Undergraduate Literature Class

DATE: 1 May 1958

OCCASION: Edward McAleer's Undergraduate Class in Contemporary American Literature, 10 a.m., 337 Cabell Hall

TAPE: T-143d

LENGTH: 22:45

Play the full recording:

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, do you feel that the code of southern chivalry as a broad moral way of life—broad basis for a moral way of life was ever any more than a romantic dream or romantic ideal?

William Faulkner: I would say it was moral standards which man over a long period of time has found to be the best ones for himself and for everyone else, which had got [colored] over with a certain amount of romanticism, and by certain participants in it had come to be accepted—the romanticism I mean—as the most valid part of it. That if you were romantic and gallant about it, it didn't matter whether you were moral about it or not. In that sense it—it was obsolescent, and it's a good thing it is past, but I'm convinced it was based on simple standards of—of good, decent behavior, which would be valid at any time.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Sir, in "The Bear" is there any intended symbolism in Ike McCaslin taking on the profession of carpenter rather than store clerk or—or training—training in some other profession?

William Faulkner: Not symbolism on my part but probably on—on Ike's part, in that the symbols which the writer puts into his work are the same symbols which the reader reads into it. That is, they come from a Christian background. It may be that Ike, without stopping to rationalize it, had deliberately assumed the symbol of—of Christ as a—a protest against an evil which he could not and would not condone. He probably, at that moment, didn't have time to hunt around and say "Oh let's see, what shall I do? I'll do something that Christ did." He just said that "I will—I will become a carpenter." He didn't go through the process of remembering—this was the symbology which he had inherited from the moment his—his mama taught him to say his prayers at night. That was a part of his—his literate background.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Was your purpose in "The Bear" to show the growing up of a boy?

William Faulkner: I'm sorry would you—

Unidentified participant: Was your purpose in "The Bear" to show the growing up of a small boy? How he grew up?

William Faulkner: Not the growing up, but to show a small boy in conflict with the adult world which he would have to cope with. That is, he would have to be a part of it and be a good decent man or it would destroy him. The—the small boy's world is a—is a world of innocence, different from the adult world, and his job is not in putting on inches and—and pounds. It is simply in adapting himself morally and mentally to the adult world which he will have to be a part of, and that to me is—is one of the most interesting phases of man's struggle with the human dilemma, is how the child grows up to cope with the adult world. That to me is always interesting. I've written about that lots of times for that reason. It's how the child grows up and takes the—the knocks and the—the broken head and the skinned knuckles, which he must take to become a man without being destroyed, to bring into the adult world something of the—of the—the child's belief in some innate goodness, or in decency, or in courage, in compassion.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, what do you find that makes people laugh?

William Faulkner: I would like to think it is—is joy in seeing that man really can survive his predicament. His predicament is represented by the—the horrible, the outrageous things that might happen to him, yet he survives them. I would like to think that is what makes people laugh. That it is not to see your—your fellowman slip on a banana peel. It's to see him slip on that banana peel, and yet he survives.

Unidentified participant: I've—I've heard you use the word "fun" several times, [and I wondered what is your] idea of fun?

William Faulkner: Well, fun, let's see if I can define that. In my own case, it is to accomplish something which makes me feel good, which may make somebody else feel good, which won't hurt anybody. Fun is to accomplish something which—which I thought that perhaps I couldn't, that I might not be brave enough or strong enough, and then I do it, and I'm successful. I suppose that everyone has a different notion of what fun means, so I can tell you only what it means to me and what I—when I say that to write for fun—it's to take man's dilemma, the—the old familiar things in which there's nothing new and can't be anything new, and by the—the light of my own experience and imagination and a great deal of hard work to make something which was a little different, which wasn't here yesterday. People write about the same stories because there's so few to write about. But to take one, human beings in the old familiar dilemma and predicament and by the imagination and the hard work to show them in some new interesting, tragic or comical instance of the struggle within the dilemma. That to me is fun. But then so is getting a horse over a fence that I wasn't too sure he could get over, or that I would still be on him, fun.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Is this fun for you right now? [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: Yes. Because I'm still making something which wasn't here yesterday, dealing with—with human beings which are all of you and me and Mr. McAleer in classrooms like this, and then out of this I learn a little more about people, and I would like to think that if some of you here want to write, you may have learned a little more about how the writing gets done by someone who's been at it for thirty years. It doesn't have to be a very great new thing, but something new might come out of it, which is what I mean by the fun of being a writer, that anybody likes to have a captive audience to talk to probably. [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Edward McAleer: You have a great knack for creating atmosphere. Do you have to go about it consciously, as Poe did it, or does it just sort of come naturally?

William Faulkner: Well there's—no writing comes naturally. It's a great deal of concentration and hard work, because one's standards are pretty high. And I don't know, there are probably times when the writer's got to scrabble around and invent, create some atmosphere. The other times when the situation he writes about, the characters in it, create the atmosphere. I think that every writer has sort of a storehouse of what he has read, what he has seen and smelled and heard and remembered. After practice, after a few years of writing, he don't have to go through his files to get what he wants. He sort of reaches one hand behind him and pulls out just what he needs for that moment. Be something that he remembered, the way a bird in a tree looked or sounded, the way an apple tree smelled, the way dirt looked that was just ploughed, and suddenly he's putting that down before he has had time to say, "Now I need to write about how an apple tree smells." He's already done that.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, why do you think that there's so many good writers coming out of the South when there's so few people in the South that like to read literature?

William Faulkner: Probably because the South has the leisure which is the dream of any artist. I think that the—the best thing a nation can do if it really wants peace to devote itself to things of the mind and human spirit is to pick out a good, rich nation, declare war on them and let them—and let themselves get whipped. I think after the North whipped us we had nothing to do but—but to write, paint, so we became writers. The rest of the country was too busy supporting us. [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, I'd like to ask a—a more specific question if I may. In "An Odor of Verbena" I got the impression that Bayard had been rather anticipating a violent death for his father for some time and was braced for it in certain respects. Yet he still had this thing which he was fighting all the way through the story, this "it" as he calls it, "now it can begin again." Exactly what was this feeling he had that he had to fight off before he could [...]

William Faulkner: He anticipated his father's violent death. He also knew that his father represented an obsolescence. That he did not want to participate in that obsolescence. The—the anticipation of his father's death was not the—the—the anguish and grief of the loss. It was the fact that he knew that when that happened, this demand by all his tradition, all his family, his father's new wife and his aunt would demand that he take a gun in his turn and go and shed blood to pay for shed blood. And that he was not going to do that. That's why he hated the moment when his father would meet that end, that violent end, which the boy knew his father would meet. That he would be a pariah to his tradition. That he was not going to take a gun and avenge his father's blood. And that was the "it" that he hated. He didn't dread it. He was going to accept [his fate], but that was what he meant. That even the war had not settled that. To any rational man the lost war should have settled that. Men should have said, "Well, we tried blood, and that didn't work, so let's quit it." But he knew that his father, his father's generation, would not do that. And that he—he believed that he would be the only one he knew that would—would want to accept the future. He probably didn't realize that there were a lot of other young southerners that were willing to accept the future. He thought he would be alone, a pariah to his country, his tradition, his family, his blood, everything.

Unidentified participant: But I believe that his Aunt Jenny who was of his father's generation thought it was all right.

William Faulkner: Yes'm, because as I say, women are adaptable. It's men that—that cling to the old, obsolete ways. Women are adaptable, even a woman as old as Aunt Jenny. That she was—knew that she would apostate to all the family tradition, but she was on the side of the future like the boy was.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, do you think Carson McCullers is going to be [one of the] leading writers in America today?

William Faulkner: That's a—a question that—that is difficult for somebody like me to answer because I don't judge writers. To me the book is the important thing. It don't matter who wrote it. And some people—anyone is going to have bad days when what he writes is not good. The book is important. Who wrote it means nothing. I would say that she's done some—some of the best work in our time, but I won't say that she is the best or the worst writer or number three or number ten.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: As far as your writing is concerned, what are your future plans for the next forty or fifty years?

William Faulkner: Well I intend to keep on writing longer than just forty or fifty years. [audience laughter] It'll take at least a hundred to—for me to get done all I want to write. And I will probably spend that time still trying to make something new which wasn't here yesterday, because writing is—is the one occupation which never bores you because it's—satiation is impossible. You never can quite do what you want to do. If what you want is money, then some day you get all the money you want. You can't do any more with it. But you never get done with the writing because you never quite do it as good as you think, if you live long enough, you can do it tomorrow. That's what I mean by fun. It's the one thing that you can do and never get bored with, never get tired.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Are you writing anything on your stay up in Virginia?

William Faulkner: I think the writer is always cooking something up here. As he gets older, he don't like to sit down and put it on paper. He'd rather loaf or talk to somebody or just sit and smoke. When he gets bored to a certain pitch, he will face the—the job of putting it down on paper, but he never stops inventing and weighing and discarding up here.

Unidentified participant: Have you ever done any painting, Mr. Faulkner?

William Faulkner: Not seriously. Occasionally when something comes to hand or when they're painting barns and stables and things, and I'll get a smooth piece of plank and a knife or something to smear with, and paint mules and people plowing and things like that, but never serious. Dogs in the woods. That sort of thing. Horses.

Unidentified participant: Sir, I believe you took a walking tour through Europe [for a number of days,] and I'm just wondering how much you got out of that in observing people and seeing things in Europe?

William Faulkner: Probably a great deal, though it's impossible to say. I think the writer gets something from every experience. He will store that away, and at need, maybe ten or fifteen or thirty years later, he will find that he needs something that he got then. He is omnivorous and amoral. He will take everything he sees, with no judgment, no discretion. Since that is the—the material that he works from. But no writer can say, I think, just how much he got from what, when.

Unidentified participant: Sir, I'd like to ask you a question about Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. In Winesburg Anderson refers to—almost every character that he refers to is tall. That is, Alice Hindman, Elizabeth Willard and Wash Williams's wife. Is there any reason for this, using tall people, is it some sort of symbolism or—?

William Faulkner: It could be that that was his first book, the first writing he did, and probably more of—of his—his own subconscious wishes appeared in that than would have appeared if he had got in the—the habit of writing and discharging that young, but he was getting along towards forty years old when he wrote that book. He was a—a short man that probably all his boyhood had—had wished he were bigger, so he could fight [better], defend himself. It could be that that is the reason, though it may be that he simply admired tall people, whatever the reason that some people admire tall people. But it's just possible it's because he himself was short. When he was sitting behind a table like this, he looked like a big man, but when he stood up he wasn't. And I think that he maybe would have liked to have been more imposing looking. At that time he didn't realize that probably it's—it's not how high a man is. It's what's in his face that makes him imposing looking.

Edward McAleer: Thank you, Mr. Faulkner. I speak for [all of us.] [applause]

William Faulkner: Thank you. [applause] [background talking]

[end of recording]