Blotner and Gwynn's Classes, tape 1

DATE: 13 April 1957

OCCASION: Blotner's Novel and Gwynn's American Fiction Classes

TAPE: T-114

LENGTH: 33:54

Play the full recording:

Frederick Gwynn: [...]questions having to do with his own work and on anything that people want to consider about the problems of writing in general. It would help everybody in the room, I think, if each questioner spoke up not only for Mr. Faulkner’s hearing but for everyone else’s. Mr. Faulkner.

Unidentified participant: Sir, I come from India, and I've been trying to read a good many of your books. The problem [I am finding] it extremely difficult to follow the narrative method that you adopt. Is it true to say that you adopt a lyrical method to a narrative, and [a novel is also a] narrative of certain events and what the characters do, what happens to them? We find that in a novel like As I Lay Dying or The Sound and the Fury or the Sanctuary that it's difficult to follow the event. Is it true to say that you follow the lyrical method while trying to tell a story? Am I correct?

William Faulkner: No, I think the writer is concerned first in telling about people, people in conflict with themselves and with others, with their environment, and he uses whatever method seems to him the best to tell what he is trying to tell in the most dramatic and passionate way, that he is not trying to use a lyrical method deliberately. It may seem to him best to use a lyrical method or maybe the result of—of his own agony and anguish to say what he wants to say becomes lyrical.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Who is the central character of Absalom, Absalom!? It seems so obviously to be Sutpen, yet it's been said that it's also the story of Quentin, and I was wondering just who is the central character?

William Faulkner: The central character is Sutpen, yes. The story of a man who wanted a son and got too many, got so many that they destroyed him. It's incidentally the story of—of Quentin Compson's hatred of the—the bad qualities in the country he loves. But the central character is Sutpen, the story of a man who wanted sons.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, in the same book, I was wondering what is supposed to be the reader's attitude towards Mr. Coldfield, the father of Ellen?

William Faulkner: Well, my attitude is that he was a—a pretty poor man. I don't know what the reader's attitude might be, but I still felt compassion and pity for him, but he was a poor man in my opinion.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, what sort of a deal was made between Goodhue Coldfield and Sutpen in reference to the bill of lading? It looked like they pulled some sort of deal.

William Faulkner: I don't remember. That book is so long ago to me, but—but Coldfield was a—a petty, grasping man and Sutpen was a—a bold, ruthless man, and Sutpen used Coldfield's pettiness for his, Sutpen's, ends, but I don't remember exactly what it was.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner—

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, in Light in August, the central character Joe Christmas had most of his troubles and his persecutions and in his search to find himself was based on his belief that he was part Negro, and yet it's never made really clear that he is. Was he supposed to be part Negro, or was this supposed to add to the tragic irony of the story?

William Faulkner: I think that was his tragedy. He didn't know what he was, and so he was nothing. He—he deliberately evicted himself from the human race because he didn't know which he was. That was his tragedy. That to me was the—the tragic, central idea of the story, that he didn't know what he was, and there was no way possible in life for him to find out, which to me is the most tragic condition a man could find himself in, not to know what he is and to know that he will never know.

Unidentified participant: Sir, if—if he is not—does not definitely have Negro blood, well, what is the significance of Gavin Stevens's surmise there at the end when he explains that there's a conflict of blood? That that is only a guess that stands for a guess and not a final knowledge of —

William Faulkner: Yes, yes, that is—is an assumption, a rationalization which Stevens made. That is, the people that destroyed him made rationalizations about what he was. They decided what he was. But Christmas himself didn't know, and he evicted himself from mankind.

Frederick Gwynn: Sir, when in Absalom, Absalom!, after the killing of Charles Bon, Clytie tries to keep Rosa Coldfield from—from coming in, does Clytie realize that Charles Bon is her own half-brother? Is that the reason that she's trying to keep Rosa out, do you think? Does she feel any relationship?

William Faulkner: I don't remember. I don't remember that. Let me think a minute. I—I don't remember whether Clytie was any relation to Charles Bon's mother. That's so long ago, too.

Unidentified participant: They have the same father.

William Faulkner: Well, then, yes, that would be the reason, of course.

Joseph Blotner: Mr. Faulkner, do you think that a comparison can justly be made between Joe Christmas and Charles Bon's son? Is there much in their behavior you think that's similar?

William Faulkner: There again you have me. I don't remember. They're both so long ago, and that's one good thing about being a writer. You can get rid of one book you don't have to read again. [audience laughter]

John Coleman: Mr. Faulkner —

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

John Coleman: In working out the situation of Joe Christmas, did you deliberately have in mind a correspondence between his situation and Oedipus, for example, as has recently been brought out in an essay published in the Quarterly magazine?

William Faulkner: No, not deliberately and not consciously. That's another matter of the writer reaching back into the lumber room of his memory for whatever he needs to—to create the character or the situation. The—and the—the similarity is there, but it was not by deliberate intent. It was by—by coincidence, not accident, but by coincidence.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Along those same lines, I noticed a similarity between Sutpen and Heathcliff from Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, and I was wondering if there's any intentional similarities here at all?

William Faulkner: I don't know. I don't know Wuthering Heights. I never read it.

Unidentified participant: Thank you.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, in Wild Palms, there is a passage strongly reminiscent of the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov, the import of which seems to condemn not Christ but organized religion. In Light in August, much of the action seems to stem from almost fanatical Calvinism. Would it be true to surmise that you favor strongly individual rather than an organized religion?

William Faulkner: I do, always.

Unidentified participant: Then you think perhaps that man must work out his own salvation from within rather than without?

William Faulkner: I do, yes.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, I have often wondered through what process the author actually goes when he writes a book. Could you briefly outline what process you go through? [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: Now, I know I can't. I'm—I'm lazy. I hate to—the mechanics of putting the words down on paper, and I do as much of it as possible in my head. I will—that is, putting it down on paper is the last resort. I've got to get it out of my system, and so I don't know what system I might use mentally to get the—the facts in order, to—to bring the—the mass of material into the—the—the form according to the rules of—of unity and emphasis. I—I just don't know. Some people work from notes. They—they make notes and then correlate the notes and then edit and then write and then do a—a draft. I don't do that. I try my best not to have to change anything because I'm lazy, I think, that I don't like to work.

Unidentified participant: How many times do you rewrite the [...] [hundreds of] drafts?

William Faulkner: Sometimes the first one is all right. Sometimes I will do three or four or five until it comes right, but I will try my best not to do it but once because I hate to work. [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: In another class, you stated that you seldom have the plot of your novels worked about before you begin to write, but that they simply develop from a—from a character or an incident. I was wondering if you remember what character or what incident caused you to write Absalom, Absalom!?

William Faulkner: Sutpen.

Unidentified participant: You thought about the character —

William Faulkner: Yes, the—the idea of a man who—who wanted sons and got sons who destroyed him. The—the other characters I had to get out of the attic to tell the story of Sutpen.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, do you ever consciously base your—any of your characters, either major characters or minor characters, on people you find in every-day life. For example, during your time spent in Charlottesville, could you possibly incorporate someone who lived here into one of your major books, as a conscious exercise?

William Faulkner: I will very likely do it, but not as a conscious exercise. The writer is completely amoral. He—he will use experience. He will rob from other writers. He will take from life, but he is—is trying to create a character of his own, and so very likely in time, I will—will need someone I have seen in Charlottesville, Virginia, and will without any compunction use him. [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: I've been looking for Sutpen's—the reason for Sutpen's downfall, Mr. Faulkner, and it seems to me that the Civil War plays a part in it. Is that—is that true?

William Faulkner: Yes.

Unidentified participant: But that's not—that's not the main reason?

William Faulkner: No, this—I used the Civil War to—for my own ends there. Sutpen—Sutpen's country was wrecked by the Civil War, but that didn't stop Sutpen. He was still trying to get the son, still trying to establish a dynasty. He was still trying to get even with that man who in his youth had said, "Go to the back door."

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, in Light in August, much of the action comes back to the scene or the picture of a column of yellow smoke coming up from Joanna Burden's cabin. I was wondering—you had said that in Sound and the Fury you got the idea for the story from seeing a little girl like Caddy in a tree. I was wondering if that happened with Light in August. Perhaps that was the scene that you had seen and that you started from in that story.

William Faulkner: No, that story began with Lena Grove, the idea of—of—of the young girl with nothing, pregnant, determined to find her sweetheart. It was—that was out of my—my admiration for women, for the courage and endurance of women. As I told that story, I had to get more and more into it, but that was mainly the story of Lena Grove.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: In Absalom, Absalom!, what was the significance of Sutpen pitting himself against his Negro servants, the wild Negro servants, and especially in that scene where Ellen happened in when he had brought the children there to watch it? Was that another example of the decadence of the South?

William Faulkner: No, not—not by intent. That was—was another instance of Sutpen's ruthlessness, of his will, his implacable will to create a dynasty and fill it with sons, and I—I thought of—of rather these, which seemed to me dramatic or—or amusing or tragic incidents, invented themselves as props for Sutpen's will, implacable will, to get the son.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: In Sanctuary, Mr. Faulkner, is the character of Popeye emblematic of evil in a materialistic society, or what would he stand for?

William Faulkner: No, he was to me another lost human being. He became a—a symbol of evil in modern—modern society only by coincidence, but I was still writing about people, not about ideas, not about symbols.

Unidentified participant: Sir, I've been told that the title of Light in August came from a colloquialism for the completion of a pregnancy. Is that true?

William Faulkner: No, I used it because in my country in August there's a—a—a peculiar quality to light, and that's what that title means. It has in a—a sense nothing to with the book at all, the story at all.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: How do you pronounce the name of your mythical county?

William Faulkner: If you break it down into syllables, it's simple. Y-o-k, n-a, p-a, t-a-w, p-h-a, YOK-na-pa-TAW-pha. It's a Chickasaw Indian word, meaning water runs slow through flat land. [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, what was the particular significance of having—of having Wash Jones, a very humble man, be the instrument through which Sutpen met his death? Is that to relate back to the social stratum from which Sutpen himself came and have there a sort of ironic effect? Just what was the idea of that?

William Faulkner: In a sense. In another sense, Wash Jones represented the man who survived the Civil War. The—the aristocrat in the columned house was ruined, but Wash Jones survived it unchanged. He had been Wash Jones before 1861, and after 1865 he was still Wash Jones, and Sutpen finally collided with him.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, in some of your stories, you've used scenes wherein two or more people are sitting around or across from each other at a table or a desk, in a very dark room where perhaps only the hands can be seen in the lighting. I was wondering if that sort of scene meant anything to you, or that you felt that you could use that particular scene for a certain type of information in your story, or just what?

William Faulkner: I think maybe instinctively I like understatement. Maybe I—I have a feeling for—for somberness. Probably I do, but I—I do like to—to tell things as simply by—by understatement, to—to tell—to show just the—the surface with—with the dark implications behind it of an instance [or] scene.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner —

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Do you believe that the South of today is the South of people like Wash Jones and the Snopes clan or do you think—[do you still think there's noble blood there]?

William Faulkner: I think that it's mostly the—the South of Wash Jones and Snopeses, but there's—there's a—the—the something left by the—the—the older, braver people that appears now and then, but it's a country mainly of Snopeses and Wash Joneses. They survived. The—the quality that was left by the—the old, brave aristocratic people shows occasionally. Nobody knows where it might—when it might appear or where from.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: In Light in August, do you feel that Reverend Hightower dies feeling that he has achieved a certain kind of salvation, [received] some sort of salvation, [Mr. Faulkner]?

William Faulkner: He didn't die. He had—had wrecked his life. He had failed his wife. He had failed himself, but there was one thing that he still had, which was—was the—the—the brave grandfather that—that galloped into the town to burn the Yankee stores, and at least he had that. Everything else was gone, but since he had been a—a—a man of God, he still tried to be a man of God, and he could not destroy himself. But he had—had destroyed himself, but he still couldn't take his own life. He had to—to endure it, to live, but that was one thing that was—was pure and fine that he had, was the—the memory of his grandfather, who had been brave.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: So much of the story in Absalom, Absalom! is reconstructed by Shreve and Quentin. How does the reader know which to accept as objective truth and which to consider just a [reflection] of their personalities?

William Faulkner: Well, the—the story was told by Quentin to Shreve. Shreve was—was the—the comment—the commentator that held the thing to—to something of reality. If Quentin had been let alone to tell it, it would have—have become completely unreal. It had to have a—a—a solvent to keep it real, keep it believable, creditable. Otherwise, it would have vanished into—to smoke and fury.

Frederick Gwynn: Sir, along that same line, you mentioned at the English Club that you had had to lay aside Absalom at one point and then resume it later on. I wonder if it might not have been the point where—toward the end of Miss Rosa's section where you might have felt that she was running away with you, because right after that Shreve comes in. Is that in your memory at all, sir?

William Faulkner: I can't say just where it was that I had to put it down, that I decided I didn't know enough at that time maybe or—or my feeling toward it wasn't passionate enough or pure enough, but I don't remember at what point I put it down. Though when I took it up again I almost rewrote the whole thing. I think that what I put down were inchoate fragments that wouldn't coalesce, and then when I took it up again, I—as I remember, I rewrote it.

Frederick Gwynn: There's no break in style at that—no break in style at that point, but the change in characters and point of view [...].

William Faulkner: That's possible, but I—I don't remember just how much of the first I rewrote when I began the second time.

John Coleman: Mr. Faulkner —

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

John Coleman: I would like to ask you to identify a quality for me. I am thinking of a sentence toward the end of "The Bear." I am going to read part of the sentence so that you will understand what I am asking about. "There was a boy who wished to learn humility and pride in order to become skillful and worthy in the woods. He suddenly found himself becoming so skillful so rapidly that he feared that he would never become worthy because he had not learned humility." Then finally, it goes on, "until an old man who could not have defined either had led him as though by the hand to that point where an old bear and a little mongrel of a dog showed him that by possessing one thing other he would possess them both." What is that "one thing other"?

William Faulkner: Courage.

John Coleman: Thank you very much.

William Faulkner: That was the little dog that —

John Coleman: Yes. I wondered if it was pity or truth, Mr. Faulkner.

William Faulkner: Courage, it was. The little dog that—that never saw a bear bigger than he was.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Is the title of Absalom, Absalom! taken from the passage in the Bible found in Second Samuel?

William Faulkner: Yes.

Unidentified participant: Did you write the novel with this episode in your mind or did you first write the novel and then realizing the similarity of the name —

William Faulkner: They were simultaneous. As soon as I thought of the idea of the—of the man who wanted sons and the sons destroyed him, then I thought of the title.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Did you expect to write a [any more] poetry? And if so, are there any particular subjects you'd [like to see in your poetry]?

William Faulkner: I'm a failed poet. I consider myself a failed poet. I've tried to be a poet, and I couldn't be a good one, and so I did the next best thing which I could do, but I'm still a—a failed poet, but what I write is—is, in my opinion, poetry.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, what do you consider your best book?

William Faulkner: The one that—that failed the most tragically and the most splendidly. That was The Sound and the Fury—the one I worked at the longest, the hardest, that was to me the—the most passionate and moving idea, and made the most splendid failure. That's the one that's my—I consider the best, not—well, best is the wrong word—that's the one that I love the most.

Unidentified participant: I wanted to ask something about [that]. Was it very difficult to write the stream-of-consciousness [part of] Benjamin?

William Faulkner: No, no. Not—not once I understood Benjy and understood the story. It was very simple, very easy.

Unidentified participant: That's such a difficult part to understand unless someone shows you —

William Faulkner: No, it was very easy to do. That's probably why it's so hard to read. I think anything that is easy to do is—is per se probably bad [audience laughter], but I couldn't think of any better way to tell about Benjy. I was trying to tell a story. I tried that way. That wasn't enough. I tried with Quentin. That wasn't enough. I tried with Jason. That still wasn't enough. And then I tried Faulkner and that still wasn't enough. [audience laughter] It still failed, and that's why I love it.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner —

William Faulkner: Sir.

Unidentified participant: Most people are very struck by your change of style in Light in August. For example, you use the present tense to tell the story [in], rather than the past. Was that—did you mean something by that or were you just using a new form for dramatic import or — ?

William Faulkner: No, that just seemed to me the best way to tell the story. It wasn't a deliberate change of style. I don't know anything about style. I don't—I think a writer with—with a lot to—pushing inside him to get out hasn't got time to bother with style. If he just likes to write and hasn't got anything urging him, then he can become a stylist, but the ones with a—a great deal pushing to get out don't have time to be anything but clumsy, like Balzac, for instance.

Joseph Blotner: Mr. Faulkner —

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Joseph Blotner: In Absalom, Absalom!, when Shreve and Quentin are reconstructing the story for each other, they set up a lawyer who was directing the campaign of Charles's mother to gain revenge against Sutpen. Was there really a lawyer, do you think, or is it just a product of their imagination as they reconstructed the story?

William Faulkner: I'm sorry, I don't remember that.

Joseph Blotner: They speak about the man who was counseling Charles's mother in trying to get back at Sutpen.

William Faulkner: There probably was a lawyer. I don't remember that book, but yes, yes, there was a lawyer. That sounds too logical in Mississippi terms. Yes, he was—there would have been lawyer there.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, what is your personal reaction to situations such as being in a classroom when you discover that a lot of people who've read into your novels things that you didn't intend them to read?

William Faulkner: Interest. [audience laughter] I didn't know about all these things and so I'm quite interested to hear that they were in there. They must've been in there for people to find them.

Unidentified participant: Do you feel that perhaps you've failed in—in just plain telling your story or that perhaps you've done more than you realized [...]?

William Faulkner: No, to me, it wasn't told as well as it should've been told, and that's why I write another one. The one that—that I have finished, that's—that's water under the bridge and I'm not interested any longer because that wasn't good enough.

[end of recording]