General Public, tape 1

DATE: 15 May 1957

OCCASION: Session with the General Public, 4:00 p.m., 202 Rouss Hall

TAPE: T-129

LENGTH: 31:46

Play the full recording:

William Faulkner: [...] I think that nobody can say, "I'm going to use stream-of-consciousness as my method for writing." That's—that's wrong. He'd get into trouble. He must use that simply as a tool, only when nothing else will do the work. It's much better to show the character in familiar terms of—of action, of speech, but sometimes that's not sufficient. Then you have to use another tool, just as at times the carpenter realizes that his familiar tool is not quite enough to do what he wants to do, so he's got to stop and make something, make a tool [to use].

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner—

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: The New York Times spoke of your brooding concern for people. This—were you born with that brooding concern for the human being or was that—that a [vision]—adulthood approaches, or when did this brooding concern [audience laughter] happen?

William Faulkner: Now, I think that's a question you should ask the man who wrote the piece in the New York Times. [audience laughter] I don't think I have any brooding concerns for people. I like people. There's no brooding concern about it.

Unidentified participant: You don't—you don't feel that you have a brooding concern?

William Faulkner: I didn't know I had until this man told me, [audience laughter] but I think people are—are something that one doesn't need to brood about. People are interesting. They are the—the most interesting, diverting thing on earth. It's—it's fun to—to watch people and wonder why they do what they do, not to brood over them. Of course, one has got to be concerned over man's condition because if—if man is to advance, he must take cognizance of man's condition to improve it, but you don't brood over it. You do something about it. When you see injustice, you raise your voice and—and state that "This is—this is bad, I don't like it," but you don't brood over it.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, why is it that most of your short stories and hunting stories are so clear and simple like the one you just read, yet—yet some of your novels that you think are your finest, are, you know, [have] to be so mixed up psychologically in that they're hard for the average reader to—to understand?

William Faulkner: Well, that is something like the first question we had. The story commands its own method of telling it. Some stories can be told quite simply and objectively, like this little boy's reactions to the adult world that he had to cope with. Other stories demand more probing into what makes men and women tick. That is, this little boy could show—could show what made him tick by his simple speech and actions. There are other times when the action and the speech won't show that, so the craftsman's got to dig around to find some other method to use to—to show what he hopes to tell. And it's not that—that the ones I like are the ones in which I've done the—in which I'm obscure. They're the—they're the ones that have caused me the most trouble. I think none of the books that any writer does are quite good enough. That's why he writes another one. The ones that he labors the hardest over or worries the most about, he develops this—the same affection for that the parent does for the—for the unfortunate child, the sick child, or the—the mentally unbalanced child, but they—they all are failures in his opinion because they're not as good. He don't want to be as good as his—his coevals or even just as good as Shakespeare. He wants to be better than Shakespeare and Homer. He knows he can't, but that's—that's what he works for. That's what makes a—a writer's life such a happy one. He always has something to get up tomorrow that he's anxious to do, which is to—to attain the impossible, never to—to reach satiety, always to have something a little beyond his reach but still to jump at it, to try for it.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, I was speaking to somebody and they mentioned the fact that one of the [Adams], or I don't know who, as a young boy of nine seemed to have the future weight of the world on his shoulder—shoulders. As a young child, did you show this great genius or future genius? [audience laughter] Did you write or did your mother and father know that you were going to be a great writer some day? What indications were there that you were—? [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: Well, I suspect that—that to any mother, the child is a genius no matter what he does, [and I suspect] [audience laughter] that to any father [a boy] that—that showed no inclination to be anything but a tramp is—is not much of anything to him and never will be, but I think that probably the writer is—is being a writer from the time he begins to observe long before he learns to spell. It's—sometimes a man or woman begins to write at an early age. Sometimes they wait until middle age or even late in life.

Unidentified participant: Well, did you write very early?

William Faulkner: Yes, but not seriously. I never thought of taking up writing as a—a serious trade until I—I met Mr. Sherwood Anderson in New Orleans, and I liked him at once. We would meet in the afternoon. I had a—had other jobs then, but I would be [off at] times, and we would walk down [in] New Orleans, and he would talk, and I would listen. We would meet in the evening and go to a—a courtyard, and—and he would talk, and I would listen until twelve or one o'clock over a bottle of whiskey. The next morning he would be in seclusion working. I wouldn't see him until afternoon, and then we would walk, and I would listen, and he would talk, and we would talk and laugh again in the evening, and the next morning he'd still be writing. And I thought that if that's the sort of life being a writer was then that's the life for me, [audience laughter] that I would become a writer. And so I started writing a book and after the first page or two, I found it was fun, and I was at it every day, and I hadn't seen Mr. Anderson in three or four weeks, and I met Mrs. Anderson on the street one day. She said, "We haven't seen you in a long time. What's wrong? Are you mad at us?" I said, "No, ma'am, I'm writing a book." [audience laughter] And she said, "Good Lord." [audience laughter] I saw her later, and she said, "I told Sherwood you were writing a book. He said, 'Do you want him to read it?'" I hadn't thought of anybody reading it. I said, "Well'm, if he wants to, he can." She said, "Well, he told me he would make a trade with you. If he don't have to read that manuscript, he'll tell his publisher to take it." I said, "Done." [audience laughter] And so he told his publisher to take it. That's how I became a—a writer.

Unidentified participant: Which book was that, Mr. Faulkner?

William Faulkner: That was one called Soldier's Pay, the first one. That was back in 1922, I believe.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, to what extent can a professional writer call his own shots? Do you feel that the publisher [senses] what your public expects you to write [and puts] the pressure on you to write a certain way?

William Faulkner: In my case, there's never been any pressure. Never—never been any pressure at all. I have written manuscripts which—which before they were—were done, I myself decided were not good enough, and I burned them up. There have been other manuscripts which I would send to the publisher, and he'd say for a certain reason, "We can't print this," so I would keep it until times changed, and then he'd say, "We can print them now [or something like that]," but there're never been any pressure on me. I—I've either had the best publishers or maybe some providence watched over me and kept me from—from getting into trouble, but there's never been any pressure on me, and I think that is—is what makes the—the fiction writer, the poet's life, the best one because he is his own man or woman. Nobody tells him what to do or say. If you're a dramatist, then you've got to compromise with actors and directors and with the public or whoever's puts up the money for it. [But] the writer is probably the only person alive who can be completely individual, to—to do exactly as he wants to do.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner—

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: I saw something not long ago that took The Sound and the Fury [in the] four sections and tried to draw a parallel between the id and ego and super-ego and the author [as a] person. Don't you think that is indicative of what a lot of critics and scholars are doing with [not only] you but with contemporary writers, making psychological inferences and finding symbols that the author never intended?

William Faulkner: Well, I would say that the author didn't deliberately intend, but I think that—that in the same culture, the background of—of—of the critic and of the writer are so similar that a part of—of each one's history is the—the seed, which can be translated into the symbols which are standardized within that culture. That is, the writer don't have to know Freud to have—have written things which anyone who does know Freud can divine and reduce into—to symbols. And so when the critic finds those symbols, they are, of course, there. But they were there as—as—as inevitably as the critic should—should stumble on his own knowledge of Freud to discern the symbol. But I think the writer is primarily concerned in telling about people, in the only terms he knows, which is out of his experience, his observation, and his imagination. And the experience and the imagination and the observation of a culture are—are all the people in that culture partake of it, of the same three things, more or less. The—the critic has a—a valid part in any culture. I think that it's—it might be a good thing if most writers were like me and didn't bother to read him. That is, the writer knows what is in his book, and he knows whether it—it failed or didn't fail. The—and so it's possible that—that reading the criticisms could do a young writer harm because it could confuse him. It could be—get him to think in terms of the symbolism which the critic, who is usually a good deal more erudite than the writer, can find in his work.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, what was your reaction to the Greek production of Requiem for a Nun?

William Faulkner: I didn't get to see it. It was a—a gala night, and there was so much running back and forth. That was the—the day that—that Makarios was freed by the British, which was the first day that the British Ambassador could come out on the streets of Athens at night, and so there was a good deal of a celebration, so much of being hauled around from one ambassadorial box to another, then having to go backstage, and—and so I didn't get a chance to see the play. I just saw scraps and fragments of it. [audience laughter]

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner—

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: How do pronounce that county of yours correctly? [...] [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: If you break it down into syllables, it's—it's not too difficult. YAK-NA-PA-TAW-PHA, Yoknapatawpha. [audience laughter] It's a Chickasaw word meaning water runs slow through the flatland.

Unidentified participant: [Means what?]

William Faulkner: Water flows through slow through the flatland.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, in line with the question about the sometimes incomprehensibility of the novels to the average reader, I will confess it took a little more than three years to read The Sound and the Fury, not only because at first I found it difficult to understand, but because later, as I did begin to understand it, I found it very strong stuff, really stronger than I could—could take all at once, and I wondered how long it took you to write [this].

William Faulkner: It didn't take too long to write it. It started out as a short story and then grew. The—the obscurity in a writer's work is the—is the writer's fault. It comes from a vali—very valid reason to him. It's the sense, the foreknowledge of death which everyone has. The writer has—has been stricken with the—the passion and beauty of life, the world, and a—a demon-driven need to—to express that, to put it down on paper or cut it into marble or into music, and with that foreknowledge that he has only a limited time to do it, he may be dead tomorrow—he's got to do it all while he can still breathe, and it's a—a desire, a need, to put the whole history of the human heart into any and every word, every paragraph that he writes, and the obscurity comes from a belief which I hold, that—that there is no such thing as "was." That is that every man at any moment in any action of his life is the sum of his whole past, and to—to show that man in a book or story intact and whole, [all] the long thread of his past has got to be implied or inferred or suggested, and I haven't yet found any simple method to do that. The obscurity is not deliberate. I hate that obscurity as much as any reader, but I haven't found a—a better way yet to do it.

Unidentified participant: [I bet it was a] rewarding experience to keep at it. I wondered, too, as I've noticed evidences of—of characters of—in various works of yours of mental instability of one kind or another. For instance, the idiot in The Sound and the Fury, and then I remember a—a—an old woman who kept the body of her murdered lover for years and years and [...] maybe that was one of your short stories.

William Faulkner: Yes.

Unidentified participant: I wondered whether this comes from study of mental instability or observation or is it imagination. For instance, an idiot? How can people know how these mental processes work?

William Faulkner: One can't, of course. That to the writer is a part of the—the tragic yet immortal human condition. Of course, there're not as many idiots in Mississippi as in my—my books probably, [audience laughter] but—but there are some, and—and since there are some, that is a fact, a verity in the—the tragic and—and beautiful human condition, though the—the—the novelist is not trying to—to preach or deliver a message. He—he is showing to anyone that will take the trouble to read that—that there is pity, there is injustice, there are things in man's condition which should be changed, should be rectified, and if not that, should be—be looked on with pity and compassion, which is—which is a part of beauty, too, the capacity to—for compassion, for pity is—is to me just as splendid as the capacity to be brave, heroic. And the—the—the capacity, the—the failure, which—which is baseness and sin are—are—are just as—have just as much need for compassion as the—the—the mentality which is bad, that if one is to—to change man's condition, must—one must believe in—in the verities of—of not only baseness but—and bravery, but of compassion, too, never to judge.

Unidentified participant: Does it give the author as much pain as it does the reader to produce scenes such as when Caddy wanted to see her baby and Jason just drove by?

William Faulkner: Yes, it does, but that's—the—the writer is not simply dragging that in to—to—to pull a few tears, he is—he puts that down as an instance of man's injustice to man. That man will always be unjust to man, yet there must always be—be people, men and women who are capable of the compassion toward that injustice and the hatred of that injustice, and the will to risk public opprobrium, to stand up and say, "This is rotten, this stinks, I won't have it."

Unidentified participant: Do you think anyone really wants to be pitied, though?

William Faulkner: No, nobody does. Because nobody believe that he deserves pity.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, how do you feel about [the Negro in the South]?

William Faulkner: About what?

Unidentified participant: About the Negro in the South?

William Faulkner: Well, that's a—that's a big question. Could you be a little specific?

Unidentified participant: Well, no. [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: The Negro is—is a part of our economy and our—our southern traditions. It's true anywhere, Virginia, Mississippi, or Texas. The—the—the southern—southern—the white southerner loves Negroes as individual Negroes, and—but he—he don't like Negroes in the mass, as apart from the northerner who in theory loves the Negroes in the mass but he's terrified and frightened of individual Negroes. [audience laughter] I think that is a—the—the condition of the Negro in the South has got to be changed for the simple reason, two simple reasons. One is that he's—there's seventeen million of him now. He is diffuse over the country to where he can be a political factor anywhere. And also, if we are to cope with—with a—a culture which says that man is—is of no importance as measured and matched against the state, if we're to cope with that and be successful, we ourselves have got to have a culture in which any man is of infinite importance, much more important than the state, and we can't have seventeen million second class citizens in a culture like that and have anybody believe it. But it's a slow process. It will take a great deal of patience and—and good sense. But it must be done.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner—

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Do you believe that integration as defined by the Supreme Court will come to Mississippi at any time in the near future or future?

William Faulkner: It won't come into Mississippi or anywhere else because of any decision of any court. That's something that has got to be settled by people. But the—yes, I—I think that—that whether—integration may possibly never come in—in the sense that people think of it, I think that—that equality for the Negro will come. I think if the Negro has political equality to vote, if he has economic equality, if he has educational equality, then he won't want to mix with white folks any more than white folks wanted to mix him, because I can't imagine any Negro after the—his experience with white folks wanting to be that close to them. [audience laughter] But he has—he will get equality. If it's given to him by a Supreme Court ukase and enforced with police, as soon as the police are gone then some smart white man or even smart Negro will take his equality away from him again. He has got to be taught the responsibility of equality. That the—that the Constitution never said everybody is to have happiness. They want to have—have the right to gain happiness, if they could, and—and happiness or freedom is something that you've got to work for. If it—if it were not to be worked for it wouldn't be worth having. It's got to be worked for and defended. Who was the Irish Member of Parliament who said, "Man—God hath vouchsafed man liberty only under condition of eternal vigilance, which condition if he break it, servitude is the consequence of his crime, the punishment of his guilt"? Well, that's true of anyone. You can't have freedom unless you deserve it and work to keep it. That's—and equality, of course, is freedom.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, which book do you consider to be your greatest book?

William Faulkner: None of them are good enough for me. They all failed. The one that—that I'm—I love the best is the one that made the most splendid failure, which is The Sound and the Fury. That's the one I worked at the hardest, but none of them are good enough, which is why I wrote another one this year, and I'll write another one next year, and I have every intention of living to be about a hundred years old still trying to write a book [...]. [audience laughter] Of course, I won't, but I'll still try. [applause]

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, you've written for both TV and motion pictures. I wondered which medium you would prefer to work with?

William Faulkner: I didn't work for either one seriously because that is not my bent, for the reason I stated that in either one, it is a matter of compromise, a compromise with—with the actor, with the director, and mainly with the people that put up the money. It's—it's so expensive, a TV show, or a moving picture show. I've had a great deal of—of fun working for moving pictures because I liked the people I worked with, but I never took working for any of them seriously. It was just a pleasant way to get a check every Saturday night, to me. [audience laughter]

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner—

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: I would like to know what you think of Ernest Hemingway as a writer, what is your opinion of him?

William Faulkner: He is a man who has—has never betrayed the—his integrity, which—which one accepts to be a writer. He learned early in life a—a method by which he could do his work. He has never varied from that method. It—it suited him. He handled it well. If his work continues, then it's going to get better. His last book, I think, The Old Man and the Sea, was—was the best because he discovered something which he had never found before, which was God. Up to that time his people functioned in a vacuum, they had no past, but suddenly in The Old Man and the Sea, he found God. There was the—the big fish—God made the big fish that had to be caught. God made the—the old man that had to catch the big fish. God made the shark that had to eat the fish, and God loved all of them. And if his work goes on from that, then it will—will still be better, which is something that—that not all writers can say. They—too many tragically write themselves out too young, and then their lives are unhappy. That happened with Fitzgerald, happened with Sherwood Anderson, and so they—they go to pieces.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, can you keep up with the younger generation, the [...] and all the younger people, and what the young people are doing? Or is that too [important]?

William Faulkner: Not actually. I think that—that all writers, or maybe all people, as they get older, they read less and less. The books I read now are the books that I read and loved when I was twenty-one years old. Unless someone puts the book in my hand and says, "Read this." Then I read it. So I don't—I'm not too familiar with—with the work of—of the young writer nowadays. Young writers come to see me and talk to me, and so I know more young writers than I know their work.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, I wondered what's your opinion of John Steinbeck now?

William Faulkner: Steinbeck to me has probably not done his best work. So far, he's a better reporter than he is a—a novelist. And I think maybe his—his best work is still to come.

Unidentified participant: Sir, what are some of your favorite books?

William Faulkner: Don Quixote, some of Conrad, Heart of Darkness, The Nigger of the Narcissus, most of Dickens, The Brothers Karamazov, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, the Old Testament. I suppose I have about fifty that I read—I go in and out like you go into a room to meet old friends. I open the book in the middle and read for a little while, and I imagine over the course of every ten years, I would have read all of them through.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner—

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Are these books then indicative of the authors who have written them, and people who have had the most influence on you as a writer?

William Faulkner: I think that—that any writer is influenced by every word he ever read in his life, from the telephone book up and down, [audience laughter] that he himself cannot say what book influenced him at what time. It may be if he went back over his work, he could pick out pages, scenes, and could see the derivation, but he never has time to do that because by that time he's busy writing another book. Actually, as I've said—said before, one virtue in being a writer is that every time you finish a book, that's one book you'll never have to read. [audience laughter] You're finished with that one. But I'm sure that any writer is influenced by everything that he has read, by everything he has seen. He is completely amoral. He will take what he needs from any source, but then he is willing to reciprocate, that anyone after him can take what they find in his work that they can use, [audience laughter] but he'll have no compunction about stealing right and left. Not deliberately, but he's—it's his storehouse, and when he needs it, he uses it.

Unidentified participant: This pertains then to both ideas and techniques of writing?

William Faulkner: Well, ideas in the sense of learning how people behave. I think that—that he doesn't bother about taking the abstract ideas of other writers, because unless that abstract idea fits some character which he himself feels that he's invented, then he will take it, but—but the fiction writer is not too interested in ideas any more than he's very interested in facts. That he's interested in people and—and in man and his—the infinite variety of his mutations and his struggles and comical errors and tragic mistakes and his successes, his hopes. Not in his ideas, but in his eternal conflict with himself, with his fellows, or with his environment. That's what the—the fiction writer's writing about. It takes a philosopher to write about ideas, and most writers have been so busy scribbling from childhood that they never had time to get much schooling to know much about ideas.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner—

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Sherwood Anderson and T.S. Eliot seem to feel that there has been no classic since Virgil's Aeneid, and I wonder to what extent you have grown up in philosophy or ideas.

William Faulkner: Well, I'm sure if I ever read Virgil—I can't remember whether I did or not—I've stolen from him too, [audience laughter] for the reason that the writer is influenced by everything he ever—ever read. But I don't think that as long as the writer is—is busy writing he's got time to make any didactic statements about where culture stopped and where it didn't stop. That he's not really interested in culture or even interested in literature, until he writes himself out, and he has been corrupted by—by books so much that he has nothing else to do with his time save to take up being a literary man. Most writers are not literary men. They're really—they're craftsmen.

Unidentified participant: Then you believe that Mr. Eliot underestimates his culture, apparently?

William Faulkner: No, no. That he's perfectly—I'm perfectly willing for him to have his opinions, but to me I ain't interested in it. [audience laughter]

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner—

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: You said a writer knows when he succeeds or fails, and I gather you don't use the critics' opinions as a guide. What gives you the sense of having failed or succeeded in a book?

William Faulkner: That would probably be the worst day the writer ever—ever faces, because then nothing remains but to cut his throat. I think that he would [audience laughter]—the only way to express it is—is what Hemingway means by saying "to feel good." He finishes the—the job, and—and there's nothing that is still dangling, nothing more he wants to do to it. It's finished. It's complete. As long as it's failed, there's always something you think, now, if I could just go back and do this over, I could do it better. But you know that's a waste of time. The best thing is to take a new story. [...]

Unidentified participant: [gap in tape] all the horror, and difficulty, pessimism—[a lot of pessimism] in the world today. Do you sort of take a dim view of the human race surviving, or do you think we'll go on forever and ever and ever?

William Faulkner: No, no. I don't think that anything scientists can cook up in a laboratory is going to do away with man. That when this—

[end of recording]