General Public

DATE: 23 May 1958

OCCASION: General Public, 4 p.m., 202 Rouss Hall

TAPE: T-145c

LENGTH: 33:04

READING: From The Sound and the Fury

Play the full recording:

Joseph Blotner: It's with pleasure that I make this introduction today because it's always a pleasure for me to introduce and for all of us to hear our speaker, but it's with regret, too, because this is our last session today. It's our last session with the world's greatest living novelist and with our own Writer-in-Residence, who today will read from the book he has referred to as his favorite, The Sound and the Fury. He'll read from Dilsey's section, and at the conclusion of his reading, he will answer such questions as you care to put to him. I'll resist at this time all temptations to quote lines of poetry, to say ave atque vale or anything of that sort, because we hope to see him again and again in Charlottesville in the years to come. Mr. William Faulkner. [applause]

William Faulkner: Since this is my last day here in my sojourn as Writer-in-Residence, I could use this last hour to try to say thank you to the people of Albemarle County and Charlottesville and the University for making my stay here this pleasant and this happy. I won't do that. I won't even say goodbye. Every individual is the sum total of his past, so when I leave here, I will leave something of Faulkner in Albemarle County, where Faulkner was happy. When I go away, I will take with me something of Albemarle County. I will always come back so that those two separates can be joined again. I won't need to say goodbye. And each time I come back, I'll be saying, "Much obliged."

William Faulkner:

The road rose again, to a scene like a painted backdrop. Notched into a cut of red clay crowned with oaks the road appeared to stop short off, like a cut ribbon. Beside it a weathered church lifted its crazy steeple like a painted church, and the whole scene was as flat and without perspective as a painted cardboard set upon the ultimate edge of the flat earth, against the windy sunlight of space and April and a midmorning filled with bells. Toward the church they thronged with slow sabbath deliberation, the women and children went on in, the men stopped outside and talked in quiet groups until the bell ceased ringing. Then they too entered.
The church had been decorated, with sparse flowers from kitchen gardens and hedgerows, and with streamers of colored crepe paper. Above the pulpit hung a battered Christmas bell, the accordion sort that collapses. The pulpit was empty, though the choir was already in place, fanning themselves although it was not warm.

William Faulkner:

Most of the women were gathered on one side of the room. They were talking. Then the bell struck one time and they dispersed to their seats and the congregation sat for an instant, expectant. The bell struck again one time. The choir rose and began to sing and the congregation turned its head as one as six small children—four girls with tight pigtails bound with small scraps of cloth like butterflies, and two boys with close napped heads—entered and marched up the aisle, strung together in a harness of white ribbons and flowers, and followed by two men in single file. The second man was huge, of a light coffee color, imposing in a frock coat and white tie. His head was magisterial and profound, his neck rolled above his collar in rich folds. But he was familiar to them, and so the heads were still reverted when he had passed, and it was not until the choir ceased singing that they realised that the visiting clergyman had already entered, and when they saw the man who—who had preceded their minister enter the pulpit still ahead of him an indescribable sound went up, a sigh, a sound of astonishment and disappointment.

William Faulkner:

The visitor was undersized, in a shabby alpaca coat. He had a wizened black face like a small, aged monkey. And all the while that the choir sang again and while the six children rose and sang in thin, frightened, tuneless whispers, they watched the insignificant looking man sitting dwarfed and countrified by the minister's imposing bulk, with something like consternation. They were still looking at him with consternation and unbelief when the minister rose and introduced him in rich, rolling tones whose very unction served to increase—increase the visitor's insignificance.
"En dey brung dat all de way fum Saint Looey," Frony whispered.
"I've knowed de Lawd to use cuiser tools den dat," Dilsey said. "Hush, now," she said to Ben. "Dey fixin to sing again in a minute."

William Faulkner:

When the visitor rose to speak he sounded like a white man. His voice was level and cold. It sounded too big to have come from him and they listened at first through with curiosity, as they would have to a monkey talking. They began to watch him as they would a man on a tight rope. They even forgot his insignificant appearance in the virtuosity with which he ran and poised and swooped upon the cold inflectionless wire of his voice, so that at last, when with a sort of swooping glide he came to rest again beside the reading desk with one arm resting upon it at shoulder height and his monkey body as reft of all motion as a mummy or an emptied vessel, the congregation sighed as if it waked from a collective dream and moved a little in its seats. Behind the pulpit the choir fanned steadily. Dilsey whispered, "Hush, now. Dey fixin to sing in a minute."

William Faulkner:

Then a voice said, "Brethren."
The preacher had not moved. His arm lay yet across the desk, and he still held that pose while the voice died in sonorous echoes between the walls. It was as different as day and dark from his former tone, with a sad, timbrous quality like an alto horn, sinking into their hearts and speaking there again when it had ceased in fading and cumulate echoes.
"Brethren and sisteren," it said again. The preacher removed his arm and he began to walk back and forth before the desk, his hands clasped behind him, a meagre figure, hunched over upon itself like that of one long immured in striving with the implacable earth, "I got the recollection and the blood of the Lamb!" He tramped steadily back and forth beneath the twisted paper and the Christmas bell, hunched, his hands clasped behind him. He was like a worn small rock whelmed by the successive waves of his voice. With his body he seemed to feed that voice that, succubus like, had fleshed its teeth in him. And the congregation seemed to watch with its own eyes while the voice consumed him, until he was nothing and they were nothing and there was not even a voice but instead their hearts were speaking to one another in chanting measures beyond the need for words, so that when he came to rest again against the reading desk, his monkey face lifted and his whole attitude that of a serene, tortured crucifix that transcended its shabbiness and insignificance and made it of no moment, a long moaning expulsion of breath rose from them, and a woman's—woman's single soprano: "Yes, Jesus!"

William Faulkner:

As the scudding day passed overhead the dingy windows glowed and faded in ghostly retrograde. A car passed along the road outside, laboring in the sand, died away. Dilsey sat bolt upright, her hand on Ben's knee. Two tears slid down her fallen cheeks, in and out of the myriad coruscations of immolation and abnegation and time.
"Brethren," the minister said in a harsh whisper, without moving.
"Yes, Jesus!" the woman's voice said, hushed yet.
"Breddren en sistuhn!" His voice rang again, with the horns. He moved his arm and stood erect and raised his hands. "I got de ricklickshun en de blood of de Lamb!" They did not mark just when his intonation, his pronunciation, became negroid, they just sat swaying a little in their seats as the voice took them into itself.
"When de long, cold—Oh, I tells you, breddren, when de long, cold. . . . I sees de light en I sees de word, po sinner! Dey passed away in Egypt, de swingin chariots; de generations passed away. Wus a rich man: whar he now, O breddren? Wus a po man: whar he now, O sistuhn? Oh I tells you, ef you aint got de milk en de dew of de old salvation when de long, cold years rolls away!"
"Yes, Jesus!"

William Faulkner:

"I tells you, breddren, en I tells you, sistuhn, dey'll come a time. Po sinner sayin Let me lay down wid de Lawd, lemme lay down my load. Den whut Jesus gwine say, O breddren? O sistuhn? Is you got de ricklickshun en de Blood of de Lamb? Case I aint gwine load down heaven!"
He fumbled in his coat and took out a handkerchief and mopped his face. A low concerted sound rose from the congregation: "Mmmmmmmmmmmmm!" The woman's voice said, "Yes, Jesus! Jesus!"
"Breddren! Look at dem—dem little chillen settin dar. Jesus wus like dat once. He mammy suffered de glory en de pangs. Sometime maybe she helt him at de nightfall, whilst de angels singin him to sleep; maybe she look out de do en see de Roman po-lice passin." He tramped back and forth, mopping his face. "Listen, breddren! I sees de day. Ma'y settin in de do wid Jesus on her lap, de little Jesus. Like dem chillen dar, de little Jesus. I hears de angels singin de peaceful songs en de glory; I sees de closin eyes; sees Mary jump up, sees de sojer face: We gwine to kill! We gwine to kill! We gwine to kill yo little Jesus! I hears de weepin en de lamentation of de po mammy widout de salvation en de word of God!"

William Faulkner:

"Yes Jesus! Little Jesus!" and another voice, rising:
"I sees, O Jesus! Oh I sees!" and still another, without words, like bubbles rising in water.
"I sees hit, breddren! I sees hit! Sees de blastin, blindin sight! I sees Calvary, wid de sacred trees, sees de thief en de murderer en de least of dese; I hears de boastin en de braggin: Ef you be Jesus, lif up yo tree en walk! I hears de wailin of women en de evenin lamentations; I hears de weepin en de cryin en de turned-away face of God: dey done kilt Jesus; dey done kilt my Son!"
"Jesus! I sees, O Jesus!"
"O blind sinner! Breddren, I tells you; sistuhn, I says to you, when de Lawd did turn His mighty face, say, Aint gwine overload heaven! I can see de widowed God shet His do; I sees de whelmin flood roll between; I sees de darkness en de death everlastin upon de generations. Den, lo! Breddren! Yes, breddren! Whut I see? Whut I see, O sinner? I sees de resurrection en de light; sees de meek Jesus sayin Dey kilt me dat ye shall live again; I died dat dem whut sees en believes shall never die. Breddren, O breddren! I sees de doom crack en hears de golden horns shoutin down de glory, en de arisen dead whut got de blood en de ricklickshun of de Lamb!"
In the midst of the voices and the hands Ben sat, rapt in his sweet blue gaze. Dilsey sat bolt upright beside, crying rigidly and quietly in the annealment and the blood of the remembered Lamb.

William Faulkner:

As they walked through the bright noon, up the sandy road with the dispersing congregation talking easily again group to group, she continued to weep, unmindful of the talk.
"He sho a preacher, mon! He didn't look like much at first, but hush!"
"He seed de power en de glory."
"Yes, suh. He seed hit. Face to face he seed hit."
Dilsey made no sound, her face did not quiver as the tears took their sunken and devious courses, walking with her head up, making no effort to dry them away even.
"Whyn't you quit dat, mammy?" Frony said. "Wid all dese people lookin. We be passin white folks soon."
"I've seed de first en de last," Dilsey said. "Never you mind me."
"First en de last whut?" Frony said.
"Never you mind," Dilsey said. "I seed de beginnin, en now I sees de endin."

William Faulkner: Any question, from anyone?

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner?

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Do you think that there's a particular order in which your works should be read [...]? Many people have offered a sequence. Do you think there's a particular sequence that your books should be read in?

William Faulkner: Probably to begin with a book called Sartoris. That has the germ of my apocrypha in it. A lot of the characters are postulated in that book. I'd say that's a good one to begin with.

Unidentified participant: Is the present movie a compilation of various episodes in different novels? For in—I'm thinking of the horse particularly. Did that come from the "Spotted Horses," that's so much like it?

William Faulkner: I don't know, ma'am, because I'm not a moving picture-goer. I haven't seen [the movie]. [audience laughter] I really don't know. My experience with moving pictures is that they have almost any reason for buying the book except to make it. [audience laughter] I remember M-G-M bought a book of mine called The Unvanquished. They were stories of the Civil War. I found out later that a producer named Selznick had bought Gone With the Wind, and he wanted to use Clark Gable in the picture, but Clark Gable belonged to M-G-M, and M-G-M wouldn't let Mr. Selznick have Clark Gable unless Mr. Selznick let M-G-M make the picture, which Mr. Selznick wouldn't do, so M-G-M hunted around for another book to buy of the Civil War to tell Mr. Selznick they were going to make a GoneWith the Wind themselves if he didn't let them make his, so they bought my book with no intention of making it. [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: I just wanted to ask you—[out of your answer] [...] during the previous [...] year, it came out that you don't take full responsibility for your characters. As if the created art with you was something unconscious, not a willful act?

William Faulkner: I didn't make that statement clear. What I said was that I'm not responsible for the ideas and opinions that my characters express. [audience laughter] I assume responsibility for the people, but they have their own ideas and opinions that I don't always agree with. [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: What is the reason that this book from which you read is your favorite [novel]?

William Faulkner: I think that—that no writer is ever quite satisfied with—with the book. That's why he writes another one. That he is trying to put on paper something that is going to be a little better than anybody else has put on paper up to date, and this is my favorite one because I worked the hardest on it, not to accomplish what I hoped to do with it, but I anguished and—and raged over it more than over any other to try to make something out of it, that it was impossible for—for me to do. It's the same feeling that the parent may have toward the—the incorrigible or the abnormal child, maybe.

Unidentified participant: Has Requiem for a Nun ever been acted on the stage?

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am. It's been knocking around Europe for the last six or seven years. It has been in every language until last fall it was three weeks at the Court Theater in London. It will be in—in New York this fall.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, I have been trying to trace a tradition in your work, and I'm curious to know whether you read Sir Walter Scott to any extent in the time previous to writing your novels.

William Faulkner: Yes'm, I did. I read everything I could get my hands on without any discretion or judgment at one time, [audience laughter] and I'm sure that everything I've read from the telephone book up has influenced what I've done since. [audience laughter] I think that's true of any writer.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Your books have been compared to Bach's fugues. Do you objectively plan out that they're going to have that [...] effect or does it just come naturally?

William Faulkner: Well, it's—it's not quite planned because probably I am not capable of that, but I think that there's too much work goes into—to any book to call it a natural process. But as—about reading, any experience the writer has ever suffered is going to influence what he does, and that is not only what he's read, but the music he's heard, the pictures he's seen, and it wasn't that I went to Bach to—to get myself out of a—a—a jam in the work, but probably what I had heard of Bach—at the moment when I needed to use counterpoint, there it was.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: How do you arrive at names for your characters?

William Faulkner: The only rule is to do the best you can not to use the name of—of any living person because you'll spend the next ten or fifteen dollars in stamps explaining that you didn't mean so and so. [audience laughter] Characters quite often name themselves just like the story itself will select its own title. Some people, to me, look and behave just like their names. But—that is, I don't remember that I ever any trouble trying to get a name for a character. I never had to—to look through city directories for names. The—the people themselves said, "I'm going to be named so and so."

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: What is the immediate stimulus that makes you write?

William Faulkner: Oh, it's a demon. [audience laughter] I don't know where it came from. I think every artist has got one.

Unidentified participant: Do you think—what I'm trying[...] . [audience laughter] [...]. Do you—do you think before you write or do you write— [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: Well, I'm glad you stopped there. Thank you. [audience laughter] Did—I think I know what you mean by the stimulus. It's—you're alive in the world. You see man. You have an insatiable curiosity about him, but more than that you have an admiration for him. He is frail and fragile, a web of flesh and bone and mostly water. He's flung willy nilly into a ramshackle universe stuck together with electricity. [audience laughter] The problems he faces are always a little bigger than he is, and yet, amazingly enough, he copes with them, not individually but—but as a race. He endures. He's outlasted dinosaurs. He's outlasted atom bombs. He'll outlast communism. Simply because there's some part in him that keeps him from ever knowing that he's whipped, I suppose. That as frail as he is, he—he lives up to his codes of behavior. He shows compassion when there's no reason why he should. He's braver than he should be. He's more honest. The writer is—is so interested, he sees this as so amazing and—and you might say so beautiful. Anyway, it—it's so moving to him that he wants to put it down on paper or in music or on canvas, that he simply wants to isolate one of these instances in which man—frail, foolish man—has acted miles above his head in some amusing or dramatic or tragic way. Anyway, some gallant way. That, I suppose, is the incentive to write, apart from it being fun. I sort of believe that is the reason that people are artists. It's—it's the most satisfying occupation man has discovered yet, because you never can quite do it as well as you want to, so there's always something to wake up tomorrow morning to do. You're never bored. You never reach satiation.

Unidentified participant: Sir, are there particular reasons why you do not go to the movies? [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: Yes, sir. They come at the wrong time of day. [audience laughter] That's the time of day I like to have two or three drinks and eat supper and then sit down and smoke and read. If the—if they had moving pictures—well, I don't know, I'd have something else better to do any time of day. [audience laughter] I think maybe I'd rather read it than listen to it. I'd rather read Shakespeare than see his plays.

Unidentified participant: Would that apply to drama, too?

William Faulkner: Yes, sir. I—I can count on my thumbs the plays I've seen in my life, [audience laughter] and that's—one is Ben Hur. The other is—was East Lynne. [audience laughter] I reckon I was eight, nine years old. I remember Ben Hur because it had live horses [in it] and a camel. I'd never seen a camel before. [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, are there things you can know about the world that scientists can't, you as an artist?

William Faulkner: No, I think that—that the sort of facts a scientist knows no artist is really interested in. That his interest is in the simple, eternal, fundamental truths of man's behavior, not the facts of—of his behavior nor the facts he lives among. That the—the writer is—is—has no concern with facts. He's a congenital liar to begin with. That's why they call it fiction. [audience laughter] That he makes his own facts just to suit whatever phase of—of the eternal truth he is trying to make dramatic.

Unidentified participant: Have you ever been called a humorist?

William Faulkner: I think some of the things I write is funny. [audience laughter] I don't know [...].

Unidentified participant: Sir, how do you—how do you organize your—your novels? Do you have any outline or do you just begin writing it?

William Faulkner: There's no rules for that. Occasionally, one is—is complete before you begin it, which is tour de force, but most of them begin with some incident in which man is acting in that gallant way despite his fragility. Others begin with a character who has in himself the seed of tragedy. After that, the—all the writer has to do is to run along behind with a notebook and put down what they say and do. They've taken charge by then—by then.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: What emotion is the most difficult to describe? [...]?

William Faulkner: Why, if you will agree that the writer is never quite satisfied with—with anything he does, then none of them are difficult or none of them are easy. That emotion—the emotion the character shows is simply one of the—the tools in the craftsman's toolbox, and when he needs to show anger, he can always steal from somebody else that has shown anger and copy it. If he believes in his characters enough, and they themselves have stood up on their own hind legs and begun to move, then all he has to do is just put down what they say and do, that he doesn't have to—to create emotional states for them. They're doing that. He just is the stenographer.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: [...] [go back,]. I'm going to say the sentence structure is different in the later books than in the earlier ones. Is that by intention or just an evolution in style?

William Faulkner: I prefer to think that—that no writer has got time to be too concerned with style, that he is simply telling this dramatic instance in the most effective way he knows, that the book, the story, creates its own style. Long and involved sentences—I don't like them any—any more than the people that have to read them do, but I couldn't think of any, to me, better, more effective, way to tell what I was trying to tell. And it's not really an evolution, simply that—that one story in my opinion demanded, compelled a certain diction and style. The story next to it has compelled a completely different one.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Going back to the movies, do you mind that they buy your movie and then treat it in an entirely different way from the way you would want it to be treated?

William Faulkner: Well, I wouldn't have any wants in the matter. I have done the best I could with that book myself. It wasn't quite as good as I thought it was going to be, and I'm convinced that nobody can else improve on it, [audience laughter] and every now and then I like a little money myself, [audience laughter] and so they are welcome to do whatever they want to because they can't really think of that book as I wrote it.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: It occurs to me that as Writer-in-Residence we are making you look for—backwards instead of forwards. We are making you analyze what you've already done. Has this affected your writing career?

William Faulkner: I think as long as the demon's on my back, nothing can affect my writing career. I think that—that it—it pleases anyone to find that there are enough people who are moved or entertained by what he did to where they will—will come in a group like this asking questions. It may be that that's a poor habit for an—an aged writer like me to form, that he will get to where he'd rather talk to folks than to go home and work. [audience laughter] In that way, it may damage his work a little, but I suspect that—that when the writer's young and still hot, he's not going to become Writer-in-Residence, [anyway]. He's too busy. That when he begins to scrape the bottom of the barrel, then he can [audience laughter] become a philosopher and a sage, but—

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, you would—do you prefer to create a mood rather than a plot when writing?

William Faulkner: I am simply writing about people. I have taken man in one of his amazing victories and have tried to put it down on paper. If it takes plot to do that, then I will—will borrow a plot from somebody. There ain't but two or three plots, you know. [audience laughter] If—if it takes a mood, then I will hunt around to where somebody's written the sort—in memory, I mean—where somebody has portrayed that mood, and I will borrow from him.

Unidentified participant: [Then] you are writing an emotion, not—?

William Faulkner: I'm writing about people. Man involved in the human dilemma, facing the problems bigger than he, whether he licks them or whether they lick him. But man as frail and fragile as he is, yet he will keep on trying to be brave and honest and compassionate, and that, to me, is very fine and very interesting, and that is the reason I think any writer writes. He's not trying to write [style]. He's not trying to—to uplift, to deliver a message. He is simply writing about a man in the infinite mutations of—of man's capacity.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Tanner Hunt: Would you make a sort of general statement about the seed of tragedy as found in the hero of All the King's Men by Mr. Warren?

William Faulkner: I don't know that book. I—I read a—a story that was—was inside the story of—of a man named Cass [something]. That was the best part of that book. As far as I'm concerned, he can throw the rest of the book away, but that is a very fine story. So I can't speak about that book. I—I didn't read it with—with enough attention to—to remember it, only that story of the man Cass, I believe.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, do the critics bother you in any way or change the tenor or direction of your thinking or actions?

William Faulkner: I don't read critics. I'd rather read imaginary fiction. [audience laughter] I'm not a—

[end of recording]