Undergraduate Writing Class, tape 1
DATE: 24 April 1958
OCCASION: John Coleman's Undergraduate Writing Class
READING: "A Word to Young Writers"
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William Faulkner: We're both given to stage fright. I hope we're both well enough known here by now to where we don't need too much introduction. Am I talking right, you think? [audience laughter] This would be addressed to—to young writers. It's a suggestion more than a—an idea.
Two years ago President Eisenhower conceived a plan based on an idea which is basically a sound one. This was that world conditions, the universal dilemma of mankind at this moment, are what they are simply because individual men and women of different races and tongues and conditions cannot discuss with one another these problems and dilemmas, which are primarily theirs, but must attempt to do so only through the formal organizations of their antagonistic and seemingly irreconcilable governments. That is, that individual people in all walks of life should be given opportunity to speak to their individual opposite numbers all over the earth—laborer to laborer, scientist to scientist, doctors and lawyers and merchants and bankers and artists to their opposite numbers everywhere. There was nothing wrong with this idea. Certainly no artist—painter, musician, sculptor, architect, or writer—would dispute it because this, trying to communicate man to man regardless of race or color or condition, is exactly what every artist has already spent all his life trying to do, and as long as he breathes, will continue to do.
What doomed it, in my opinion, was symptomized by the phraseology of the President's own concept—laborer to laborer, artist to artist, banker to banker, tycoon to tycoon. What doomed it, in my opinion, was an evil inherent in our culture itself. An evil quality inherent in and perhaps necessary, though I do—though I, for one, do not believe this last, in the culture of any country capable of enduring and surviving through this period of history. This is the mystical belief, almost a religion, that individual man cannot speak to individual man because individual man can no longer exist. A belief that there is no place anymore where individual man can speak quietly to individual man of such simple things as honesty to oneself and responsibility toward others and protection for the weak and compassion and pity for all, because such individual things as honesty and pity and responsibility and compassion no longer exist, and man himself can hope to continue only by relinquishing and denying his individuality into a regimented group of his arbitrary, factional kind, arrayed against an opposite opposed arbitrary, factional, regimented group, both filling the same air at the same time with the same double-barreled abstractions of "peoples' democracy" and "minority rights" and "equal justice" and "social welfare"—all the synonyms which take all the shame out of irresponsibility by not merely inviting but even compelling everyone to participate in it.
So, in this case—I mean the President's People-to-People Committee—the artist, too, who has already spent his life trying to communicate simply people-to-people the problems and passions of the human heart and how to survive them or, anyway, endure them, has in effect been asked by the president of his country to affirm that mythology which has—which he has already devoted his life to denying: the mythology that one single individual man is nothing, and can—can have weight and substance only when organized into the anonymity of a group where he will have surrendered his individual soul for a number. It would be sad enough if only at such moments as this—I mean, formal recognition by his country of the validity of his life's dedication—did the artist have to run full-tilt into what might be called almost a universal will to regimentation, a universal will to obliterate the humanity from even—from man even to the extent of relieving him not only of moral responsibility, but even of physical pain and mortality, by effacing his individuality into any—it does not matter which as long as he has vanished into one of them—nationally-recognized economic group by profession or trade or occupation or income-tax bracket or, if nothing else offers, finance-company list. His tragedy is that today he must even combat this pressure, waste some part of his puny but, if he is an artist, precious individual strength against this universal will to efface his individual humanity, in order to be an artist. Which comes at last to the idea I want to suggest, which is what seems to me to be the one dilemma in which all young writers today participate.
I think that perhaps all writers, while they are hot, working at top speed to try to get said all they feel the terrific urgency to say, don't read the writers younger, after themselves. Perhaps for the same reason which the sprinter or the distance-runner has—he does not have time to be interested in who is behind him or even up with him, but only in who is in front. That was true in my own case, anyway, so there was a gap of about twenty-five years during which I had almost no acquaintance whatever with contemporary literature.
So, when a short time ago I did begin to read the writing being done now, I brought to it not only ignorance but a kind of innocence, freshness, what you might call a point of view and an interest virgin of preconceptions. Anyway, I got from the first story an impression which has repeated itself so consistently since that I shall offer it as a generalization. This is, that the young writer of today is compelled by the present state of our culture, which I tried to describe, to function in a kind of vacuum of the human race. His characters do not function, live, breathe, struggle, in that moil and seethe of simple humanity as did those of our predecessors who were the masters from whom we learned our craft—Dickens, Fielding, Thackeray, Conrad, Twain, Smollett, Hawthorne, Melville, James. Their names are legion whose created characters were not just weaned but even spawned into a moil and seethe of simple human beings whose very existence was an affirmation of an incurable and indomitable optimism—men and women like our—themselves, understandable and comprehensible even when antipathetical, even in the very moment while they were murdering or robbing or betraying you, since theirs too were the same simple human lusts and hopes and fears uncomplicated by regimentation or group compulsion. A moil and seethe of humanity into which they could venture, not only unappalled and welcome, but with pleasure too, since with no threat of harm—and with no threat of harm since the worst that could happen to them would be a head butt by what was only another human head. An elbow or a knee skinned, but that too was only another human knee or elbow which did the skinning. A moil and seethe of mankind which accepted and believed in and functioned according, not to angles, but to moral principles. Where truth was not where you were standing when you looked at it, but was an unalterable quality or thing which could and would knock your brains out if you did not accept it or at least respect it. While today the young writer's characters must function not in individuality but in isolation, not to pursue in myriad company the anguishes and hopes of all human hearts in a world of a few simple, comprehensible truths and moral principles, but to exist alone inside a vacuum of facts which he did not choose and cannot cope with and cannot escape from like a fly inside an inverted tumbler.
Let me repeat. I have not read all the work of this present generation of writing. I have not had time yet. So I must speak only of the ones I do know. I am thinking now of what I rate the best one, Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, perhaps because this one expresses so completely what I have tried to say. A youth, father to what will—must—someday be a man, more intelligent than some and more sensitive than most, who—he would not even have called it by instinct because he did not know he possessed it because God perhaps had put it there, loved man and wished to be a part of mankind, humanity, who tried to join the human race and failed. To me, his tragedy was not that he was, as he perhaps thought, not tough enough or brave enough or deserving enough to be accepted into humanity. His tragedy was that when he attempted to enter the human race, there was no human race there. There was nothing for him to do save buzz, frantic and inviolate, inside the glass wall of his tumbler, until he either gave up or was himself, by himself, by his own frantic buzzing, destroyed.
One thinks of course immediately of Huck Finn, another youth already father to what will some day soon now be a man. But in Huck's case all he had to combat was his small size, which time would cure for him. In time he would be as big as any man he had to cope with. And even as it was, all the adult world could do to harm him was to skin his nose a little. Humanity, the human race, would and was accepting him already. All he needed to do was just to grow up into it. That is the young writer's dilemma as I see it. Not just his, but all our problems is to save mankind from being de-souled as the stallion or boar or bull is gelded, to save the individual from anonymity before it is too late, and humanity has vanished from the animal called man. And who better to save man's humanity than the writer, the poet, the artist, since who should fear the loss of it more, since the humanity of man is the artist's life's blood? [applause]
Moderator: Mr. Faulkner has consented to answer any questions you might have about this paper or about his works. So [who shall lead] the questions?
William Faulkner: Yes, sir.
Unidentified participant: In As I Lay Dying, in the soliloquy of Addie Bundren, she says that when she first met Anse that he had a good farm, and that he was on that farm, and that he farmed it himself, and one gets the impression that he was doing a pretty good job of it, and yet when we see him in the book, he's a—a ne'er do well. He—he depends on his neighbors. I was wondering if there were—was any implication that Addie might have sapped his will to—to work or his will to be a personality?
William Faulkner: No, I wouldn't say so. I suspect that Anse didn't like to farm anyway, and he was just waiting until he could find a wife and get some children to do the work for him. And soon as he got some children to do the work, he quit. That's the sort of Anse Bundrens that I'm familiar with in my country, and I imagine he exists in Virginia, too. [audience laughter]
William Faulkner: Yes, sir.
Unidentified participant: May I ask you what moved you to write that essay? I find it very profound [...].
William Faulkner: I—I reckon that—that anything you have devoted a great deal of your time to, any sort of craft, whether it's an important one or not, becomes pretty serious to you, and maybe when you get along you think, "Well, I have—if it's not valid, I have wasted a lot of pretty valuable time," and so I prefer to believe that it is valid, and it should continue, and the people to carry it on are the people that come after me, and if—if my thoughts about it are—are worth anything, whether they are or not, it had better be expressed so the young people after me can take a look at them and say, "It's nonsense," or not. I suppose that's the reason. That—no particular need to—to improve writing or to better man's condition maybe, any more than any artist has. I think maybe it's not so much to better man's condition but maybe to uplift his heart, to give him pleasure, fun. Anyway, it becomes important to the one who's spent all his life laying the brick, and he wants the trade of bricklaying to continue.
Floyd Stovall: Mr. Faulkner, do you—do you feel that this predicament of the young writer is one which he has in his individual resources the ability to escape from, or is he the victim of a social condition which he can't possibly escape?
William Faulkner: He does not need to be victim of it if he does not want to. He inherited this condition, and possibly he himself knows there's—something somewhere is wrong, but he doesn't know what. It may be someone who is old enough to have seen the other side of this [nettle] may be able to tell him, "This is where the trouble is." No, sir, I don't think that—that he's the victim of it. He simply inherited a condition which is not too good, but—but I doubt if anything can stop the artist from being an artist, and I doubt if any condition, economic or social or any other, is going to prevent the good work being done, that even without anybody to say, "This is what my hindsight tells me is wrong," will—will aid him—well, it will shorten the time maybe. He doesn't need to be told what's wrong. He will—will solve that problem himself if he's going to keep working, and the good one will keep working.
William Faulkner: Yes, sir.
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, Isaac McCaslin in "The Bear" relinquishes his heredity. Do you think he may be in the same predicament as modern man, under the same conditions that he can't find a humanity that he can fit in with?
William Faulkner: Well, there are some people in any time and age that—that cannot face and cope with the problems. There seems to be three stages. The first says, "This is rotten. I'll have no part of it. I will—will take death first." The second says, "This is rotten. I don't like it. I can't do anything about it, but at least I will not participate in it myself. I will go off into a cave or—or climb a pillar to sit on." The third says, "This stinks, and I'm going to do something about it." McCaslin is the second. He says, "This is bad, and I will withdraw from it." What we need are people who will say, "This is bad, and I'm going to do something about it. I'm going to change it."
William Faulkner: Yes, sir.
Unidentified participant: There is a great problem of the status in the—of the writer and the poet in our society. I think you have done a great deal to try to fix it. It occurs to me that after some thirty-three years of—I'm fifty-two—I started writing poetry when I was about eighteen when I was trying to find my way and really always [felt a sort of] shame in being a poet. Until the other day, a—a man of—whom I consider a man of great dignity took me [to his pupils who] study poetry, because I was a poet. Now, I must say he was a Russian who had said [at] one time that Russia, the revolution killed its soul, and he said this was a great tragedy for the country. Now, I think always in extremes of the poet and the writer, [...] [society,] and I would suspect that in America we [are more] conservative in pushing [against that] enormous conservatism that is in opposition to the complete radicalism of the Russian [...] [the opportunities I've had] over the past few days [...]. This country which is so really talented was a radical country, a visionary country, has now become crystalized and not writing, so that the poet, I see, from my knowledge as a poet, the poets in San Francisco, you may laugh at it, their—their manifesto is called "Howl." On the other hand, we have our academic—so-called academic poets who are very tame [because] they don't howl. They don't know how to shriek, and there's no guts in the middle. [...] There are a few people, very few people, who make the synthesis of the romantic and classic, the liberal and conservative [...].
William Faulkner: Yes, I agree with that to an extent. I think that there're times when—when the voice has more welcome to shout, to howl, than others, but I think that the voice is still shouting and howling even if it's inaudible. I'm convinced that—that it would take a great deal more than any police state to suppress and destroy the heirs to Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. My belief is that they are still writing in Russia. They have to hide it in the chimney or under the floor, but they are still producing the books.
Unidentified participant: Yes, well very fortunately due to the death of Stalin now, the writers have been freed, and there is a great flourishing, and people were writing, people like [...] have been writing, others, [...] has been writing novels, and I—I can't evaluate them, but my friend who knows the Russian literature says they are distinguished works. [...] But there is another [sad] fact that in post-revolution Russia [the—the artist has] [...] but the critics—I think the critics are lacking [...] have never honored their poets, their visionaries [...] are always[...]
William Faulkner: Well, maybe so. I'm—I'm not too convinced that that has hurt the—the writing, though, has hurt the poet.
Unidentified participant: No, I suppose [the poetry] [...].
William Faulkner: It would be—it would be pleasanter if he did get recognition and were a—an [integer]—or a definite integer in the—the culture of the country, but—but whether he is or not, he's going to continue to—to be a poet and to dedicate his life and his breath to being a poet simply because that's what he likes. That's his cup of tea.
Unidentified participant: Yes, but it's difficult [...] the artist needs somehow [...].
William Faulkner: Well, yes.
William Faulkner: Yes, sir.
Unidentified participant: You surely don't mean that this modern dilemma which you've described so well is concerned specifically, for instance, with the poets and artists. Do you think [humans]—do you think it applies just to the creative group of people, or do you think it applies more widely?
William Faulkner: I think—I would say that—that, of course, it applies to everybody, but—but the creative man will suffer from it. The young man that—that knows "there's something wrong with what I do—I don't know what it is, but I do know there's something wrong." That's because he has not the—the perspective of an older person's hindsight to measure against. I—yes, I think anyone would be hurt. A—a doctor would be a better doctor for being more of a humanitarian, a better lawyer. I was thinking more of people who deal with the human spirit. That is, the teacher, not the doer, but the teacher, which are men in—in the colleges, the—the priests, the—the artists, whose—whose craft, whose vocation is—is showing man the splendor of his long history, that a—a frail web of—of flesh and bone, mostly water, stuck together in a ramshackle world held together by electricity which may collapse at any moment, yet somehow he still believes in it and still gets fired up enough to—to produce poetic records of man's struggle which are still pleasing and still uplift the human hearts five hundred years after they were written, done.
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner?
William Faulkner: Yes, sir.
Unidentified participant: [I wonder] what you would say [...] this current cycle of decay [...]?
William Faulkner: Well, I don't quite like the word decay. I—as I see it, it was because of—of overpopulation maybe and the—the mistakes of—that we had made which brought on the wars have compelled people to—to coalesce in order to—to get along, to live, that more children are being born every year with no provisions to take care of the ones that we already have, that the man who insists on being an eccentric and an individual is in everybody else's way. He's got to belong to something simply to keep the wheels running smooth, which is fine for people to get along, but that is bad for the artist, for the man to paint in and compose the music and write the poetry.
Unidentified participant: What year [was it] around—what year would you say this [period] began?
William Faulkner: Oh, around 1912, '13, '14, maybe.
Unidentified participant: In other words, before the First World War?
William Faulkner: Yes, the seeds of it were implicit in the turn of the century, though maybe it began—well, '28, '29, and the collapse of Wall Street. That may have been the first milepost of it. Though it's hard to say just where it did begin. I would say that's—was a—a sharp mark to measure from. Say '29 maybe.
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner?
William Faulkner: Yes, sir.
Unidentified participant: After the writer or poet has gotten the howl out of his system, what—in what way do you think that he can influence his society to become more individualistic?
William Faulkner: Well, if he's going to put in the time on influencing his society, he ain't going to have much time left to be a good poet. [audience laughter] I think that he had better go ahead and—and be a good poet and let his influence on society take care of itself, but I think he—that he is still got to—to write his poetry about the simple fundamental verities of—of the human heart in conflict with itself, not in conflict with labor unions, nor with high prices, nor with, "How am I going to get a Cadillac when all I've got now is a Mercury." He's got to stick to the simple, fundamental things, which are the anguishes and troubles of his own aspirations and his failed capability and capacity to—to accomplish what he can [dream]. That's what the—the—the music, the poetry is about. It's—it's not about economics nor belonging to groups nor liberal movements nor improving mankind because the artist really don't really give a damn about mankind. He's too busy. He's busy being an artist, writing poetry or composing music, taking pictures.
Floyd Stovall: Mr. Faulkner?
William Faulkner: Yes, sir?
Floyd Stovall: I'm [going] to ask a question which you may think trivial. Suppose we had the ideal society, economic society, where everybody had leisure and comfort and all the Cadillacs we could use. What would that do, if anything, to literature [or] poetry?
William Faulkner: I think the poet would still be a poet. He'd prefer to be a poet than to have the Cadillac. There may be a culture which would compel him to have that Cadillac, but he would be a poor Cadillac owner just like he'd be a poor doctor or lawyer because he's going to be a poet first. [audience laughter]
William Faulkner: Yes, sir.
Unidentified participant: [Could you] compare Wall Street Panic Snopes and Holden Caulfield, please? What advantages or qualities are there in Wall Street Panic that Holden Caulfield has not now and never did have?
William Faulkner: Wall Street Panic knew where he wanted to go. He knew that he could get there provided he observed a few of the rules of the game, which he did, and he got there. I think that Wall Street Panic wasn't really a Snopes, that probably, actually, he was not a Snopes, that—that his—his father's mama may have done a little extra-curricular night work, [audience laughter] and that he really wasn't a Snopes. He was a—a—more of a simple human being than the other Snopes were. But he—he wanted to be independent, wanted to make money, but he had rules about how he was going to do it. He wanted to make money by simple industry, the old rules of—of working hard and saving your pennies, not by taking advantage of anybody.
Unidentified participant: Could you contrast him please with [...] to Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye?
William Faulkner: Well, I think that they were completely different. There's almost no grounds that—that they would meet on. That Caulfield was a—a sensitive young man that wanted to love man and couldn't find him. Wall Street Panic Snopes was going to get along with man, but he didn't especially love man nor—nor did he have anything against man. He simply wanted to—to make a little money. He wanted success in—in his own terms of—of hard work, industry, which Caulfield didn't. Caulfield wanted to love man, to be accepted by mankind, and he couldn't because in his sensitive terms, mankind wasn't there when he tried to touch it.
John Coleman: Mr. Faulkner, you said earlier that Holden Caulfield's tragedy was the fact that mankind wasn't there or that Holden Caulfield didn't think he was there?
William Faulkner: He wasn't there.
John Coleman: I sometimes thought the tragedy of Holden Caulfield was that he did not fall, in a way, that if he fell off into humanity he might've found humanity.
William Faulkner: Well, he would have to have been tougher than he was. If he had been tougher than that, there wouldn't have been any story in the first place, but his—his story was an—an intelligent, very sensitive young man who was in this—this day and time was an anachronism, was almost an obsolescence, trying to cope with and struggle with—with the present-day world, which he was not fitted for. When—he didn't want money. He didn't want position, anything. He just wanted to find man and wanted something to love, and he couldn't. There was nothing there. The nearest he came to it was his sister who was a child, and—and though she tried to love him, she couldn't understand his problem. The only other human beings he ran into, he had preconceptions to doubt, the—the teacher which could've helped him, and he suddenly began to suspect the teacher's motives.
Joseph Blotner: Sir, this sounds an awful lot like a novel called The Sound and the Fury, [with] Quentin Compson wanting to love people and the same sort of relationship with his sister.
William Faulkner: I don't quite agree with you. I don't believe that—that Quentin and Holden were very much alike in—except in being a little too sensitive and coming from a somewhat similar background of—of people that were—were over-intelligent but incapable of—of any strength of—of mutual affection and tenderness, which, as I got it, was—was Holden's home.
A. K. Davis: Mr. Faulkner, Holden wasn't grown up, and Quentin was grown up. He was holding onto something. [...] He was a case of arrested development, and Holden was a case of [...]. Isn't that true?
William Faulkner: Yes, sir, there was that difference.
A. K. Davis: I don't know whether I read Quentin right or not, but he was holding onto an ideal, wasn't he, sir?
William Faulkner: Yes, sir.
A. K. Davis: That—that simply could not be lived up to in his [times].
William Faulkner: Yes, that's right. That couldn't have been lived up to in any time maybe. But Holden Caulfield was simply looking for something which should be everybody's right, not only a privilege, but everybody's right, to find mankind and—and love mankind and be accepted into mankind, and he couldn't, because mankind, as I tried to say in my paper [...]
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