Writing and Literature Classes, tape 1

DATE: 2 May 1958

OCCASION: Frederick Gwynn's Undergraduate Class in Contemporary American Literature, John Coleman's Undergraduate Class in Writing, Gwynn's Graduate Class in American Fiction, 4 p.m., 202 Rouss Hall

TAPE: T-143a

LENGTH: 32:15

Play the full recording:

Frederick Gwynn: Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Faulkner is generously with us once again. On two levels, one that came up last week when a young Polish visitor to the United States came up to the fifth floor of Cabell Hall with a translation, a Polish translation, of Mr. Faulkner's The Wild Palms. I suppose it has some—emphasizes—or it was published because of the theme of the difficulty of love in a capitalist society, but it shows the—once again, the extent of Mr. Faulkner's current influence. On the other hand, a colleague, Mr. Blotner, as a matter of fact, reports that at the—during the comprehensives last week, an English major—one boy identified the novel The Town as simply "novel, twentieth century, by our own Mr. William Faulkner." So we run between these two extremes of local pride and international pride. And I think that may set the tone for the kind of questions we are allowed to ask Mr. Faulkner, i.e. anything. Mr. Faulkner.

William Faulkner: Would it be better if I stood up like this?

Moderator: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner—

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Is David Hogganbeck in "A Courtship" an ancestor of Boon Hogganbeck in "The Bear"?

William Faulkner: Yes, that would be Boon's grandfather, probably. 1812 to—yes that would be Boon's grandfather.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, in Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson has a section in there on Jesse Bentley that doesn't seem connected with the rest of the book as much as the other chapters. That is, none of the people in there knew George Willard. There's been criticism of this. Would you care to comment on that [as it stands]—maybe your fourth section of "The Bear," seems to bear a relation on the past to the present whereas—is there much as much of a relationship in this section of Winesburg, Ohio?

William Faulkner: I'm sure there was in Mr. Anderson's concept of it. I think the writer looks on his work as an entity, that it has got to—to please him by its completeness, its wholeness. What seems extraneous to somebody else, to him may seem completely necessary, that without that even though it might have been—been out of—out of tune almost, was necessary to the—the work as a whole, an entity. And I'm sure that Mr. Anderson felt that his book without that was not finished, not complete. That it wasn't intact.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, Malcolm Cowley has written that not one of your characters exercises the faculty of conscious choice between good and evil, that they seem to be haunted, obsessed and driven—or driven by some kind of destiny. Do you think that's a valid statement?

William Faulkner: Yes, it is quite valid, in—in the sense that—that anyone who reads a—a book or story gives something to that—something of himself to that book or that story. It takes that. The—the—the man that wrote it offers a [concept]. That is, he offers his own opinion, which is his own concept of a fundamental truth. Someone else sees it, sees the same fundamental truth, but he adds something to it. If the—the critic is—is intelligent, is sympathetic and is quite honest, of course, his criticism, even though I might not agree with it, is valid. And I think the writer's not the one to say that it's wrong simply because he doesn't agree with it. Mr. Cowley may be right. I don't think he is, but I'm not the one to say that he's wrong just because we don't agree. But at least he brought enough attention and sympathy to the book to have a sound or valid opinion of it, which is certainly what the critic should do. Not to write what the critic's own clients expect to hear from him the next time he reviews a book, but to give his concept of a piece of work, a work of art.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Joseph Blotner: Sir, in As I Lay Dying, do you conceive of Darl as having more than one reason for burning the barn where his—his mother's body is being stored for the night?

William Faulkner: He probably did. Darl was mad. His reasons are—would be completely valid reasons if you accept his premise. It's like the—the man that—that sits on a—a plank full of tacks looks insane until you find out he thinks he's Gandhi. Darl could have had our reasons and his own mad reasons for what he did. Could have had any number of reasons. The—the—the sane reason might be to—to efface a [...], but his own reasons, we don't know what they might be because he was mad.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, some of the prose writers in this so-called San Francisco renaissance that's going on now feel that the novel form as a type is archaic and that it won't make any progress until they can get rid of the discipline imposed by simple grammar, punctuation, the language in general. I wonder how you'd react to this idea [of theirs].

William Faulkner: I think the—the manner, the method is—is not too important. The writer is simply trying to arrest in one dramatic moment an instant of man's struggle within the human dilemma. I think that he should use whatever method seems the best to him to do that. But I don't think that because he believes that—that his method is the best one that all other methods are bad. And I think that if anyone is going to waste his time trying to abolish the—the form of the novel, then he's not going to get much good work done. To use whatever form is—comes to hand that does his job. If it's a moving picture camera, use that. If he'd rather use paint, use that. If he'd rather—if he thinks he can do it better with sign language, assuming that he can communicate with enough readers, use that. I imagine that any form is—is going to change, but I don't think that—that we will see the time when folks will get rid of grammar and punctuation.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: You use the term human dilemma. What do you describe as a human dilemma?

William Faulkner: The environment in which man, frail and fragile, with all his impulses, his lusts, greeds, also his conscience, whatever it is that makes him want to be better than he is and makes him, even when he's responsible for it, hate the condition in which the weak suffer and anyone is hungry [which will always occur]. That he would like to alter that. He hasn't been able to so far, yet he doesn't quit trying. His dilemma is to—to arrange the world in which he lives, in which he—and where he came without any—any choice, into a condition in which he can get the most for his money, you might say. His dilemma is his struggle with his own nature against his conscience. Call that God or whatever you like. But whatever it is that—that makes man want to be better than he is and that he is afraid he may be able to be. That he wants to be braver than he is afraid he might be. He wants to be more honest than he's afraid he might be able to be. And he wants—wants peace. He wants happiness, what he calls happiness. And his dilemma is his struggle and striving to get that.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: I—in The Sound and the Fury, Mr. Faulkner, Jason Compson [...] is one of your most memorable characters. To me, he is one of the meanest, orneriest people who I have ever conceived of. Now, if it's not a personal question, have you ever known anyone who was anywhere near as mean and as hateful as Jason Compson?

William Faulkner: I hope I haven't. No writer worth his salt is going to believe that anybody can create better people than—than he can, more villainous or more saintly. And so I prefer to believe that there ain't anybody quite that bad because I would have lost the trick. [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: [I have found that] a number of characters, particularly in Absalom, Absalom! and The Sound and the Fury, have a great obsession with time and through their conception of time which often tends—to define their characters. In other words, an obsession with the past or with the future or—or placing time altogether out of the [...] as the sum of their characters, their—their—their own characters to their own detriment. And that Dilsey, perhaps, and Lena, who approach time in a cyclical order, and therefore have been able to make more order out of their lives. Perhaps I have [that in] an inverted order, but I wonder if you would—if you would comment on that.

William Faulkner: Well, of course a part of—of man's dilemma, the individual dilemma, is that man, individual man, is the victim of his past. Actually there's—there's no such thing as "me," probably, that I am a conglomeration of a lot of "us." Probably a great deal of—of man's behavior is from a pattern that was fixed long before he entered it. He inherited it, that he can't help doing some of the thing he does. He can't help his—his attitude toward that that he—he has. He—he might be educated out of them. I think that the—the wise person—I mean wise in the sense that Dilsey was wise, to do the best she could with what she had, she would know by instinct that she must—must abolish the past. That she must accept—accept "now," and accept the—the moment in which "now" becomes "will be." That she must be intact in "now" rather than to have one foot inside "now," and the rest of—of the body in "yesterday," if she is to cope with environment. I don't know whether that makes any clearer what you asked or not. Does it?

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, I have two questions about your short story, "Lo!" And the first one is what is the relation of the chief, Francis Weddell, to the Indians which we see in "A Courtship" or "Red Leaves" [...]?

William Faulkner: Simply another—another clan. They were the same Chickasaw people. That was just another clan. They may have been related by marriage, even by blood, but they had begun to take white names by that time. When—as they became plantation owners and held U.S. commissions. But he was—belonged to the same lot of people as Issetibbeha and his descendants.

Unidentified participant: Well, Mr. Faulkner could you tell me when Weddell takes his Chickasaws to Washington, takes his nephews and besieges the president, whether this is just the action of a naive savage or whether he, all the time, is planning on getting the best of the President?

William Faulkner: I think that required a great deal of shrewdness, that he was no longer in a position to take his spears and bows and arrows and his warriors and go there and get what he wanted, so he used the white man's tactics. I think that he was pretty shrewd about that, that he just behaved in a naive and innocent way, but he wasn't. That he had—had abolished the past and had taught himself pretty fast to cope with "now," with environment.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, I have a couple of questions about The Sound and the Fury. The first one, is Quentin the daughter of Dalton Ames. Do you remember that?

William Faulkner: Yes.

Unidentified participant: She is?

William Faulkner: Yes.

Unidentified participant: And the second one, how do you think Quentin would have turned out if Jason wouldn't have been hounding her the all the time? Would she have turned out well or [...]?

William Faulkner: I don't know. That whole family was against her. I doubt if any child as insecure as she was—to know, suspect that she was—was insecure, could have coped with that family of adults, with nobody to defend her except the Negro woman. Probably she was—was doomed in any environment she would have found herself in.

Unidentified participant: I had the impression that she would have turned out fine if it hadn't have been for Jason.

William Faulkner: I can't say. I'm—I'm inclined to think that she was doomed, that no matter what the environment would have been, she was still doomed. That's certainly poetically necessary in the book, that she be. That was the reason for—part of the reason for her uncle's Quentin's tragedy. I mean the poetic reason, not the actual reason.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: In The Sound and the Fury you said that Maury Compson's name was changed to Benjamin. You mention it a number of times [...] various places in the book. What was the purpose of changing his name and why—what was the importance of [the change] [...]?

William Faulkner: Maury was his mother's brother, the only brother, and they were a proud named family. This child was given that proud name, and when he began to appear to be an idiot, they didn't want him named Maury, so they changed his name.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Sir, is there anything significance in the fact that at one point in The Sound and the Fury T.P. says that Benjy was not only deaf—dumb but also deaf?

William Faulkner: No, no, Benjy wasn't really deaf, but in T.P.'s concept, if—if—if you're—you're "deaf and dumb," that means you can't talk, and you—you just don't have any sense. And he was saying "You're deaf 'cause you—you won't do what I tell you to do." He didn't mean that Benjy couldn't hear because he knew Benjy could. But that was T.P.'s exasperation with this creature who was bigger than he was and yet was more trouble than an infant.

Frederick Gwynn: Does the name T.P. stand for [anything in particular]?

William Faulkner: No, that was just his name.

Frederick Gwynn: [Was] Versh the same way?

William Faulkner: Versh's name, back in slavery times, had probably been Virgil, and then his people couldn't spell it, and it passed from son to son and finally wound up as Versh. It may have gone from Virgil to Verge, and then it got to be Versh.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner—

William Faulkner: Yes, sir. This gentleman.

Unidentified participant: Sir, in As I Lay Dying which of Addie's children has the most love—love for her and why?

William Faulkner: I would say that Jewel did. That Jewel himself didn't know why he did. He was a—a child of love. That he was illegitimate. And he and his mother were closer. He didn't know why. She did. And I imagine—and also by his—his nature, that he was not the child of—of his shiftless father who loved nothing but his own comfort, that Jewel had inherited something of [warmth] from his—his father.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Joseph Blotner: Sir, we're talking about names. Just as we learn that Eck Snopes is really named Eckrum, is there any longer name for I.O., Mink, and Flem?

William Faulkner: No, that's like T.P.'s name, the I.O. And Mink—Mink was an orphan. He was raised by some kin people, and he himself had never heard himself called anything but Mink. Someone asked him in a—a—a book I'm at now what his name is. He says, "Mink." He says, "Is that all the name you've got?" He says, "That's all I know." And he's asked, "What did your mother call you?" He said, "I don't know. She died." That he—he doesn't know. That's all he's heard cause he's raised—passed from hand to hand, anybody that would feed a—a child like a stray dog.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, would you say a few words about the significance of the Easter service [...] in The Sound and the Fury?

William Faulkner: Only that, at that point, it seemed to me that was needed, just as the—the—the musician will put certain chords or themes or phrases into what he's doing. He himself may not know why. It seems obvious to him that something like that was needed, and that's the best he could do. It may be counterpoint to the—the dreary scene in the house with that selfish woman, the mother, and this child who's taken out of the house to—just so the—the woman—his own mother wouldn't be bad with him is taken to church with these people going—trying to—to follow the—the white man's concept of—of the passion story. For emphasis I suppose.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: [Was—was there resentment among the colored people about] Benjy going to church [with Dilsey]?

William Faulkner: No, no, none whatever.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Sir, at one point in that Easter service, Dilsey mentions that she has seen the beginning and the end. What was it that referred to? Was it religion or is it the family?

William Faulkner: It's the family. She sees that there's doom on the family. There—there may have been one hope—was—was that girl, Quentin. And Quentin is gone. The doom which Dilsey had been fighting against all her life had happened. And she saw the first of it, and she did the best she could, and now she's seen the end. All that remains is an idiot boy that she takes to an Easter service in a Negro church that he can't even understand.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, in As I Lay Dying is there any significance—significance—significance in the fact that Vardaman catches the fish at the beginning, and keeps comparing the death of it to that of his mother rather than it being some other animal, perhaps?

William Faulkner: Yes. That's a question that's a little—little hard for me to answer because anything in the book has some need, more than significance. There was a need, it seemed to me, that that should be there. The connection, I felt, of the transference that the little boy made between the dead fish and the blood and his dead mother was—was an instance of a child's rationalizing, thinking. But there were no symbolism intended there.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Frederick Gwynn: Speaking of symbolism, on the dust jacket of first edition of The Sound and the Fury two figures seem to be wrestling: a black one is pinning down a whiter one. Do you recall who the artist was and whether anything particular was intended?

William Faulkner: No I don't. I don't know who did that. Of course the—the—the symbolism was simply the powers of—of darkness and of light wrestling, struggling. I don't know whose idea that jacket was or who did it.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, the title of The Sound and the Fury is taken from Macbeth's speech, [isn't it]?

William Faulkner: Yes, yes. There must have—be at least a dozen books named from that one speech.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: It seems that one of the tragedies of Quentin Compson [that] was the greatest is the inability to [view] himself at all in [time]. He has the obsession to begin with, and then [...] confused, and then he battles time altogether, mechanical and natural time, he destroys his clock, and he puts himself in the future and looks back at himself. He's totally confused and yet totally obsessed with time, trying to put it in some rational understanding for himself, and he fails. And I kind of wonder if his—his failure after an attempted intellectual approach, and Dilsey's success [at] more of an emotional approach, which seemed to indicate a [collective] attempt at trying to relate to time, to live with time [from a natural] perspective, cannot be reached in an intellectual, rational manner but more or less comes from an emotional or instinctive [comprehension].

William Faulkner: Remember Quentin was not trying to put time into perspective. He was trying to escape from time into the past. He was trying to escape back into a time when all this which I hate was not. He failed, and so he committed suicide. There was only one more step left to him. He couldn't be alive and escape back before when his sister was pure. And so he had to commit suicide. That was all that remained for him. Dilsey accepted the past, and she didn't waste herself trying to discard it or get away from it. She simply accepted it and said, "All right. So it is. Let's go on. Let's go forward." That time was—was in its perspective, I think, for the both of them, but—but one of them hated "now" and wanted to return to "was," which you can't do because what was, is. There's actually no such thing as "was." As we said any man is the victim of—not only victim, but the sum of his past. He never escapes from it. Quentin wanted to escape back into it.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, how real are the—the—these amorous exploits of Gerald Bland in The Sound and the Fury? Is—is he just bragging, trying to live up to his mother's dramatic conception of him or does he really [...]?

William Faulkner: I suspect that most of them are lies. That he would be like any fictioneer—nothing that happened would be quite as good as what he could imagine. So the—the ones that actually happened would be dull to him. The ones he told about were probably all lies.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Did Quentin, before, actually have a conversation with his father about sleeping with his sister? Or was that part of his [...]?

William Faulkner: He never did. He said, "If I were brave I would—I might say this to my father, whether it was a lie or not." Or—or, "If I were—if I would say this to my father, maybe he could answer me back the magic word which would relieve me of this anguish and agony which I live with." No, they were imaginary. He just said "Suppose I say this to my father. Would it help me?"

[end of recording]