Blotner and Gwynn's Classes, tape 1

DATE: 27 April 1957

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

TAPE: T-116

LENGTH: 31:58

Play the full recording:

Frederick Gwynn: Mr. Faulkner's once again ready for anything. [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: And I hope you will take Mr. Gwynn at his word of anything. No matter how silly it might sound to you, ask it. I've talked to several young gentlemen, and they tell me that there's a feeling that the question has got to be one that the answerer will approve of. I think that's not—not a very good idea, so ask anything that—that you like.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, sometimes I've heard it said that Joe Christmas in Light in August is supposed to be a Christ figure. Now, there's some allusion to that or perhaps some evidence for it. He died at 33 [at] his lynching. There's a few things like that. Did you intend for him to be a Christ figure?

William Faulkner: No, not deliberately. That was coincidental. The writer has a—a storeroom of—of recollections, of traditions, of experience, of observation, that he uses in his trade, just as the carpenter has a storeroom of planks that he uses when he wants to build a fence or a house, and that's coincidental. I am writing about people, not about symbols, but when it seems to me the symbol is a—a good trick to use, then I will use the symbol.

Unidentified participant: Can you put that microphone a little closer to you or something?

Frederick Gwynn: That is not a public address system.

Unidentified participant: Oh, it isn't?

Frederick Gwynn: [It's a] tape recorder.

William Faulkner: Well, I'll—I'll try to speak louder then.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner?

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: This is a silly question, but I—I'm curious about your daily habits of writing. Do you make yourself write so often every day or do you [wait for the mood?] or—?

William Faulkner: No, I am a very disorderly person. I don't know anything about discipline, and that system works with some writers, but it never has worked with me. I put off writing as long as I can because I don't like the—the mechanics of—of getting the words down on paper. I put it off as long as possible, and then when I can't put it off any longer, I seem to have generated enough back pressure to where it goes for 10 or 12 hours some day—sometimes. Then I will go to bed and sleep, and I will eat. Then I will write again for ten or twelve hours the next day, until the steam runs out, and then I will do nothing as long as I can put it off. [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: In your book, Light in August would you say that the incidents that occurred there [...] were taken from life that you actually happen to know about or were they more or less your imagination? Could you—could you give me some idea if it's half-imagination and half-truth or—

William Faulkner: The writer has three sources: imagination, observation, and experience, and he probably can't say himself just how much of which he has used when. I do think that he feels that he can improve just a little on—on the world as God made it and on people as God made them because he has got to do his job in, well, five hours where God can take sixty years to complete a—a—a human being. I think that the writer himself don't know how much he saw, how much he imagined, how much he remembered, how much he read, but he certainly has no compunctions about taking what he needs from any source. He will steal from another writer without hesitation. [audience laughter] He will use his own observation, his own experience without hesitation, no matter how unhappy or how shameful it might have been. Because he is trying to—to create flesh and blood people that will have three dimensions, that will—can stand up and cast a shadow behind them.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, do you believe that all fiction has to be plotted at the beginning, a body and an ending [in] your mind, or go ahead and work it out?

William Faulkner: Some people have to have a plot, a framework, to begin on. I never did because I think of—of mine as—as people, the characters, and once they have come alive and have three dimensions, then they take charge of the story. All I do is to run along at top speed behind them and try to put it all down that they do and say. I've never—never used a plot, and—and in my own case, I would waste my time if I tried to think of a plot. I probably couldn't think of a plot.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, is your opinion of Tennyson in Light in August, as expressed by Hightower's remark that reading Tennyson is "like listening in a cathedral to a eunuch chanting in a language which he does not even need to not understand," is that your opinion of Tennyson?

William Faulkner: No, sir, that was Hightower's opinion, and I'm not responsible for his opinion. [audience laughter] I have a—a different opinion of Tennyson myself, that when I was—was younger, I read Tennyson with a great deal of pleasure. I can't read him at all now.

Frederick Gwynn: In Absalom, Absalom!, which you said you didn't remember very well last time, do you happen to remember when Charles Bon realizes that Sutpen is his father? Is it before or after he leaves New Orleans to go to the university?

William Faulkner: I should think that—that his mother dinned that into him as soon as he was big enough to remember, and that he came deliberately to hunt out his father, not for—for justice for himself, but for revenge for his abandoned mother. He must have known that. That must have been in his—the background of his childhood, that this—this abandoned woman never let him forget that.

Frederick Gwynn: Does the New Orleans lawyer have personal gain in mind in helping Bon and his mother?

William Faulkner: Possibly, yes. Yes, when he located Sutpen, knew that Sutpen was a wealthy man in his time, yes, he thought there would be gain, but Bon didn't want gain, he wanted revenge, for his mother.
Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Then isn't that [a fairly close] parallel to the whole Oedipus situation?

William Faulkner: No, I can't say. It may be the—the writer is so busy writing his own characters that he hasn't got time to find where they follow classical patterns. It may be that since problems of the human heart are constant, they don't change, that the—the dramatic shape of—of man's conflict with himself and his fellows or—and his environment do follow a pattern. Maybe they're—that—that the story of Oedipus was not the story of Oedipus at all. It was the story of any man in that situation, that the patterns—there're too few stories that one can tell. There're only two or three stories actually, and any writer has got to repeat what was written before him.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, you say that your characters create the situation. Do you know your characters very, very well before you start your stories or do you depend upon them, knowing them more thoroughly as you go along writing?

William Faulkner: I think I know them very well because of the laziness I mentioned. I put off writing it as long as possible, but it's still going on, churning around up here, and when they become—when I—I know them completely, that's when the urge is irresistible. I've got to get to work then. So I imagine that I know the character pretty well, though they do surprise me, too, in what they do.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: When you write a—a series of books or two or three concerning the same characters, like The Hamlet and then a number of years later write The Town, when you finish The Hamlet, do you say yourself, "Well, I'm through with these people, there they are"? And you leave them with no intention of going on later and picking them up again, and then they become active in your mind again, and you've got to do something else with them, or did you have an idea of writing a trilogy when you started The Hamlet?

William Faulkner: That was a complete, intact idea. When I thought of Flem Snopes, I saw like a flash of lightening the whole story, from Frenchmen's Bend on through Jefferson to his death. When I began to write it, I saw that it couldn't be—I thought at first it could be done in one volume. I found out it couldn't, and when I'd written about a hundred thousand words, I knew I had to quit. Nobody would read more than that, so it would [audience laughter] have to be another volume. But the story was—was intact as soon as I thought of Flem Snopes.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: How far do you think the relationship between Charles Bon and Sutpen parallels what you consider the general racial situation in the South?

William Faulkner: It was a—a manifestation of a general racial system in the South, which was condensed and concentrated as the writer has got to do with any incident or any character he takes, for the reason that he hasn't got sixty years. He has got to do his job in—between the covers of a book, but that is—epitomized a—a constant, general condition in the South, yes.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, do you think the South can handle the problem of [de]segregation and integration [better] if they are left alone or do you think that Calvinism or [narrow-mindedness] that you expressed in a lot of your books is present [and if so—do you think that they will—won't get rid of it]?

William Faulkner: I think that the Southerner, the—the provincial backwoods Southerner, will have to be let alone because he is—he is ignorant, he is proud, and he is—is limited to where he will let nobody tell him what he must do. It's a—a childish sort of recalcitrance, that anyone—when he is told that he must do something, he will do the opposite just to show them. It becomes a principle with him. He knows that he is—is wrong, that he has a condition which must be changed, and he has been trying to change it by his own methods. He's too slow about it. He should've known that this Supreme Court decision would be made. There was a—a lawyer in my town that told people fifteen years ago that sooner or later the Supreme Court would have to say that, but nobody believed him. They were—in their—their slow way, they were doing things to improve the Negro's condition. When the Supreme Court decision came out saying they must do it now, people that—that were working in their slow way toward it, took the other side. They say that the government shall not tell us what we will do, can do, must do, in our own country, with our own people, with our own culture and system.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: There are so many parallels of violence in your writings which suggest the actions of the Ku Klux Klan. I am curious to know why you have never mentioned it directly that I know of.

William Faulkner: The—the spirit that moves a man to put on a sheet and—and burn sticks in your yard is—is—is pretty prevalent in Mississippi, but not all Mississippians wear the sheet and burn the sticks. That they scorn and—and hate the—and look with contempt on the people that do, but the same spirit, the same impulse, is—is in them too, but they are going to—to use a different method from wearing a nightshirt and burning sticks. The—the Ku Klux Klan is—is the—the dull dreary minority. There's nothing dramatic enough in the Ku Klux Klan for me to have needed to use that in a story, though I can't say that some day I won't need to use it.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, I was disturbed by a remark you made in Absalom, Absalom! You said that Charles Bon made his half-sister the vessel of love for his half-brother. I didn't quite understand that.

William Faulkner: I will have to read that book again. I don't remember that myself. [audience laughter] I— I will have to—if Mr. Gwynn would look up that passage for me, if—if you remember it, then I'll read it, and the next time we have a meeting, ask that again, and I'll—maybe I can have an answer for you.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner?

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: I wonder if when you write you have a particular, definite effect in mind that you want to achieve, or do you want the reader to bring their own experience into [focus] [...] interaction which will produce immediate reactions [...]?

William Faulkner: Yes, but that is—is also coincidental. I think the writer is—has thought of something from observation, imagination or experience, of man in conflict with himself, with his problems, which is so moving that to him it is worth showing to other people, and he tries to show it to other people in the most effective way. If it seems to him it's best to—to ask the reader to do a little work, too, then he does it that way. If it's best to be explicit, he does it that way. But it's no deliberate desire to—to make reading— the reading difficult to anyone at all. He is simply trying to show something which moved him so much, he thought it was important enough to put down on paper, so that other people could see that this was true, this was moving, this was funny or it was tragic, or this is man in conflict with his eternal problems.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Was the fact that The Sound and the Fury was written so confusingly the fact that it's a story told by an idiot [...]? Why—why is it introduced backwards and forwards at different times?

William Faulkner: It seemed to be the most moving way to tell that story was to show what that—that idiot child saw. I wrote that. I thought that would be all of it, and then I realized that wasn't enough, so I had to write more. Then I—I let another brother tell it, and that wasn't enough, so I let the third brother, the second brother tell it, and that still wasn't enough, and then I let Faulkner try it for a while, and that still wasn't enough. That book is still not finished, that I never did tell something which seemed so true, and so moving, and so tragic, and so passionately beautiful to me that I wanted to show it to people, and I didn't do it. It was a failure.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, in The Sound and the Fury, can you tell me exactly why some of that is written in italics? What does that denote?

William Faulkner: I had to use some method to indicate to the reader that this idiot had no sense of time, that what happened to him ten years ago was just yesterday. The—the way I wanted to do it was to use different colored inks, but that would have cost so much the publisher couldn't undertake it.

Unidentified participant: Doesn't that go on with Quentin, too?

William Faulkner: Yes, because he was about half-way between madness and sanity. It wasn't as much as—as in Benjy's part, because Quentin was only half way between Benjy and Jason. Jason didn't need italics because he was quite sane.

Unidentified participant: And another thing I—I noticed, you don't advise that people have to have a subject, a predicate, and a verb, and all those things. [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: Well, I—I think that's really not a fair question. [audience laughter] I was—I was trying to—to tell this story as it seemed to me that idiot child saw it. And that idiot child, to me, didn't know what a question, what an interrogation was. He didn't know too much about grammar. He spoke only through his senses.

Unidentified participant: I'm referring mostly to Quentin, and he certainly—he attended Harvard. He should have known.

William Faulkner: Well, Quentin was—was an educated half-madman, [audience laughter] and so he dispensed with grammar. Because it was all clear to his half-mad brain, and it seemed to him, it would be clear to anybody else's brain, that what he saw was quite logical, quite clear.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, in The Town do italics indicate time annotation? Were the italics in The Town used as they were in The Sound and the Fury?

William Faulkner: I don't remember that book either. That was a year ago. I think that the italics there were mostly for emphasis, though there could've been times when I used italics to indicate that something definitely distant in the past had been brought into the present. I don't remember, but then that's—has become more or less a universal trick, I think, to use italics for that reason, to bring into the present something out of the distant past.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: This is another naïve question. In trying to get at a meaning that ties all the characters together in Light in August, it seems that all of them, in one way or another, have been deprived of love in one form or another, and are trying to find something. Did it have some sort of meaning like that to you?

William Faulkner: That's—that's possible. Of course, I didn't think of that at the time. I was simply writing about people, but that's—that's possible. That's—that's valid. But that too was coincidental with the writer.

Unidentified participant: Well, they were all put into difficult circumstances, more or less, cut off, sort of.

William Faulkner: Well, yes, but then so many people are. So many people are seeking something, and—and—and quite often it is love. It don't have to be love between a man and woman. It's—to be—be one with some universal force, power that goes through life, through the world. It could take the form of—the object of it could be a man or woman because that is a—a—a part of man's or woman's instinctive nature, to—to have an object, an immediate object, to project that seeking for love on.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Are you—in your—in your statement just made, it seems that you are more a partisan of the Lamarckian theory of evolution than you are of the Darwinian theory. However, as you know, [clearly], the mechanical version of the step-by-step process is not related to [any] universal force whereas as you, just now, did, and I wondered if you had obtained that idea by early reading of Butler, Samuel Butler, who took Lamarckian theory—

William Faulkner: I can't say. I—I think that there are some beliefs that maybe one inherits, that he don't have to get from—through an intellectual process like reading. Probably I—that was simply a part of me, that there must be some universal electricity that holds this ramshackle earth together.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Which one of your works do you prefer and [what] [...]?

William Faulkner: The one that—that failed the best, which was The Sound and the Fury. None of them are quite good enough to suit me yet. That's why I keep on writing another one. I like The Sound and the Fury because that gave me the most anguish, the most trouble.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, I think a—a student's natural reaction after writing a paper, or something at least to hand in at school, is to hand it to his roommate or somebody close to him and have him read it and give an opinion on it. Do you do this after you've written a story or a novel? Is there anybody in your family or close friends that you give it to and just say, "What do you think of this?"

William Faulkner: No, because I have more confidence in my own judgment than anybody else's, and I know that it don't suit me yet, so I have never thought of showing it to anybody else because I don't really care what they think. It hasn't suited me yet. Probably if I do do something that does suit me, I will worry and harass everybody to death to look at it. [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Would you say that you work primarily to express yourself [or more] [...] to communicate to others?

William Faulkner: I would say I write primarily because it's fun.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: In the book Sanctuary, could you tell us how you feel about the story, or what brought you to write it, to bring it out—?

William Faulkner: I have told this before. If any of you were at the class and heard it, please forgive us. I had written several books. I didn't need money then because I was single and footloose, and there were things I could do for money. I was a bootlegger. I was a commercial aeroplane pilot. Then I got married, and I needed money, and I had—had got the curse of writing then, so I thought I would make a little money writing a book, and I thought of the most horrific story I could imagine and wrote it, sent it to the publisher and he wrote back, "Good God, if we print this, we'll both be in jail." [audience laughter] So I wrote two more books and forgot about it. Then one day I got the galley proofs of Sanctuary, and I looked at it, and I didn't need money then probably, though I like to think that I had gotten my breath and could see that the whole thing was basely conceived for a base purpose, and I wrote the publisher, "Let's throw it away." He said, "We can't do that because I have spent money to have plates made." And I said, "Well, I'll have to rewrite it because I can't let it be printed this way." And he said, "All right, if you will pay your half of the new plates, I'll pay half, and you can rewrite it." So I got a job and earned the two hundred and seventy dollars to pay my half of the new plates and rewrote the book, and this time, I did the best I could with it. I'm—I'm not ashamed of the book as it is. I'm ashamed of the—the primary base notion to write something to make money, which I shouldn't have done, that I—I betrayed something somewhere when I—when I did that, but I did the best I could with the material as it was, and so I'm not ashamed of the book now. It's not one that I would do again, but I'm not ashamed of it.

Frederick Gwynn: Mr. Faulkner—

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Frederick Gwynn: When you revived Temple Drake and Gowan Stevens in Requiem for a Nun, I take it that was a later process. It wasn't like The Hamlet and The Town and The Mansion, where you conceived of the whole thing at once?

William Faulkner: Yes, that's right. It was—I began to think, What would be the future of that girl? And then I—I thought of, What could a marriage come to which was founded on the vanity of a—of a weak man. What would be the outcome of that? And suddenly that seemed to me dramatic and—and worthwhile, but that was—you're quite right. I hadn't thought of that when I wrote Sanctuary.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, from your remarks, I would say that you have a belief that in developing the characters in the story that the writer also develops, maybe. Did I gather—is that correct?

William Faulkner: I'm sure he does, that the writer is learning all the time he writes, and—and he learns from his own people. Once he has conceived them truthfully and has stuck to—to the verities of—of human conduct, human behavior, human aspirations, then he learns. Yes, they teach him. They surprise him. They teach him things that he didn't know. They do things. And suddenly he says to himself, "Why, yes, that is true, that is so."

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Referring to an earlier question, did you say that Light in August argues [...] for the acceptance of an inevitably tragic view of life?

William Faulkner: I wouldn't think so, that the only person in that book that accepted a tragic view of life was Christmas, because he didn't know what he was and so he deliberately repudiated man. He didn't belong to man any longer. He deliberately repudiated man. The others seemed to me to have had a—a very fine belief in—in life, in the basic possibility for happiness and goodness—Byron Bunch and Lena Grove, to have gone to all that trouble.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: This genealogy with all these people that were connected with each other, the McCaslins and everybody—was that made up before the books were written or as each one was written?

William Faulkner: No, that came along as these people appeared. I would think of—of one character to write a story about, and suddenly he would drag in a lot of people I never saw or heard of before, [audience laughter] and so the—the genealogy developed itself.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, some of your names in your books are very suggestive, very highly suggestive. I wonder if it's that or just pure coincidence or did you intend to make names like Gail Hightower, Joanna Burden as being symbolic of their own personal character?

William Faulkner: Well, that is out of the tradition of the—the pre—

[end of recording]