Blotner and Gwynn's Classes, tape 2

DATE: 27 April 1957

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

TAPE: T-117

LENGTH: 14:40

Play the full recording:

William Faulkner: [...] memory of the old miracle plays, the morality plays in early English literature, Chaucer.

Frederick Gwynn: Sir, are you conscious of any similarity between Thomas Sutpen and Flem Snopes? They are—I don't suppose there's any comedy in Absalom anywhere, and there's a great deal, of course, in The Hamlet and The Town, but both of them are—have a grand design and are unscrupulous about getting it—and they use people.

William Faulkner: Well, only Sutpen had a grand design. Snopes's design was pretty base. He just wanted to—to get rich. He didn't care how. Sutpen wanted to get rich only incidentally. He wanted to take revenge for all the—the redneck people against the—the aristocrat who told him to go around to the back door. He wanted to show that he could establish a dynasty, too. He could make himself a king and raise a—a—a line of princes.

Frederick Gwynn: It seems as if Flem had something of the same thing in mind. He wants respectability even more than money, doesn't he?

William Faulkner: No, no, he only found out when he thought it was almost too late that he'd have to have respectability. He didn't want it until he found out he had to have it. He would have done without it if he could, [audience laughter] but he suddenly had to have it.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: In this democracy of ours, is not money an assumed respectability regardless of conduct?

William Faulkner: Not always. I imagine a man like Dave Beck ain't very interested in respectability. [audience laughter] He don't symbolize respectability, but he's got a lot of money.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: This callous attitude of Sutpen and Flem Snopes, this ability to use people without realizing they're people, [sort of] dehumanizing them, it seems to progress and get worse as they go from the country into towns and cities. Is that—is that a definite—is that a conscious thing?

William Faulkner: It didn't get worse because they came into cities. They had to come into cities to find more people to use. But it—it got worse because of the contempt which—which the ability to use people develops in anyone. There are very few people that have—have enough grandeur of soul to be able to use people and not develop contempt for. And that—the contempt for people came not because they moved to the city, but out of success.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: When did you think of the title of Light in August for your book? Was it after you had written the story, and—and what is it [exactly] [...]?

William Faulkner: To me, to a—to people in my country, that is a—a—a pleasant, evocative sentence. There's a—a certain quality that for a little while in the month of August light has, that it has at no other time. There's a—a—a—a luminosity in which something pagan might live and flourish just for a few days. That's all it meant. It was just a nice, pleasant, evocative sentence to me. It really has little to do with the book.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: I have two questions. One of them relates to this idea of money. Wouldn't you say that the gentleman is confusing the traditions of the North with the traditions of the South? [audience laughter] The South, the Old South, is best pictured in the ideals in the story "A Rose for Emily," where the old woman gets along without the money and keeps up the family traditions. Don't you think that there would be a distinction as far as the respectability in this?

William Faulkner: Yes, there is. In the South respectability has little connection with money. Money don't hurt the respectability, but the respectability don't need the money in the South. You're quite right.

Unidentified participant: Wouldn't this be shown in The Sound and the Fury, too? Jason would be trying to get money, whereas the rest of the family, they don't care, and the Negroes really regard them as respectable people.

William Faulkner: That's right, yes.

Unidentified participant: They regard Jason as white trash.

William Faulkner: Yes, that's right.

Unidentified participant: And I would like to ask you on this business of the Old South and the New South, in "The Bear," where the young boy returns as a man and sees the forest cut down, I would like to know, do you like the Old South or the New South better? [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: Well, the New South has got too many people in it, and it is changing the country too much. It' has—it—it gets rid of—of the—the part of Mississippi that I liked when I was—when I was young, which was the forest. Though it's foolish to—to be against progress because everyone is a part of progress, and he'll have no other chance except this one, so he—it's silly not to—to cope with it, to compromise with it, cope with it. Probably anyone remembers with something of nostalgia the—his young years. He forgets the—the unpleasant, the unhappy things that happened, he remembers only the nice things, and so maybe the northerner feels the same way about the Old North and the New North that the southerner feels about the Old South and the New South.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, about this New South, this last Supreme Court school decision has made all the states around here go through quite a bit of gyrations, plotting and planning things, but [very little is] heard about or seen in the newspapers about what Mississippi, for instance, plans to do about it, or what is being done, or what they're thinking. I was wondering whether you could [give some light on that]?

William Faulkner: Well, Mississippi is pretty well on record about what they think and—and what they're going to do. They have proved it two or three times, and that will be the—the last stronghold of—of the obsolescence which insists that a minority of seventeen million people still must be second rate, second class citizens. We will be the ones that will hold onto that after everybody else has realized that it just don't work any longer. We will still believe that it can be made somehow to work.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, [in] part answer to the gentleman's question, I think in a recent Life magazine, there was an article about your governor. It was citing the progress being made in Mississippi as—as far as the schools were concerned, how the governor will, just as you said, he will stand by segregation until his last dying breath, but he will do all that he can to improve the colored schools.

William Faulkner: This one is a better man than anybody in Mississippi expected. I imagine if they had known his true sentiments, they would never have elected him in Mississippi. [audience laughter] And he is—I have had some correspondence with him since he was elected, and every now and then he sends me copies of letters he writes to his legislature, and every now and then he quotes me, things that I have said on the subject of segregation. And he is someone that—that realizes, that sees that—that this is an obsolescence that simply ain't going to work any longer. Something must be done about it. But he has got to represent his state, too, and he cannot come out for a sudden abolishment of segregation, but he knows that something must be done, and he thinks that—that, as a lot of people in Mississippi do, that—that all the Negro wants is equality, is educational, economic equality, that he don't want to mix with white people any more than white people want to mix with him, and the governor says that if he has decent schools, as good schools as he could get anywhere, if he has—has the right to go where he wants to into white churches, if he wants to go there, into the white stores as he can do, that that will solve the question. As someone has said, apparently the difficulty is the Mississippian don't want the—the Negro to sit down with him. They can stand up, that's alright. They can ride in the same elevator, but they can't sit in the same church. Maybe if everybody stood up in church, the Negro could come in, too. [audience laughter]

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner—

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: In your book As I Lay Dying, do you—you feel that you strayed from your main mission of writing, that is, the writing of people, since what I feel is the main character in that, the dead grandmother, who suffered the majority of the pain and the—the torment in having her face have auger holes bored in it and floating down the creek in a coffin and eventually burning the barn. She—she, being dead, could feel none of this torment, and I just wondered if that was sort of an aside from your main mission in writing about people, since she being dead is no longer a person.

William Faulkner: No, I don't think so. I was writing about people. I took a—a family of—of the people that I know well. I don't mean that I—that the Bundrens actually live in Mississippi, but their—their kind live there. That was tour de force. I simply took this group of—of country people and subjected them to the two great catastrophes, flood and fire. That was simple tour de force. I wrote that in about six weeks without changing a word, because I knew from the beginning where that book was going, because that, in a way, did have a plot.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, did Joyce's Ulysses—Ulysses have any affect on Light in August?

William Faulkner: It has probably had influence on everything I ever wrote, just like everything else I ever read has, from the telephone directory up and down. [audience laughter] I think that everything the writer reads influences his work, that he is completely amoral, he has no hesitancy whatever about taking what he wants from any source he wants, because he knows that anyone after him is welcome to use anything that he has discovered or invented. But I don't believe the writer has time to say, "Now, I'm going to write a book and let Joyce influence it," or "I'm going to write a book and let Flaubert influence it." He is simply writing about people, and he uses—he reaches back in his lumber room and gets whatever plank fits the [corner].

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: I just wanted to say that the theory of parallel cases in evolution, of two plants at the opposite ends of the country developing in the same way, and I don't see why it couldn't happen in the writer's experience, that it was—that certain devices were the same, shouldn't necessarily mean that perhaps one was influenced by the other, [...] to be able to develop from the writer in parallel cases [with] perhaps no communication, and I wondered if—is that's the case in Light in August, [...]? —?

William Faulkner: It—it could well be because there are only a limited number of stories to tell and only a limited number of ways in which to tell them, so that's something that the writer couldn't answer either, whether that was—was some form of osmosis, or whether it was an actual cribbing from what he had read, or whether two impulses did develop for—at—at poles apart. He—it's impossible to say. Though I agree with your theory, that that's very possible, that it could be done, because there're so few stories to tell, so few methods to tell them in.

Frederick Gwynn: Gwynn: Mr. Faulkner, we're all very grateful to you for coming down and answering our questions at this point. Thank you, sir.

William Faulkner: Thank you. [applause]

[end of recording]