Introduction and Contexts

Faulkner at Virginia: An Introduction

FAULKNER ON THE LAWN In December, 1957, getting ready to begin his second Spring semester at the University of Virginia, Faulkner joked in a letter that he was "just the writer-in-residence, not the speaker-in-residence." He certainly wrote while he was here, including much of The Mansion, but did more than enough speaking to earn that second title. Between February and June, 1957, and February and May, 1958, at thirty-six different public events, he gave two addresses, read a dozen times from eight of his works, and answered over 1400 questions from audiences made up of various groups, ranging from UVA students and faculty to interested local citizens. Most of those sessions were recorded on the advanced technology of that time – the reel-to-reel tape recorder. In this archive you can hear 1690 minutes (over 28 hours) of those recordings.

The Writer in Residence

FAULKNER IN THE CLASSROOM There’s no need for me to say much about Faulkner's tenure as the first Balch Writer-in-Residence. As you scroll down this page, you’ll find several ways to explore it for yourself. Chronologically, these begin with 31 articles reprinted from the UVA and Charlottesville newspapers from October 1956, when his appointment was announced, through the end of the Spring term, 1958. On 6 July 1962, the day Faulkner died, the English department held a press conference at which, even as his loss was mourned, his earlier presence on the Grounds (as UVA calls its campus) was remembered and discussed; you can listen to those comments. In 2001 Joseph Blotner, who along with Frederick Gwynn was largely responsible for inviting the novelist here and his almost constant companion during his public appearances, wrote a rich account of that experience that you can read. Blotner's essay on “Mr. Faulkner” is followed by the recollections of eleven people who were UVA students or teachers during the period of Faulkner's residency. You can even listen to what Faulkner himself told audiences about the experience at the end of both his first term Play Clip and his second one Play Clip . These accounts don’t always agree – but readers of Faulkner are used to that.

FAULKNER IN CABELL HALL At the same time, it's important to point out that what Faulkner says on these tapes doesn't always agree with what he said in the past – or with what biographers and scholars have learned about the facts of his life and career. One way to think about what you'll hear is as Faulkner performing Faulkner, presenting the version of himself and his work that he may already, at age sixty, have been thinking of as a legacy. As he himself notes almost a dozen different ways on these tapes, writers are “congenital liars” Play Clip . After listening several times to the recordings, however, I'd also say that there is nothing insincere about his desire at this point in his career to reach the people in his audiences. Throughout his time at UVA, he was extremely generous in meeting the demands of his occasions as Writer-in-Residence. He invites audiences to ask him any kind of question Play Clip . He was often asked about the same thing more than once; you’ll hear, for example, how formulaic are the responses he worked out to questions about “how he became a writer” or “how he came to write Sanctuary,” but to me even at those moments Faulkner seems anxious to connect with his listeners. He is even more frequently asked questions he doesn’t want to answer, about for example exactly what he meant by a certain symbol in a particular story Play Clip . To such kinds of questions his answers are often evasive as well as formulaic, but they are never impatient. As a novelist he often makes great demands on his reader. On these tapes, however, you won’t hear a High Modernist cloaking himself in “silence, exile and cunning,” * but a serious artist trying to make himself and his work as approachable as possible.

FAULKNER READING IN ROUSS HALL Although he liked to say that the only books an author never needs to look at again are the ones he wrote himself Play Clip , he decided to re-read Absalom, Absalom! before beginning his second term as Writer-in-Residence, so that he could answer questions about that book more helpfully. * While he apologizes – rightly, listeners are likely to feel – for his shortcomings as a reader of his own work, when he visited classrooms he was clearly willing to read whatever fitted the pedagogic needs of a particular instructor. As for the texts he himself chose to read, he shows a decided preference for “Faulkner lite,” for humorous rather than serious selections. But he was not afraid to challenge his UVA audience, as became clear when he decided to commence his second Spring semester in “Residence” by delivering “A Word to Virginians,” a nine-minute speech urging them to help solve rather than exacerbate the growing crisis over court-ordered integration in the Jim Crow South. To 21st century listeners, his exhortations may sound more like temporizings, but at the time they were controversial, and to some in his immediate audience, as you can hear for yourself, unacceptable. (The Virginia Faulkner was addressing had already decided on a strategy of “Massive Resistance” to court-ordered integration, which resulted, later in 1958, in two Charlottesville public schools being closed for five months to prevent twelve black students from entering them.)

The Recordings

FAULKNER WITH BLOTNER AND GWYNN We owe the existence of these tapes to Frederick Gwynn and Joseph Blotner, the members of UVA's English department who were most involved with Faulkner's residency. It was their idea to record the sessions, and after getting the author’s consent, it was almost always one or the other of them who ran the tape recorder they carried around to the events. You'll hear their voices often on the tapes; whenever the students in the room seem to have run out of questions, for instance, one of them will usually break the silence by asking “Mr. Faulkner” about one of his works. In 1959 they published Faulkner in the University, edited transcriptions of 36 “class conferences,” as they called the meetings Faulkner held with various audiences. There are major differences between their book and this archive. Three of the book’s “conferences” aren’t here. One of these, a classroom session on 20 February 1957, was not recorded; the brief transcript of it that they print was, they say, “reconstructed from memory.” According to their Introduction, the tape of another classroom session, on 6 May 1957, was lost after being transcribed. The tape (or tapes) of Faulkner’s press conference on the first day of his residency, 15 February 1957, is simply missing from the set of tapes in UVA’s Special Collections, as is the first tape of his 16 May 1957 session with the audience identified as “Law School Wives”; for Faulkner's remarks on these occasions, users must turn to Faulkner in the University. * Unfortunately these missing tapes contained a lot that I wish we could hear, including much of what Faulkner told UVA audiences about As I Lay Dying. (As I Lay Dying was also scheduled to be the focus of a 19 May 1957 class session announced in UVA student newspaper, The Cavalier Daily, but no tapes of this exist, nor do Gwynn and Blotner mention it, so this session may never have happened.)

LISTENERS IN ROUSS HALL On the other hand, this archive's complete recordings of the other 32½ sessions contain almost 700 questions and answers that weren’t published in Faulkner in the University. In general, the choices Gwynn and Blotner made about what to print hold up well; users familiar with their book probably won’t find many revealing new ideas among the passages that are being published here for the first time – though Faulkner's thoughts on his works, on writing and other writers, or on social issues gain new meanings when they are re-connected with the way he spoke them Play Clip . In others ways, too, being able to overhear the sessions enriches the story they tell. For example, Faulkner in the University makes no attempt to represent the reactions of Faulkner's audiences, although those often provide us with illuminating modes of access to the cultural moment. On 15 May 1958, for instance, Faulkner traveled to Lexington, Virginia, to meet an audience at Washington & Lee University. Half an hour into the session, a man asks him for his “views of the Supreme Court decision.” At that point in time, it was not necessary to say which decision was meant – Brown v Board of Education had been decided four years earlier, and the implementation of its mandate to abolish segregated schools had created a crisis in southern culture. In the groan of the white people in the room, in their nervous laughter as Faulkner seems initially to deflect the question, and then in the silence that greets his longer answer, I think we have audible proof of how tense the moment was Play Clip . I also enjoy hearing the response of the freshmen (“First-Year men,” in UVA parlance) in Irby Cauthen’s class to Faulkner’s answer to a question from Gwynn about Drusilla, the young woman in The Unvanquished who, after her father and brothers have been killed fighting for the Confederacy, cuts her hair, puts on a uniform, arms herself and rides off with Col. Sartoris’ unit “astride” a horse (rather than sitting side saddle) to “kill Yankees.” The laughter of the young men at an all-male college that seems likely to be increasingly faced with pressure to admit women (the other form of “integration” in the air of the time) sounds awfully relieved Play Clip .

FAULKNER IN ROUSS HALL The quality of the audio you'll hear at this archive is uneven, for a number of reasons. By our standards, the equipment used was fairly primitive, and being run by academics, not technicians; background noises on some of the tapes are forms of static from the recorder itself. Only one microphone was used, and because Faulkner was so soft-spoken, it had to be placed immediately in front of him, which means questions and comments from others in the room are often difficult to hear, and frequently inaudible. And the tapes themselves, nearly 40,000 feet of fragile plastic strips, had held onto the magnetic records of voices and coughs, laughter and applause for almost half a century before the Library began to digitize them, further degrading their fidelity to those moments in 1957 and 1958. One tape, from a class session on 9 March 1957, is so difficult to listen to that we decided not to transcribe the first 28 minutes of it, containing Faulkner's reading of “Was” (though you can hear it if you choose the “Play Entire Recording” option for that session, or you can hear him reading “Was” much more clearly on 8 May 1957). On the transcripts, whenever we weren’t certain of a reading, we put brackets around the [word] or [group of words]. Words or phrases we couldn’t make out at all are indicated with ellipses, like this: [...]. Sometimes an entire question is inaudible, but usually one can get the gist of it from Faulkner’s answer; he is almost always responsive to the specific question being asked. (And if you hear something we couldn’t, please let us know; an electronic publication can be amended as often as needed.)

AMPEX REEL-TO-REEL TAPE RECORDER Transcribing speech into text involves other editorial decisions. We don't try to reproduce all the sounds on the tapes. Since making these recordings usable was one of our major goals, we chose to omit anything that simply sounded like a form of hesitancy – er, uh, &c., but do try to include all the words that are spoken. When Faulkner is reading one of his texts, we follow his voice for the words, but the punctuation in the readings (which are displayed in dark red type) is derived from the first book edition of each story. Punctuation in the transcribed questions and answers is based on what we hear, subject to the larger desire to make the transcripts both accurate and readable. Pauses are not marked, no matter how long they are. Unless you listen to an entire recording, you won’t hear most of the pauses between exchanges, and you should use the “Play Entire Recording” button at least once, to get a sense of how frequently silence fell over the room, and how comfortable Faulkner was about waiting those silences out.

There are two additional transcription conventions I should explain. Following standard modern publishing practice, we decided not to capitalize the words “northern” or “northerner,” “southern” or “southerner.” But it seemed true to both the spirit of that time and the way the words are actually deployed by the people who use them on these tapes to transcribe “north” as “North” and “south” as “South” Play Clip . That choice seems unproblematic, though I think it’s important to note that when the people on these tapes talk about “the South,” they seem invariably to mean just white southerners. That brings me to the other choice we had to make, about an issue that is (rightly) much more troubling for us than for most Americans fifty years ago. You will hear Faulkner say the word “nigger” on a few of these tapes. When he reads “Was,” the word is spoken by characters in the story, but on at least three occasions Faulkner uses the word speaking as himself. To me, this word is more obscene than whatever profanity the convict uses at the end of “Old Man” and that Faulkner chose neither to print nor, when he read that line to a freshman class, to speak Play       Clip . When Gwynn and Blotner published Faulkner's remarks for the larger national and international audience they knew their book would reach, they silently replaced the word with “Negro.” * But Faulkner's use of it is a part of the complex story these tapes tell, about him and about this time and place. He and his all-white audiences talk a lot about African Americans, though of course they never use that term. Sometimes they use “colored,” but the term they use most often is “Negro.” At least, that’s the way I’ve chosen to transcribe the word they use. In most cases not capitalizing the term would probably capture the way it’s being said (and defined) more accurately. (The Cavalier Daily, for instance, typically prints “negro” throughout these years.) And in the southern accents on these tapes, especially Faulkner’s, the word sometimes sounds so much like “nigger” that “Negro” seems euphemistic. You can hear both “nigger” and “Negro” in Faulkner's reply to another student in Prof. Cauthen’s class on The Unvanquished, and this one passage can help us appreciate both the phonetic and the ideological complexity of his racial vocabulary. As he elaborates the answer he pronounces the words in several different ways, and goes on to remind his listeners that Ringo, the black boy being discussed, is smarter and more resourceful than Bayard, the white boy Play       Clip . Unless there's no doubt in my mind about the term Faulkner uses, I’ve chosen to compromise (or maybe to engage in evasion myself) and represent the sound of the word as “Negro.” Because this is an audio archive, you can listen for yourself, and make up your own mind about how the African Americans in Faulkner's fiction and in “southern” fact are referred to and, more importantly, represented.


Below you’ll find the recording, essays and articles on Faulkner’s residency mentioned at the start of this introduction, as well as images and other items that we hope will help you appreciate the environment in which the recordings were made. These ancillary materials will also explain some of the specific issues that arise on the tapes. At his press conference on 20 May 1957, for instance, Faulkner mentions "the unhappy business of the invitations" as an example of Virginia's failure to live up to its role as the leader among the southern states Play       Clip . (This clip also contains an instance of the silences noted earlier.) The Cavalier Daily ran an editorial on that event about a month earlier. You’ll find that article and additional similar materials in the other three pages in this CONTEXTS section – on Faulkner, the U.S. and UVA in the late 1950’s. Links to those pages are at the top of this page.

Recording of 1962 UVA Press Conference on Faulkner's Tenure

Essays on Faulkner and UVA

The “Writer-in-Residence Issue” of Virginia Spectator (April 1957):

Images from the “Writer-in-Residence Issue” —

Articles from the “Writer-in-Residence Issue” —

Images from the Faulkner Print Collection —

Cavalier Daily Articles on Faulkner —

Charlottesville Daily Progress Articles on Faulkner —

Selected Items from the UVA Faulkner Collections