Local and UVA Communities, tape 1

DATE: 5 June 1957

OCCASION: Local Public and University Community, 5 p.m., 202 Rouss Hall

TAPE: T-138

LENGTH: 32:51

READING: From The Town

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Blotner: For a while Dublin had James Joyce. For a while Lübech had Thomas Mann. For a while, happily, Charlottesville has had William Faulkner. And as Dublin and Lübech were home to Joyce and Mann, so we hope that Mr. Faulkner will regard Charlottesville as a kind of second home. In adding up some year's end statistics, we found that Mr. Faulkner had met on twenty-four different occasions with undergraduate and graduate classes, with university organizations, and with groups such as this one today. These audiences totaled more than fifteen hundred people. In his office on the fifth floor of Cabell Hall, he has held office hours two hours a day, six days a week throughout the semester. Besides being the most punctual and faithful man in the department in keeping office hours, he has, we estimate, counseled more than one hundred and fifty University of Virginia students. Speaking of the University and its students some time ago, Mr. Jefferson said, "I hope its influence on their virtue, freedom, fame, and happiness will be salutary and permanent." We think this is an accurate description of the service Mr. Faulkner has performed. It has been some time since one could say of a novel that it was both on the best-seller list and also the work of a Nobel-Prize winner. One can say this of The Town, and it is from this novel that Mr. Faulkner will read briefly this afternoon. Then he will answer any questions you care to put to him. Around the turn of the century, opera impresarios used to arrange very extended farewell tours for some of their stars. During the past few weeks both Time Magazine and some newspapers have reported Mr. Faulkner's last appearances, but now, for positively the last time this season, [audience laughter] Mr. William Faulkner. [applause]

William Faulkner: This interminable valedictory does seem to be coming to an end at last. I have tried to express to Mr. Gwynn and Mr. Blotner how much pleasure I have had here. I would like to say to the people of Charlottesville, too, how much pleasure this has been for me. It's been so much pleasure, that I am a little concerned about whether it could have done any good or not, that anything this much fun must be bad [someway]. [audience laughter]

William Faulkner:

There is a ridge; you drive on beyond Seminary Hill and in time you come upon it: a mild unhurried farm road presently mounting to cross the ridge and on to join the main highway leading from Jefferson to the world. And now, looking back and down, you see all Yoknapatawpha in the dying last of day beneath you. There are stars now, just pricking out as you watch them among the others already coldly and softly burning; the end of day is one vast green soundless murmur up the northwest toward the zenith. Yet it is as though light were not being subtracted from earth, drained from earth backward and upward into that cooling green, but rather had gathered, pooling for an unmoving moment yet, among the low places of the ground so that ground, earth itself is luminous and only the dense clumps of trees are dark, standing dark and immobile out of it.

William Faulkner:

Then, as though at signal, the fireflies—lightning-bugs of the Mississippi child's vernacular—myriad and frenetic, random and frantic, pulsing; not questing, not quiring, but choiring as if they were tiny incessant appeaseless voices, cries, words. And you stand suzerain and solitary above the whole sum of your life beneath that incessant ephemeral spangling. First is Jefferson, the center, radiating weakly its puny glow into space; beyond it, enclosing it, spreads the County, tied by the diverging roads to that center as is the rim to the hub by its spokes, yourself detached as God Himself for this moment above the cradle of your nativity and of the men and women who made you, the record and chronicle of your native land proffered for your perusal in ring by concentric ring like the ripples on living water above the dreamless slumber of your past; you to preside unanguished and immune above this miniature of man's passions and hopes and disasters—ambition and fear and lust and courage and abnegation and pity and honor and sin and pride all bound, precarious and ramshackle, held together by the web, the iron-thin warp and woof of his rapacity but withal yet dedicated to his dreams.

William Faulkner:

They are all here, supine beneath you, stratified and superposed, osseous and durable with the frail dust and the phantoms—the rich alluvial river-bottom land of old Issetibbeha, the wild Chickasaw king, with his Negro slaves and his sister's son called Doom who murdered his way to the throne and, legend said (record itself said since there were old men in the county in my childhood who had actually seen it), stole an entire steamboat and had it dragged intact eleven miles overland to convert into a palace proper to aggrandise his state; the same fat black rich plantation earth still synonymous of the proud fading white plantation names whether we—I mean of course they—ever actually owned a plantation or not: Sutpen and Sartoris and Compson and Edmonds and McCaslin and Beauchamp and Grenier and Habersham and Holston and Stevens and De Spain, generals and governors and judges, soldiers (even if only Cuban lieutenants) and statesmen failed or not, and simple politicians and over-reachers and just simple failures, who snatched and grabbed and passed and vanished, name, face and all. Then the roadless, almost pathless perpendicular hill-country of McCallum and Gowrie and Frazier and Muir translated intact with their pot stills and still peaking only—speaking only the old Gaelic and not much of that, from Culloden to Carolina, then from Carolina to Yokpatawpha still intact and still speaking not much of anything except that they now called the pots "kettles" though the drink (even I can remember this) was still usquebaugh; then and last on to where Frenchman's Bend lay beyond the south—southeastern horizon, cradle of Varners and ant-heap of the northeast crawl of Snopes.

William Faulkner:

And you stand there—you, the old man, already white-headed (because it doesn't matter if they call your gray hairs premature because life itself is always premature which is why it aches and anguishes) and pushing forty, only a few years from forty—while there rises up to you, proffered up to you, the spring darkness, the unsleeping darkness which, although it is of the dark itself, declines the dark since dark is of the little death called sleeping. Because look how, even though the last of west is no longer green and all of firmament is now one unlidded studded slow-wheeling arc and the last of earth-pooled visibility has drained away, there still remains one faint diffusion, since everywhere you look about the dark panorama you can still see them, faint as whispers: the faint and shapeless lambence of dogwood blooming return loaned light to light as the phantoms of candles would.

William Faulkner:

And you, the old man, standing there while there rises to you, about you, suffocating you, the spring dark peopled and myriad, two and two seeking never at all solitude but simply privacy, the privacy decreed and created for them by the spring darkness, the spring weather, the spring which an—which an American poet, a fine one, a woman and so she knows, called girls' weather and boys' luck. Which was not the first day at all, not Eden morning at all because girls' weather and boys' luck is the sum of all the days: the cup, the bowl proffered once to the lips in youth and then no more; proffered to quench or sip or drain that lone one time and even that sometimes premature, too soon. Because the tragedy of life is, it must be premature, inconclusive and inconcludable, in order to be life; it must be before itself, in advance of itself, to have been at all.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner?

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: In—in this book, The Town, we come across so many of the characters we have met previously. Are those four snaky Snopeses new?

William Faulkner: Are the what Snopes new?

Unidentified participant: The four snaky Snopeses, in the last chapter?

William Faulkner: Not to me. I thought of—of—of these people thirty years ago, and—and the more I thought about them, the more Snopes they invented. It's simply that I haven't got around yet to—to telling about them. There's one more volume, which I hope will be the last, but I have no assurance that it will be. [audience laughter] It may be that when I finish that there will still be another. But they are—are not new to me. They have been in—been alive and have been in motion. I have hated them and laughed at them and been afraid of them for thirty years now. [audience laughter]

Unidentified participant: Fascinating.

Frederick Gwynn: Mr. Faulkner, who's that poetess quoted in the passage you just read?

William Faulkner: That was Djuna Barnes. She belonged to one of the first minute, precious expatriate groups back in the—when was that?

Frederick Gwynn: The Twenties, wasn't it?

William Faulkner: Twenties. Yes, the early Twenties. Djuna Barnes, it was. I don't know whether she's still alive or not. Do you know?

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner?

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Who will inherit Jefferson if and when the [Snoopses] or Snopeses are ever exterminated?

William Faulkner: Well, I believe that—that man can cope with all his follies. I think that—that the fact that Snopeses can flourish is just a symptom of man's folly but that man copes with it, that he will—will rid himself of—of even the Snopeses by some desire for simple decency. Maybe it's just in order to get along with—with his fellow men and women in Jefferson, but he will cope with Snopeses and—and what is good in our country will—will still endure. It may take a—a—a different phase from what our—our ancestors knew it before 1861, but I think that even Snopeses can be coped with and even hydrogen bombs can be coped with.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, you dabbled in poetry a little bit before you began writing. Did you ever have any published at all or—

William Faulkner: One book. I'm a failed poet. I still think of myself as a failed poet. I believe that any writer wants first to be a poetry—a poet. When he finds that he can't write first-rate poetry, and poetry of all must be first-rate. There are no degrees of it. It's either first-rate or it's bad. It's rotten. Then he tries short stories, which is the next severe medium. When that fails, then he goes to the novel. [audience laughter] That is, he wants first to take—take the tragedy and passion of—of experience, of life, and put it into fourteen words. If he can't, he tries two thousand words. If he fails that, then he takes a hundred thousand. [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Where do plays work with that [category]?

William Faulkner: The play partakes of a little of all. That is, a—a—a special—specialized medium almost. It—it must—to be good, it must partake of—of all three: of the poetry, of the short story, and the—the novel, but certainly it's—it's above the novel because it don't take quite as many words. That a good playwright don't have to talk as long as a novelist has to talk to tell his story.

Frederick Gwynn: Mr. Faulkner, I read in Coughlan's book that "The Phoenix and the Turtle" is your favorite poem. Is that true and if so, is there any special reasons?

William Faulkner: No, I doubt if anyone has a favorite poem, unless it's somebody that has a favorite poem by Edgar A. Guest that's good for visitors, [audience laughter] and I— I don't think anyone could have a favorite poem. It depends on—on how you feel, what you like to read and remember, [of] something that you have seen or run into that—that makes you think of truth as some poet has expressed it.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner?

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: In A Fable was there any definite attempt on your part to more or less put it in biblical language?

William Faulkner: That was the only book I ever wrote from an idea, and so I can't say myself just how much of the intent was deliberate to follow the story of the Passion Week or a pattern of—of any Christian legend or even the language of the Bible, though I'm—I'm quite sure that the—that the deliberate intent was there, but how much I—I can't say because I think the writer, when he is busy telling his story, he hasn't really got time to think about style or—or about the pattern of—of his—his sentences. He's too busy. But anyone writing writes from his own experience, his own observations, his own imagination, and all he has read is a part of his experience, and so in the—the heat and fury of—of composing his piece, he will reach back into his memory, and he will dig up all sorts of things and will fit them into the joint just as the carpenter does with a board until he finds the one that—that makes the best joint or makes the—the soundest corner or the driest roof, and so I think that no man can say just how much of—of a style, a method, is deliberately deliberate or unconsciously deliberate or what. In fact, he's so busy trying to tell his story that he don't really care.

Unidentified participant: Do you do much rewriting, Mr. Faulkner?

William Faulkner: No more than I can help. I'm lazy, and I'd heap rather think of a story and—and laugh over it myself than to go to the trouble to put it down on the paper. I put that off as long as possible. Then when it worries me so much I can't put it off anymore, then I put it down, and I try to be sure that it's right, so I won't to have to rewrite it, though sometimes it's—it's wrong, and I do have to.

Unidentified participant: Well, how are your—are your characters created out of your own imagination or are they taken from people you've known?

William Faulkner: Any writer is completely amoral. Any artist is. He takes what he thinks he will need from any source with no compunction and with no sense of being amoral or unmoral, because anyone after him is perfectly at liberty to take anything from him they want. Also, I doubt if any writer would be satisfied with—with men and women just the way the Lord makes them. He's convinced he can make a much better job than that. [audience laughter] And any fiction writer is a congenital liar to begin with, and he probably couldn't tell the truth about anything, that no matter what he tried to tell the truth about he would embroider just a little.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner?

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: After you have written your book and maybe read it over two or three years later, do you find symbolism in it that you didn't realize at the time you were writing it? Do you find—you ever find more in it than you realized at the time you were writing it?

William Faulkner: I doubt if a writer ever reads his—his book again. [audience laughter] I think that—that—that's one saving thing he has in his craft, that every time he writes a book, he knows that's one book he won't have to read. [audience laughter] Also, the reason that the writer writes another book is that one that he finished wasn't quite good enough to suit him, and he don't want to read that book anymore. He wants to forget that book because he's trying to write the next one, which may be good enough. Of course, he knows that one probably won't be good enough, too, but that's what keeps him going. That's why, taken by and large, his life is so happy. He has something to wake up tomorrow morning to—to need to do, not to want to do, but to need to do, that drives him to do it. But it's never quite good enough for him, so he doesn't need to read it again. He's not interested in what anybody else thinks about it because he himself knows it ain't good enough for him, and that's the only opinion he really cares about.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner?

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: You often have referred to male authors that you have enjoyed. Are there are any women writers you esteem?

William Faulkner: Yes, any number. Bront—Ď or Willa Cather, Ellen Glasgow—any number. I think that—that when I refer to—to authors as males I'm simply using "he" as—as sort of a—a—a simplified term to express an individual. Yes, any number of—of good ones.

Unidentified participant: Was Wuthering Heights one of your favorite books? I—I remember you gave us a list, and I—I don't remember them all.

William Faulkner: I don't really have favorite books. I have books that I read many times over and over, but it's not for the book, it's for the people in it. There're certain people that I like to read about, just as you like to go into a room and spend thirty minutes with an old friend, and Wuthering Heights is a book that I have—have admired for its craftsmanship, but—but there's—there's nothing in it that I would ever—ever read again probably, though some day I might.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner?

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: When an idea germinates for a story, do you start with the story or the situation or with the characters, a certain character that interests you?

William Faulkner: Sometimes it's a situation, an anecdote or—or a picture. Usually, it's a character.

Unidentified participant: Usually it's a character?

William Faulkner: And the character takes charge of the—of the whole thing and begins to invent his supporting cast, and—and then they all go charging away at full speed and tell the story, and all I do is just to run along behind them and put it down. [audience laughter] But they take charge of it. It's—it's usually a character, though occasionally an anecdote of something, a—a picture, a mental image that has—has to do with—with something of the human condition. I wrote one book from—from the mental picture of a little girl climbing a tree to look in a forbidden parlor window. She'd fallen down in the mud on a rainy afternoon, and the image was the—the muddy seat of—of that child about twelve or thirteen years old, the muddy seat of her drawers, [audience laughter] and that was, I think, the—what the book came from.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, did you start writing—now, you probably answered this question a million times—but did you start writing at a definite period of your life or have you always written more or less since the time you were a—a little boy?

William Faulkner: I imagine that I had—had been scribbling as soon as I learned to spell. I've told this story before. If anyone has heard it, I hope they will excuse it this time. That was as soon as I learned to spell, and I'd always liked to imagine stories and occasionally put something down, but I was still—had not taken it seriously until I was in New Orleans. I was working for a bootlegger. This was back in the—in the twenties, and I met Sherwood Anderson, and we liked each other right away. We would meet in the afternoon. We would walk around the French Quarter along the docks, and he would talk, and I would listen. We'd meet again in the evening. We'd go to a—a nice patio or courtyard, and we'd sit over a bottle of whiskey, and he would talk, and I would listen. In the morning, I wouldn't see him. He'd be in seclusion working. And that would go on day after day, the afternoons to walk and laugh and talk, and the evenings to—to drink and laugh and talk, in the mornings, in seclusion working. And I thought that if that was all it took to be a writer, that was exactly the life for me. [audience laughter] So, I—I started a book, and right away I found that it was fun, that I liked it, and I got so interested in it, I forgot about Mr. Anderson. I hadn't seen him for several weeks, and I met Mrs. Anderson on the street. She said, "What's wrong? Are you mad at us? We haven't seen you in a long time." I said, "No, ma'am. I'm writing book." She said, "Good God." [audience laughter] I—I met her a week or two after, and she asked about the book. I said I was just about to finish it. She said, "Do you want Sherwood to read it?" I hadn't thought of anybody reading it. I said, "Well'm, he can if wants to." She said, "Well, Sherwood says he'll make a swap with you. If he don't have to read that book, he'll tell his publisher to take it." So I said, "Done," [audience laughter] and he told his publisher to take the book, and that's how I became—took up writing seriously. Up to that time, I'd done it—well, it never occurred to me that anybody might want to read it or hadn't thought of it in public terms till then.

Unidentified participant: But if you hadn't met Sherwood Anderson, it would have been inevitable, though.

William Faulkner: Oh, yes. Yes, indeed. I think the writer is driven by a demon that he can't help himself anymore. That's a vice, really. Nothing he can do about it. [audience laughter] And he just wastes time fighting it. Best thing is to go on and be a writer.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: What, Mr. Faulkner, would you give as your definition of poetry?

William Faulkner: It's some moving, passionate moment of the human condition distilled to its absolute essence.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: This is a probably a question you've been asked many times also. Why have you—or have you ever been tempted to do play-writing?

William Faulkner: No, probably because I have spent all my life in the country, and I can count on my thumbs almost the plays I've seen. [And] I have never thought in terms of—of—of theater. It may be it takes a—a—a special temperament to do it, but I have never—never thought in terms of theater. I'm sure the main reason is that I've never seen enough of it, that I—I like to read plays. I'd much rather read one than see one.

Unidentified participant: Considering the Sherwood Anderson connection, had he written Winesburg, Ohio when you met him?

William Faulkner: Yes. Yes, he was working on—on Dark Laughter then. He—that was after Winesburg and after The Triumph of the Egg. His two best, I think.

Unidentified participant: Well, his best character seems to have been George Willard, and isn't it a bit tragic that he left him in Winesburg and never revived him?

William Faulkner: I don't think so. That George Willard is alive enough. There's no need to—to harass and worry the man to death. [audience laughter] He has come alive, and, as—as you say, he's the best character. That's enough.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Since your characters, for instance, [sometimes] come from your reading and your experiences, you must have occurrences of unconscious plagiarism or at least fears that you have read it somewhere before. How do you cope with such a situation?

William Faulkner: Well, as I said, any writer is completely amoral, that he has very likely stolen it from somewhere, but then he has no qualms about that because anyone after him that steals from him flatters him, and he assumes that every other writer feels that way. There are so few things to write about, and the—the human condition changes so slowly, that very likely almost any situation, except for a few minor differences, has already been written about by somebody, and very likely you read it somewhere. That reading to me is part of one's experience, as much of one's experience as—as dealing with actual flesh—fresh—flesh and blood people, but there's—I'm sure that any writer is ready to admit that he has stolen from everything he ever read, and he has read everything from the telephone book up and down.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, you have been called, among other things, a Christian humanist. I was wondering if you could tell me what you consider your relationship to the Christian religion?

William Faulkner: Why, the Christian religion has never harmed me, and I hope I never have harmed it. [audience laughter] I have the—the sort of—of provincial Christian background which one takes for granted without thinking too much about it, probably. That I'm—probably within my own lights, I feel that I'm a—a good Christian. Whether it would please anybody else's standard or not, I don't know.

Unidentified participant: Do you know where your story is going when you start working, Mr. Faulkner? The end when you start?

William Faulkner: Only—only twice have I known where the story was going. Once was in—in Fable. The other was in a book called As I Lay Dying. They were both tour de force, so I knew where they were going. The others, I don't know where they're going. I simply try to keep up with the people who have already gotten in motion, to put down what they do and say and then have a little time afterward to throw away the trash, but I—that—that's probably true with—with most writers, unless they do write from a—from a—a synopsis, that they don't know where the story's going. Some writers can work that way, and the indecision is eliminated. That is, that first draft, that first synopsis, may have taken—taken care of the—of the—the confusion which my method follows about where the thing is going.

Unidentified participant: Do you have a synopsis or do you—

William Faulkner: No'm, I—I never have a synopsis, and I never have made [any] research and don't keep notes, because if I was going to go to the trouble to keep notes, I'd try to write it so I could print it. It's too much trouble. I don't like to write that much.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, did you study or have a formal [writing classes] [...] [college]?

William Faulkner: I didn't go to college. I didn't like school and quit in the sixth grade. I'm the oldest living sixth grader. [audience laughter] I think I learned to write in the only possible way that there is to learn to write, which is to read and to read and to read and to try it and to try it and to try it until it—until it suits you, which, of course, it won't do. But to try and to try and to try, but reading is—is the way to learn to write. I doubt if anyone can be taught anything anyhow, but I don't believe anyone can be taught to write. You've got to be demon-driven and to want to learn in spite of everything.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner?

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: You say you follow your characters with a notebook and recall what they do and say. You do not plan any of the conversations?

William Faulkner: No'm, I don't.

Unidentified participant: Or any of the incidents?

William Faulkner: No.

Unidentified participant: You're not responsible for anything they do?

William Faulkner: No, ma'am. I'm not responsible for anything they do or say. [audience laughter] Any ideas they express are theirs and not mine. If I have the same idea, it's purely coincidental. [audience laughter]

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, do you find that you can write almost anywhere, on a train, or riding in the back seat of a car? Or in an office?

William Faulkner: Oh, yes. Sure, just anywhere. I put it off as long as I can. Then when I can't put off any longer, I can write anywhere, on anything, and with anything except a typewriter. I'm not much good with a typewriter.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner?

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Have you picked up anything interesting, [whether] ideas or people, during your stay in Charlottesville? [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: That comes back to the—to the writer's complete amorality, that he don't have to say now, let's see if there's anything in this alley that I can use. He just picks it up, whether he can use it or not, [audience laughter] and later on he finds that maybe he can, but he don't—he's—

Unidentified participant: [Calls for] a phenomenal memory, then?

William Faulkner: Well, it's—it's a phenomenal memory in the sense that—that the muscle remembers, that it's not anything that—that's really catalogued into the mind. It's catalogued into whatever muscles of the human spirit produce the—the book or the music or the picture, and we'll assume that—that there are muscles in the spirit that do that. The—the—the artist is—well, it's a little more than kleptomania, it's a little of kleptomania. But—rather more of—of whatever it is that makes the magpie pick up everything or the packrat pick up anything that's loose. I think that's the way the writer goes through life, through books and through the actual living world, too. That he misses very little, not because he's made up his mind before breakfast not to miss anything today, but because those muscles do it for him, and when the need comes, he digs out things that he didn't know where he saw them, which to him don't matter. He may have stolen it—he probably did—but to him that's not important. The important thing is if he uses it worthily. If he makes some base use of it then, of course, it's a shame. But he wants to—when he steals, he wants—he wants the owner that he stole from to approve of what he did with it, or not to disapprove too much.

[end of recording]