Introductory Literature Class, tape 1

DATE: 20 May 1957

OCCASION: Freshman English Class, 202 Rouss Hall

TAPE: T-132

LENGTH: 32:08

READING: From "Old Man"

Play the full recording:

Moderator: [...] has consented to come and talk to us about "The Old Man." We've been talking about "The Old Man" for the last week and been discussing it—its structure and its meaning and its techniques—in isolation, unconnected with the work with which it was originally published in alternating chapters, The Wild Palms. Our questions to Mr. Faulkner will be completely unrehearsed and unscreened, according to your desire, and I think this is the first time that you've talked to a freshman class, and so it will be interesting to observe what emerges. Mr. Faulkner has consented to begin the meeting by reading the end of "The Old Man." Mr. Faulkner.

William Faulkner:

That was all, the convict told them. They left the sawmill fast, he had no time to buy food until they reached the next—next landing. There he spent the whole sixteen dollars he had earned and they went on. The River was lower now, there was no doubt of it, and sixteen dollars' worth looked like a lot of food and he thought maybe it would do, would be enough. But maybe there was more current in the River still than it looked like. But this time it was Mississippi, it was cotton; the plow handles felt right to his palms again, the strain and squat of the thick buttocks against the middle buster's blade was what he knew, even though they paid but a dollar a day here. But that did it. He told it: they told him it was Saturday again and paid him and he told about it—night, a smoked lantern in a disc of worn and barren earth as smooth as silver, a circle of crouching figures, the importunate murmurs and ejaculations, the meagre piles of worn bills beneath the crouching knees, the dotted cubes clicking and scuttering in the dust; that did it. "How much did you win?" the second convict said.
"Enough," the tall one said.

William Faulkner:

"How much?"
"Enough," the tall one said. It was enough exactly; he gave it all to the man who owned the second motor boat (he would not need food now), he and the woman in the launch now and the skiff towing behind it, the woman with the baby and the paper-wrapped parcel beneath his peaceful hand, on his lap; almost at once he recognised, not Vicksburg because he had never seen Vicksburg, but the trestle beneath which on his roaring wave of trees and houses and dead animals he had shot, accompanied by thunder and lightning, a month and three weeks ago; he looked at it once without heat, even without interest as the launch went on. But now he began to watch the bank, the levee. He didn't know how he would know but he knew he would, and then it was early afternoon and sure enough the moment came and he said to the launch owner: "I reckon this will do."

William Faulkner:

"Here?" the launch owner said. "This dont look like anywhere to me."
"I reckon this is it," the convict said. So the launch put inshore, the engine ceased, it drifted up and lay against the levee and the owner cast the skiff loose.
"You better let me take you on until we come to something," he said. "That was what I promised."
"I reckon this will do," the convict said. So they got out and he stood with the grapevine painter in his hand while the launch purred again and drew away, already curving; he did not watch it. He laid the bundle down and made the painter fast to a willow root and picked up the bundle and turned. He said no word, he mounted the levee, passing the mark, the tide-line of the old raging, dry now and lined, traversed by shallow and empty cracks like foolish and deprecatory senile grins, and entered a willow clump and removed the overalls and shirt they had given him in New Orleans and dropped them without even looking to see where they fell and opened the parcel and took out the other, the known, the desired, faded a little, stained and worn, but clean, recognisable, and put them on and returned to the skiff and took up the paddle. The woman was already in it.

William Faulkner:

The plump convict stood blinking at him. "So you come back," he said. "Well well." Now they all watched the tall convict as he bit the end from the cigar neatly and with complete deliberation and spat it out and licked the bite smooth and damp and took a match from his pocket and examined the match for a moment as though to be sure it was a good one, worthy of the cigar perhaps, and raked it up his thigh with the same deliberation—a motion almost too slow to set fire to it, it would seem—and held it until the flame burned clear and free of sulphur, then he put it to the cigar. The plump one watched him, blinking rapidly and steadily. "And they give you ten years more for running. That's bad. A fellow can get used to what they give him at first, to start off with, I dont care how much it is, even a hundred and ninety-nine years. But ten more years. Ten years more, on top of that. When you never expected it. Ten more years to have to do without no society, no female companionship—" He blinked steadily at the tall convict. But he (the tall convict) had thought of that too. He had had a sweetheart. That is, he had gone to church singings and picnics with her—a girl a year or so younger than he, short-legged, with ripe breasts and a heavy mouth and dull eyes like ripe muscadines, who owned a baking-powder can almost full of ear-rings and brooches and rings bought (or presented at suggestion) from ten-cent stores. Presently he had divulged his plan to her, and there were times later when, musing, the thought occurred to him that perhaps if it had not been for her he would not actually have attempted it—this a mere feeling, unworded, since he could not have phrased this either: that who to know what Capone's uncandled bridehood she might not have dreamed to be her destined fate, what fast car filled with authentic colored glass and machine guns, running traffic lights. But that was all past and done when the notion first occurred to him, and in the third month of his incarceration she came to see him. She wore ear-rings and a bracelet or so which he had never seen before and it never became quite clear how she had got that far from home, and she cried violently for the first three minutes though presently (and without his ever knowing either exactly how they had got separated or how she had made the acquaintance) he saw her in animated conversation with one of the guards. But she kissed him before she left that evening and said she would return the first chance she got, clinging to him, sweating a little, smelling of scent and soft young female flesh, slightly pneumatic. But she didn't come back though he continued to write to her, and seven months later he got an answer. It was a postcard, a colored lithograph of a Birmingham hotel, with a childish X inked heavily across one window, the heavy writing on the reverse slanted and primer-like too: This is where were honnymonning at. Your friend (Mrs) Vernon Waldrip

William Faulkner:

The plump convict stood blinking at the tall one, rapidly and steadily. "Yes, sir," he said. "It's them ten more years that hurt. Ten more years to do without a woman, no woman a tall a fellow wants—" He blinked steadily and rapidly, watching the tall one. The other did not move, jackknifed backward between the two bunks, grave and clean, the cigar burning smoothly and richly in his clean steady hand, the smoke wreathing upward across his face saturnine, humorless, and calm. "Ten more years—"
"Women 'blank'!" the tall convict said.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Was there something that influenced you to write this story?

William Faulkner: Yes, the story I was trying to tell was the story of—of—of Charlotte and Harry Wilbourne. I decided that it needed a—a contrapuntal quality like music, and so I wrote the other story simply to underline the story of Charlotte and Harry. I wrote the—the two stories by alternate chapters. I'd write the chapter of one and then I would write the chapter of the other just as the musician puts in—puts counterpoint behind the theme that he is working with.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Well, why don't, in this story, none of the characters have names?

William Faulkner: To me, the story was simply for background effect, and—and they didn't need names. They just needed to be people in motion doing the exact opposite thing to the tragedy of—of Harry and Charlotte in the other story. To me they didn't need names—that they were not too important.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, I noticed that you do have some names, though, in your story. Some names are mentioned, such as Bledsoe, the—the convict. Do you—do you have them in for any reason?

William Faulkner: Well, the—the girl that jilted him, she had to have a name to sign to the postcard. The other people, if—I don't remember the rest of the story because I haven't read it in about thirty years, but when they had names it was for that—that reason, as simple as that. At—at the moment they had to have a name.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Well, in the swamp, three of the men who lived in the swamp, [you gave them the] names Tine and Toto and Theule, and I wonder if those names had any type of significance or were supposed to be any type of literary allusion. They're rather colorful names, I think.

William Faulkner: No, I don't think so. They were—were names, you might say, indigenous to that almost unhuman class of people which live between the Mississippi River and the levee. They belong to no state. They belong to no nation. They—they are not citizens of anything, and sometimes they behave like they don't even belong to the human race.

Unidentified participant: So, you have had experiences with these people?

William Faulkner: Yes. Yes, I remember once I was going—one of them was going to take me hunting. He invited me to come and stay with his kinfolks, whatever kin they were I never did know—a shanty boat in the river, and I remember the next morning for breakfast we had a—a bought chocolate cake and a cold possum and corn whiskey. [audience laughter] They had given me the best they had. I was company. They had—had given me the best food they had. [audience laughter]

Unidentified participant: If I may ask a question pursuing this idea. I believe that earlier in your life that you did quite a bit of traveling and had a lot of experiences as an apprentice seaman, I believe, and flying. Do you think that—to any author or even more generally, to anyone who wants to formulate ideas about life and all, do you think that this is very valuable while younger to travel around and not be fixed down, or—?

William Faulkner: Well, it—it don't do you any harm, but it's—you don't have to do it. Homer probably didn't do a great deal of traveling, and he did pretty well as a writer. [audience laughter] I—that is, the—the material you write from has got to be a good deal more than just what you can see and remember. It's—it's got to be observation, experience which—and part of experience is what you read—plus imagination. So the observation—don't hurt you. You may need it, but you can get along without it if you have to with the imagination and experience. I think the best source to learn to be a writer is from reading, what the—the best, the giants of—of the past have done.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, did the tall convict in "The Old Man" believe in God?

William Faulkner: He probably hadn't got around to that yet. His background would be the—the bucolic, provincial Southern Baptist, and it may be a—a debatable question whether that sort of Baptist believes in God or not, but— [audience laughter] Probably when he got older and got out of the penitentiary, if he ever did, and he didn't need to expend too much energy trying to have fun any more, he might have taken up religion, might have been a—a professor of, God whether he believed it or not or even know what God was. But at this time he would—would have said he did, and if anyone had told him he didn't, he would have fought him, but he probably didn't know what God meant.

Unidentified participant: It seems to me in reading the book that he was depending a lot on fate to lead his life—that he would be led by fate [as much as religion].

William Faulkner: Well, he depended more on himself, that to him fate was—was just his bad luck, the sort of thing that shouldn't happen to a dog. But he depended on himself, that he—he knew what he wanted, which was—was to be secure, to be back in that penitentiary. That's where he was secure because he didn't mind hard work. He didn't know anything else. And suddenly he was flung out into the world with another woman, and all he wanted was to get rid of that woman and get back there where he was safe. But he didn't depend—he was doing the best he could. He depended on his own efforts.

Unidentified participant: Well, when he got back, sir, did he share this view with the others that it was ten years without women—I mean, do you think he minded this?

William Faulkner: No, no. He had had enough of women. After that—that girl had jilted him—she was the one that—that put him there. It was to get a lot of money to buy her a lot more of the Woolworth bracelets and rings. If it hadn't been for her, he wouldn't have been there. He would have been back at his Mississippi hill home working hard all day long and drinking a little corn whiskey on Saturday nights and gambling.
Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, I'm interested in your saying that. I'd taken it that he had robbed the train more for the adventure and to be able to [say that he had evaded] the authorities, rather than for the money.

William Faulkner: No. He wanted to please that girl. He didn't need a lot of money. He was doing all right with his mule, his little piece of corn land, but suddenly he ran into a girl that wanted a lot of Woolworth rings, and so he had to turn robber to get those rings.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Well, is this [inability] or desire not to face women also [the kind of thing] that the plump convict wound up in this penitentiary—because he didn't want to face the raging woman with whom he had committed this crime? Did—do you mean this also to be his—his desire not to face life in [...] to face reality or the return to the womb? You mentioned, too—you spoke of Christmas as being chained by a—a "clanking umbilical" and we talked about this in this—in my class, his jackknife position and the whole idea of escaping from life—do—does the woman here, especially the pregnant woman, represent life in this sense?

William Faulkner: Not to the convict. That is, not consciously. He—all he wanted to escape from was insecurity. He—anyone that could be taken over the jumps by the sort of girl that was—that—that got him into undertaking to be a—a bank robber couldn't have been very mature mentally. That convict was probably still about fifteen or sixteen years old. And like a boy of—of fifteen or sixteen, the—the first shock of—of disappointment in love, he thinks is going to last forever. Of course, it don't, but that's what he thinks, and the convict never had grown up yet.
Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Don't you think the seven weeks of [...] [there], the seven years he lost [...]?

William Faulkner: Well, now that's the sort of thing that if any reader likes to find that in the writer's work, he is, as far as the writer is concerned, perfectly welcome to find it, but the writer ain't got time to—to watch all those—all those corners and—and symbols and implications, so it's very possible you're right, but—but I—I never thought of that before.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Do you think that if the convict had not been given the extra ten years—do you think he would have returned to the security of prison or to the security of his home?

William Faulkner: Well, that extra ten years meant nothing to him because he was—was mentally about sixteen or seventeen years old, and anything—any sum of time longer than one year is all the same to you when you're fifteen or sixteen years old—that in another year, and you'll be an old man anyway, and so what's ten years more or a hundred years to him?

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Getting back to this security or insecurity, do you think that enough background was given of the tall convict before he was in—in the penitentiary, before he was sentenced—to—to leave him feel insecure—do you think that he first became insecure when he was in the penitentiary for so long a time being out of it, of—of being insecure?

William Faulkner: No, I would that the insecurity came to him with a shock when that woman betrayed him, and he was frightened, and he wanted to—to be where no other woman could catch him off balance and take him over the jumps again. And the place where he was safe from that was in that penitentiary, which wasn't so different from the life he would have led if he'd been home. He would have had to work very hard all day long at home. He would have had very little for it, which was just what he got there, but at least behind that barbed wire fence he was safe from another woman that would get him into the—the highwayman business.

Unidentified participant: Do you think he would have stayed on the—the island with the Cajuns if—hadn't they had to leave?

William Faulkner: No, no. He had to get rid of that woman, and the only way he knew to get rid of her was to bring her back to the folks that sent him to get her. Remember, he's—mentally only about fifteen or sixteen years old, and by his own lights, he's quite honorable and dependable. They had sent him out with a boat to get two people, and he did the best he could to get the two people and bring them and the boat back.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Well, why—I know that you said that the woman was almost exactly like him—I mean the same type of background and everything, and also the woman must have realized that he was trying to get her back, but don't you—was the woman also in this immature state that she didn't realize that she could get back more quickly when they were in this armory, which is where they had all these other people, she was glad to leave with him, and when—when she was just about ready to have her child, and she—she made, as I recall, no—no cry to the people in this houseboat to let her come aboard. She was content almost, it seems like, to just stick with him. Why is this? I mean, why didn't she try to better herself?

William Faulkner: She didn't know how. She was as ignorant as he was. She came from the same class of people that he came from. She was ignorant. She was—she was afraid of strangers. Of course, the convict was a stranger to her, too, but they had been hurled together by a circumstance, and it probably didn't take her very long to find out that all that convict wanted was to get her back where he got her from and get rid of her, and that's what she wanted, too—to get back and find her husband. She probably had a husband. She may have had other children, and she wanted to get back just as bad as he did, and since he—he was the man, her instinct was to let the man run things.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Did you mean to show [any] miscarriage of justice by having the additional ten years, or rather just to show that although it seemed like injustice, that the jail warden was doing [exactly] what should have been done anyway [just] because of his knowledge of the people under his care?

William Faulkner: That additional ten years was—was simply another quantity in—in fate, just like the flood that he ran into. Once he was in it, he had to accept the—the extra ten years, just as he accepted the flood and worked through it and survived it. There was no—no more injustice than there was to the flood. It was just something that was in the—the culture, the economy of—of the land he lived in, just like that flood was inherent in the—in the geography and the climate, and he was a man that—that said, Well, if this is what it is, I'll do the best I can to tough through it. That would have been his philosophy.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: So when you set out to start a novel such as this, do you have a complete story in mind or is it just a thought that you build upon as you go along?

William Faulkner: You remember this was a counterpoint to the other story. This to me wasn't too important, that these were just the—the—the orchestration of sounds that the musician puts back of the theme of his symphony. That I didn't know where this story was going—I just wrote it. I was as surprised as anybody else to find where it was going, but the story that I was trying to tell was the story of—of Charlotte and Harry.

Unidentified participant: And when you reached the point where he met the woman, what was your purpose of having a pregnant woman?

William Faulkner: It—I thought that made it funnier. To me all this is funny. [audience laughter] A little—little more comical to show this man who meant well, to—to get involved in—in all sorts of things that would have made a—a weaker or less centered man blench and falter, but not him. It was because he was just stupid and ignorant enough to—to bull right on through this, to accept anything the gods threw at him without even knowing that he was being tried.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Well, if this is primarily funny, and I do think that there's humor all through it, why do you put the humor in where you do, for example, the woman—I don't recall the remark—but she's just about ready to have her child, and you say something about hold on a little longer. It's an impossible thing. And then he's been kicked by a—kicked by the tail of the alligator, and she asks him if he's been kicked, and he says, no, that [if] he'd got hit in the rear end with a pea shooter. [It would make]—there's humor all the way through, and then even at the end, do you still want the message of—this seeming injustice of society against him to come through or is that secondary?

William Faulkner: Well, it's—secondary is not really wrong because it was—the injustice was necessary to make the story funny, and so it's not secondary because it was—was quite important, to make the story funny. It's—it's a fact, and if one begins to write about the injustice of society, then one has stopped being primarily a novelist and has become a polemicist or a propagandist. The fiction writer is not that. He will use the injustice of society, the inhumanity of people, as a—as any other tool in telling the story, which—which is about people, not about the injustice or the inhumanity of people, but of people, with their aspirations and their struggles and the—the bizarre, the—the comic, and the tragic conditions they get them in—themselves into simply coping with themselves and one another and environment.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, I think you must have put a great deal of time behind choosing the title of "The Old Man." I know you took it from the river, but I wonder what else you had in mind. Possibly does the river symbolize any other things or maybe nature or something else?

William Faulkner: No. It's—it's not "The Old Man," it's "Old Man." That's what the—the Negroes along the river call the river. They never call it the Mississippi nor the river. It's just Old Man. And this had to have some title and so that struck me as being a good title for it. That refers simply to the river.

Unidentified participant: Did the tall convict have any subconscious attitudes toward [the Mississippi]?

William Faulkner: No, he'd never seen it before. It was just a lot of water to him not behaving like any water he ever saw before behave, but it was—that was just something that—that you ran into and you had to handle it the best you could. He never did know where he was and didn't really care.

Unidentified participant: In the book, you had elaborated to some extent on the fact that the Old—the Old Man was fruitful and life-giving and such, and what it was to farmers and just to the people who lived along the Mississippi, and to—to that area. It—it was fruitful and not a destructive force.

William Faulkner: Well, the destructive quantity had to be accepted, too. That country where this took place was—is alluvial. It's lower than the river itself. In the winter, it stayed under water from—from the fall rains sometimes as late as June. That was why they had to build the levees, and so in the—the spring and the summer, the river is higher than the land. There's a levee, and then you look up in the sky and there goes a steamboat. If the levee ever gives way, the country will be flooded again. It's rich because the—the river for—for hundreds of years had deposited the rich silt on top of the ground. And so the—the river dominates not only the economy of that country, but it—it dominates its—its spiritual life. That the river is—is master [of it], and any time the Old Man wants to he can—can break the levee and can ruin the cotton crop. That, in a way, you're—the—the planter is at armistice with him, and the superstitious planter believes that he has got to—to make libations, make sacrifices to him. That every so often he's got to let the Old Man come in and take that cotton crop to keep the Old Man in a contented frame of mind, like the—the ancients with—with the dragon, the Minotaur, the—the symbols of—of destructiveness which they had to placate, sacrifice.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: In putting this woman in the boat with the convict, did you want to draw a point to the lovers in the novel that went along with it or did you just put her in the boat as sort of a hindrance to progress and— ?

William Faulkner: No, that was a definite parallel. The—the isolation, the solitude of—of the boat in that raging torrent was the—the solitude which Harry and Charlotte had—had tried so long to find, where they could be lovers, to escape from—from the world. They went to infinite labor and risk and sacrifice to escape from the world where this convict had been hurled out of the world against his will, whether he wanted to or not. That he and—and the woman he saved had what Charlotte and—and—and Wilbourne had sacrificed everything to get. That's what I mean by counterpoint to the theme of the other book, that these two people had what Charlotte and Harry had given up everything—respectability, future, everything, for.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, the short fat convict which you placed in the book, you call him—you say he's somewhat like [something] one might find under a log. Is he there just to emphasize the qualities of the tall convict?

William Faulkner: That's right. And to have somebody for the tall convict to—or to—to dig out of the tall convict what had happened. The tall convict would never have told this himself. He'd just said he was away for a while and had a pretty hard time, but here he is. That's all he could have told about what happened to him.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: You said that the convict wasn't afraid of work, so he returned. Yet when he was in the swamp with the Cajuns you say that he had forgotten what work was like or something like that. Do you make a distinction between work for a reward and then work simply for the sake of something to do?

William Faulkner: He had been so busy trying to keep that boat from being swamped and to get them along from one day to another, which was terrific work, but to him that wasn't work, anymore than somebody falling off a roof that scrabbles at—at shingles and—and chimney pots would consider himself working. Work to him was—was the—the orderly—the work of—from sunup to sundown and then you rested and then tomorrow you worked again.

Unidentified participant: But he did consider the work at the prison just as much as—

William Faulkner: Yes, but he had—he had been gone from there a long time, to him. That must have seemed like years to him that he had—had been in that boat with that woman, who was a nuisance.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: You sort of draw—you drew a line somewhere in there between the work at the prison and the work with the—with the alligators because he seemed to work just as hard trapping the alligators because he was going to get part of the profits from the alligators.

William Faulkner: That's right.

Unidentified participant: Was there—did—did that make a difference in the type of—in the work [that] he was doing and the way he went about it when he went to prison[...]?

William Faulkner: Well, work to him meant the orderly work of following a mule in a furrow. Catching alligators to—to him wasn't work in—in—by his lights anymore than struggling with that boat was work [...]

[end of recording]