Local and UVA Communities, tape 1

DATE: 30 May 1957

OCCASION: Local Public and University Community

TAPE: T-135

LENGTH: 31:48

READING: From The Town

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Frederick Gwynn: Mr. Faulkner will read a wonderful passage from his new novel, The Town, this afternoon and thereafter answer any questions from the floor. You may be interested to know that your opinion of the temperature of this room, as time goes on, is shared by the writer-in-residence, who calls it "The Black Hole." But you might feel reassured if I remind you that this is not merely the only room in the University that fits exactly the acoustics of Mr. Faulkner's voice, but it's partly our contribution to acclimatizing him for his return to a Mississippi summer. [audience laughter] For he must return, he says, after one of the most exciting terms for us. And in valedictory, one is tempted to point with local pride now to Mr. Faulkner along with Messrs. Jefferson and Poe. He has spent almost as much time at the University as Poe did. His—his [audience laughter] work, like that of Poe, which seemed Gothic at one time to many readers, turns out to be not of Germany but of the soul, as Poe said himself. And he has proven himself a gentleman of not only of Mississippi or Virginia but, like Thomas Jefferson, of the world. And possibly this afternoon our response may help to induce him to return next year. This return would be that of the most distinguished writer of fiction in the world today, Mr. William Faulkner. [applause]

William Faulkner: I reckon the only way I can live up to that encomium is by going back to Mississippi right away. [audience laughter]

William Faulkner:

There is a ridge; you drive on beyond Seminary Hill and in time you come upon it: a mild unhurried farm road presently mounting to cross the ridge and on to join the main highway leading from Jefferson to the world. And now, looking back and down, you see all Yoknapatawpha in the dying last of day beneath you. There are stars now, just pricking out as you watch them among the others already coldly and softly burning; the end of day is one vast green soundless murmur up the northwest toward the zenith. Yet it is as though light were not being subtracted from earth, drained from earth backward and upward into that cooling green, but rather had gathered, pooling for an unmoving moment yet, among the low places of the ground so that ground, earth itself is luminous and only the dense clumps of trees are dark, standing darkly and immobile—immobile out of it.

William Faulkner:

Then, as though at signal, the fireflies—lightning-bugs of the Mississippi child's vernacular—myriad and frenetic, random and frantic, pulsing; not questing, not quiring, but choiring as if they were tiny incessant appeaseless voices, cries, words. And you stand suzerain and solitary above the whole sum of your life beneath that incessant ephemeral spangling. First is Jefferson, the center, radiating weakly its puny glow into space; beyond it, enclosing it, spreads the County, tied by the diverging roads to that center as is the rim to the hub by its spokes, yourself detached as God Himself for this moment above the cradle of your nativity and of the men and women who made you, the record and chronicle of your native land proffered for your perusal in ring by concentric ring like the ripples on living water above the dreamless slumber of your past; you to preside unanguished and immune above this miniature of man's passions and hopes and disasters—ambition and fear and lust and courage and abnegation and pity and honor and sin and pride all bound, precarious and ramshackle, held together by the web, the iron-thin warp and woof of his rapacity but withal yet dedicated to his dreams.

William Faulkner:

They are all here, supine beneath you, stratified and superposed, osseous and durable with the frail dust and the phantoms—the rich alluvial river-bottom land of old Issetibbeha, the wild Chickasaw king, with his Negro slaves and his sister's son called Doom who murdered his way to the throne and, legend said (record itself said since there were old men in the county in my own childhood who had actually seen it), stole an entire steamboat and had it dragged intact eleven miles overland to convert into a palace proper to aggrandise his state; the same fat black rich plantation earth still synonymous of the proud fading white plantation names whether we—I mean of course they—ever actually owned a plantation or not: Sutpen and Sartoris and Compson and Edmonds and McCaslin and Beauchamp and Grenier and Habersham and Holston and Stevens and De Spain, generals and governors and judges, soldiers (even if only Cuban lieutenants) and statesmen failed or not, and simple politicians and over-reachers and just simple failures, who snatched and grabbed and passed and vanished, name and face and all. Then the roadless, almost pathless perpendicular hill-country of McCallum and Gowrie and Frazier and Muir translated intact with their pot stills and still speaking only the old Gaelic and not much of that, from Culloden to Carolina, then from Carolina to Yokpatawpha still intact and still not speaking much of anything except that now they called the pots "kettles" though the drink (even I can remember this) was still usquebaugh; then and last on to where Frenchman's Bend lay beyond the southeastern horizon, cradle of Varners and ant-heap of the northeast crawl of Snopes.

William Faulkner:

And you stand there—you, the old man, already white-headed (because it doesn't matter if they call your gray hairs premature because life itself is always premature which is why it aches and anguishes) and pushing forty, only a few years from forty—while there rises up to you, proffered up to you, the spring darkness, the unsleeping darkness which, although is—it is of the dark itself, declines the dark since dark is of the little death called sleeping. Because look how, even though the last of west is no longer green and all of firmament is now one unlidded studded slow-wheeling arc and the last of earth-pooled visibility has drained away, there still remains one faint diffusion, since everywhere you look about the dark panorama you still see them, faint as whispers: the faint and shapeless lambence of blooming dogwood returning loaned light to light as the phantoms of candles would.

William Faulkner:

And you, the old man, standing there while there rises to you, about you, suffocating you, the spring dark peopled and myriad, two and two seeking never at all solitude but simply privacy, the privacy decreed and created for them by the spring darkness, the spring weather, the spring which an American poet, a fine one, a woman and so she knows, called girls' weather and boys' luck. Which was not the first day at all, not Eden morning at all because girls' weather and boys' luck is the sum of all the days: the cup, the bowl proffered once to the lips in youth and then no more; proffered to quench or sip or drain that lone one time and even then—that sometimes premature, too soon. Because the tragedy of life is, it must be premature, inconclusive and inconcludable, in order to be life; it must be before itself, in advance of itself, to have been at all.

William Faulkner: There's no questions?

Frederick Gwynn: This is the point in the program at which Mr. Faulkner usually consents to answer questions on many subjects. I'm sure he will entertain them now.

William Faulkner: Not consent, but anxious to do. Anybody likes to stand up in front of a lot of nice people and talk and nobody can say, "Shut up and sit down." [audience laughter]

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, may I ask why in some of your writing that you use long—such long sentences, and almost eliminate punctuation? I have in mind a case in point: the first story in Go Down, Moses, I think you call it "Was."

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am. The reason for that is, I think, that every man, every writer has a foreknowledge of death, as everyone does. He realizes that he has only a limited time in which to do the work he wants to do. He has found being alive so amazing and so marvelous, that he has got to—to transcribe it onto paper, to shape it. And he, I think, is—is trying to—to tell the whole passion of man's condition, his hopes, his fears, his aspirations in the short time he has to live before he dies, and so by instinct, if he don't watch himself, he tries to put everything into one long sentence, like the— [audience laughter] like the—the man that used to inscribe all of the "Lord's Prayer" on the head of a pin. That he must do it while he has breath to do it in.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Frederick Gwynn: Mr. Faulkner, your publishers have announced a sequel to The Town. [...] I think this is the first time this has happened to you as a writer, being under that kind of pressure or—or no [...]?

William Faulkner: The pressure is not actually from the publisher. When I first thought of—of these people and the idea of—of a tribe of people which would come into an otherwise peaceful little southern town like—like ants or—or like mold on cheese, then—I discovered then that to tell the story properly would be too many words to compress into one volume. It had to be two or three. So the pressure has been on me before I ever told the publisher about it—that I would have to keep on writing about these people until I got it all told, and I assume that one more book will do it, though I don't have any great hopes that it will. [audience laughter]

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner?

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Do you write in regular hours or do you write in irregular hours?

William Faulkner: No, sir. By nature I am completely disorderly. I never have learned to—to hang up anything or put anything back where I got it, and so I work when—well, as the—the athlete says, when I'm hot. [audience laughter] And I don't like to work. I'm by nature lazy. I will put it off as long as I can. Then when I get started it's—it's fun. I think the reason anyone writes is because it's fun, and you like it. That's just your cup of tea. And so I will write until I have to make myself stop because I've found that—that the only rule for writing I have is to—to leave it while I'm still hot—while I'm still looking good, as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes puts it—so that I can take up again tomorrow. But I've have never had any order. Some people are orderly. They—they lay out a plot or synopsis first. They make notes, which is valid and satisfactory for them but not for me. I would be completely lost. Probably if I'd begun to make a few notes, I could say, "Oh well, that's all, you don't need to work anymore," and I'd quit. [audience laughter] So I think I put off working as long as possible and do as much of the research and the note-filing up here, and then begin to write.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, in your actual composition, do you write everything out in longhand or do you type or have somebody [...] ?

William Faulkner: Yes, sir. I write it out in longhand because I never have learned to think good onto the typewriter. [audience laughter] That I've got to—got to feel the pencil and see the words at the end of the pencil. Then if it's the wrong word, it's simple enough to scratch it out and try it again. I—I reckon I was—started writing too soon to have taken the typewriter as an extension of the hands, as—as the young man nowadays can do. I have to put—put it down on paper first. After that I do the rewriting on the typewriter, but something has got to be on paper first for me to look at and get the feel.

Unidentified participant: How fast do you dash it off, sir? [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: So fast that somebody said my handwriting looks like a caterpillar that crawled through an ink well and out on to a piece of paper. If I leave it until tomorrow, I can't read it myself, [audience laughter] so it's got to be put down quick and then typed quick.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, [...] how do you [...] advantage to being pessimistic?

William Faulkner: Well, I think the—the writer's aim is not deliberately to be pessimistic. His aim is to—to show people, human beings in the human condition, faced with the tragedies and the aspirations, the hopes, which all people are faced with, in the most moving way he can. If his outlook is—is pessimistic, it's simply because—that is not—not his—his intention to be pessimistic. It's—it's because having watched people in their confusion and their aspirations that are—what—what he gets is an immediate feeling of pessimism, though the very fact that he keeps on trying to write about people implies that that he has some hope for man, that he sees man as trying to do better than he does, to be more honest than he is, to be braver. That the pessimism is a—a matter of the moment. Maybe the writer does want to do his—his bit toward making man better, and maybe he thinks if he shows man in his moments of baseness, it may be—be a lesson to someone, either don't do this or—or a reminder even when people do do this, at other times they do good things, fine things. That they will do things that other people shan't suffer.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Do you always know how the book's going to come out before you starting writing it?

William Faulkner: No, sir, I don't. The—the trick is to—to get the characters and—and work at them until they stand on their own feet and take three dimensions and cast a shadow and begin to move. After that, all the writer has to do is to run along behind them with a notebook [audience laughter] and put down what they say and do, but he himself, or I anyway, don't know where they're going. All I—I know is that they're alive, and they're in motion, and if I can keep up and write fast enough, I won't miss anything.

Unidentified participant: [Do you expect them to prove] [...]?

William Faulkner: Only to the point that they are alive, and that the reader will believe that they are alive. They may do things that shock him and outrage him, and that he doesn't like, but—but my hope is he'll say, "Well, they are alive anyway. They're scoundrels and rascals, but they are alive." That is—is the hope, I think, that any writer has—that people he creates are credible, that the—the comedy, the tragedy they run into, the—the silly things they do are things that are—are within the scope of—of a human being to do.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir—yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, when you wrote The Sound and the Fury, why did you suddenly switch from the first person [...]?

William Faulkner: That book began as—as so many books do with—with an anecdote, a picture. The picture was of both children who had been sent from the house. They didn't know why. Something was taking place in the house, in the parlor, and like children, they were curious to know what it was, and the only one that was brave enough to climb the tree was the little girl, and the book grew from that. It started off to be a simple short story. I wrote the—the first section, which was the idiot brother's. I realized that that wasn't enough. I hadn't told that story. So I let another brother try to tell it. That's the second section. I realized that still wasn't enough. I hadn't told that story, so I let the second brother try, which was the third section. That still wasn't enough, so then I had Faulkner try it. [audience laughter] And—and still it was not enough. I still [haven't] told the story to suit me. That's the reason that to me is the one I—I love the dearest, that I'm the most fond of, because that was the most splendid failure, and I still haven't told that story. I believe that if I had it to do over, I could do it better. Of course I wouldn't. But that's the one book I wish I hadn't written, so I could write it now.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, you've spoken frequently [I believe—about] various ways that you've failed, giving us the impression that you—you never feel as if you've quite expressed yourself. Is it [really so hard]?

William Faulkner: That's right. I think that's true of any writer. That's why he writes another book. If he wrote the book that pleased him absolutely, that was perfect by his own standards, then nothing remains [but to cut his throat], but that book fails so he writes another one. He believes that the next one won't fail. Of course it will. Which is good for him because that keeps him working, and I think that no life is as happy as—as a—a life in which you've tried to make something which wasn't here before—a picture or a symphony or a book or a piece of sculpture, and that is to me the best life of all. Not a happy life, because it's filled with—with anger, frustration, because it's not perfect—of rage and exhaustion, but it's—it's really a matchless life. I wouldn't put any other occupation above it. I think that—that a man that can ded—a young man, young woman, who can dedicate himself or herself to that simple idea, to make something which didn't exist before. It is the best life [...].

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner?

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: May I ask how much your daily variations of mood affect the actions of your characters? Suppose one day you get up feeling fine, do your characters seem to take on a cheerful aspect? [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: I—I don't believe so. I think that—that anyone, the painter, the musician, the writer works in a—a kind of an—an insane fury. He's demon-driven. He can get up feeling rotten, with a hangover, or with—with actual pain, and—and if he gets to work, the first thing he knows, he don't remember that pain, that hangover—he's too busy. That his—his feeling—I doubt if that reflects too much in his work. That he can wake up and go to work feeling good, and the first thing he knows, he doesn't remember whether he feels good or not—he's too busy. That he is in the—in the clutch of a demon then.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, does that mean that he also [...] impervious to atmosphere [...]?

William Faulkner: No, no. I think the writer, any artist, is—is completely amoral. He's—robs and steals everywhere he can find anything he might need. The atmosphere, he has—he's gathered up from observation, from experience, just from living and breathing. He stole that away and then when he needs it, to put into what he writes, he hunts around in his trash bin or his lumber room and picks out the atmosphere or the symbolism or the style, whatever he needs, but he has—has acquired that long before he sits down to write. At the time he's writing, he's like the carpenter building a fence or a chicken coop, that he's busy sawing planks and driving nails—that he has already got his—his supply of nails and his boards at hand, where he can reach back into his workshop and get what plank or what size nails he needs.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Do you feel that the people you associated with [in Mississippi]—old cronies and so forth—[do you feel like] [...]? [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: As far as I know, they do, because the friends I have are—are not literary friends. They are people engaged in other pursuits, and unless I'm as good in their pursuits as they are, they have, of course, a low opinion of me. If I'm as good in—in their pursuits, that is, farming or hunting or with horses as they are, then they have a high opinion of me, which has nothing to do with my books because they don't read my books. [audience laughter] Some artist said that nobody in Mississippi reads; they're all writing. [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: I want to ask you a question about The Town. The—the heroine of this story, Eula Varner Snopes, at the end commits suicide. What do you think was her reason for it?

William Faulkner: It was for the sake of that child. She, at that—that time had realized that—that every child, a—a young girl, especially, needed the—the semblance of an intact home—that is, to have a mother and a father, to have the same things that the other children had. And she had reached an impasse where—where her—her lover would have demanded that—that she leave her—her husband, and then that child would have found out that—that it had grown up in a broken home. Up to this time, whether the child loved Flem or not, at least he was the symbol of the father which all the other children had, and with—the mother felt it would be better for this girl to have a—a mother who committed suicide than a mother who ran off with a lover, which was—that may have been the wrong decision she made, but that was the decision she did make—that at least this girl would've—would've had the—the similitude of an intact, though a— tragedy—tragedy-ridden home, just as other children did.

Unidentified participant: Do you by chance have in mind writing the story of this daughter now?

William Faulkner: Yes sir. That will be in the—in the next book. She's one of the most interesting people I've written about yet, I think. Her story will be in the next book.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, how do you feel about the use of symbols. That seems to be quite the rage now. Do you consciously use symbols in your writing?

William Faulkner: Not deliberately. The—the symbolism is a part of anyone's past. By—I mean by that his environment, his background, his experience, his observation. And a part of that background is—is the Christian religion. The writer is engaged primarily in—in writing about people. He's doing this in the most moving and most effective way he knows, and the symbolism, like the style, they are the—the nails and the boards in—in the carpenter's workshop, and these symbols appear almost by coincidence in what he does. He's simply writing out of his own background of observation and experience—that he hasn't got time to say, "Now, I'm going to use a symbol." He's too busy writing about simple men and women engaged in—in the tragedy of man's condition, engaged in the conflict with the human heart or with its fellows or with its environment, its background, and I think that the reader must read any book from the same background which the writer writes it from, that is from the background of observation, experience and imagination, and so the reader reads into the book, finds in the book symbolism which the writer didn't know was there and is not really interested in finding there. He was too busy, but he doesn't doubt that—that that symbol—symbolism is there or, even [if it were not, what] symbolism is there could be translated into someone else's understanding and comprehension. That is, a Chinese could probably find Chinese symbolism in an American book, just as the American can find American symbolism in a Chinese or a Japanese book.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner—

William Faulkner: Yes'm.

Unidentified participant: [I heard of your] article in Ebony magazine giving advice to the colored people as to the way they should act toward integration. What was your advice and do you think that they are heeding it in any way?

William Faulkner: I would like to think that some do. The advice was simply that—that no law or edict passed by no matter whom is going to change the social condition until the people involved in that condition wish it changed. That is, if the Negro were given equality by a police force, he would keep that equality only as long as the police stood there. When the police were gone, then someone smarter or more [ruthless] would take it away from them again—that he has got to earn that equality. He has got to—to learn, as everybody must, that—that liberty and freedom—is not a condition like rainfall or sunshine or being too cold or being too hot. That's a condition that one must—must work to gain and then work to hold, that—that to keep equality and freedom, you must learn the responsibility of equality and freedom, that nobody can have the freedom given him by the police until he's willing to—to deserve it and then work to keep it, which is to be responsible for it. And I do hope that—that some people in the Negro race read it and believed in it and—and will take heed to it, since it's a problem which has got to be solved, as we—we can't—can't deport the whole Negro race. He's a part of our country now, and—and we must all, the white man and the Negro, too, must work together to—to make his condition bearable. Otherwise, it's—it's like having seventeen million mules running loose in the country.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: [It seems you have placed the Negro in an inferior position] [...]

William Faulkner: I have not placed him in an inferior position. It's the—the—the whole white race and white economy has placed him in an inferior position economically and educationally, because in—in that position, the—the white man's revenues from his economy will be a little higher. It's not that the Negro—we don't know whether the Negro is inferior to the white man or not. He's had no chance [to be anything else]. But I—as I see it, he must have—have the chance to prove whether he is inferior or not, that he is not going to be content any longer to be inferior. I mean, artificially inferior. He's got to have the chance to prove that he is equal[or incapable of it]. And it's better to—for the white man to give him that chance than to have that chance foisted on the white man [by law].

Unidentified participant: [Mr. Faulkner, the state of the Negro was forced upon him by law, was it not?].

William Faulkner: Well, sir, I would say by custom, and then, of course, all our law is—is or usually is—it speaks after the fact. The law simply makes legal what has been a custom. The law don't change [...]

[end of recording]