First-Year English Class, tape 1

DATE: 28 April 1958

OCCASION: Irby Cauthen's First-Year English Class

TAPE: T-142c

LENGTH: 31:56

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William Faulkner: [...] That's the significance of it.

Unidentified participant: Yes, sir.

Irby Cauthen: Perhaps some of the others of you have a question now about The Unvanquished or Sartoris?

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, I'd like to know what you consider the significance of the sprig of verbena from—[on young Bayard's pillow in] The Unvanquished at the end of the book.

William Faulkner: That, too—that young man was the—it signified his stepmother, who was also a young woman, who believed in the qualities which his background, his tradition had taught him to believe a man should have to be brave, to never brook an injury nor an insult. He had associated verbena with her because she had said that was part of his awareness of her, that that was the only flower she liked because that was one that smelled stronger than courage and horses. She had assumed that after his father'd been killed, he would take the pistols and go and—and kill his father's killer. He decided that there'd been enough killing, but he couldn't run, so he went unarmed and faced the man who had killed his father, and so he won the moral victory, which took courage, too, and though his stepmother couldn't condone the fact that he had not drawn blood for blood, an eye for an eye, she did realize that that took courage, too, maybe more than to have gone armed. And that was her way of saying, "This is not my—my way of solving this, but what you did was brave, too, and this is the way I'll say goodbye," so she left a sprig of verbena where he could find it. That was—took the place of the note she might have written him. She wasn't the sort to have written a note.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Why did you draw up this young Negro boy Ringo to be the smarter of the two?

William Faulkner: That was because—that's something that I think I have seen in his race. That is, not all of his race are that smart and—and that clever, but the ones that are smart and clever have never had a chance to because of the condition in which the white man wants to hold the Negro. This one, he had freedom. He had the same background, environment that the white boy had, and so he had a chance for what genius, what talent he had, to—to flower without being challenged. That won't happen with—with any Negro, just like it won't happen with any white boy, but occasionally there would be the Negro, I think, with talent and capacity to be clever if he had the chance to.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner—

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Were there—I am sure there must have been a number of Confederate veterans around when you were growing up as a boy. Did you talk to them, hear their reminiscences and—?

William Faulkner: Yes. I remember a—a lot of them. I was five, six, seven years old around 1904, 5, 6 and 7, old enough to—to understand, to listen. They didn't talk so much about that war. I had got that from the—from the maiden, spinster aunts which had never surrendered. [audience laughter] But I can remember the—the old men, and they would get out the old, shabby, grey uniforms and get out the old battle flag on Decoration, Memorial Day. Yes, I remember any number of them. But it was the—the aunts, the women, that had never given up. [audience laughter] I—my aunt, she liked to go to picture shows. They had Gone with the Wind in the theatre at home, and she went to see it, and as soon as Sherman came on the screen, she got up and left. [audience laughter] She had paid good money to go there, but she wasn't going to sit and look at Sherman. [audience laughter]

Frederick Gwynn: Mr. Faulkner, at—toward the end of The Unvanquished, Aunt Jenny tells Bayard about a blockade runner she knew who used to have the toast "No bloody moon." Was that so that he could get through the—

William Faulkner: Yes, yes. That's right.

Unidentified participant: —ships undetected. And she passes it on to Bayard as kind of a good luck thing, no doubt?

William Faulkner: Yes.

Unidentified participant: Well, why does he say it to George Wyatt the next day? I wonder. He meets him downtown and is supposed to avenge his father. Is he just being humorous?

William Faulkner: No, by that time, in his concept, that had begun—had become a—a gesture of—of well-wishing. It's almost like "Here's hoping" or—or "May you have an ace in the hole," that sort of thing. It had no connection any more with moonlight, just a way of—of saying, "May you—may you win this gambit." "May there be nothing—may the gods be good to you."

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Joseph Blotner: Mr. Faulkner, how deep was Ab Snopes into Grumby's business, and what jobs do you think he did for Grumby?

William Faulkner: Probably not very deep. He was a hanger-on. He was sort of a jackal. Grumby in a way was a—was a lion. He was a—a shabby, sorry lion, but Ab Snopes was never anything but a jackal, and I imagine that Grumby would have had little patience with—with Ab Snopes. Ab Snopes hung around the outskirts of the kill to get what scraps might be left. But nobody would have depended on Ab Snopes because Ab probably wouldn't have stuck, wouldn't have held together, when the pinch came.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: What is the [significance] of the Snopes in this book and his relationship to the Benbow girl, in Sartoris? [Do you remember?]

William Faulkner: Snopes was clerk in the bank at that time. He saw that girl on the street, and he began to write her letters—letters, probably anonymous letters, containing indecent proposals.

Unidentified participant: Was there any special significance that that was supposed to illustrate [...]?

William Faulkner: Well, only to illustrate that—that there was not any sort of shoddiness and sorriness and baseness that some Snopes wasn't capable of. [audience laughter] Not all of them would be capable of all baseness, but any baseness you could think of, there would always be a—one Snopes's footprint there. [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: I'd like to know exactly what the train signified, since the white boy had—had seen the train and [the colored one hadn't]. It meant the old train out may have been ruined by the Yankees. Was that supposed to be some significant thing ruined by the white people themselves?

William Faulkner: No, only that the white boy had told the nigger boy about trains, and the nigger boy had never seen one, and he wanted to see one, too. It was just unlucky that the time the Negro boy got to see the train it—it couldn't have been running fast and fine and free. It was involved in war and destruction at that time, that the Negro boy didn't get to see the splendid, gallant train which white boy had seen in peacetime. I think there was no significance to the fact that the Negro boy had to see a—a ruined train, but only that he was unlucky in that he couldn't see that at a better time, but the fact that—that he—that's his own cleverness to cope with—with his condition, his environment, that even a train that might not have been as fine and beautiful as the one the white boy saw, but he had seen a train, too, and the Negro boy could probably have imagined what that train would look like if it hadn't been in war. The white boy might not have been able to.

Unidentified participant: Well, I was wondering if you had meant any significance concerning freedom, any—any tangible thing?

William Faulkner: No, that's the sort of symbolism which—which the reader must bring to—to any—anything he reads. I mean must. He can't help it. Because you—you read, just as you write, out of your own experience of observation, imagination and actual seeing and hearing. You bring that to what you read, and so the symbolism probably must be inherent in the work, though the writer does not necessarily need to have said, "Now, I'm going to put a little symbolism right here," because you write from the same thing you read from, is the general fund of—of our record. I mean by "our" all—all Americans, all the English-speaking people, or we'll say all Christian people, read and write from the same warehouse of—of experience, in the terms of culture. So a reader, an erudite reader, can find more symbolism than an illiterate reader can simply because the erudite bloke has read more. He has more to cast back to and say, "Oh, yes, that's what this is." The—the—the illiterate one would say, "Yes, this is true," but he sees no connection with—with anything that somebody wrote 500 years ago or that someone—some psychiatrist or psychologist has—has formulated to explain behavior, which the erudite man knows. But the symbolism I'm sure are the—the—the symbols of the symbolism are inherent in the work, if they came from the same culture as the reader and the writer.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, in—in Sartoris, it appears that when Bayard, young Bayard, in the wreck after his grandfather is killed, that he commits a kind of cowardly act by running away. Why didn't he go back and be more or less brave, as the—to have—to show his courage like the Sartoris family always has, instead of running away?

William Faulkner: I expect that that one of the twins really wasn't brave and knew it. His dead brother was the—the braver, I mean capable of—of the sort of rash recklessness which—which passes for physical courage. That the one that survived not only had—had suffered the—the psychotic injury of having lost a twin, but also he would have to say to himself, "The best one of us died. The brave one died." And he no longer wanted to live, actually. He came—came back home, but he probably had no good reason to—to live, or maybe he was—would have to salve himself by saying, "Well, whether I'm brave or not, it doesn't matter, and I don't care." It may—

Unidentified participant: Sir, I'm curious about [your handling] of the dialogue in your writing. Your—your style is somewhat distinctive, and yet when you [weld them] together in the dialogue, there doesn't appear to be any separation [...] one [seems] to flow out of the other. When you try to recreate the words that this character says, to what extent do you enter your own idiosyncrasies into his speech, or to what extent do you go to keep him pure and write the way he actually says?

William Faulkner: Now, that is a question that probably no writer can answer for the reason that the writer himself never knows just how much from which of the three sources he has drawn to create his character. That is, the—the three sources are observation, experience, and imagination. Of course, he's got to write some of himself into—to whatever he writes, whether he wants to or not. In a—a certain sense, anything anyone writes is biographical in that it must come out of his own personal, private experience or imagination or observation. I think that he lets his people speak in the—the terms, in their own individual terms. He does not deliberately try to make them express his own ideas unless he and they agree. You might say that—that any writer is saying the writer is not responsible for any of the ideas these people express. They are—the characters are not his own. He tries not to let his own thoughts color what his characters see and do. It—I expect it's impossible to keep them completely pure, or they would lack the—the breath of life, emotion, which makes you want to read what they say and what they do. But the writer is certainly trying to—to submerge, relinquish himself completely into that character at the moment when he is transcribing what that character said and did.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, could I ask a question of interest to many historians also interested in literature? You spoke of the three-fold fund: experience, observation, and imagination. When you write about—as you did in The Unvanquished—the period of the Reconstruction, do you find that works of historians about Reconstruction in Mississippi are useful or do they just clutter the issue and deaden the imagination? But to build up your knowledge of that period, do you—did you find that you went naturally to historical works on the period, or was that at all useful, that sort of thing?

William Faulkner: As far as I know, I have never done one page of research in my life. [audience laughter] Also, I doubt if I've ever forgotten anything I ever read, too. The research I did was—was coincidental to the fact I was doing something which was fun, that is reading. I've never gone to these things to—for information. It was because I was—was reading about people in motion, alive, in the conflict of the heart with itself or with its fellows or with its environment. That what research I read, I read exactly as I do fiction because it's—it's people, man, in motion, and the writer, as I say, never forgets that. He stores it away. He has no morals. And when he needs it, he reaches around, and he drags it out, [audience laughter] and if it don't quite fit what he wants to say, he'll probably change it just a little.

William Faulkner: I believe you had another question, sir.

Unidentified participant: Yes, sir. I was thinking of one. In The Unvanquished up until the time—I imagine—I think the two boys were about twelve years old. You played up the fact that the white boy was one little step ahead of the colored boy at that time by having seen something that the other hadn't. Then afterwards, the colored boy took command of the situation when they started their reselling of the mules, and I was wondering if you thought that the colored person was coming into the [front], or into more power or initiative, in that day and age?

William Faulkner: Well, I can't say. I think that—that anyone, regardless of—of color—No, let me—let me start over again. I would say that the color had nothing to do with how much any individual, any human being can take advantage of—of his advantages. In this case, that—that—the Negro boy was faster on his feet than the white boy. That is because maybe the Negro boy had brought something from Africa, when he had to be pretty quick on his feet in the rain forest to stay alive. The white boy had a tradition of an aristocracy in which God had protected him. He could afford to be a little slow, though if they were put in [...] [gap in tape] [for a second], I don't think anyone could say that the Negro boy would've been faster then than the white boy. Once the white boy realized that the old, secure condition was gone, then he had to be pretty quick on his feet, too. Though my thought is that—that everybody can't handle freedom if he had it, but that anyone should have the chance, the freedom to see just how good he can be and whether he's white or black. That he won't fail because he is black. That he will fail because it was in—inherent in him not to cope with freedom. He, whether he was white or black, had no business with freedom.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, in Sartoris, you sort of skipped over one generation of the Sartoris family between the old Bayard and the young Bayard. Is there any reason for that?

William Faulkner: Dramatically, yes. Dramatically, there was no—well, the twins' father didn't have a story. He came at a—a period in history which—which, in this country, people thought of and think of now as a peaceful one. That it was an optimistic one. Nothing was happening. There would be little brush-fire wars that nobody paid much attention to. The country was growing. The time of—of travail and struggle where the hero came into his own had passed. From '70 on to 1912, '14, nothing happened to Americans to speak of, and this John Sartoris, the father, lived in that time when there was nothing that brought the issue to him to be—be brave and strong or dramatic—well, call it dramatic, not brave, but dramatic. Nothing happened to him. But he had to be there for the simple continuity of the family.

Frederick Gwynn: And yet if you thought of a story some time about that—that father, something that he could have done, you would have a right to—to give it to him, wouldn't you?

William Faulkner: Sure, he's already on record, and he's—he's in—in my stable, too. I can run him any time I find— [audience laughter]

Joseph Blotner: Sir?

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Joseph Blotner: Sir, did any of the three manuscripts you burned relate to that period?

William Faulkner: No, no. None of them did.

Irby Cauthen: Mr. Faulkner, The Unvanquished was published originally as a series of short stories, I believe, and then revised for a novel form. When you were writing those short stories, did you have the idea in mind that these would make a novel eventually, or did they just appear after they appeared in short story form to fit together so naturally that it was necessary to make a novel out of them?

William Faulkner: I saw them as a long series. I had never thought of it in—in terms of a novel, exactly. I realized that they would be too episodic to be what I considered a novel, so I thought of them as a series of stories. That when I got into the first one, I could see two more, but by the time I'd finished the first one, I saw that it was going further than that. And then when I'd finished the fourth one, I had postulated too many questions that I had to answer for my own satisfaction. So the others had to be—the other three or two, whichever it was, had to be written then.

Unidentified participant: Has Hollywood ever expressed any interest in these stories?

William Faulkner: Yes, they—they bought the book. [audience laughter] That is a funny story, too. [audience laughter] A producer named David Selznick bought Gone with the Wind. M-G-M wanted to make it, and he—he wouldn't let M-G-M make it. He wanted to use Gable, who was under contract to M-G-M in it, and they—they wouldn't let him have Gable, and he wouldn't let them have Gone with the Wind. So they bought my book and told him that—that if he didn't let them make Gone with the Wind, they were going to make a Gone with the Wind of their own. They had no intention of making a moving picture out of my book. [audience laughter] And so Selznick let them make the picture. [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: I'm interested in—in both Sartoris and in The Unvanquished that were—the lines that were always talking about smell. There was lines about the smell of the mules, and about the smell of the verbena, and people playing tennis were smelly [laughter], and—and things like that. I wondered why you did that all the way through both books.

William Faulkner: I can't say unless maybe smell is—is one of my sharper senses. Maybe it's sharper than sight. There's no reason. There's certainly no deliberate intent. That's a part of the environment which the writer is trying to describe. That to me is—is as noticeable as the ear which hears the—the turns of speech, which could be simply because that's a sharper sense with me than maybe sight or hearing.

Unidentified participant: Might it also be that it's just—just important in setting the picture, and—and you didn't have to talk about the weather. You could just say the—that the smell and the smell [would convey light and heat and] things like that?

William Faulkner: Yes, naturally, because the writer is trying to—to describe the—the particular instance, the scene, so well that anyone will understand it, will see it, and feel it, too, and the writer whose sense of smell is pretty sharp will use smell. Someone who had constant catarrh and couldn't smell at all wouldn't do it, but he wouldn't think of smell because he hadn't—never heard of smell, you might say. That he uses—the writer uses all his senses to create a scene in which the reader will say, "Yes, that's so. I understand. I can see that. I have seen that, too," or if the sense of smell is strong, "Yes, I've smelled that, too." That's not really a—a trick at all. It's—the end is the same as though it were a trick. It's simply the writer is using all his—all the pressure, all the gasoline and gas he's got to create a—a scene which the reader will understand and feel, too.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner?

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Do you still write poetry at all?

William Faulkner: No, sir, I had sense enough to learn young [audience laughter] that I would be a bad poet and stopped. To me, there're no degrees of poetry. It's either good poetry or it's trash, and I couldn't write good poetry, so I quit.

Unidentified participant: Sir, are you currently writing a novel?

William Faulkner: No writer ever really quits. He might think that he's taking a vacation from it, but he's—he's not. It's—it's stewing and going on up here all the time, and—and when he runs out of something to do and gets bored, he'll sit down and go to work on it. As I get old, I—it's easier and easier for me not to write, but in time I'll get bored, and I'll go back to work again or the demon will begin to [spur it out].

Unidentified participant: Sir, especially in The Unvanquished and also in your other novels there seems to be a general loosening of tradition or a sort of rapid progress coming forth. What characters, in general, what types of people in your novels, do you think respond best to the progress?

William Faulkner: They respond in different ways. The Snopes have responded to it and have coped with it pretty well. I would say the one that is least troubled by change was the sewing-machine agent Ratliff, that he had accepted a—a change in culture, a change in environment, and he has suffered no anguish, no grief from it. In—for that reason, he's in favor of change, because it's motion, and it's the world as he knows it, and he's—he's never one to say, "I—I wish I had been born a hundred years ago," or "I'm sorry I was born now and couldn't have put it off a hundred years." Ratliff will take what's now and do the best he can with it because he is—possesses what you might call a—a moral, spiritual eupepsia, that his digestion is good, all right, nothing alarms him.

Unidentified participant: When you speak of a man in motion, do you think that that person who moves along with it is apt to be the most successful or—?

William Faulkner: Well, he—he might have more peace. He may not be more successful. By a man in motion, I meant simply that motion is life, that—that man, if he's alive, he is in motion, and whether you like where he's going or not, your only alternative is stasis or death, and the choice which Ratliff had no trouble making is, "Either—either I will take this or nothing, and I would prefer this to nothing, that I'd prefer breathing to not breathing." But success—it would depend on what anyone means by success. Maybe Ratliff never used that term to himself at all, but probably he was, in own lights, quite successful. That is, he wanted—

[end of recording]