McAleer's Literature Class, tape 1

DATE: 13 March 1957

OCCASION: Edward McAleer's Twentieth Century Literature Class

TAPE: T-112

LENGTH: 35:01

Play the full recording:

Edward McAleer: Well, we'll begin by [asking Mr. Faulkner questions], raise your hand if you have one.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, this is sort of a question of motivation for the writer, and many of the best southern writers write about the degeneration of the old aristocracy and its determination to live and to think according to the old traditions and standards. Now, do you think that this continued determination on the part of those around him causes the writer to revolt against this system, and accordingly, is it a—does this attitude, does it furnish a—a motivation for writing?

William Faulkner: It does, in that that is a—a condition of environment. It's something that is handed to the writer. He is writing about people in the terms that he's most familiar with. That is, it could have sociological implications, but he's not too interested in that. He is writing about people. He is using the material which he knows, the tools which are at hand, and so he uses the—the instinct or the desire or what—whatever you will call it of the old people to be reactionary and tory, to stick to the old ways. It's simply a condition. And since it is a condition, it lives and breathes, and it is valid as material.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, I believe you were in Europe in 1923 at the same time as Anderson and Hemingway and others. At that time, did you associate with them and, if not, was there any specific reason why you were not thrown together, and do you think that that group was influenced or influenced each other in any way as—from their association?

William Faulkner: They may have. I—I think the artist is influenced by all in his environment. He's maybe more sensitive to it because he's—has got to get the materials, the lumber that he's going to build his edifice with. I—at that time, I didn't think of myself as a writer. I was a tramp then, and I didn't—[audience laughter] I wasn't interested in literature nor literary people. They were—I was there at the same time. I knew Joyce—I knew of Joyce, and I would go to some effort to go to the café that he inhabited to look at him, but that was the only literary man that I remember seeing in Europe in those days.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: How did Sutpen get all his money in "Wedding for the—Wedding in the Rain"? It was said that he got it by robbing showboats, I think, but how did he get—

William Faulkner: I think that he looted his father-in-law's Caribbean plantation. I think that—that his drive to—to revenge himself on the—on the man who had told him to go around to the back door, by establishing a dynasty of his own, and he was ruthless about it, and he probably picked out the easiest money he could get, and one quick way to get some of it was to marry the daughter. Another quick way, instead of waiting for the old man to die, [was] to loot the plantation, which I think he did, and he probably brought it to the mainland and hid it, and whenever he needed more money, he would go and dig up a little more of it. It was probably in bullion, gold, jewels, maybe. But I'm sure that's the way he got it.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, would you say that much writing is the result of unrest within the writer?

William Faulkner: I think it's all a result of unrest in the writer. I think—think the writer is demon-driven, that he can't be at peace unless he is—is trying to take the sorry, shabby world which he finds, and he can't change it physically, so he can—can create a world of his own, in which people are—are braver or better blackguards or better heroes or more chaste or better villains than he finds in the world around him. He's demon-driven, I think.

Unidentified participant: Is this ever really satisfying him?

William Faulkner: Yes, what satisfies him is the belief that, this time, he's going to create that world which will match the dream. Of course, it don't, and so he writes another book tomorrow. That one won't either, and he'll write another one. Maybe if he ever did write one that pleased him, he would be miserable. Nothing else to do.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, it has been argued that "A Rose for Emily" is a criticism of the North, and others have argued saying that it is a criticism of the South. Now, could this story, shall we say, be more properly classified as a criticism of the time?

William Faulkner: Now that I don't know because I was simply trying to write about people. The writer uses environment—what he knows—and if there's a symbolism in which the—the lover represented the North and the—and the—the woman who murdered him represents the South, I don't say that's not valid and not there, but it was no intention of the writer to—to say, "Now let's see, I'm going to write a piece in which I will—will use a symbolism for the North and another symbol for the South," that he was simply writing about people, a story which he thought was—was tragic and true because it—it came out of the—out of the human heart, of human aspiration, the human—the conflict of—of conscience with—with glands, with the Old Adam. It was a conflict not between the North and South so much as between, well, you might say, God and Satan.
Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, just a little more on that thing. You say it's a conflict between God and Satan. Well, I don't quite understand what—what you mean there. Who is—did one represent the [...]?

William Faulkner: The conflict was—was in Miss Emily, that she knew that you do not murder people. She was—she had been trained that—that—that you do not take a lover, you marry. You don't take a lover. She had broken all the—the—the laws of her tradition, her background, and she had finally broken the law of God, too, which says you do not take human life. And she knew she was doing wrong, and that's why her—her own life was wrecked. Instead of having murdered one lover, and then to go on and—and take another and when she used him up to murder him, she was expiating her crime.
Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: But can't a person like Miss Emily, though she did do all the things that she had been taught not to, and being a sensitive sort of a woman, it was sure to have told on her, but do you think it's fair to feel pity for her because, in a way, she made her adjustment, and it seemed to have wound up in a happy sort of a way—certainly tragic—but maybe it suited her just fine.

William Faulkner: Yes, it may have, but then I don't think that—that one should withhold pity simply because the—the subject of the pity, object of the pity, is pleased and satisfied. I think the—the pity is in—in the—the human striving against its own nature, against its own conscience. That's what deserves the pity. It's not the fate of the individual. It's man in conflict with his heart or with his fellows or with his environment. That's—that's what deserves the pity. It's not that the man suffered or that he fell off the house or was run over by the train. It's that he was—that man is trying to do the best he can with his—his desires and impulses, against his—his own moral conscience and the— the conscience of—the social conscience of—of his time and his place, the—the little town he must live in, the family he's a part of.

Unidentified participant: In "The Bear," Mr. Faulkner, was there a dog, a real Lion?

William Faulkner: Yes, there was. I can remember that dog. I was about the age of that little boy, and he belonged to our pack of bear and deer dogs, and he was a complete individualist. He—he didn't love anybody. The other dogs were all afraid of him. He was a savage. But he—he did—did love to—to run the bear. Yes, I remember him quite well. He was mostly Airedale. He had some hound, and Lord only knows what else might've been in him. He was a tremendous big brute, stood about that high. Must've weighed seventy-five or eighty pounds.

Joseph Blotner: Mr. Faulkner, in any bear hunt that Lion participated in, did he ever perform heroic action like the one in the story?

William Faulkner: No, not really. There's a case of the—the sorry, shabby world that don't quite please you, so you create one of your own, so you—you make Lion a little braver than he was, and you make the bear a little more the bear than he actually was. I'm—I'm sure that Lion could have done that and—and—would have done it, and it may be at times when I wasn't there to record the—the action he did do things like that.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: This question is also concerned with "The Bear." In the conclusion of the story, Ike McCaslin finds Boon destroying his rifle. Now, I was wondering if this incident just showed that Boon could not, so you say, compete with the mechanical age, or whether this was showing the end of an order, the fact that Lion and that Old Ben were dead, that the hunters weren't returning to the cabin any more, and the land had been sold to a lumber company.

William Faulkner: A little of both. It was that Boon, with the mentality of a—of a child, a boy of—of sixteen or seventeen, couldn't cope not only with the mechanical age, but he couldn't cope with any time. Also, it—to me, it underlined the—the—the heroic tragedy of the bear and the dog by the last survival being reduced to the sort of—of petty comedy of someone trying to patch up a gun in order to shoot a squirrel. That made the—the tragedy of—of the dog and the bear a little more poignant to me. That's the sort of tour de force that I think the writer is entitled to use.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, the other day you said that you don't try to inject yourself into a situation about which you're writing and—and feel how you might react if you were a certain person. You said you didn't do that. Is it—do your characters—do their actions come about strictly from an—an unconscious feeling on your part, or do they just flow out or— ?

William Faulkner: I prefer to think that—that the characters are—are alive enough to stipulate and postulate their own behavior and actions, that the actions of—of course, they come from my own experience of people, but I prefer to think that the characters, by that time, have taken charge of the story, and that they're ones that are saying what they would do and what they will say, that all they need then is—is someone to trot along and put it down. That actually, it wouldn't be, to me, much fun in inventing [lay] figures just to—to project my own ideas. These ideas I grant you are mine, but—but they are the lumber in—in the attic that—that—in the carpenter's workshop. Now and then he needs a board, so he reaches back and finds it, and sure enough it fits. That is, he has to cut it and trim it a little, but it fits.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: I know that you've stated that you don't read the critics regarding your own work. However, I wonder what ideas you have regarding the aims or the proper function of a literary critic, not only of your works but, shall we say, of others as well?

William Faulkner: I would say he has a—a valid function, a very important function, but—but to me he's a good deal like the minister. You don't need to listen to him unless you need him, and I, in my own case, [audience laughter] I—I know I have already decided about the value of my work. There's nothing anybody can tell me I don't know about it, and the critic, nor I either, can improve it any by that time, and the only way to improve it is to write one that will be better next time, and so I'm at that, and I probably just don't have time to read the critic.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, when you started to write, did you write to—to say something to other people or did you write mostly for your own satisfaction?

William Faulkner: Because it was fun. I became a writer by a chance. I've told this story before, some of you may have heard it. I was running whiskey for a New Orleans bootlegger back in Prohibition days, and I met Sherwood Anderson, and I liked him from the first. We would meet in the afternoons, and we would walk around New Orleans, and—and he would talk and I would listen. Then in the evening, we would meet, and we'd sit somewhere and drink, and he would talk and I would listen. In the morning, he would be in seclusion working, and that went on day after day, and I thought that if that was what a writer's life was, that would be the life for me, [audience laughter] and so I wrote a book and—and after the first day or two, I found out that writing was fun. It was just about the nicest thing anybody could do, and I was having so much fun at it that I even forgot about Mr. Anderson. I hadn't seen him in, oh, several weeks, and I met Mrs. Anderson on the street, and she said, "We haven't seen you in some time." I said, "Yes'm, I'm writing a book." So I saw her again on the street, and she said, "I told Sherwood you were writing a book, and Sherwood said, 'My God,'" [audience laughter] and I saw her later on. She said, "How's the book getting along?" I said, "I'm just about to finish it." And she said, "Do you want Sherwood to read it?" I hadn't thought about anybody reading the thing because it was fun, and I said, "Yes'm, I don't mind if he wants to," so she told him about it. I saw her again, and she says, "Sherwood says if he don't have to read it, he'll make a trade with you. If he don't have to read it, he'll tell his publisher to take it." So I said, "Done." [audience laughter] And so he told Mr. Liveright to take it, and that's how I got published. [audience laughter] But by that time, I'd found out that—that writing was fun to do, and that that was simply my cup of tea, and I've been at it since, ever since.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner —

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Did they take it just the way it was or —

William Faulkner: Yes'm.

Unidentified participant: Now, what would you have done if they had asked you to make changes?

William Faulkner: Well, I don't know because I had lost my bootlegging job, or [audience laughter] the—I believe the—the Federal people finally caught him, and I had a—a job as an ordinary seaman in a freighter then. I was—I spent the next year or two in ships, and by that time, I was working on another book, and so I was—got out of touch with this one. I don't—I reckon I would've changed it probably, if the publisher had said, "If you make a few changes, we'll print it," I probably would.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, I think you said that you haven't yet achieved your own personal goal as a writer. What is that goal, and is it likely that you will succeed [...] [or achieving it]?

William Faulkner: That's difficult to say. It's—it's when I have done something that, to use Hemingway's phrase, makes me feel good, that is—that is completely satisfactory. Maybe that will be the goal, and I hope just a little that I'll never quite do that because if I do, there won't be any reason to go on writing, and I'm too old to take up another hobby. It's—I—I think that—that a—a writer wants to—to make something that he knows that—that a—a hundred or two hundred or five hundred, a thousand years later will make people feel what they feel when they read Homer or read Dickens or Balzac, Tolstoy. That that's probably his goal. I don't think that he bothers until he gets old like this and has the right to spend a lot of time talking about it to put that into—into actual words, but probably that's what he wants, that really the writer doesn't want success, that he knows he has a short span of life, that the day will come when he must pass through the wall of oblivion, and he wants to leave a scratch on that wall, "Kilroy was here," that somebody a hundred or a thousand years later will see.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, why do you regard The Sound and the Fury as your best work?

William Faulkner: It was the best failure. It was the one that—that I anguished the most over, that I worked the hardest at, that even when I knew I couldn't bring it off, I still worked at it. Like the parent feels toward the—the unfortunate child maybe. The others—others that have been easier to write than that, and in ways are better books than that, but I don't have the feeling toward any of them that I do toward that one because that was the—the most gallant, the most magnificent failure.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, you said that even though you did not bring it off, you worked hardest at it. How do you feel that you failed to bring The Sound and the Fury off?

William Faulkner: It don't make me feel good enough, to use Hemingway's phrase. That's a—a condition that probably I can't put into words, but if I ever do strike it, I will know it. I think that—that's true of any writer.

Unidentified participant: Well, aren't there parts of it that make you feel good enough?

William Faulkner: Well, that's not enough, [audience laughter] parts of it are not enough. It must be all, you see. You can't compromise, you know. It's—it's either good or it ain't. There's no degrees of goodness. It's either all right or it's not all right.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, how do you feel about A Fable?

William Faulkner: The Fable was—I don't have the same feeling toward that because the Fable was a book that came out of an idea. The others were—came out of people. The Fable was an idea, and at that time, I felt that I had learned enough about my craft to do it about as well as—as anyone could have done it, and that's, to me, a satisfactory book, but it—it—it doesn't move me like The Sound and the Fury did. The Sound and the Fury is one book that I would like to write over, I know I couldn't do it better. But the Fable, no, I don't want to write that anymore.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Can you make any comment on the part that the old general plays in A Fable? He seemed to me to take two distinct, different parts if not more, in the theme of passion week including the three temptations. Would you care to elaborate at all on that character?

William Faulkner: Well, to me he was the—the dark, splendid fallen angel. The good shining cherubim, to me, are not very interesting. It's—it's the dark, gallant fallen one that is moving to me. He was an—an—an implement really. What I was—was writing about was the trilogy of man's conscience, represented by the—the young British pilot officer, the runner, and the quartermaster general. The one that said, "This is—is dreadful, terrible, and I won't face it even at the cost of my life." That was the—the British aviator. The old general, who said, "This is terrible but—but we can bear it." The third one, the battalion runner, who said, "This is dreadful, I won't stand it, I'll do something about it." The old general was—was Satan, who had been cast out of heaven and—because God himself feared him.

Unidentified participant: Well, what—the thing that had puzzled me was that going back, as far as I could gather, he also had been the father of the corporal.

William Faulkner: Yes, that's right.

Unidentified participant: And that is what had somewhat puzzled me in the allegorical —

William Faulkner: That was a part of—of Satan's fearsomeness, that he could usurp the—the legend of God. That was what made him so—so fearsome and so powerful, that he could—could usurp the legend of God and then discard God. That's why God feared him.

Joseph Blotner: Mr. Faulkner, would you care to say anything about the allegorical function of the horse in the Fable? He seems to have some very complex or interesting characteristics.

William Faulkner: Not to me, no. That was simply another struggle between man and his conscience and his environment. The horse was—was—simply a—a tool. That is, that—that foul and filthy Cockney hostler was still capable of love for something. That if he had maybe—if he had—had a better—better childhood, a better—better background, he might've been capable of better love of something more worthy than—than a horse. But he was capable of love for one thing, that he could sacrifice to and could defend, even though it was only a horse.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner —

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: In the story "Red Leaves," in the Indian burial ritual, would it have brought disgrace to that had the man-servant committed suicide during the chase?

William Faulkner: Tell me that again. During the —

Unidentified participant: In the—in the short story, "Red Leaves" —

William Faulkner: Yes, I know.

Unidentified participant: During the burial, the burial ritual —

William Faulkner: Yes.

Unidentified participant: Would it have brought disgrace to that whole ritual had the man-servant committed suicide during the chase, before they caught him?

William Faulkner: No, they could still have—have brought his body back and immolated that. No, they were simply cleaning house. That was what the rule said, when the chief went back to the earth, his—his body servant and his dogs and his horse went with him. No, it would have been no disgrace. It—in fact, if he had done that quicker, they would've been pleased because it would have saved them all the trouble of tracking him back and forth through that swamp, which they didn't want to do. They were a lazy, indolent people and there wasn't any use of anyone causing all that trouble when he couldn't get away.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: What is your purpose in writing into the first section of The Sound and the Fury passages that seem disjointed within themselves, the ideas not connected with one another?

William Faulkner: That was part of the failure. It seemed to me that—that the book approached nearer the dream if—if the groundwork of it was laid by the idiot, who was incapable of relevancy. That's—I agree with you, too, that's a bad method, but to me, it seemed the best way to do it, that I—I shifted those sections back and forth to see where they went best, but my final decision was that, though that was not right, that was the best to do it, that it was simply the—the groundwork of that story, as that idiot child saw it. He himself didn't know what he was seeing, that the only thing that—that held him into any sort of reality, into the world at all was—was the trust that he had for—for his sister, that he knew that she loved him and would defend him, and so she was—was the—the whole world to him, and these things were flashes that were reflected on her as in a mirror. He didn't know what they meant.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: You spoke a minute ago of the writer seeking to leave some creative mark on—on posterity. I was wondering if you think that the effect on the artist is better today when he can somehow achieve his immorality—immortality during his lifetime, because the communication being so much wider and greater than formerly, when perhaps the writer's fame came to him long after his death, and maybe he was the only one during his lifetime that was satisfied with his work?

William Faulkner: I don't think so. I believe the writer takes a longer view than that. He ain't too interested in—in what the contemporary world thinks about it. He has a longer view, that—he—he is aimed not at—at Jones of 1957 but at Jones of 2057 or 4057.

Unidentified participant: Well, do you think that the—the—you would have been just as satisfied if your work maybe had never been discovered until 4057?

William Faulkner: I think so, sure. Yes. Of course, the—when they began to bring in a little money, that was nice. [audience laughter] I—I liked the money, but the—the glory, the rest of it's not very valuable.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Well, then, thinking that this period doesn't matter too much, do you go back over the things [and you still have] a lot of time left to work over the ones that you've already written. Do you go back and worry about them and wish you had done them differently?

William Faulkner: I wish I had done them better, but I don't have time to worry about it too much. That's just a constant—thought or—or belief that—that I would like to be able to do them over again. That is, not to—to go back and take one single book and write a—another version of it, but if I could go back to, say, 1920 when I started, that I could do a better job. Of course, I wouldn't, but that's an idle thought that—that occurs only when I haven't gotten anything better to do. The—the best thing is to—to write another book to do it. Because it takes only one book to do it. It's not the sum of a lot of scribbling. It's— it's one perfect book, you see. It's—it's one—one single urn or shape that you want to do.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, you said that when you wrote the Fable that you—you had an idea, and you made the characters develop the plot through that, and that you did that because you thought you knew your trade well enough by that time to do that. Now, does that mean that when you first start out, that you think that it's better to make the characters shape the plot and sort of let it unfold as—?

William Faulkner: I do, yes. Unless you have a—an extremely interesting and moving idea, which to me I thought I had in the Fable—was the—the thought, Just suppose that had been Christ under the cenotaph with the eternal fire burning, and—and all the—the temporarily well-known world figures to come and put a—a wreath of moribund flowers on it. Suppose that had been Christ crucified again. That would be twice, and would we have another chance? But it's best, I think, for the writer to write about people. That's—that's your trade, you know. Your craft is to write about people. They're infinitely interesting. They're infinitely capable of diversion, of change, of aberrations. Yet they're intrinsically the same thing. It's the same heart, the same anguish, the same desire to be better than you are, the same passion that the—the heart feels, the same ambition, aspiration, hope. That's what you're writing about.

William Faulkner: Yes'm.

Unidentified participant: When you do write about people that way—well, of course, you don't have to put up with the critics, but I noticed particularly that when a new book comes out, all these Freudian implications are pulled out and all sorts of undercurrents, rather than just the simple here's what happened, and—and of course, there's always more to it than that, but all kinds of weird things are just pulled out of the hat and thrown around. Does that bother you? Does it disturb you that everything is sort of misconstrued?

William Faulkner: I can't say because I'm not aware of it. I don't—don't read the—the critics. I don't know any literary people. The people I know are—are other farmers and—and horse people and hunters, and we talk about horses and dogs and—and guns and—and—and what to do about this hay crop or this cotton crop, not about literature. I—I think, I'm convinced though, that—that sort of criticism, whether it's—it's nonsensical or not is valid because it is a—a symptom of—of—of change or motion, which is life. And also, it's a proof that—that literature, art, is a—is a living quantity in our social condition. If it were not, then there—there'd be no reason for people to—to—to delve and find all sorts of symbolisms and psychological strains and currents in it. And I'm quite sure that there are some writers to—to whom that criticism is good, that it could help them find themselves. I don't know that the critic could—could teach the writer anything because I'm inclined to think that—that nobody really can teach anybody anything, that you offer it, and it's there, and if—and if it is your will or urge to learn it, you do, and the writer that does need the criticism can get quite a lot of benefit from it.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, in "That Evening Sun," is the ditch symbolical of the color line?

William Faulkner: Could be, but, you see, I—

[end of recording]