Introduction and Contexts

Virginia in the Late 1950s

DETAIL:  UVA PRINTS PHOTO In February 1957, when William Faulkner arrived in Charlottesville to occupy his position as Virginia’s first Writer-in-Residence, “Mr. Jefferson’s University” was 132 years old. Its first students matriculated in March 1825: 123 undergraduates, all white males. There were almost five thousand UVA students by the 1956-1957 academic year, but they were still mostly white and male. The Nursing School’s students were all female, the Education School was largely female, and there were a few women students in the graduate Schools of Law, Medicine and Arts & Sciences, but officially there were no women students in the College of Arts & Sciences until 1969, and the College was not fully co-educational until the Class of 1976 arrived in 1972. There actually are a few women pictured among the college students in the 1957 and 1958 editions of Corks and Curls, the school yearbook, but they might have been daughters of faculty members; during those years Mary Washington College, in Fredericksburg, was officially designated the state’s school for women. (When Faulkner traveled there to speak in April 1957 he would still have been considered “in-residence” at UVA.) A large number of the questions from Faulkner’s UVA audiences come from women; in May 1957 he met with a group identified as “Wives of Law School Students,” and “wives” were explicitly invited to his session with the English Department faculty the same month, but since women only made up about 3% of the total student body, it is not clear who the women were whose voices you can hear during the other sessions, especially the classroom sessions. Several were certainly graduate students in English or Education (four are identified by name in his 6 May 1958 session with Stevenson’s English 32), many were interested residents of Charlottesville or Albemarle County, still others may have been the wives of faculty members sitting in on classes when Faulkner was present. The presence of these women suggests the environment at UVA wasn’t as “male” as it looks in the records. To my ear, at least, the women’s voices we hear on the tapes don’t sound shy or hesitant about being part of the conversation Play Clip .

DETAIL: PHOTO OF DELTA KAPPA EPSILON IN 1957 YEARBOOK On the other hand, I don’t hear any recognizably “black” voices among the hundreds of people who ask Faulkner questions, and it seems likely that there were no blacks in any of his audiences here (though one man on the tapes identifies himself as an Indian national). Thanks to the series of legal battles fought by the NAACP in the courtroom in the years leading up to the Supreme Court’s Brown v Board of Education decision, in the 1950s African American students began attending UVA in very small numbers: a few in the Law School, in Education and in Engineering. I saw no sign of these students in Corks and Curls from the years Faulkner was here; the only black faces in those yearbooks belong either to the entertainers who came to town for the big weekends (Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Louis Armstrong, among others) or to the servants who worked for the fraternities (identified in the group photos simply by their first names). A May 1957 editorial in the student newspaper, The Cavalier Daily, titled “Desegregation At The University,” refers to “the Negro students [now] enrolled,” but adds that there has not been any “social mixing between white and Negro” at UVA, “even when the two have attended dances together in Memorial Gymnasium.”

COVER: 1957 SPECTATOR JIM CROW ISSUE The “Supreme Court decision” comes up several times in Faulkner’s sessions at UVA, and no one has to explain which decision is being referred to Play Clip . You can hear the discussions that follow for yourself. I sense a good deal of anxiety in the room whenever this subject is brought up, but very little openness to the possibility of social transformation. The large number of news articles about school integration struggles throughout the South on the front pages of The Cavalier Daily between Fall 1956 and Spring 1958 (see below) suggests that white students were very interested in how traditional southern racial patterns might be changing, but in those same issues there is no discussion of admitting black students to the College. Although UVA never seems to be included in the category of “public schools,” a few voices were raised in the CD for school integration, belonging to some faculty members and one faculty wife (Sarah Boyle). The paper defended the “Jim Crow Issue” published in May 1958 by The Virginia Spectator; in the issue this undergraduate monthly reprinted Faulkner’s Life magazine “Letter to the North” and listed him as the “moderator” of the debate staged between four newly-written articles, two pro-segregation and two pro-integration, none written by students (see below). Two weeks after the magazine appeared, Faulkner cited it approvingly when he was asked to give examples of students resisting the pressure to conform Play Clip . But most articles in the newspaper suggest how deeply the student body was loyal to the racial status quo. When on 10 May 1957 the CD decided to respond to a challenge from the Writer-in-Residence – “William Faulkner said yesterday, ‘I’d like to see more undergraduates of this University express their opinions on topics of wide interest’” – by conducting a “Poll on Integration,” students were given only two plans to choose between, and as the paper said, “Both plans have a common goal – prevention of racial integration in the public schools.” The plan that called for delaying tactics defeated the one that advocated vigorous defiance of the federal courts by two-to-one, but while one student wrote “we must have complete integration” on his ballot, and another student wrote the paper to complain that too few ballot boxes were available, no protests were registered about the narrow range of “opinions” the poll reflected.

DETAIL: 1957 YEARBOOK PHOTO The “pressure to conform” to the mass was one of Faulkner's favorite topics in his sessions with UVA audiences. To him it is perhaps the chief threat facing modern society Play Clip . He brought that concern with him to Virginia, but what he found at UVA probably only increased it. These were what Robert Lowell called “the tranquilized Fifties,” and despite or because of Cold War fears about nuclear annihilation there was a widespread national longing for what journalists were calling “normalcy.” Even so, the environment at UVA in the late 1950s exalted conformity – though the students called it “tradition.” The suit jackets and ties that students wore to all classes and public events as a kind of uniform were the outward and visible sign of a community that was comfortable with the world that they found themselves in, and devoted to the rituals of the previous generations of students. “Gentleman” was a word that resonated much more deeply with them than “intellectual” or “artist.”

DETAIL: CD FAULKNER PHOTO Faulkner’s picture appears twice in the 1957 Corks and Curls, in the “Features” section (see below). Judging by the yearbook’s annual emphases, however, the chief features of student life at UVA were fraternities, football games, and the three regularly occuring “big weekends” – Openings, Mid-Winters, and Easters, supplemented by other annual events like the Beaux Arts Ball. For each of the three “big” weekends The Cavalier Daily published expanded editions, allowing them to list all the women (from other schools, of course) who would be attending, along with the names of their UVA dates. Again to judge by the yearbook’s photos, music and alcohol were the main ingredients of these weekends. No one asked Faulkner during any of his sessions about Gowan Stevens, the character in Sanctuary who has just graduated from Virginia and can’t stop talking about how he’d “learned in a good school” how to drink, which turns out to mean how to get drunk; if Faulkner’s interrogators were embarrassed to bring Gowan up, though, the yearbook seems to celebrate displays of drunkenness. This prevailing alcoholic culture makes it hard to know how to “read” the photograph above left, published on the front page of The Cavalier Daily's “Mid-Winters Issue,”which appeared the morning after Faulkner gave his speech exhorting Virginians to show the rest of the South the way toward integration – a picture of the Writer-in-Residence coming out of the liquor store with a paper bag in his hands. Is it an attempt to undercut his message by suggesting it came out of a bottle of booze? or does it imply (especially since students would be stocking up their own bottles for the weekend) that Faulkner is “one of us”? (The photo was taken by Ken Ringle, who discusses it in his essay on Faulkner at UVA; in the first issue of the CD after the weekend, the paper ran an editorial about the speech, expressing disappointment with Faulkner’s inadequacies as a speaker, but approving the way “Faulkner's proposal [for improving Negro education] offers the compromise between the dogmatism of the North and the South on the subject.”)

DETAIL: ENGLISH DEPT IN 1960 Although probably only about half of the people who ask Faulkner questions on the tapes were UVA students, the most common setting for these sessions was an English Department class. In 1957 and 1958 the department’s faculty were also all white and male, and as you can hear by their accents on the tapes, mostly from the South. (It was several years after Faulkner’s residency that Fredson Bowers became departmental chair and launched an ambitious effort to re-make UVA English by recruiting scholars nationally; by the time I arrived at UVA in 1974, I heard few southern accents at department meetings.) Even senior faculty taught first-year composition and second-year introductory courses. The study of literature was essentially as steeped in tradition as the mores of the undergraduates. During the 1956-1957 academic year the department offered 36 undergraduate and 24 graduate literature courses. Only two authors were studied separately – Chaucer and Shakespeare; at the graduate level Fredson Bowers taught “Spenser and Milton” in addition to “Shakespeare.” Only seven courses were dedicated to American literature, three for undergraduates, all taught by Frederick Gwynn, and four for grad students taught by Floyd Stovall, the department’s most recognized Americanist and departmental Chair during Faulkner’s tenure. There were also three courses taught by Edward McAleer in twentieth-century writers – none at the graduate level. Most of Faulkner’s classroom sessions are with students in these groups of classes and Joseph Blotner’s undergrad courses on “The Novel,” though he also answered questions from students in both introductory and writing classes who had read one of his stories.

DETAIL: DUST JACKET OF PYLON On the tapes you’ll hear a lot of questions about the meaning of specific symbols in specific texts. This focus was a symptom of the times, not the place. In 1959, for example, Flannery O’Connor met with teachers and students at Wesleyan; her report of the event suggests how in college classrooms across the U.S. in the Fifties the study of literature emphasized the interpretation of symbols: “Week before last I went to Wesleyan and read A Good Man Is Hard To Find. After it I went to one of the classes where I was asked questions. There were a couple of young teachers there and one of them, an earnest type, started asking the questions. ‘Miss O’Connor,’ he said, ‘why was the Misfit’s hat black?’ I said most countrymen in Georgia wore black hats. He looked pretty disappointed. Then he said, ‘Miss O’Connor, the Misfit represents Christ, does he not?’ He does not. He said, ‘what it is the significance of the Misfit’s hat?’ I said it was to cover his head; and after that he left me alone. Anyway, that’s what’s happening to the teaching of literature.” * Faulkner sometimes sounds equally tired of similar questions about his work Play Clip , though his answers, while often evasive, are always courteous.

While UVA students may have studied literature in much the same way as students elsewhere in the country, in most respects the environment on the Grounds was very provincial. In some respects Faulkner and his voice fit right into this picture. At the beginning of his stay Faulkner announced that one of his goals in coming to Virginia was “to help create an atmosphere.” He didn’t elaborate, but at least one of the students who was here at the time, Gerald Cooper, believes that Faulkner’s presence made students more likely to realize that there was a larger world and other ways of thinking and acting about it and in it.

The University in the Late Fifties,” by Ken Ringle (UVA ’61)

Images from Corks and Curls, the UVA yearbook —

Images from UVA Prints Collection, Alderman Library —

The “Jim Crow Issue” of Virginia Spectator (May 1957):

Images from the “Jim Crow Issue” —

Articles from the “Jim Crow Issue” —

Articles about integration (including women) from The Cavalier Daily