DATE: 20 May 1957
OCCASION: Press Conference, 202 Rouss Hall
Play the full recording:
Moderator: [...][pick up from where he left off this morning]—
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, what I would sort of like to ask you is, after four months of contact with students at the University, sort of what you feel in the rising generation, whether—we've heard a lot of talk that they are very much driven toward conformity and security, just the things I think that you probably would oppose in anyone who wanted to be a writer. But I'm thinking more of what you see in the students you've talked to?
William Faulkner: Tell me that again. I got lost. [audience laughter]
Unidentified participant: I'm sorry [...] my sentence was [involved]. What I—what I'm thinking of is what you—what you think of the generations of students that you've had contact with over the last four months here and possibly a year or so ago—well, let's limit it to the United States. Are they more conventional than they were when they—when you were their age? Are they more seeking of conformity? What—well, what—are they less intellectually curious? Are they less daring?
William Faulkner: No, I would say that they are more intellectually curious. They are more daring, but they have more pressure to conform. There's—there's more and more constant pressure to belong to something, to be submerged into a mass, that they have got to—got to struggle with. But I would say that they are—they are more curious than they were, that they have more opportunities to be curious, to—to know, to keep up with what—what cooks, what does go on. But there is that—that tremendous pressure to conform, which I think they don't—don't always realize is there.
Unidentified participant: Well, do you think most of them are resisting it? I would doubt it.
William Faulkner: I think that all young people resist it, but there's no ordered resistance. They themselves don't—don't realize how much and how constant that pressure is or that they would confederate against it. They are given too many things that take the form of—of bribery to not resist it, to be unaware of it.
Unidentified participant: What sort of bribery?
William Faulkner: Well, the—the—the pleasant things of—of—of existence, of being a student, the motor cars, and the—the things that make the—the day-by-day life of a student simpler than it used to be when there was some question to keep warm in winter. You had to go to a little trouble to keep a fire going, if nothing else. There were—it was a little more difficult to—to find pleasure. You couldn't go out and go to the theater by paying sixty or seventy cents at the moving-picture show every night. The books were not always available. And because things like that are available, the student is—the young man is—is tricked into not realizing the—the pressure on him to belong to a mass or a group which wants to do his thinking for him, to give him the ideas that that group that—of the overlords of the group and mass want him to have. But I'm convinced he still resists it, and it breaks out in all sorts of—of queer and unpredictable places.
Unidentified participant: What are they, sir?
William Faulkner: Well, I think of young Mr. Plowden-Wardlaw, whose avocation seems to be taking part in a Calypso band, yet suddenly he and his friends on the magazine here have thought of that issue stating different notions about segregation. That's interesting. He should—they should do more with that. There should be more of that in the University, I think, than there is. But that's a very good, a very hopeful symptom.
Unidentified participant: You said something about wishing that the University of Virginia and the State of Virginia would take more leadership in the South. You were asked that question the other night in conversation.
William Faulkner: Well, yes, that's because of the—the respectful, almost abject, reverence which the rest of the South has toward the State of Virginia and toward the University, that when the State of Virginia makes mistakes which should have been made not by Virginia but by Mississippi or Alabama, we are a little ashamed.
Unidentified participant: Do you have any mistakes in mind?
William Faulkner: Well, the unhappy business of the invitations they sent out for that dinner, and they found that some of them had gone to Negroes, and they had to recall them, that sort of thing. That's the sort of thing that you expect Mississippi to do but not Virginia. To the—the rest of the South, Virginia must be like Caesar's wife.
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, last week you went to see a play written by one of the students here. I would be interested in any comments you would care to make on the play.
William Faulkner: Hopeful. It was another instance of—of—of that pressure to conform. I think that a—a sad and tragic thing, a condition which the—the young writer today has to face is that the middle class has been broken down. It no longer exists as a—a homogeneous condition recognized by everyone everywhere. It exists, but it exists, as—as you might say, individual cells. The—the best of the writing of the old days—not so much done by members of the middle class, but it was about the—the tragedies, the problems which existed in the middle class, and now there's no middle class anymore as a—a—a—a definite condition recognizable everywhere to create those problems, and so the—the plays have a—a flavor a little too preciously proletarian, that they are concerned with conditions and not problems of the human heart. Mr. Coffey's play showed a—it was—was very hopeful, I think. It—it showed a—a sense of—of his craft, and it was very well done to have been done by amateurs because that was pretty difficult for amateurs to do, that sort of thing, to make it believable.
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, you say the middle class, but if there is no more middle class, what do you think has happened to the middle class [when] there was one?
William Faulkner: Conditions of over-population, the—the confederation of the—the various labor unions which are—are—have transposed, are transposing what was the proletariat into a new middle class. I—by the middle class having hard and fixed recognizable boundaries, I mean that class which decreed that—that there should be banks, a stable currency. There should be churches. There should be schools. A class in which even the ones who couldn't cope financially were still supported by the middle class. They still belonged to it. Now, that class doesn't exist with the rigid boundaries, so that—that when the—the ex-member of it, the member of what was the middle class, has failed financially, he is submerged. He is passed by people who rise through the old middle class without having learned any of the discipline, the responsibility of their class, of a middle class.
Unidentified participant: Is part of that transition what you recorded in The Town? —
William Faulkner: Well, it's—what everybody writing records. I think it's—it definitely is a fact, and every—
Unidentified participant: [...] rise.
William Faulkner: Well, people like the Snopeses always have risen—risen in a country like this where there is freedom in which to—to make the best of your capacities. But there was no middle class to give him a check—probably he couldn't have risen as rapidly as he did fifty years ago when there was a definite and rigid middle class.
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, I'm interested in something that seems to have happened to you. It seemed to me, using the Nobel Prize as a mark in time rather than any special significance, that you seem to have moved to a certain extent from communicating only through your works to—well, for example, going to Japan or coming to the University of Virginia and going to other places for the State Department. I wondered if this marked any sort of change or departure in your own thinking, or sort of why you moved out.
William Faulkner: Well, sir, you are constantly changing. Your skin, your fingernails, is constantly changing. The—the only alternative, you know, is death. And let's hope that we won't have to keep on doing tomorrow what we are doing today. There wouldn't be much fun in it.
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner?
William Faulkner: Yes, sir.
Unidentified participant: In your talk to the students, you said, as I remember, that it's a question whether Southern Baptists are religious, and I was wondering if you could elaborate on that and say if they are not religious, then what are they?
William Faulkner: Well, they're [laughter] Southern Baptist. I think that is an—an emotional condition that has nothing to do with God or [audience laughter] politics or anything else.
Unidentified participant: What is involved in this emotional condition of the Southern—Southern Baptist?
William Faulkner: It came from—from times of hardship in the South where there was little or no food for the human spirit, where there were no books, no theater, no music, and life was pretty hard. It—a lot of it happened out in the sun, for very little reward, and that was the only escape they had. I think that is the—the human spirit aspiring toward something. Of course, it got warped and twisted in the process.
Unidentified participant: Now this—this condition, do you limit that to Southern Baptists or do you visualize something larger than actually the Baptist churches in the South?
William Faulkner: Well, I imagine that it exists almost everywhere, though it may take other forms. It would exist wherever people have been starved, spiritually starved.
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, one other question, can you—have you gotten anything particularly out of this four months in Charlottesville yourself, and can you, at this point, in any way distill sort of any feeling you might have about Charlottesville and about the University?
William Faulkner: The writer writes from the three tanks I spoke of—observation, imagination, and experience. He's got to constantly replenish them and fill them, and so I—I couldn't say exactly what I've got from my—my stay here to replenish those tanks, though the tanks have been replenished because, as—as we agreed, life is in constant flux, in constant change, and the time that you don't learn something new every day you're dead.
Unidentified participant: Based on your four months here, I was wondering if your opinion of university education or college education has changed. As I understand, when you first came here, you said that a university—a college education was good for some people and not—not necessary for others, and I was wondering if—whether your opinion has been modified at all.
William Faulkner: No, because I've had that opinion for about fifty years. [audience laughter] I—I think that—that all education in this country has got to be overhauled. I think that there's a—it's basically bad when—when its premise is that everybody must be educated willy nilly, that some people don't deserve to be educated, and if everyone is to be educated, unless enough money is spent on education to where the—the best student can have the best of the treatment, the best of the education, then he is going to have to be stultified and held back by a scheme which has got to take the—the one that is least fitted. Probably the—the ideal form of education would be one professor to one student, or one professor to no more than ten students.
Unidentified participant: Last week you were talking about the cultural interchange through the State Department and wishing more of it could be done and done better. Do you care to comment on that?
William Faulkner: I think my opinion is that we go about it the wrong way. We should stop trying to sell our country to Europe or to anywhere else. We should bring the people that don't like our country to this country and let them alone and let them see what it is about it that makes us like it. That it's—we—we try to—to choose a people who are already our friends and then sell them some illusory picture of America. Let's bring our enemies here. We—we can't keep communist spies out of this country anyway. You might just as well bring all the communists that will come here and let them see what there is about this country that makes us like it, not try to sell them anything. Just let them see a country where everybody has a job, and he can always hope for a Cadillac. His children can go to the corner drugstore and—and get an ice cream cone every day, buy all the junk that Americans love on the installment plan. [audience laughter]
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner—
William Faulkner: Yes, sir.
Unidentified participant: Do you think the thing that has broken down the middle class is materialism?
William Faulkner: No, it's the—the—the terrific increase of population, people that have got to be cared for, that if we had spent as much attention to breeding people as we do to breeding horses and dogs, we would've had a—a better world probably and stayed out of a lot of trouble. Changing conditions. The machine is responsible for a great deal of it, the machine that has given us more leisure than we have taught ourselves what to do with.
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner—
William Faulkner: Yes, sir.
Unidentified participant: You—your statements that you think education should be overhauled, and you said that you thought it would do good to—if possible, to have maybe one professor to one student or one to ten students, and that generally I believe is what colleges are trying to work for. Now, do you think they are on the right track generally, or do you think they are making some mistakes, and if so, what mistakes?
William Faulkner: I'm sure that they are working toward something like that or maybe even a better idea, and I'm convinced, too, that—that with—with all the—the problems, the— the—the social problems which we face, which is the leisure that we don't know what to do with, with too many people, with the need for housing, that it's amazing that the—the colleges advance as they do. That is, if—if suddenly things could be stopped to give the colleges one year in which to make their plans, they might do something, but now they can't because here's another flux of—of young men and women that have got to go to school, and they don't have any chance to stop and get their breath and take stock and make plans.
Unidentified participant: What comparison, if any, can you make really between the Japanese students you talked to at Nagano and elsewhere and the ones you've found here?
William Faulkner: I don't think that anyone can understand Japanese, so the impression I got could be completely wrong, [you see.] The impression I got is that they are—that their culture is a culture of—of—how to phrase it? Of the functioning of the—of the intellect, not intelligence, but of the intellect, the—the little clicking of—of—of the wheels that turn and [then just] what it produces don't matter, just so the—all the little wheels are running constantly.
Unidentified participant: You've made a comparison the other night of students, different types of students in Austria, I believe. Isn't that true?
William Faulkner: Well, sir, I don't remember. I've done a lot of talking in these four months, but you'd have to look [audience laughter] at the tape recorder to remember just what it was.
Unidentified participant: At the University of—it would've been at the University of Vienna?
William Faulkner: I don't know. Keep on. Maybe I'll remember it.
Unidentified participant: With a group who were studying—to whom you were talking in English—were studying for Foreign Service and had definite ideas of what they wanted and so forth. [...] They were much more seriously interested in [...].
William Faulkner: I don't know. Can you help us out on that?
Joseph Blotner: No, sir. I don't recall that question or that answer.
William Faulkner: Do you remember any more of it, Mr. [Ranick]? Maybe we'll get to it in a minute.
Unidentified participant: No. I—that—I was asking partly trying to find what the answer was because I missed part of it. I was too far back in the room to catch [it all].
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, I remember you [stated] [...].
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, in this cultural interchange you speak of, wouldn't the student serve as well, the student maybe and his family and [...] the communists [...]?. How would you go about [arranging] something like that?
William Faulkner: I would import the whole family. The—the first requirement would be that be communists. I would bring the whole family intact. I would arrange for labor to find a—a—a job for him, a house for him, and schools for his children. Let them stay two years, and then send them back, and then bring another intact family. Yes, to bring the father and the mother and—and two or three children and not bother them at all. Just let them see this country, how it actually is, instead of trying to give them the—the false, phony picture which the people that put out our propaganda seem to think it is.
Unidentified participant: Do you feel that if you had been born and grown up someplace else, you would've written pretty much the same kind of book [laid in the environment] there or do you think Mississippi is particularly strong in bringing out the—these conditions in the human race?
William Faulkner: No, no, the imagination would be the same. The observation we— would be different and assuming that—that the experience, the—the books were—were Russian books or French books, that would be a little different.
Unidentified participant: I mean—
William Faulkner: But the people I write about are the same people. People haven't changed that much. The—the locale is—is just incidental. The writer uses that because that's easier.
Unidentified participant: You wouldn't say there's anything significant about—
William Faulkner: No.
Unidentified participant: —about [...] Mississippi beyond—
William Faulkner: No, it's just because it's there. That's easier. If I wrote about another locale, I'd have to do some research or risk somebody saying, "Uh-uh, that's wrong." [audience laughter]
Unidentified participant: Do you feel you would have been influenced also probably to write the same type of thing?
William Faulkner: Yes, people are the same. People don't change that much. Their problems are the same problems.
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, you may have touched on this previously, but could you give some advice to young writers? What advice would you give to young writers?
William Faulkner: At one time I thought the most important thing was talent. I think now that—that the young man or the young woman must possess or teach himself, train himself, in infinite patience, which is to—to try and to try and to try until it comes right. He must train himself in ruthless intolerance. That is, to throw away anything that is false no matter how much he might love that page or that paragraph. The most important thing is insight, that is, to be—to curiosity—to—to wonder, to mull, and to—to—to muse why it is that man does what he does. And if you have that, then I don't think the talent makes much difference, whether you've got that or not.
Unidentified participant: How would you suggest that he get this insight? Through experience?
William Faulkner: Yes, and then the greatest part of experience is in the books, to read. To read and to read and to read and to read. To watch people, to have—to never judge people. To watch people, what they do, with—with—without intolerance. Simply to—to learn why it is they did what they did.
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, I believe earlier you were talking about reading when you were speaking to the class and [a lot of it was] about symbolism. You said since the writers cannot follow a lot of turns and corners, the symbols, [and must get on with the] writing and that's for the reader to follow up. I was wondering when you did your reading, did you follow the turns and the corners in—in looking for symbolism?
William Faulkner: No, I didn't. The—the reader reads out of the same three reservoirs—imagination, observation, and experience that the writer writes from. The—the reader and the writer in the same culture have the same cultural background. That is, the same religious symbols are a part of—of both backgrounds, and it's—the writer, by simple instinct, will match those symbols and the old stories of his folklore for the reason that there're—there're only two or three stories anyone can write, and they are bound to repeat themselves. There're only a certain number of symbols, which are the cultural background, the spiritual background of anyone, and, of course, they're going to appear when he begins to translate his own observation and imagination and experience onto paper. He will use the terms of his environment, and a part of his environment is the—the symbolism which he inherited, took in with his mother's milk, you might say, as a part of his own past, of the—the long generations which—which bought him to A.D. 1957, and so it's not surprising that they should all be there, and it's not surprising that he, taking them for granted, doesn't bother to—to see, "Well, here's where I've used a symbol, and so I got this symbol how many years ago." That's not too important to him. It's there.
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, have you found any promising young writers during your stay here, anyone who looks [good] for the future [of fiction]?
William Faulkner: Any promising young writer to me is one that's really working at it. His promise will be in the work. The—the—the symptom of promise is that he really is interested enough to—to accept the anguish and the frustration and the disappointment and—and the final fun and—and ecstasy of working at it, so any young man that is sincerely working at it and sincerely interested in—in the—the verities of man's condition shows promise. It may take him years before he lives up to that promise, but if he's working at it, that's all the promise he needs to give anybody.
William Faulkner: Yes, sir.
Unidentified participant: What specifically in your memory did you—you read that helped you more than anything else?
William Faulkner: Everything I ever read, from the telephone book up and down. Trash. The good stuff. All of it.
Unidentified participant: It all—
William Faulkner: And I think that no writer can say just how much influence he had from what source. That is, he might be able to go back over his work and pick out pages or scenes or chapters that show—show a derivation from a specific source, but then the writer don't do that because by that time he's busy writing another book. That he feels at—at perfect liberty to take whatever he needs from whatever source he can find it, just as he is perfectly willing to let anyone after him take whatever they can get from him with no jealousy whatever, or no feeling that he has—has—what he—he's amoral, not immoral.
William Faulkner: Yes, sir.
Unidentified participant: To return to the idea about—about bringing in communists and—and letting them live here and—and see our way of life, and—and not bother them, and—well, along that idea—you said that usually—you think they would return with a better picture of America than they're getting through our propaganda, and I was wondering if you had any—what kind of picture do you think they're getting now?
William Faulkner: It would be a true picture. I think the picture that they get from what we export is not a true picture of America because we want to be liked. We wanted to be thought well of, and despite ourselves, we dress up the image that we send abroad, simply because we want to be liked and want to be thought well of, but that ain't it. It's to let them see themselves what it is in this country that makes us for some strange reason like it.
Unidentified participant: Have you given this enough consideration that you would probably be tempted to write [...]
[end of recording]