Law School Wives

FILENAME: wfaudio15

DATE: 16 May 1957

OCCASION: Evening Meeting with Wives of Law Students

TAPE: T-131ends

LENGTH: 17:14

Play the full recording:

William Faulkner: [...] make the statements which—which we will follow, which the rest of the South must follow. I was a—a little ashamed for all of us when your government issued those invitations and then had to retract some of them, the sort of thing that you'd expect Mississippi to do but Mississippi don't expect Virginia to. [audience laughter] [...] experiences here that—that I will—after I had left Virginia and have thought about it, I will realize more and more how—how pleasant it was, the contact with the people, the young people that have come into my office with their carefully rehearsed literary questions, [audience laughter] and once we get past them we just talk, and that's interesting. They—they tell me what they want to do and what they think about the condition, what we should do about it. Almost every day one comes in, and once we get past the stiffness of that first question which—which they have rehearsed because they're seeing me, then you get down to—to a human being, as someone said the [...]. That's—that's better. I went out to Albemarle School one morning, and it—it took a little thawing but after a while, it became quite well. By the end of it, there was a young man trying to sell me some cattle. Another man wanted to swap horses with me. [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Well, I don't mean this to be a carefully rehearsed literary question, but I did notice in the paper where you mentioned that the Old Testament was among your old literary friends, or one of the ones that you like to browse in and re-read—

William Faulkner: Yes.

Unidentified participant: And I realize it is a classic, but I was wondering why the New Testament did not have as much to offer? Is it because it is so narrative or some of it isn't useful?

William Faulkner: To me, the New Testament is full of ideas, and I don't know much about ideas. The Old Testament is full of people, perfectly ordinary, normal heroes and blackguards just like everybody else nowadays, and I—I like to read the Old Testament because it's full of people, not ideas. It's people all trying to get something for nothing or [...] [audience laughter] or to be braver than they are. Just ordinary, everyday folks, people—that's why I like to read that. That's apart from the fine poetry of the—of the prose.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: I do have a carefully rehearsed one, but I'm really interested in your [...] to build a picture of this vastly materialistic American society which can't tolerate a—a writer or [human beings, even.] And yet you seem to indicate that there was some hope to get—for Americans to get beyond this purely materialistic stage, and yet in your writing, it—it seems that the Snopeses have triumphed, and I wondered if you'd care to comment on that.

William Faulkner: I don't believe I said that our culture can't tolerate it. What I meant to say there was, that so far, our culture is not aware, that there is a force [...] We deal in terms of the [human spirit,] that the day will come when it will have to become aware of it. So far, it doesn't need to, and it's not that it objects. It simply isn't aware yet that that's a force that exists. About the Snopes, the—no fiction writer is interested primarily in messages or warnings, but indirectly and by coincidence, he does suggest messages and warnings. The—the—the story of the Snopes is not: This is what the South is coming to. It's—it's simply: This is what can happen if we don't watch these people. That it's all imaginary. They are underlined for emphasis. They are exaggerated for emphasis. But this is what can happen if we don't watch it.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: As a student who always had to struggle through literature courses trying to dig out the meanings of things which seemed obvious to other people, I'd be curious to know if, as a writer, you sort of do have these messages in mind, greater ideas which the English teachers and so forth always produce so readily, and some of the [students] [audience laughter] can't find them anywhere.

William Faulkner: No'm, not really. The writer is writing about people. He has got to use the tools he has, which is his own experience, his own observation, and out of that, in the course of—of twenty-one, twenty-two years it takes to mature, then whatever years after that, come the opinions. He doesn't have to stop and say, "Now, this is what I believe." It's there. He don't know he's got it. Then when he writes, suddenly something—somebody says something, he says, "Well, yes, that's so. That's what I believe, too." He didn't put that in the character's mouth. The character said, "This is what I think." The writer says, "Yes, I agree with you." That he is too busy dealing with people to have time to deliver messages to anyone. The messages happen just by chance. That he is interested in—in creating flesh and blood people to do the—the tragic or the comic things which people do for—for pleasure. That is, I think that one should read for pleasure, that one doesn't necessarily have to read for pleasure, but I myself read for pleasure, not for ideas. That if it's—I've got to hunt around in a book to—looking for an idea, then I'd rather do something else. I'd rather do something that's more fun than that. It won't be reading.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, although you primarily write about the South and southern people, are you striving for universality, [that people who live in another locality can use it]?

William Faulkner: That's it. It's to use a—a locale which the writer is most familiar with. It saves him doing research. That is, if he don't know anything about California or Canada or Australia, if he don't do a little research first, he'll write something, and somebody will say, "Hold up here. That ain't so. This is the way it is in Australia." Where if he writes about what he knows, nobody is going to bother him that way because he knows what he is putting down. People are the same, but it's the—the differences in their background, the milieu they function in, which is different, not their behavior. But then, of course, the milieu, the background, the environment will—will change the—the terms of the behavior, not the act itself, and so the writer simply uses the—the background he knows just as the carpenter uses the tools that he has at his hand. Rather than to go somewhere to borrow a hammer or a saw, he will use the one he's got, so he won't have to fetch one.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, I believe Somerset Maugham said at one time that he felt it was rather a sad thing in his own life and assumed it to be in the life of any writer in that he felt that he had to divorce himself from life itself, to a certain extent, in that he was continually observing and thinking in terms of writing down what he saw. And I think that possibly he felt a little deprived in that he had this demon which caused him to want to do this, and that he could not live himself more as ordinary people do and—well, in that he was more concerned with recording life as he saw it and living [it] was more like a vicarious sense. Do you feel that that is true of most writers or did you find [something else true]?

William Faulkner: Well, it is not true of—of me, and I imagine it's not true of—of many other writers. It would be true of—would be true of—of many other writers. I think that—that Maugham, of an older—older culture, had more time to be that objective about his own sub—subjectivity, if you can accept that paradoxical statement. I think that—that maybe Henry James, for instance, had the same approach toward his work that Maugham did, but Henry James had not got far enough to—to realize that that was depriving him of something that he didn't want to be deprived of. That is, Henry James probably was quite happy to live detached from life to write Henry James.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: I hesitate to ask such a broad question, sir, but what effect do you think McCarthyism has had on freedom of thought and expression in American universities?

William Faulkner: I would say that—that McCarthyism, that whole thing, has had a good effect on American universities in that it has—has shown, not the—the educated man, but has shown a lot of—of uneducated people what that sort of thing can cause, that uneducated people have a greater belief in the—that—that [the] thought—the freedom of thought must be inviolable, that they never thought about it before, and so, in that sense, McCarthy served a purpose. It's too bad that that should be one of the curses of democracy, too, that that purpose can't—must be paid for with the three or four years of McCarthy. In a way, democracy has the capacity to use, somehow, almost everything.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, this—this is a question about your way of writing. I was wondering whether you—you constantly [go about] the writing, or whether it just comes out all at once. Because to read a book of yours, it seems to come all at once, but I just wondered, you hear of so many writers who are working over their novels and rewriting parts until they're finished.

William Faulkner: That depends, and I don't think that any writer could have a hard and fast rule about it. In my own case, I'm lazy. That is, I don't like to sit down and—and put a hundred thousand words on paper. I hate to face the fact that I've got to do it. I will put that off as long as possible, and so in the meantime, as much of the revising as possible happens up here. Then when the demon won't let me alone any longer I sit down to write, and I try to—to do it so I won't have to revise it, won't have to do it again. Sometimes it works. Sometimes I'll have to re-write and re-write and re-write and re-write. Sometimes it—it never comes out to suit me. I'll throw it away. But occasionally I'm lucky, and the first time's enough. But no writer can know beforehand whether he'll have to do it once or a dozen times, but he has got to please himself, and he will—he will curse it. He will curse his fate that he ever got into such a racket, but he will keep on until it's the best he can do with it.

William Faulkner: There was a young lady back there that—

Unidentified participant: I was just wondering if you thought that some sort of form of government subsidy [...] some of the European writers [...]?

William Faulkner: I don't think I heard that too well. If you will [tell me again, ma'am]?

Unidentified participant: Do you think that artists in this country would benefit from some form of government subsidization [that is like] like the author programs Italy has or— ?

William Faulkner: I don't think that an artist should be subsidized too much by anyone. I think that—that he has got to be free, and even a little hardship may be good for him. That—I'm assuming that most artists are like me, and—and they are lazy, and if they had too much money, they would do that much less work. [audience laughter] That if they ain't got much money, just enough to buy a little tobacco and occasionally a drink and—and something to eat, that they might work a little more. If it was too easy for them, they would put off the work. That—now, that's different from the opera because opera, theater, requires so much more money than the cost of a ream of paper and—and three or four pencils, so theater has got to be subsidized, and—and if—if private capital is ever obliterated then there will have to be subsidy to print the books, but the—the artist himself shouldn't be subsidized too much. He would be a little better off if he had to hold another job and—and wrote in his spare time because that would keep his—his work on the plane of the amateur, which it should be. That when he begins to think of himself as a professional writer, he is sunk. He's got to do it because it's fun. It's got to be a hobby.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, I'm [going to] put you on the spot with this. You say that a writer must write truth, and he must—therefore he must search for truth. If Arthur Miller is found guilty of contempt on the grounds that, as he claims, moral—his own moral character, which kept him from revealing the names of other writers in his [cell that he once visited], would you publicly come out in favor of his position?

William Faulkner: Sure. Yes, if—if there—there's something you believe is—is wrong to do, then don't do it, no matter who else disagrees with you. That would have nothing to do with—what whether he writes from now on, whether he's in contempt of—of court or not. Whether he is sent to jail or not would have nothing to do with what he writes. Yes, if you believe that something is wrong to do, don't do it.

Moderator: Are there any other questions? Well, Mr. Faulkner, we want you to know how glad we are that your demon let you come over here tonight and be with us, and we'll all remember this as a highlight of this year and probably a long time to come.

William Faulkner: Thank you, ma'am. [applause]

[end of recording]