no longer knows that—that he—what he sees is—is obfuscated. The child don't even know that it doesn't see something that the adult sees. And what the child sees is closer to the verities, the important things. I think that's—the most interesting thing to write about is the child as it learns to cope with the adult world which it didn't create, that it's got to learn to—to live with in order to—to endure, to get along, to have enough to eat, and how it makes those adjustments, how it gradually comes to believe that—that—that lies are truths. It—it don't know that it is coming to believe that. It just has to learn that or die. And when it's still a child, it doesn't know yet. It hasn't had to believe that lies are truth. To the child the lie is still a lie, and the truth is truth. Benjy, the idiot—he was a sublimated idiot, probably, but he had some of that quality. He had the child's quality to—to see and recognize only the truth, but he had a man's long years of—of simple experience, whether he could assimilate that experience or not. He had a longer time to see that more human beings were capable of believing that—that lies were true, than the child of three or four or five or six.
Edgar Shannon: Mr. Faulkner, I think it's a very interesting point you raise, and—and—but how do you reconcile that view of the—of the child, which I think is the correct one and agreeable to me, with the other aspects of the child, as children are very often the most savage to each other, hurt each other, have—have less sensitivity toward each other than—than adults do. Whereas they sometimes seem to perceive the truth, seem to cut through so much of the—the sham that adults build up, still we have to educate children to be—on the whole, to be considerate.
William Faulkner: Well, that savagery, that ruthless[ness], that's one of the verities. It's not a virtue, but it—it's a verity. To me, there's—there's a distinction between verity and virtue. Some of the verities, when they are practiced, the practice of them becomes virtue. The child is—is incapable of being [clubbed] up by your shibboleth, "you musn't do this because it's wrong." The child says, "I will do this because I want to," and he tries to do it. That in—that—that—that's a truth in—in the world, too, that—that man can be inhuman to man. It's a verity. It's—it's a—a vice when practiced, but it's one of the verities. Just like—like honor and honesty.
Floyd Stovall: You have various children. You spoke of Benjy. There is—and also of The Sound and the Fury and Vardaman. I was thinking—been thinking recently about this boy who participates in the telling of the story in The Town. I don't know—I'm not sure that I know how you would explain the function of Charles Mallison in—in this last novel, whether he has—whether he is—his part of the story is supposed to have any particular value because he is a child or—and—and whether—and then Ratliff—there are three people, you see. There is yourself, and I—I'm—I haven't been able to see at the moment, and I've only read it one time, quite as well as I do in The Sound and the Fury the distinct values which come from the three points of view. I don't know whether I am making myself clear or not. You can comment on that problem.
William Faulkner: That's—was simply a—a—well, I don't like the word "trick," but it was used deliberately to look at—at the—the object from three points of view. Just as when you—you examine a—a monument you will walk around it. You are not satisfied to look at it from just one side. Also, it—to look at it from—from three different mentalities. That was—one was the mirror which obliterated all except truth because the mirror didn't know the other factors existed. Another was to look at it from the point of view of—of someone who had made of himself a more or less artificial man through his desire to practice what he had been told was a virtue, apart from his belief in virtues, what he had been told, trained by his respect for education in the old classical sense. The other was from the point of view of a man who—who practiced virtue from simple instinct, from—from—well, more than that, because—for a practical reason, because it was better. There was less confusion if all people didn't tell lies to one another and didn't pretend. That seemed to me to give a more complete picture of the specific incidents as they occurred if they could be [expressed] three times.
Floyd Stovall: And yet you didn't mean that Charles Mallison was quite as much of a child or an innocent as some of these other children?
William Faulkner: Well, he changed. He grew up in that book. And, of course, his point of view changed.
Floyd Stovall: One other question about that book. Someone has said recently—and I don't present this as my view, it is something that—that I would like you to comment on if you will—that Gavin Stevens in The Town is a less mature, a less responsible, somehow or other a less likable person than he appears in some other places, as in the stories of Knight's Gambit.
William Faulkner: Well, he had got out of his depth—depth. He had got into—to the real world. While he was—could be—a county attorney, an amateur Sherlock Holmes, then he was at home, but—but he got out of that. He got into a—a real world in which people anguished and suffered, not simply did things which they shouldn't do. And he wasn't as prepared to cope with people who were following their own bent, not for profit but simply because they had to. That is, he knew a good deal less about people than he knew about the law and about the weighing of evidence and—and drawing the right conclusions from what he—he saw with his legal mind. When he—when he had to deal with people, he was an amateur. He was—at times he had a good deal less judgment than his nephew did. Which is—is not against education, as probably the passion he had for getting degrees, for trying this and trying that and going all the way to Europe to get more degrees, to study more, was—was in his own nature. It was the same character that made him shy away from marriage. He was probably afraid to be married. He might get too involved with the human race if he married one of them. [audience laughter]
Unidentified participant: Did you mean Gavin Stevens to be like that in Intruder in the Dust?
William Faulkner: No'm. These people I—I invent, and after that I just run along and put down what they say and do. I don't know always what they are going to develop into myself.
Unidentified participant: I mean, is Gavin at the same stage of development in Intruder in the Dust? Is he younger in The Town?
William Faulkner: Intruder in the Dust happened after The Town. Intruder in the Dust happened about 1935 or '40, and The Town began in—in 1909 and went to 1927. Probably Stevens learned something from The Town to carry into Intruder in the Dust.
Joseph Blotner: Mr. Faulkner, the fight that Gavin has with de Spain in The Town reminded me in some ways of the fight that Quentin had when he was in Cambridge. They both seemed a little bit like Don Quixote—
William Faulkner: Yes.
Joseph Blotner: —fighting for the honor of a lady. Is there any such similarity there, in character, between the two men at that time?
William Faulkner: No, that's—that's a constant, sad and—and funny picture too. It is the knight that goes out to defend somebody who don't want to be defended and don't need it. But it's a very fine quality in—in human nature. I hope it will always endure. It is comical and a little sad, and Quentin and Stevens were that much alike.
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, what did you start with in Intruder in the Dust? Was it the idea of a single character or [...]?
William Faulkner: Well, it began with the notion—there was a tremendous flux of detective stories going about at that time, and my children were always buying them and bringing them home. I'd stumble over them everywhere I went. And I thought of an idea for one would be a man in jail, just about to be hung, that would have to be his own detective. He couldn't get anybody to help him. Then the next thought was, the man for that would be a Negro. Then the character of—of Lucas—Lucas Beauchamp came along. And the book came out of that. It was the notion of a man in jail who couldn't hire a detective, couldn't hire one of these tough guys that slapped women around [audience laughter] and took a drink every time he couldn't think of what to say next. [audience laughter] But once I thought of Beauchamp, then he took charge of the story, and the story was a good deal different from the idea that—of the detective story that I had started with.
Unidentified participant: Sir, speaking of technique and the way characters are handled, somebody's accused you of going to school to Joyce. Would you mind commenting on his and perhaps any other individual influences on you?
William Faulkner: I don't believe that any—any writer has time to go to school to any one man. He learn—learns from everything he reads. He steals from any source that's available. He has no morals whatever. But he—I don't think he ever sets out to say, "Now I'm going to write like Joyce" or write like anybody else, that he's too busy writing about people. He remembers everything he reads without having to memorize. He is—he is voracious and amoral. He stores away everything, telephone directories, up and down. Congressional record, I used to read that. And the time comes when he needs something, and sure enough, there it is. He don't remember where he got it and don't care, because he is perfectly willing for anyone after him to take anything from his work, at least I am. I'm quite sure that everything I ever read has influenced me.
A. K. Davis: Sir, do you look at your own work and look at the—and look at the novels of Joseph Conrad, which I've heard you express a liking for—do you see any sort of similarities in method?
William Faulkner: No, I don't. I've said this before. That's —
A. K. Davis: I'm sorry I didn't know [...]
William Faulkner: — one good thing about writing. When you write a book you don't ever have to read it again, because you're busy on another one. And I think the writer never goes back to see where he got what from. I'm sure he could find plenty of sources, but he—he don't do it because he's busy with another one then.
A. K. Davis: We—we discussed Joseph Conrad in the course that I teach. We frequently come up against you, and vice versa, and—and I was—I was curious to know whether you—you saw any similarities?
William Faulkner: I imagine if I went back over the work I could find similarities. I can find similarities between Conrad and Hardy. And I'm sure I can find Conrad in my stuff and find almost anybody else you could name.
A. K. Davis: I was thinking of the particular thing of Conrad's effort to surround an event by throwing light on it from past—past and future, as well as present. He—he—he seems to—seems to stop at a particular event and—and throw light from this character and that character, and from—from the front and the rear and the side, in a way that I don't remember other novelists doing before his time.
William Faulkner: I'm inclined to think that all writers do that, only most of them, except Conrad and me, may be a little more clever about it. Probably Conrad was because he deliberately taught himself a foreign language to write in. And mine may be because I never—never went to school enough to save myself the shortcuts of learning English. That we both are a little more obvious than the others for that reason.
Unidentified participant: Sir, some months ago you expressed a fear in the loss of frontiers in American writing. Do you see any new frontiers opening up?
William Faulkner: Well, not exactly a frontier. I think now that we are faced with more of a—of a threat. It could hardly be a frontier to be conquered. It's—it's a force to be resisted, the force that is the pressure to make everybody belong to a mass or a group, which, in my opinion, would be the death of the writing and the painting and the music and everything else, that man has got to resist that. It's difficult to resist because, to a certain extent, he has got to compromise now, simply in order to get along. It's the—you've got to—to be on the alert constantly to know just exactly where to draw the line, which is—is too bad for the artist who should have all his time free to—to fight simpler dragons than that.
Fredson Bowers: Do you find [as] your own work comes nearer to the future, that you yourself alter in any respect in relation to it?
William Faulkner: No, that would belong to the same belief that it—I have never quite done it yet, that it fails in all respects. That it hasn't—hasn't shown the future. It hasn't been a good enough picture of the past. It's not a—a good enough picture of—of now, "is," to please me.
Fredson Bowers: I was thinking of—of—as—as the setting and the time element in this series comes nearer to the present day, whether as you get nearer to the modern scene, you feel any difference. Rather than [going] back to 1909.
William Faulkner: I can't say because I haven't quite got up to 1957 yet. It's—that's an interesting thought, and I'll be curious to know if I do begin to run into trouble then. So far I haven't got up to that yet.
Edgar Shannon: Well then, [on that score,] do you feel that though you write [...] [personally] [...] [that maybe it would be better] [...] though you write about a past time, you are inevitably influenced by the circumstances of the immediate time and reflect some of the concerns of that time?
William Faulkner: Oh yes, yes.
Anna Barringer: I know you admire Wolfe tremendously, but don't you feel that as Wolfe caught up to the present that he lost something that he had when he had a little more time between him and the—and the event to digest?
William Faulkner: Now that comes back to a—a more or less idle remark I made years ago. I have no particular great admiration for Wolfe. This is what happened in that. It was at a group years ago. Somebody asked what I thought about my contemporaries. I said, "We're not done writing yet, I couldn't say." And he said, "Well, haven't you got any opinion at all about them?" I said, "About who?" He named Wolfe, Dos Passos, Erskine Caldwell, Hemingway and me. I said, "Well, I will—I would rate us this way," which I did, and that's what that came from, and for about twenty years now I've been trying to explain that. [audience laughter]
Anna Barringer: [Well, I didn't hear it.] But actually, don't you think that—that Wolfe was [obvious,] and I wondered if you felt at all the same way, that when he had a little time between him and his childhood to digest what had happened [it felt like it sort of seemed cooked] and came out different. It was much better than when he was writing about something that happened about a year and a half before.
William Faulkner: I don't know because I haven't read much of Wolfe. I have just glanced—glanced into it. I think I've read one of his short stories, but none of the books have I ever finished. I have opened them and read a little here and a little there, but I never have finished one, so I—I just don't know.
Floyd Stovall: Do you think that [question goes a little]—I'm—I'm interested in—in this question, which I come across in Henry James, for example, that an author has a—a given—has something to write—you get an idea such as you mentioned a while ago in connection to Intruder in the Dust. Which—and I—I ask you for yourself because I think it will have a bearing on the question in general—which is better for you, to have a great mass of facts and details, which are facts, and belong to a human situation, and all you got to do is work them up and give them order, or would you rather just have the essential things, the germ of the idea, so that you can build in all the other things with the imagination?
William Faulkner: I would rather have as few facts as possible because I—in my opinion, the writer is writing about truth, and—and I think truth and facts have almost no relation to one another. They ain't very closely connected. And I would rather have as few facts as possible, and let observation and experience and imagination [do the rest of it].
Floyd Stovall: And wouldn't that then be, in a way, an answer to Miss Barringer's question, that if you are remote from a time, it has less hold on you, that it constricts your imagination less than that which is just a year or two ago.
William Faulkner: I don't know, if you as immune to facts as I am, it don't matter. [audience laughter]
Joseph Blotner: Mr. Faulkner, in view of the fact that those people asked you for ratings when the—when the horse race had gotten maybe to the first quarter mark, and we're now perhaps halfway around the course, would you feel inclined to make any revision in the order that you saw at that time?
William Faulkner: No, because I made my estimate on the—the gallantry of the failure, not on the—on the—on the success or the—or the validity of—of the work. It's on the gallantry of the effort which failed. In my opinion, my work has all failed. It—it ain't quite good enough, which is the only reason to write another one, because writing really ain't any fun. I mean the mechanics of putting the stuff down on paper is no fun. I can think of too many other things I'd rather do. And I—I don't see any reason to change that, no. After we have all written out, and if there's time to—to look back at it, then I could—could make a private estimate of the work. But right now, I think it's too soon. Of course, Wolfe is—is finished because he's dead, but the others are not. Caldwell seems to have written himself out years ago, which has nothing to do with the value of—of—of the first books, and I think that—that the first books, God's Little Acre and the short stories, that's enough for any man. He should be content with that, but—but knowing writers, I know he's not, just as I'm not content with mine. I meant only that Hemingway had sense enough to find a method which he could control and didn't need or—or didn't have to, wasn't driven by his private demon to waste himself in trying to do—do more than that. So, he has done consistently probably the most solid work of all of us. But it wasn't the—the—the splendid, magnificent bust that Wolfe made in trying to put the whole history of the human heart on the head of a pin, you might say.
A. K. Davis: You've almost answered this, but I'll ask you anyway. Do you think you'll ever write an historical novel set—dealing with the last century? Would it interest you to do so?
William Faulkner: No, because I don't have much patience with facts, and any writer is—is a congenital liar to begin with, or he wouldn't take up writing, and so I couldn't tell the truth even about history. [audience laughter] That's why I'll never write a biography. I couldn't tell the truth about Faulkner, I'm sure about it [...] [audience laughter]. Any writer tries to improve on what he sees. In his opinion, the Lord ain't near as good as he is at creating people.
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, you said that Hemingway developed a method he could control. What do you think—what is your personal opinion of Across the River and into the Trees?
William Faulkner: I would say it was—that he considered it a—a bad book. Just like he considers To Have and Have Not a bad book, probably. But then the man that—that wrote some of the stories in Men Without Women and some of the early books—he can afford to write a bad book, whenever he wants to, I think. Miss Hale will agree with that, won't you?
Nancy Hale: Oh, yes.
Unidentified participant: Do you still read any of the books that come out today, [like the books by Herman Wouk and writers like him]?
William Faulkner: No, I don't. I think that most writers, as they get old, read less and less. The books that I read now are the ones I read and liked when I was twenty-one years old. I haven't read a new book, unless it was specifically put in my hand, in, oh, fifteen years. There have been exceptions, of course, that I have read for some particular reason, like that—that someone asked me to look at it, or I picked it up by chance and read a page and found I liked it, [...] but I don't keep up with modern books anymore. When I was young I read everything, but not anymore.
A. K. Davis: What were the books that you read at twenty-one that you—you set store by? Can you mention a few of them?
William Faulkner: All of Balzac, Don Quixote, Madame Bovary, Salammbo, The Temptation of Saint Anthony, Turgenev—I wonder what became of him. He's not even writing any more. Is he dead? Does anybody know?
A. K. Davis: He must be dead—
William Faulkner: Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, most of Dickens, the Old Testament, Shakespeare—I don't read as much poetry as I did once. Some of Conrad. I—I reckon there's maybe fifty books that—that every five years I will read through again, some for the story, some for a character. One of my favorite people is Mrs. Gamp. I get her out every winter and read about her again.
A. K. Davis: Which one of Conrad do—do you read?
William Faulkner: The Nigger of the Narcissus.
A. K. Davis: Do you read Nostromo?
William Faulkner: Haven't read that in years.
A. K. Davis: Victory?
William Faulkner: Not in years. "Falk." "The End of the Tether." What's the one about the young man that was given command of the—
Joseph Blotner: Lord Jim.
William Faulkner: —barque in—?
A. K. Davis: Deserted?
William Faulkner: —Bangkok? "Youth."
A. K. Davis: "Youth," yes.
William Faulkner: "Youth."
Floyd Stovall: Mr. Faulkner, there's a question that you may have—it may have been asked of you. I haven't been to all of the meetings and if you have answered it already, you can just ignore it. But a question that always comes up in the classroom in teaching an author who writes both short stories and novels, as to what—what, if any, is the essential distinction in the—in the mind of the author, say, when he writes the story, whether it is to be a short story—is it merely a matter of the—of the quantity of materials, or is it a matter of the purpose which he wishes to produce, the effect, or is it simply a combination of various things?
William Faulkner: It's a question of the writer's confidence. I think that—that what every writer wanted to be is a poet. He failed, and so the next is the short story. He failed, and so all that remains is to—is to write the novel. The poet can take the—the instance, the—the [single] instant of man's anguish, into four lines or fourteen lines. The short story writer can't do that, but he can do it in a thousand words. The novelist can't do either, and it takes him a hundred thousand words to do.
Robert Turner: Sir, you—you seemed from that to place a premium on conciseness, yet your most brilliant successes seem to have been in the other direction.
William Faulkner: Conciseness is the wrong word. It's a—it's a—a distillation. Down to the—to the—the—to perfection. You've got to use the clumsy language to communicate. It's a distillation of—of the anguish to its essence, which the poet can do. The short story writer is not that good. He has got to take a little more space, a little more of the clumsy, mean tools of communication. The novelist has got to take still more. But any story can be told in one sentence. If it can't be told in one sentence, you'd better throw it away and think of one that can be. Of course, the ramifications devolve from that—out of that, but the story itself, the moment of anguish or triumph, can be distilled into one sentence, and the poet does it in—in the—the most moving and most memorable way. He has touched it with—with a—a magic as though that anguish, or that triumph, had never occurred before.
Edgar Shannon: You were saying that you sometimes read something that you wouldn't ordinarily because somebody asked you to or puts it in your hands. Are you besieged with aspiring writers who wish an opinion on a manuscript or something of that sort?
William Faulkner: Yes. Nobody can escape that, of course. But I think any writer that—that brings you a manuscript to read, you can save time by not reading that one, because the ones that write the good ones haven't got time to bring it to you and say, "Read this." They don't care whether you read it or not or whether you like it or not. They're the good ones.
A. K. Davis: I'm not quite sure how long this meeting is supposed to last. We've had an hour. Could you bear a few more questions, if there are questions?
William Faulkner: Yes, sir. Yes, sir. Yes, indeed.
A. K. Davis: Any of you? The rest of you? Questions you'd like to ask Mr. Faulkner?
Unidentified participant: Some of the books—
Unidentified participant: You've done—you've done well [...] to hush up these people. They're so full of information.
William Faulkner: They don't need anything from me. [audience laughter]
A. K. Davis: I—I will say this, sir. You speak of Don Quixote as well as your—as one of your—one of the great books, one of the books that you most admire. It's a right long book, isn't it?
William Faulkner: I hadn't noticed it. [audience laughter] Just like The Nigger of the Narcissus is very short. I probably hadn't noticed that much either.
Unidentified participant: Well, you have mentioned some of the—the novels that you like most. Is there any particular poetry that you think came closest to saying the truth in a few words?
William Faulkner: Almost all of it. Burns, Keats, Wordsworth, now and then Whitman, Ben Johnson, Marlowe—almost all of it. Laforgue. Goethe. Almost all of it. That's why people still read it, why the names are still known.
Floyd Stovall: Which do you suppose is—is the most difficult, the most unattainable, for an ambitious youngster who wants to write but doesn't know yet whether he is a poet or a novelist or what? I gather—I may be wrong—from what you say that—that in general you think that—that poetry is—is perhaps the most difficult thing to achieve real intentions.
William Faulkner: Well, few are good ones. I—I don't think that difficulty is the word. It's—it's a combination of—of—of a demon and—and—and a fire that you have. Difficult or ease has nothing to do with it. I—I—I wish I did know exactly what it is that it takes to make a poet. I think that any writer is—is better off if he looks on himself as a poet. He's a failed poet. I agree with you. But to look on himself primarily as a poet. That he has—has found man's history in its—its mutations, in the—the—the instances in which it—it becomes apparent, his anguish, his triumph, his—his failures, the whole passion of—of breathing, is so strong and so urgent that it—it must be recorded. And if he is very fortunate, he can—can do it as the poets did it, and if he's a little less fortunate, he can do it as the short story writers do it, as Chekhov did it. If he is least fortunate, he's got to go back to the clumsy method of—of Mark Twain and Dreiser.
A. K. Davis: Well, if there are no further questions, we're very much obliged to you indeed, Mr. Faulkner.
Unidentified participant: Yes we are.
William Faulkner: Well, thank you.
[end of recording]