Introductory Literature Class, tape 2

DATE: 20 May 1957

OCCASION: Freshman English Class, 202 Rouss Hall

TAPE: T-133

LENGTH: 29:25

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William Faulkner: [...]and the solitude, but she—but she wasn't enough—he had to go and get into trouble over somebody else's wife.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: What did the tremendous wave signify and what caused it?

William Faulkner: That simply is a physical fact in that country when a levee breaks. The water rushed through the crevasse, and it—it came to the lowest place, which was a stream, which up to that time had been flowing toward the river. This wave of water from the—at that time the river, the Mississippi, was—was forty feet higher than the country, and when that levee gave way, that—that mass of water that came through had to go somewhere, and it broke on the east side of the river, so that wave of water simply continued to go east until it spent itself, and in this—this stream, which up till that time had been flowing placidly west, it turned around and ran backward. That's just a physical fact of—of hydraulics and levee.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: It seems that you draw a picture for yourself before you [...] draw a picture. Do you do that in your writing itself when you are writing a book, draw another picture for yourself before [...] ?

William Faulkner: Oh, well, any writer puts down what he sees and what he hears, and that image and—and that sound come from the proper blending of observation, experience, and imagination. Yes, you've got to see what you—the scene you describe. You've got to hear the voice speaking the speech that you put down. You've—you have to hear the vernacular he speaks in, rather than to—to think of the speech and then translate into the vernacular.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, you want [...] to establish the intellectual level of these people you're talking about, but I noticed we're missing this Mississippi accent which is so prevalent in those people. You made no attempt to simulate that in the dialect. Is there any reason for that?

William Faulkner: If the writer puts too much attention to transcribing literally the—the dialogue he hears, it's confusing to people who have never heard that speech. That is, some—some of the words are difficult to spell. They would be—to a Mississippian, he would see the words spelled the way a Mississippian would spell it, he would know how it sounded, but to an outlander, he wouldn't know. He would mispronounce that word wrong. You can—can go only so far with—with dialect, and then there's a point where for—for the simple reason not to make too much demand on the writer, to distract his attention from the story you're telling, you've got to draw the line.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, you said imagination is [enough for] writing. It makes a good writer. Do you believe that Thomas Wolfe uses a lot of imagination in his writing, or do you think that he just wrote primarily from experience?

William Faulkner: I think that no writer writes primarily from experience or observation or imagination. It's as though he has three tanks with three lines and maybe a mixing valve, and he draws from that tap, from all three of them, and he himself can never say how much of this was imagination, how much was observation, how much was experience. He—he couldn't and then he—he wouldn't bother to because that's not too important. If what he tells seems real and seems true, then how much of what came from where and when makes no difference to him.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: It's a rather small passage, but in one place he's on the Indian mound with the woman, and he's lost his oar, and he's trying to make a new one, and he has this dream that he's trying—that he's back at the bunk house, and he's attempting to sleep, but there is a mule, John Henry, keeps trying to crawl into bed with him, and he licks him with his cold tongue. Is that supposed to have any special symbolism such as work or anything or is this—?

William Faulkner: No, no, that's what it felt like to him when whatever the animal was that was crawling over him while he was asleep made him think of. He—he reduced that to—to his own imagination, observation, and experience.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: When did you come into the close contact with a flood on the Mississippi that the text would indicate and when did you observe all these things, the way the flood happened and so forth? [...].

William Faulkner: Hmmm, why, I can't say. I've known it all my life. That is, this country is—is not very far from where I was born and have lived all my life, and I have known these people. I have known that country. Every fall as long as I can remember, we would go there to hunt bear and deer, which was close to the levee, and so we would know these people. They would cross the levee and come into our camp. They would—they were lawless people. They would be beggars, and on occasion they would be thieves, but if we were ever benighted—lost at night—we could go to their shanty boats and shacks, and they would give us what they had to eat and let us sleep that night.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: On several occasions the tall convict is plagued by this nose bleed that he can't control. This usually follows some period where he's had a great struggle and shown his bravery and his strength, such as with the alligator. Is this helplessness in the face of this nose bleed supposed to be a humorous contrast with his strength and his usual self-sufficiency? Or did you want to [...]?

William Faulkner: Well, to me that was just something else comical and—and bizarre that should have—he should be afflicted with that also. With all his other troubles, he had—had that—what's the name of it, the ailment when your blood won't clot?

Unidentified participant: Hemophilia.

William Faulkner: Yes, that on top of everything else, he had to have that, too.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: This is just one sentence which I wonder about. In the beginning of this final chapter, and you told—you sort of described the Governor's emissary, and you say that he just sat down on the desk, you say "almost between the warden and the caller, the emissary" and you say—this is the sentence or these are the sentences: "Or the vizier, V-I-Z-I-E-R, with the command, the knotted cord, has began to appear immediately." Exactly what does that mean? I—

William Faulkner: Oh, that's Eastern, from the—the Middle East. When the sultan decided he was tired of a—of a courtier he would send his Prime Minister with a knotted cord to suggest that he choke himself to death. That's all. [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, when you write any of your novels, do you usually have a definite idea of how it's going to happen and outline it or do you just let the novel carry itself as you go along?

William Faulkner: Sometimes there is a—a general idea of what the end might be. That is, an anecdote or a scene, or it could be a scene at the—at the first—first of the book, or I don't know until I start where the scene might come. It could begin with a character, or it could begin with a—with an idea—an idea out of man's condition. That is, in Absalom, Absalom!—that began with the idea of a man that wanted—a ruthless man that wanted a son and got so many that they destroyed one another and destroyed him, but the idea almost at once produced the protagonist, which was the man himself. Some writers, I think, have to have a plot. They—they do research. They have notebooks and graphs and charts and things, but I never have worked that way. Mine begin with—with a—a scene or an anecdote to write toward, or with a character, and after the characters, the people come alive, then all the writer has to do is to trot along beside them with a notebook and a pencil, and put down what they say and do. Of course, at the end, you've got to—to use some discipline, to do editing, to pick and choose and make the—give the whole thing coherence and emphasis at the right place and unity, but with me, the characters take charge of the story, and all I have to do is just put down what they do and say.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, this is slightly [pointing out] toward another tangent. We were having a discussion in our class as to whether Ernest Hemingway's novel For Whom the Bell Tolls was didactic or not. [...] Would you give your opinion to that?

William Faulkner: I would say simply that Hemingway was writing—well, in a sense, the same story—every writer in a way is writing one story. That he—there's one thing in man's condition that seems to him the most moving, the most tragic, and this time Hemingway was writing the story which still seemed to him moving and tragic, which like all writers he never had told well enough to please him. This one was brought into urgency by the—the condition [gap in tape], that he was not really writing primarily about the Spanish Civil War, but he was writing about the—the human condition, which to him was moving and tragic in the terms of that war.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Does the writer write usually from urge or from a sense of [...]?

William Faulkner: A little of both. I think that—that most writers are demon-driven. Whether to say that it's—he has to or—or whether it's an urge, it's difficult to say, but he is driven by a demon, that he has found this world amazing and—and disturbing or tragic or comic or anyway passionate enough, so that he has got to use the time he's on earth to express maybe his appreciation of the fact that he lived for a little while. Maybe he's in a way saying, "Much obliged God that I was here for a while." It—it's a demon, that he's driven by that.

Unidentified participant: Does the writer ever get involved in more than one book [...] at a time?

William Faulkner: Oh, yes. Yes, I've written—one time I was working on three at one time. I have written awhile on one and put it aside and then write another, then come back to the first one again.

William Faulkner: Let's see. We'll have to start at the left. Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Does the—does the convict in "The Old Man" gain his strength from the fact that he does have the mind of a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old and his perceptions are limited?

William Faulkner: No, I wouldn't say he gained his strength from that. I would say that he gained his strength because he had a—a—a very simple moral standard. That he made one aberration from it because he was tempted by Delilah, but he would—he would never make that aberration again, and he—the—he—the reason for the security he wanted was that he would never be tempted, he would believe that—that he wouldn't, that his own strength would keep him from being taken over the hurdles by another woman like that, but he wasn't too sure. He knew as long as he was in that—that penitentiary, and he was expiating the crime—he did something wrong, he knew that, and he was expiating his crime. He was doing the best he could to lead a decent life while he was there, to expiate his crime against society. He had a—a standard of morals, and that was, I think, his strength. He had been sent out to—to rescue two people in a flood, and he did the best he could to rescue both of them and bring them back. That took a certain sort of morality to do that. He could have escaped at any time, but he didn't.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Do you condone his attempt to—to escape from his insecurity? I mean, do you think it's commendable to do what one wants even though it's escape, or do you think that one should try and better himself. And should he have become a trustee and—and attempted to face life more squarely?

William Faulkner: I think people should never judge one another. Least of all should the writer judge his characters. I think that—that man is—is trying to do better than he thinks he can maybe, that he wants to be braver, more honorable. He wants to—to have compassion. He's—he's afraid that maybe he won't, that maybe he won't be as brave as he wants to be, and then suddenly something happens, and he finds to his astonishment that he was as brave as he wanted to be, that he is as honorable as he wanted to be, that he does have compassion, so I would—I would never judge him. I would—I would say about him that—that within his—his lights to have accepted a condition and to do the best he can in it, whether that—that best is very intelligent or not is not too important. The fact is that by his lights he's doing the best he can in a condition. He's not whining to anybody. He didn't ask for—for that condition, but there it is, and he's going to do the best in it. He's not going to whine, and I think that's admirable.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, you have painted his fellow convicts as being almost animals—they turn their backs to the rain, and they crowd around the empty stove in the train, and they—they seem to have absolutely no personality. They're—they're just animals. Would the tall convict have been exactly the same?

William Faulkner: He would, yes. That is the—the result of having been in prison. Being in prison makes a man an animal. What it divides—deprives him of is the thing that differentiates him from beast, which is the capacity for free will, for liberty, freedom, and so, of course, they were animals to turn their backs to a rain and—and—and hover over the symbol of—of heat and warmth. That's the bad thing about prison, about deprivation of simple liberty and free will—worst thing can happen to you.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Did you show that the convict had high moral standards in one [sense] [...] [by emphasizing] the moral standards of Charlotte and Harry and [...]?

William Faulkner: No, no. I wasn't interested in the convict's moral standards any more than I was interested in Harry's and Charlotte's. I was simply writing about people. I was writing the story of—of a man and a woman who—who threw away everything for love, and the story wasn't—wasn't emphasized, it wasn't moving enough, so I—I wrote the second story of—of a man and a woman who got the very thing that Harry and Charlotte had thrown away everything to have and wasn't happy until the man, the convict, got rid of it. I wasn't writing about their moral standards. They themselves exposed their moral standards to me simply by doing and saying things which I transcribe, put down.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, when you write a book, do you write just to or at a certain group of people, because when a person starts reading your book, his first [shock, as you said,] was the length of your sentences, first of all, and by the insight which is required to get to the meat out of the story, to get the meaning that you want to convey. Do you write to [an] above average class of people, [or I should say], way above average [class of people]?

William Faulkner: No, I don't think any writer does that. I know that in my own case I wrote books for years before it ever occurred to me that strangers might read them. The writer is demon-driven. He is writing something which seemed to him so—so moving, so tragic, so passionate, that he had to—to put it down in his short span on this earth if for no other reason than to say I was here. That he is not writing at—at the time when the—when the fire is hot, and the demon has—is really got him at a—a dead run for anybody. He's simply trying to put—put this—this passionate dream that he has seen or imagined down. Later on, he begins to realize that people do read it, but at the time he—he's not interested in that. He hasn't thought about that. The first one wasn't good enough, so he's busy writing another one. He hasn't had time yet to realize that people will read it.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Judging from that, sir, you might say your idea—your idea of a true author isn't one who sculpts his material toward the commercial side?

William Faulkner: That's right. Yes, if—if what he wants is money, then there are probably easier ways to make money than being an author. I think that—that the young man or young woman that wants to write will have to make that choice. He has got to decide, "Do I want to do this because I have a demon that won't let me alone or do I want to make some money at this?" I think, in the case of—of the men and women who have been the good writers, that choice never occurred to them, that they had never had to stop to decide, "I—I have a choice to make, now, which shall I choose," because he has made that choice. The alternative has never occurred to him, any more than he would choose, "Now shall I be a writer or shall I be a banker?" That if he wants to be a banker, he will be a banker, but he will be a writer, too. If he wants to be a doctor, he will be a doctor, but if he has a demon to write he will still be a writer, too. He will find plenty of time to be a writer, be a painter, be anything else.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Have you been approached, and I'm sure you have, to express yourself in a medium other than a book or a play? For instance, have you ever been asked to write a television play or a movie [that implies] [...].

William Faulkner: Well, when I have needed money, I have worked for moving pictures and television, but that was simply a—a pleasant way to get a check every Saturday night, and it had nothing to do with writing. It was just a job.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Would you comment on drama as a literary form, [putting on the] plays that perhaps were never meant for production. Do you like this type [of art]?

William Faulkner: Well, I think that—that the—the play is—or—or the—the novel, the short story, that is—is a medium which fits the writer's temperament best. It may be that someone who thinks in term of—of the drama sees more of what he wants to write than he hears. Maybe the—the man who—or woman who instinctively takes the novel form hears voices rather than sees. That is a—a matter of—of probably individual temperament and character, which method is the one that you can—can do, what is to yourself the most satisfactory work, which is the primary reason why the writer writes, is—is for himself. I think that—that—that all writers wanted to be poets, maybe, which is the highest form. Then they would accept having failed to be poets, to write the poetry which was as good as—as they wanted it to be, as they dreamed it to be. Then he would take whatever medium is closest to his own nature and character, which could be the stage or could be short stories or could be novels.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: I was just wondering, one of your short stories, "A Rose For Emily," what ever inspired you to write this story [...]?

William Faulkner: That, to me, was—was another sad and tragic manifestation of man's condition in which he—he dreams and hopes, in which he is in conflict with himself or with his environment or with others. In this case, there was the young girl, with a young girl's normal aspirations, to find love and then a husband and a family, who was browbeaten and—and kept down by her father, a selfish man who—who didn't want her to leave home because he wanted a housekeeper, and it was a natural instinct repressed, which—which you can't repress it. You can mash it down, but it comes up somewhere else in a—very likely a tragic form, and that was simply another manifestation of man's injustice to man, of—of the poor tragic human being struggling with its own heart, with others, with its environment, for the simple things which all human beings want. In that case it was a young girl that—that just wanted to be loved and to love and to have a husband and a family.

Unidentified participant: And that purely came from your imagination?

William Faulkner: Well, the story did, but the—the condition is—is there. It exists. I didn't invent that condition. I—I didn't invent the fact that young girls dream of—of someone to love and children and a home, but the story of what her own particular tragedy was was invented, yes.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Concerning A Fable, which I—in my humble opinion is your greatest book although the critics didn't seem to think so. What, sir, prompted you to write along those lines, the history of a battlefield in France during the First World War and the mutinies in the French Army and—

William Faulkner: That was the only book I ever wrote that came from an intellectual idea purely and simply. It was the—the thought occurred to me, who might that be under the splendid marble cenotaph with the eternal fire burning over it forever and forever. That if—suppose that had been Christ. If Christ had—had returned again, of course he would have been crucified again, which would be twice, and maybe, just maybe, man would not be offered but one more chance.

Moderator: Mr. Faulkner, I'm sure that we all thank you [...] [to go on] but I wanted to [give you an opportunity to] no longer be subjected to questions. I'm sure that we all appreciate Mr. Faulkner's coming and that we've learned a great deal from his remarks.

William Faulkner: Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. [applause]

[end of recording]