Introduction and Contexts

Faulkner in the Late 1950s

FAULKNER IN STOCKHOLM In February 1957, when he arrived in Charlottesville to occupy his position as the University of Virginia’s first Writer-in-Residence, William Faulkner was 59 years old. Over the previous 34 years he had published sixteen novels, five volumes of short stories and about a dozen other books, but had only recently begun to wear the label by which he would often be introduced during his two years at UVA: the country’s – sometimes the world’s – “greatest living novelist.” In 1949 he became just the fourth American author to win a Nobel Prize for Literature; this was his most prestigious honor, but earlier in the same year the American Academy of Arts and Sciences awarded him the Howells Medal for Fiction, and in the next five years he also received two National Book Awards (1951, 1955) and a Pulitzer Prize (1955).

4 MAY 1957 POST COVER After decades of worry about money, during which he repeatedly needed to go to Hollywood to work on salary as a screenwriter, by the mid-Fifties his own fiction had finally made him financially secure; for example, now Hollywood came to him, buying the rights to novels like The Sound and the Fury for much more than they’d ever made as books. (Both The Tarnished Angels, adapted from Pylon, and The Long, Hot Summer, based on The Hamlet, would be released in 1958 during his second UVA term; he was asked to comment on the second Play Clip , but not the first.) Right before he arrived in Charlottesville to begin his first term in residence, Faulkner learned that The Saturday Evening Post had bought the episode from The Town called “The Waifs” for $3000, the largest price he had ever received from a magazine. (In April 1957 he read this story to the Jefferson Society.)

FAULKNER IN JAPAN Faulkner had usually been reluctant to leave Mississippi during the decades in which he wrote most of his Yoknapatawpha fiction, and had to acquire a passport in 1950 to go to Stockholm to accept his Nobel Prize. But in the years after that trip he became something of a frequent flyer: he went to England, France, Norway, Italy, Switzerland, to Egypt, Brazil, Japan and the Philippines, to Iceland. (During the Spring semester, 1957, he became the writer-out-of-residence for two weeks when he traveled to Greece on a State Department sponsored tour that coincided with the opening in Athens of a dramatization of Requiem for a Nun. He was very moved by his experience of Greece Play Clip . At the end of his 1958 term, however, he declined a State Department invitation to travel to the Soviet Union, because, he said, it was a totalitarian state.)

SEPTEMBER 1956 EBONY COVER And if he had earlier seemed reclusive, during the Fifties he decided to play a more public role in the nation’s and his region’s affairs. In 1956 he accepted President Eisenhower’s invitation to be the Chairman of the Writer’s Group in the People-to-People program that the administration launched as a public relations counterattack to what was perceived as the Soviet Union’s international propaganda campaign. He also took it upon himself to speak out about the racial tensions and conflicts that were growing in the South as Jim Crow segregation was being challenged and defended in courtrooms, schools and the streets. From Light in August (1932) to Absalom, Absalom! (1936) to Go Down, Moses (1942) to Intruder in the Dust (1948), his fiction had almost steadily become more preoccupied with the legacy of slavery and the injustices of racism. There are passages in Intruder that some critics have seen as Faulkner using the pages of his novel as a platform from which to directly address to his contemporaries about relations between black and white, and between South and North. Beginning with a letter in 1950 to the Memphis Commercial Appeal about a white man who was convicted but not executed for murdering three black children, Faulkner started speaking in his own name, on his authority as a Mississippian, about civil rights and wrongs. Before taking up his post at Virginia, he published three articles on the issue in national magazines: Life, Harper’s and even Ebony. (His Life piece, “Letter to the North,” was reprinted in a UVA student publication during his first term in residence. During his 30 May 1957 session with the public, a member of his all-white audience asked Faulkner what advice he had given in the Ebony article “to the colored people” about “the way they should act toward integration” Play Clip .) Though his UVA audiences several times raise the topic of race in his work or the Supreme Court’s ruling, it seems to have been entirely Faulkner’s idea to use the pulpit of his residency to speak out about integration. “A Word to Virginians,” delivered on 20 February 1958 at the start of his second term as Writer-In-Residence to about 350 white people, was perhaps the climax of Faulkner’s efforts to influence the course of the Civil Rights Movement. By then the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v Board of Education (1954) had led to an escalating series of confrontations over integrating the schools, Martin Luther King had emerged as the eloquent and determined leader of the forces working for change, and the defense of segregation had provoked more and more extreme measures, from a bombing in Clinton, Tennessee, to Virginia’s plan to close its public schools rather than integrate them. In Faulkner’s various pronouncements on this issue there are occasionally extreme moments too, and 21st century readers will probably see him as a racial conservative, even a racist, but he saw himself as a moderate who knew blacks could no longer be denied their rights as people and citizens but who also knew the white South would resist orders coming from “outlanders,” by which he meant the North Play Clip . Privately during the late-1950s Faulkner helped pay the tuition of two African American students at black colleges. Publically his comments played very little role in the deepening crisis. Northern liberals dismissed them as temporizing apologetics for an indefensible system. But many white Southerners considered them a betrayal of his homeland; even as he was being more acclaimed around the world, he felt increasingly alienated from his neighbors in Oxford, including most of his closest relatives. According to his biographers, his status as almost a pariah in the Deep South probably increased his willingness to say Yes when the UVA English Department invited him to move to Charlottesville, though it may also have made University President Colgate Darden wary about approving that offer.

FAULKNER WITH DAUGHTER AND GRANDSON According to the record, Darden was unenthusiastic about bringing Faulkner to the grounds. Another cause of his uneasiness may have been the writer’s well-founded reputation as a drinker. His only previous invited visit to UVA occurred in 1931, when he was asked to participate in a conference for southern writers; during the conference, whenever Faulkner did show up for a scheduled event, he had been unmistakably, amazingly drunk. He still regularly struggled with his attraction to alcohol. A spree in New York in February 1957 had landed him in the hospital for three days immediately prior to the start of his first term as Writer-in-Residence, and twice during his two semesters at UVA he was similarly hospitalized to recover from the effects of binging. His drinking was one indication of Faulkner’s troubled life during his years here. His daughter Jill was married to a UVA Law student, and the longing he shared with his wife Estelle to be near their first grandchild played a major role in his decision to come to Charlottesville, but inside even this immediate family there were long-standing tensions. Unlike his visit in the Thirties, as Writer-in-Residence Faulkner fulfilled all his duties to the University, including keeping daily office hours and attending and sometimes hosting social functions, but the evidence indicates that despite all the rewards that had finally come to him, in the late Fifties Faulkner was still haunted by the “demon” that, he said, drove every good writer..

DETAIL:  FAULKNER PAPERS PHOTO At the same time, summing up his two terms in his final public event, he says that “Faulkner was happy” living in Charlottesville Play Clip . As Writer-in-Residence, he published The Town in the Spring term, 1957, in time for it to become a topic in some of his UVA sessions, and began writing The Mansion; this third volume of the Snopes trilogy was not completed until his second term was over (it was published in November, 1959). During the two Spring semesters of his official residency, he spoke to at least 37 different audiences – mostly students in classrooms, but also the larger University community and the local public, local high school students, faculty from other colleges, the English Department faculty, the Department of Psychiatry, the wives of Law School students and the press. He claims to have learned to enjoy these sessions, and (as Joseph Blotner’s memoir makes clear) also enjoyed his extra-curricular time with the UVA Track team. But his greatest enthusiasm while he was in residence seems to have been for “riding to the hounds.” The Albemarle County gentry were numerous enough to support two fox hunt clubs – Farmington and Keswick. Faulkner became a member of both, and despite some falls, including one that broke some ribs, worked hard to perfect the art of jumping a large horse over a fence line in the costume of an English aristocrat. As his second term drew to a close, his admirers in the English Department asked the University to offer him a permanent adjunct position; President Darden refused, overtly on the grounds that doing so would lead to similar expectations on the part of future Balch Writers-in-Residence but perhaps because of either Faulkner’s unorthodox stand on segregation, or his drinking, or both. Before Katherine Anne Porter replaced him as Balch Writer-in-Residence for 1958-1958 , however, he and Estelle had already decided to maintain a residence of their own in Charlottesville; in 1959 they purchased a house here. Nor was the University ready to let go of its connection with him. In January 1959 Alderman Library appointed him to be “consultant on contemporary literature,” an honorary position that gave him an office on grounds for the upcoming Spring term. In 1960 he accepted a “permanent” position as Balch Lecturer in American Literature in the English Department. In that role he again appeared before UVA classes and public audiences in 1960, 1961 and 1962 (when his death put those quotation marks around “permanent”), but as far as we’ve been able to discover, those sessions, perhaps half a dozen altogether, were not recorded.

Images from the Faulkner Print Collection —